Farm Life in The City? Yes, You Can Raise Your Own Food with Nothing But Some Dirt, Seeds And Sun!
Green Acres is the Life for Me
Have you ever wanted to live a more simpler life and get back to nature? Well, now you can!
I remember as a child growing up in the suburbs, surrounded by neighbors on all sides except for about a six acre parcel of woods in the back corner of the lot where we lived. My parents grew everything from flowers to fruit trees and planted a red maple to have colorful leaves in fall.
There were camellias and azaleas; the quintessential flowers of the south as well as a gardenia bush that stunk up the whole neighborhood and made me sneeze if I got too close! i didn't care for the gardenias, but I loved just about everything else, including the apple tree in the back yard and the rows of blackberries and huckleberries on the back fence line and woods. It was a simpler time with no cell phones, no air conditioning either and the only TV in the house was a little black and white 13 inch model with rabbit ear antennae that picked up three stations at the most and went off the air at midnight each night, not coming back on until the news around 6 o'clock the next morning.
I feel ancient writing that, but I miss the days of milk deliveries in a metal crate to the front door and picking up the phone and dialing the party line, checking to see that no one else was using it at the time, like the next door neighbors. It seems like the dark ages and while I love the internet, driving five miles to the super store and the freedom that comes with being an adult, I do miss hanging out all day with the neighborhood kids, playing pickup games in the court outside our house and not worrying about how I was going to pay bills or if I could afford to go to the doctor if I got sick or injured.
One of the things that reminds me of home is raising a garden and as I have discovered, you don't have to own massive amounts of land to plant food and herbs to eat and share with others, though having a yard helps. Below are seven tips on how to start and raise your own food and attract more wildlife to your yard or patio.
Start with looking where the sun does shine!
Seriously, if you have any sun coming into your home, on your carport or patio, or have a window facing the sun, you can grow your own vegetables, and maybe even a small fruit tree and flowers. Start by making a list of all the things you would like to plant and then investigate which would do best where you live.
Gardeners plant by zones in the U.S. with the higher number zones being in the warmer south and the lower in the colder north. Plants designed to grow in zones 1-6 will generally do poorly or if grown in warmer climates and those in zones 7-11 may not be able to handle the ground freezing. Some plants will grow just about anywhere. Gardeners refer to them as weeds, but there are some really pretty wildflowers and shrubs that you may want to investigate if you are not much of a green thumb that will grow in the cracks of pavement in a drought, so there are always options!
You can find planting boxes to install on window sills, or flower pots for your porch and even rooftop and patios. A cheap way to find larger planters is to look on the side of the road in rural areas where many people throw them away come winter when the plants die and they do not want to be bothered with replacing them. You can also get two and half to five gallon buckets from food stores, especially bakeries, candy companies and fast food chains which receive corn syrup, pickles and icing and baked good preparations in sealed tubs and generally throw them away in the dumpster.
Some construction sites also have five gallon buckets from wall spackling material and paint, but these can contain chemical contaminants so should be your last choice. If you don't like plastic, you can spend a bit more on half wooden barrels or ceramic planters which run from $35 upward or you can build your own out of two by fours, just remember to paint the wood to resist rot and be wary of treated woods which can leak out harmful chemicals into the soil and taint your vegetables. They can be great for flowers, but not so good for food.
Hang an empty drink crate in a tree facing the sun
Once you have found your ideal location, it is time to start looking at planting materials.
So, you've got your containers and found a spot to put them in, what next? Well, you can't grow plants without soil. If you are planting in your yard, you may still need to dig up the ground and supplement the soil with enriched gardening material. If you live near a horse , sheep or cattle barn, your best bet is to call the owners and see if they have a manure pile they will let you dig free compost from to put in your yard.
You want to get aged manure or compost that has been composting, or rotting down into soil, for at least six months. This allows the material to be broken down and immediately absorbed by plants as nutrients, whereas fresh manure may contain ammonia from urine which can "burn" young plants and cause them to die.
If you want to really get into gardening, you might want to take a class in it. It helps to know if your soil is alkaline or acidic and which plants grow best in your soil. If you want to take the easy route, go pick up some planting soil at your local homegoods store, though not all planting material is created equal and those containing a lot of wood fiber will make your plants dry out quicker. Plain dirt out the yard, especially sandy or clay based soils will not sustain most plants past the initial growing stage, so planting in containers with organic mulch that is well aged is always the best bet for beginning gardeners.
