Our isolation at home has given us an opportunity to reflect on the importance of food, where it comes from, and how it is handled. If you are wanting safe and delicious fresh produce, the obvious solution is to grow your own. Here are guidelines on starting that garden right now to put homegrown food on the table right away.
Vegetables in Containers
The quickest way to begin is with a container and some potting soil – keep it simple and get some experience before tackling in-ground raised beds. The key points to remember with container gardening are to fit the container to the crop, make sure the container has a drainage hole, and use good quality potting mix. With any food garden, you will need a water source and a full day of sunshine.
Tall plants like tomatoes that grow several months will need a large container and vertical support – one plant per 5-gallon pot is about right. Squash and zucchini plants also become big but spread horizontally so a lower, broader container would support their exuberant growth best. Peppers and eggplants would fit comfortably in a 2 to 3-gallon pot. When the container is too small for the plant, it dries out quickly and the plant will be stunted and stressed. The converse is also true – if the container holds too much potting mix for the needs of the plants, the roots may become waterlogged and prone to rot.
You must use a potting mix no matter how tempting your rich and black garden soil may look. The mineral components of garden soil (sand, silt, and clay) will not allow for functional drainage when putting in a pot. This is why potting mixes have “lighter” ingredients such as peat and perlite. Garden soils will also contain more insects and diseases than a sterile potting mix. There are recipes for making your own mix if you are using lots of containers but stick to quality, purchased potting mixes to get started. Make sure they are intended for growing vegetables and do not contain polyacrylamide water-holding crystals. Purchased mixes will come with a pelleted slow-release fertilizer and are ready to go.
Once the plants become mature and start to produce vegetables, you will have to monitor their water needs every day. Containers dry out more quickly than in-ground beds, and even one parched day can stunt or kill a potted plant. You can set up a simple drip irrigation system if you have a number of pots, or fill gallon jugs with water and let a tiny hole in the bottom release the water slowly over several days.
If you like container gardening, another easy strategy is growing microgreens. In the summer, sunflower and basil microgreens grow like gangbusters and are so delicious. Make sure you use untreated seed, suitable for human consumption.
Vegetables in In-ground Beds
With just a little more effort you can create an in-ground raised bed by locating a full sun location, loosening the soil 8 to 12 inches or deeper, and adding an inch of compost. Soil testing at this point will tell you if you need lime to adjust the pH or fertilizers to add nutrients. Having mulch handy to cover the soil once you have planted will help keep the soil moist, keep the weeds down, and protect the plant roots from our brutal summer heat.
Some plants grow easily from their sturdy seeds (cucumbers, beans, squash, zucchini, corn) and others take more time to germinate and grow more slowly at first (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, herbs). You may want to buy these as seedlings to speed start your garden. All of these plants love the heat so you can plant them in several successions over the summer if they fail due to insects or disease. Just yank them out and start over. There are garden calendars available to guide your planting dates for all the spring, summer, and fall vegetables we can grow in our area.
Plant Vegetables That You Enjoy Eating
No matter how beautiful that zucchini is if you can’t get the kids to eat it three times a week don’t grow it. Herbs are a very efficient way to spice up your meals – there is nothing better than fresh basil, tomatoes, and cucumbers for a summer salad. Perennial herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano do great in the ground or in containers.
If you want to try your hands at growing fruits, start with blueberries, figs, Asian persimmons, and muscadine grapes. They are insect and disease resistant and if you are willing to wait for 3 to 4 years, you will be enjoying those scrumptious fruits for many years to come.
You Can Always Buy Vegetables
If your containers or raised beds just aren’t supplying you with enough fresh vegetables, visit your local farmers’ market. Foods in a market are handled much less than those in a grocery store and you can meet the farmer and ask about how the vegetables were grown – this could never happen in the grocery store. Plus, the vegetables and fruits are visibly fresh as they haven’t traveled for days getting to your table.
Grow your own produce, or buy it from local growers, and know that you are providing the best foods possible for you and your family. For more information on growing vegetables and fruits in your home garden, contact the NC Extension Master Gardener volunteers at 919-250-1084 or [email protected]
For More Information on Growing Vegetables
Container Gardening – https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/how-to-create-a-container-garden-for-edibles-in-the-north-carolina-piedmont
Calendar for Container Gardening – https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/container-garden-planting-calendar-for-edibles-in-the-piedmont
Microgreens – https://www.trianglegardener.com/how-to-grow-microgreens/
Making your own Potting Mix – https://www.marthastewart.com/7562597/diy-potting-mix
Small Fruits, Tree Fruits, and Nuts – https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/extension-gardener-handbook
Vegetable Gardening Guide – https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/home-vegetable-gardening-a-quick-reference-guide
Featured image – Fresh vegetables / Jeana Myers
Jeana Myers, PhD, is the Horticulture Agent for Wake County. For gardening questions, contact the Extension Master Gardeners of Wake County at 919-250-1084 or email [email protected]