If you only have experience flower gardening or little gardening experience at all the thought of trying to provide some or all of your family’s produce needs can be a little intimidating. Thankfully edible gardening is really quite simple and can be accomplished on any scale.
Choosing a Site
Depending on your location you may not have much of a choice but if you can select a spot that receives at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day. You should also look for an area that’s protected from the wind. Strong winds can dry out the soil and potentially damage crops.
Start with the Soil
The most important part of any edible garden is the soil. Having healthy soil means having healthy plants which produce more and are less prone to disease and pest problems. One of the best things for any garden is to simply add good quality compost. It adds nutrients, helps sandy soils hold water better, and helps heavy clay soils drain better.
You may also consider getting a soil test which can be done through your local agricultural extension agency. It’s typically very cheap and will let you know the pH of your soil, if it needs any specific nutrients, and if there’s any contaminants present.
If your soil is too acidic it’s a good idea to add lime. If the acidity is too low you can use acidic mulch like pine needles around your plants. Your extension agency should be able to offer you in depth advice based on your soil test.
If you’re an apartment dweller and considering planting in containers you’ll need a good quality potting soil. If you want organic produce look for something that’s OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) certified.
Breaking Ground with No-Till
Probably the easiest way to turn a new area into garden space is the no-till or lasagna method. No till gardens are typically healthier as the soil microbes and beneficial insects aren’t disturbed or killed by the soil being turned over.
To begin cover the area you want to garden in plain brown cardboard. Then add a thick layer of mulch (leaves, straw, or hay) before covering it in a layer of compost. As the mulch and cardboard breaks down it will add fertility to your garden.
Raised beds are also an excellent idea because they drain well and warm up faster in the spring. They also tend to require slightly less weeding than the traditional garden.
What you choose to plant in your garden will depend on your food production goals, taste, climate, and living environment.
For those with a lot of space and big goals it may be wise to try a grain or staple crop along with traditional summer produce. Some great options include:
- Sweet Potatoes
- Yams (not sweet potatoes)
- Jerusalem Artichokes
- Dry Beans
- Flint, Dent, or Flour Corn
To learn more about what plant’s are suitable to your climate you’ll need to find out your USDA garden zone. Knowing your zone makes it easier to find plants that are suitable to your specific growing conditions. It may also be a good idea to look for an heirloom seed company that’s located in your region. They’ll have seeds from plants that have thrived in your climate for generations.
Ultimately it’s important to choose plants your family will enjoy enough to use and preserve the excess. Just because it’s easy to grow kale doesn’t mean you should if you or your family hates it.
Urban Edible Gardens
For people living in urban or suburban areas having an edible garden can be tough. There’s often regulations and concerns from nearby neighbors that put limits on vegetable gardening. Thankfully it’s easy enough to reap a good harvest even without growing all traditional vegetables.
There are many attractive fruit bearing trees and bushes that can be used in place of traditional ornamentals even in the suburbs. Low bush blueberries offer beautiful foliage, blooms, and of course berries! Plus their small size means they can be grown on the side of a house without the need for extensive pruning. Dwarf cherry, pear, and apple trees can also look just as lovely as an ornamental tree if kept well maintained. They can also be espaliered to a fence or wall to conserve space an add a unique touch.
Hosta plants are extremely common landscape plant s that happen to be edible. The young leaves and shoots are great it stir fries.
Beautiful Vegetables & Herbs
Vegetables can be beautiful too! Many vegetable varieties are good-looking enough to fit right in with common landscape plants. Rainbow chard, beets, ornamental lettuces, well tended cabbages, and kales can look great in a flower bed. Many perennial onion varieties also offer gorgeous flowers.
Sweet potatoes are actually a relative of morning glories and have similar looking vines and flowers. Asparagus has large fronds that would look good in place of ornamental grass.
Basil and thyme are both beautiful herbs. There are many basil varieties available with a range of colors and flavors. Thyme makes a lovely, fragrant, and useful ground cover.
The options are virtually endless!
Many flower varieties offer edible blooms and/or leaves. Nasturtiums vining nature is beautiful and helps shade the soil. Both their blooms and leaves are edible and great for making tasty salads. Bachelor’s buttons, Johnny jump-ups, and day lilies (in moderation) also have edible blooms which make for colorful salads. Bread poppies offer poppy seeds and saffron crocuses can provide an extremely expensive spice.
Sunflowers are probably the most versatile edible flower as almost every part is edible. Sprouts and young plants can be eaten in salad. Fairly young stalks can be peeled and eaten like celery. Older leaves can be boiled or added to stir fries. The buds are used like artichokes and of course the seeds are edible and can be pressed for oil. They also add height and structure to a garden and can even be used as a living trellis for other plants. They’ll also serve to attract local songbird populations.
Some flowers like echinacea and calendula also offer medicinal benefits.
Rural Edible Gardens
While it is feasible to have a productive urban garden those who own rural property will probably have more options and freedom. This can make decision making tough. Many rural gardeners often have the opposite problem from urban gardeners, their garden is too big. While a large garden can be a wonderful thing if it’s well maintained you may be better off starting small. A small intensively maintained garden can produce more than a larger garden that’s neglected and weed ridden because it’s too big to manage.