If you go to dig your own manure, take a long handled pointy ended shovel or pitchfork and double up on plastic bags as that stuff gets heavy and a five gallon bucketful can weigh over 60 pounds!!!
When your containers are full of rich nutrient soil, it's time to select your plants
You may want to grow rhubarb or broccoli, but if you live in south Florida, you may be out of luck on that one. Make sure the plants or seeds you purchase are suitable for your zone and your environment. Also make sure that your containers, if outdoors and not under a roof, have holes drilled near the bottom so your plants will not drown if a hard rain fills the container. If you have them inside, it is better not to have holes in them or the dirt and water will drain out on your floors or tables, but outside, it is a must to have good drainage.
It is easier to get started with plants. It can take a flower over three months to grow from seeds, even though the plant may pop up in about three days. In some cases it may take up to eight days. This is known as the germination time, or the time it takes the seed to sprout with visible green leaves, which may be very small to start with.
If you grow from seeds do not try to move them to another pot until they are at least three inches tall or taller and then dig deep and wide to avoid killing the roots. It is best to plant your seeds and plants in the container you wish to keep them in. Some seeds, like oregano, grow really well in small containers you can keep on a windowsill, while others, like tomatoes, need at least two to three feet for their roots to grow underground.
Some manufacturers sell patio trees and plants. These are designed to grow in smaller containers, but the fruit is often smaller than a regular plant. The million tomatoes you see growing on those plants advertised in newspapers and magazines will only get to be the size of a dime in diameter, so keep this in mind! It will take about 50 of those little tomatoes to make one regular sized one!
Don't over or under water or put too much fertilizer on your plant
Do you remember the childhood story of the goldfish that ate too much and kept growing and growing? It's tempting to want your plants to grow faster or to think they need more water if they are turning yellow, but overwatered plants turn yellow and die the same as under watered plants and both can wilt if they get too much or too little of a nutrient.
You can think of your plants a lot like babies, just as you would feel to see if a baby is wet, you can touch dry fingers to the soil. If the soil is too dry, then pour enough water in the pot or around the ground to moisten it without water pooling on the surface. If the plant is overly wet, you can try tipping the bucket/planter over slightly to drain some of the water out.
The best way to help your plant is to use rich dark, loosely packed soil. Follow manufacturers guidelines for fertilizer and water. If you have rich soil, you should not have to fertilize at all. Try to use organic products whenever possible and stay away from pesticides and fungicides when possible.
Rosemary plants can grow several feet high and are good at keeping fleas off pets!
Avoid chemical pesticides and pest deterrents when you can
If you grab the can of roach spray, disinfect your house every time someone sneezes, or use lung choking chemicals to scour your sink and toilet, you are probably not going to make a good plant person.
Plants have their own natural defenses against pests, but you can help them along by checking them frequently for signs of bugs and learn the difference between a good bug and a bad one. the former being a pollinator like a bee, the latter being a plant destroyer like a leaf borer or caterpillar that will eat your leaves clean before your plant can produce its first fruits.
There are companion plants like marigolds and mint that you can plant at the base of more susceptible plants like tomatoes and cucumbers that will help repel the bad bugs and deter animals from nibbling on your plants.
If you have deer, dogs, cats, squirrels or even rats and birds that attack your plants, you can keep them out with netting, chicken or rabbit wire, that can be made into a tube the size of your container and slipped on to deter the munchers.
Many bugs can be picked off, rather than doused in chemicals and some small reptiles and amphibians, as well as birds, will be glad to help you keep your pest population low. Certain wasps and dragonflies will also eat other bugs that threaten your plants, so again, it is good to familiarize yourself with garden helpers and live and let live.
You can resort to things like smelly soap flakes, oil and vinegar mixes, etc. but use of these may make veggies inedible and may do as much harm as good, so try to take a more natural approach first and see how it goes before resorting to chemicals.
