Friday, July 9, 2010

The Kitchen Garden

If you like to garden, it makes sense to raise vegetables, rather than flowers or shrubs. A small vegetable garden can be fairly easy to raise, cost little, and put food on your table.

Gardening is a popular hobby in America - one that people spend, collectively, billions of dollars a year on. All the big-box stores have huge garden sections, selling all sorts of accessories to make your home the perfectly landscaped suburban nightmare. People spend hundreds of dollars, if not thousands, on non-native plants that are difficult to grow, and then more on chemicals to kill weeds and bugs or to artificially fertilize the soil.

And the payback for all of this is often only a few sickly-looking rose plants. What's the point in that?

These same folks would decry a vegetable garden as "too much work" or "too much weeding". But that really is not true. And unlike some specimen plant, most vegetables are hardy plants and - here is the big kicker - give you something tangible back in the form of edible food.

Should you plant a vegetable garden? Maybe. A lot of people make big mistakes in planting a garden, and end up frustrated as a result. If you plan a garden carefully, it can be an inexpensive supplement to your weekly groceries, that takes little or no effort to maintain. Poorly planned, it is a maintenance nightmare, produces little in the way of food, and is also an eyesore in your back yard.

START SMALL is the first key. Many folks get overly ambitious and plow up a 20' x 20' plot (or larger) to plant a huge vegetable garden. Such a plot requires a lot of work, from weeding and tending, to watering, and as such, is a bad idea for the novice gardener.

Many folks plant such gardens away from their house, so they are difficult to tend. So-called "community gardens" particularly suffer from this problem, in that you have to get into your car and drive, to tend them. This is not a practical solution for daily living.

Locate your garden near your house. Yes, a vegetable garden can look a bit unruly at times, but the convenience factor is a big plus. Animals are generally afraid to come too near your house, so it helps deter veggie-thieves. Plus, being with watering hose distance makes life a lot easier, as regular watering is the key to a healthy garden.

Fencing is important, too, as deer and rabbits will strip a garden bare in short order. Gardens away from your house, un-fenced, will be eaten alive in no time. Most amateur gardeners go through this experience and then give up on the process, convinced it is not worthwhile.

We decided to replant a raised planter with vegetables this year. It is 20 feet long and about 2.5 feet wide. As a raised planter, it is easy to tend, and since it is right next to the house, and a hose spigot, it is a simple matter to tend to it for about 10 minutes every morning after breakfast. Pull a few weeds, give it some water, and maybe pick a handful of lettuce and a tomato.

We planted seeds for some plants. Seeds are cheap, and these were actually given to us by a friend, for free. You can jump-start the process by buying pre-started plants, like tomatoes, peppers, and the like.

I would suggest avoiding some plants, like corn. Corn takes up a lot of space, depletes the soil, and let's face it, looks like hell. And the farmer down the street can sell you a dozen ears for far, far less than what it would cost you to plant your own.

Concentrate on a few simple things that can compliment your diet. Arugula will grow in concrete and it will produce edible lettuce within a few weeks (more than you want!). Herbs are another winner, as nothing adds flavor to a meal like fresh herbs. Tomato plants are great, as fresh tomatoes off the vine are far better to the engineered kind from the grocery.

Picking the vegetables on a regular basis is also key. There is no pre-set "harvest time" for your kitchen garden. Need a salad? Go pick one. Tomatoes are ripe? Eat them now.

If the gardening bug catches on, you might want to think about expanding your garden the next year. But beware, it can take over your life. Before you know it, you are setting up a greenhouse to start your plants early, and plowing up more and more of your land. If you want to make a career of this, fine - many people do.

But for me, I will be content with my little kitchen garden!

UPDATE:  We enjoyed our kitchen garden - we had to fence it in and put a net across the top to keep out raccoons and birds.  A small garden is a lot easier to fence in, to be sure.  You can end up spending more on a garden than you get back in produce, so be careful!  Also, if you travel a lot, it is a non-starter.  A garden of any sort ties you to your home.  If you are a homebody or work all the time (and thus come home every night or work from home) it may work.

But as out neighbor illustrated, you can't just put out a couple of tomato plants and go away for three weeks and expect tomatoes when you come back.  The raccoons really appreciated them, though!