If you have large gardens you’ll have room for productive sprawling crops like winter squashes and cucumbers which can also be used to shade out weeds beneath taller plants. Corn and other grains may also be good options especially with a survival situation in mind. They can be great staple crops. Dry beans are also an excellent crop as they provide a lot of protein.
Planting in the Shade
Especially if your property is small a shady area may be your only option for a garden. There are some plants that can tolerate varying levels of sunlight.
If you have a really shady area consider planting some traditional woodland plants or growing mushrooms. Plants like nettles, ramps, and fiddlehead ferns will tolerate a lot of shade.
For slightly less shady areas you may be able to grow some greens. Plants like lettuce, kale, arugula, spinach, and swiss chard will tolerate lower light levels. In areas that are only partially shaded you may be able to get a good harvest of root crops. Beets, potatoes, carrots, and radishes will all tolerate partial shade.
Eat Your Weeds
No matter what your garden looks like odds are you’ll have some weeds popping up. Thankfully many garden weeds are actually wonderful edible plants. Chickweed, purslane, and lambs quarter are all wonderful greens. Purslane can even be pickled for later!
Violets have both edible greens and blooms. The blooms are especially wonderful when made into syrup or candied. Creeping Charlie many be a nuisance to many gardeners but it’s also a powerful medicinal and was traditionally a cultivated species.
The best way to make the most out of your garden space is to plant multiple successions. To start don’t plant all of your seeds all at once. For example plant a few rows of corn or kale then plant another few rows in two weeks. This ensures you’ll have fresh produce over a longer period and not too much to preserve all at once.
Secondly every time a crop is harvested a new one should be planted. This is especially true with short season crops like greens and radishes.
With both of these techniques it’s important to consider your first fall frost date and growth period so that you plant crops that will be done before they’re killed by the frost.
To help with planning and planting Mother Earth News offers an online garden planner and “what to plant now” app that will send updates to your email whenever it’s time to plant.
The upkeep for your garden may be the most difficult part. Planning and planting are a lot of work upfront but throughout the growing season you’ll need to weed, harvest, water, mulch, and monitor for and possibly combat pest and disease issues.
The best way to water is through drip irrigation right next to each plant. You’re not watering the pathways or weeds just your plants and little is lost to evaporation. Unfortunately sprinklers are usually the cheapest option aside from hand watering.
With any watering method but especially sprinklers it’s important to water in the early morning or late evening. This prevents some evaporation loss and can help lower your water usage.
A great way to decrease the need for watering is mulch around all your plants and/or plant vining plants underneath taller ones to shade the soil.
No one likes weeding but there’s a few simple tricks you can use to lessen the summer burden. First mulch, mulch, mulch! Weeds have a tough time growing up through mulch so it’s important to keep a fairly thick layer around plants throughout the season. Try a layer of newspaper or cardboard followed by a layer of hay, old leaves, or straw.
You can also use plants to help block weeds. Plant low vining plants beneath taller ones. Use cover crops if you’re “resting” a bed for a season or during the fall and winter.
Use the right tools because hand weeding when you have anything but a tiny garden is extremely impractical. Learn about different tools like weed weasels, shuffle hoes, and wheel hoes to make the most of your weeding efforts.
Maintaining Soil Health
Soil health is the key to a productive garden!
Always rotate your crops. This can help prevent disease and pest issues and can help replenish nutrients. The same species should never be planted in the same space several years in a row.
Never leave soil bare! you can spread mulch around all of your plants during the growing season and in the off season utilize cover crops. It’s also a good idea to rest sections of your garden as part of your crop rotation and those rest areas should be seeded in a cover crop. Cover crops like alfalfa and clover actually add nitrogen to the soil as they grow.
Apply compost, lime, and other garden amendments as needed. It’s a good idea to have your garden’s soil tested every few years.
Practice no-till. This along with the mulch will encourage beneficial insects and microbes to flourish. It’s also a good idea to create permanent beds and avoid walking in growing areas as much as possible as this compacts the soil. You can use a broad fork to lift the soil as needed.
Fighting Pests & Disease
The best thing you can do to fight pests and disease is to grow healthy plants by watering well, keeping the weeds down, and maintaining your soil’s health. Beyond that there’s a few organic methods that you can employ.
Utilize companion planting. Some plants will help keep insects away from others. A great example is interplanting a cabbage bed with wormwood which repels cabbage moths. Others are believed to simply grow better and be healthier when planted together. A common example of this is planting basil plants in between tomato plants.
Grow crops and varieties that are well suited to your area. Sometimes it just isn’t worth the fight if you can grow a different crop more efficiently.
Try to attract beneficial insects to your garden. Learn what different species prefer and consider building an insect hotel.
If all else fails to stop pests you can hand pick them off crops which can be very tedious or use row covers to prevent them from getting to the plants in the first place.
Sadly most people have gotten away from growing their own food. Ornamentals and vast lawns have replaced bountiful gardens on the landscape. While some people believe that it’s no longer important to grow food they couldn’t be farther from the truth. Being able to produce at least some food can help you save money and even survive in the event of a disaster. Starting an edible garden is simple and easy and even a small one can help build your survival skill set.