Give your plants all the support they need
When small, most plants stand tall on their own, but as they start to grow, especially if they are vining plants, they will start to topple over. This can actually make for a pretty arrangement with the plants cascading down, but if you are trying to grow a sunflower seed or tomato it helps to place a stake in the ground and gently attach the stalk of the plant with something soft like strips of cloth from an old t-shirt or worn-out panty hose.
Some tomatoes need extra calcium in the soil to prevent blossom end rot which causes the underside of the tomato to turn brown and rot. There are all sorts of diseases which can kill plants, but having healthy soil, the right amount of nutrients, water and sunshine, go a long way in preventing sick or dead plants.
Try to keep your plants all in one location or write a little diagram to each plant so you will know what you have planted and where you have planted it. If you place buckets and containers in the far back of your yard or a windowsill in a remote area of the house, you will find yourself forgetting to water, whereas, if they are all near the kitchen window or sitting in a row by the porch, it will be easier to keep watch over them and make sure they stay healthy.
Mystery plants can be avoided by creating a diagram of what you planted where
Finally, keep a plant journal
Keeping a plant journal helps you see what you are doing that works and what you may have done that didn't work so well. If you plant a flower bulb near a muddy area and it dies, chances are it prefers a well-drained soil better.
Indoor plants may not get pollinated so may grow a lot of leaves, but no flowers or fruits. If possible, put your plant outside when it nears flowering stage so it can get more sun and attract bees, butterflies and more.
Some plants prefer indirect light. Some can be poisonous if eaten by small children and pets. Some only bloom overnight and the flowers die the next morning. Some prefer growing in small pots, while others like all the ground they can cover.
By keeping a journal you will know what grows well in your area and what does not and can test out changes to encourage better growth or stick to what you do best.
If you have a plant that grows really well, save some of the seeds or pull a small piece off the root or look for new bulbs and replant the next year. Keep in mind that some plants will grow from the root and come out again when the weather is warm or bloom continuously. These plants are called perennials... they grow as long as you keep them healthy.
Annuals are just like the annual yearbooks. They are out for one year and then gone and have to be started from seeds or replaced if you hope to grow more. Be aware that some annuals can drop seeds on the ground and spring up on their own, so if you don't want them to spread everywhere, you might want to cut the stalks back after they have flowered.
It's fun to grow plants and there are lots of good learning opportunities for kids as well as adults that can be applied to other areas of life, plus looking at plants, inhaling the sweet aroma of flowers and herbs, and eating your own organically grown food are all good for putting you in a better mood and keeping you healthier throughout the year, so don't be afraid to try growing your own tomato or lettuce plant. You can even give it its own Facebook page. If people are willing to watch a pregnant giraffe walk up and down for weeks without giving birth, who knows, your plant may accumulate a huge following and end up on national news. It's worth a shot anyway.
A quick review on what you will need to get started
- Decide what plants you want to grow and do some research on their needs and if they grow well in your area
- If you are impatient, you may want to start off with plants. If you want the full farmer experience, then start with seeds and keep a journal to see how they grow and the lessons you learn from growing them.
- Find a spot in your yard or home where you plants will get the amount of light they need to grow well. Determine whether you will need to buy planters, soil, fertilizer or special attachments to hang baskets from a smaller area.
- Where to get your seeds and plants: Most gardening stores and home supply shops will have seeds, plants and potting soil. Generally speaking the darker and more crumbly the potting soil, the more nutrients it provides. Try to stay organic, but watch out for organic fertilizers that contain mostly wood pulp as this will dry your plants out really fast.
- Check around local farms for free manure. Get free containers from bakeries, fast food places or purchase cheaply at dollar stores, but get a container big enough to contain and maintain your plant as it grows Most plants do not like to be moved, especially once they have started flowering or putting on fruit.
- Make sure you plant your plants and seeds according to the directions. Some plants do really well with very little light and watering, while others need almost daily care. Mulching your plants with natural materials that help keep moisture in the ground and provide some nutrients to the plant are a good idea for indoor or outdoor plants.
- Keep a journal. Have fun with it. Take a photo every day and do a time lapse to share with friends. Challenge your friends or family to grow the tallest, healthiest plant. Keep track of what you planted and where you planted it and save seeds from your plants to replant next year.
Hopefully you will enjoy beautiful flowers, tasty herbs and luscious vegetables, fruits and more for many years and be able to share them with others and wow them with your gardening expertise!