With spring in full swing and the hazy days of summer beckoning on the horizon, our thoughts turn towards lighter meals that rely more heavily on fresh fruits and vegetables – particularly for those of us who find that despite our best efforts, we really managed to pack on the pounds over Pesach. While your local supermarket may boast an amazing array of produce, and the nearest gourmet store may feature dazzling displays of fresh fruits and vegetables, there is simply nothing that can compare to the taste of home grown. The fact that growing your own produce can save a bundle of money, makes the taste of your home grown bounty that much more delicious.
Planting a vegetable garden is one of those projects that can be as simple or as complex as you make it. Looking for a quick science project to do with your children? Try planting even a single cherry tomato plant in a container on your porch. Looking for something more expansive? Turn as much or as little of your yard as you like into a vegetable garden now, and come mid to late summer, you will hopefully find yourself enjoying some of the best produce you have ever tasted.
While the most economical and fascinating way to grow vegetables is to start your garden indoors, from seeds, it isn’t something I have ever done and for most people in the United States it is already far too late in the growing season to pursue that route. Personally, my mind isn’t capable of contemplating the notion of planting as early as February or March, so any vegetables we have ever grown have come from plants. Where to buy plants? I know there are those who insist on buying their plants from a nursery but check out places like Lowe’s, Home Depot, Walmart or even your local supermarket, where there can be a solid selection of vegetables, herbs and flowers at rock bottom prices.
What to buy? Start with items you know your family likes, because with any luck, you will find yourself with an abundant crop of whatever you have planted. Radishes may be easy to grow – but if nobody likes them, why bother growing them? Feel free to experiment with a new item or two; you never know what your family might like. Growing up, tomatoes and cucumbers were staples in our house and my parents always had a nice selection of both in the backyard. Don’t overlook herbs. Fresh dill and basil are both favorites here and both grow just as easily in your backyard as on your kitchen windowsill.
Make sure to situate your garden in an easily accessible area. You are going to need to devote a few minutes to it on a frequent basis. Not only do you want it to be visible, so you don’t accidentally neglect your plants, but you want it to be convenient so that you can tend to your plants and water them with ease. Try to find a spot that gets about six to eight hours of direct sun daily, although leafy green vegetables (think lettuce, mesculun, Swiss chard) or root vegetables (carrots, beets, radishes) can get by with four hours of sun daily. Try not to plant a vegetable garden near trees or shrubs which can deprive your plants of essential nutrients.
Preparing the soil for your plants can go a long way in helping to produce a healthy crop. Feel free to mix compost, leaves, grass clippings, manure, bone meal, peat moss or a sprinkling of fertilizer into your soil before putting in your plants. Once your babies are planted, be sure to water them often and deeply, although how much and how often really depends on a number of factors including current rainfall, temperatures and what kind of plants you are working with. Don’t water during the heat of the day since you will lose a good part of the water to evaporation. Consider investing in a soaker hose, which has small holes all over, allowing the water to drip directly into the ground. Spreading a layer of mulch over the soil will help keep the moisture where you want it as well. If you want to make the most of your plants, be sure to fertilize a few times during the growing season. Pay another visit to your nursery, garden center or discount store and start reading labels to see what type of fertilizer best suits the needs of both you and your plants and how often it needs to be applied.
Visit your garden often so that you can keep both weeds and insects at bay. While there are countless pesticides available to keep those creepy crawlies from feasting on your plants, very often a few spritzs from a spray bottle filled with soapy water is all you need to keep your plants. For those who live in the suburbs, animals, both small and large, can prove to be a major problem, as what looks to you like a vegetable garden looks to them like an engraved invitation to a free all-you-can-eat salad bar and they will be more than happy to indulge, leaving you with absolutely nothing but heartache and aggravation. While a four-foot-high fence will keep out small animals, such as groundhogs and rabbits, they will do nothing to prevent the deer from pigging out on your plants – so if Bambi is a frequent guest, be sure that your fence is high enough that it can’t be jumped over by a hungry deer. Remember that small animals, particularly groundhogs, are excellent tunnelers, so bury your fence at least one foot underground. Don’t overlook repellents although you may have to try a few before finding one that actually works for your particular uninvited guests. Try mixing one tablespoon of hot sauce in a gallon of water and spraying it on your plants as well as along the perimeter of the garden. Bars of soap hung in mesh bags around the garden can sometimes work as a deterrent, as can motion activated sensors, lights, sprinklers or even a noise source such as a radio. For those who have serious deer problems, predator urine is supposed to be a very effective means of keeping the deer at bay and, believe it or not, both hunting stores and countless websites actually sell the stuff.
Be aware that certain vegetables, including tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, peas and beans need support as they grow. While you can invest in wire cages and trellises to support their climbing habits, feel free to poke around your garage and see what you can come up with. Pieces of wood, old broomsticks or even really long branches from your yard work just as well. A special shout out to my father who started growing his cucumbers in hanging baskets, allowing the shoots to just travel downward as they grow, completely eliminating the need for staking.
Is growing your own garden a time consuming process? Yes. But one bite of your first homegrown tomato will have you convinced that it was all worthwhile.
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