How many of us have been at a grocery store and been disappointed with the variety and quality of produce? How many sandwiches or other dishes have been befouled with limp lettuce or a feeble yellow-green-pink tomato? It’s no wonder kids (and some adults) aren’t too keen on vegetables. What to do? One solution is to start your own garden, especially an heirloom garden. The term “heirloom” is still often debated, but for the purposes of this post I’m going to loosely define the term to mean an openly pollinated plant that breeds true to its parents and is not an artificially genetically modified organism. Often these varieties have been cultivated for generations. There are quite a number of resources available online, for example the Seed Savers Exchange.
The important practical benefit of using heirloom plants is that you have the opportunity to save seeds or cuttings of a given plant and use them in subsequent years—allowing you to control your own food supply rather than relying on 3rd party control of your foodstuffs. From a culinary standpoint, heirloom varieties can be dizzying, and they come in types you would never see in supermarkets. The flavor of a homegrown tomato simply outclasses virtually anything you’d find in a store. The downside is that certain varieties may have susceptibility to certain diseases to which hybrid varieties have been bred to be resistant, but the genetic diversity offers a strong buffer to monoculture problems of the type bananas are facing. For the very old among us, they might remember the Gros Michel banana, now largely wiped out due to a fungal disease. The banana that most are familiar with in the western world is the Cavendish, which is said to be inferior in flavor.
My post is by no means meant to cover all plant types and nitty-gritty gardening tips—that would encompass many pages, but at least offer the perspective of someone just starting out with a few vegetable types. You definitely don’t want your first experience with gardening to be overwhelming!
Initial planning of the garden layout: Space and light. How much do you have, and what kind of natural lighting exposure will your garden have? I had a large area between part of my back yard and the driveway that was level but had old gravel in it, so initially started with a few EarthBoxes. I had a newborn and a busy work schedule, so free time was problematic.
The EarthBox proved to be a very convenient way to begin growing vegetables for me, offering a few key benefits for a budding gardener. The EarthBox consists of a plastic tub, roughly the size of a recycling container, a soil divider/aeration screen, water tube and mulch cover “tarp” and an overflow hole. By containing a water reservoir and sheet-like mulch cover, weeds are eliminated and water is conserved. Using the four containers I have, I’ve been able to successfully grow summer squash, tomatoes, peas, and various kinds of beans. In the Spring I prep the soil in the container, removing any old roots from last year’s crop, mix in the proper fertilizer and such, put the mulch cover over it and decide what I want to plant in the EarthBox. EarthBox provides what they call “Replant kits”, so it’s easy to do year to year and get new mulch covers and the correct fertilizer amount. The newer EarthBoxes feature optional casters and plant staking systems, making them even easier to set up and use.
In the summer, I could get up early, water the containers before work, then water again as needed that evening or the next morning, stopping when the water started trickling out of the overflow hole. Obviously, plant number and size is key to preventing too-rapid depletion of the reservoir. The larger or more numerous the plants, along with warmer temperature, the more water will be used. I still use them to this day … they haven’t worn out!
From my experience, tomatoes and bush beans did exceptionally well in the EarthBoxes. I recommend you give Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds a look when selecting seeds. They have a beautiful full color catalog and reasonably priced seeds of so many varieties it would take me years and years to try them all!
After the success of my heirloom gardening in the EarthBoxes, I wanted to do some scaling up and decided to start growing more in a raised bed. A raised bed is often simply a box set on the ground filled with soil, and usually around 10-12” give or take deep. Raised beds are great for areas with poor soil, like my back yard which has very heavy yellowish-brown clay.
Now, I love garlic, roasted, sautéed or fresh. A former coworker who was an avid gardener gave me a few hard necked garlic bulbs to start my garlic supply. Hard neck varieties tend to do best in areas with colder winters, but most garlic you find in the store will likely be soft neck. What a joy! I had been irritated by garlic in multiple stores of late showing green centers from either being a tad too old or exposed to too much light, so I wanted to try my hand at growing my own. I got hooked up with Carpathian, Porcelain “Music”, Turban and Purple Glazer.
To this end I built my first raised bed, a little large maybe, about 5’x10’ and about 10” high using 1.5″ thick white pine wood boards from the local home goods store and filled with good soil. To keep out the squirrels, rabbits and such, I put six rebars around the edges of the bed and anchored chicken wire to them and kept them doubly anchored to the bed with landscaping staples. Completed in the early Spring, my first actual plants put in were tomatoes, since garlic is planted in the Fall.
I tried a few different tomato varieties, primarily the eating types versus the heavier, fleshier sauce/pulp varieties. Most were an indeterminate variety, as opposed to determinant. In tomato parlance, indeterminate plants produce fruit over the course of a season, whereas determinant plants produce fruit all at once. In the southern Ohio climate, I can often nurse tomatoes of out some plants into early November!
I found I enjoyed the smaller, sweet yellow cherry-sized tomatoes, and the “black” tomatoes, many of which originated in the Ukraine. Black tomatoes are a deeper, purplish brown color and have what I can only describe as a richer flavor than other tomatoes, and are more recent additions to the US garden. Red, pink, white, yellow, green (not the unripe type), black and orange tomatoes, and color mixes thereof can be found, from tiny cherry or grape tomatoes only an ounce or less in weight versus multi-pound larger varieties such as the Beefsteaks or Brandywines. Funny thing is I didn’t much care for tomatoes as a kid, even though my parents had their own garden. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I began truly enjoying them.
I like to start 3-4 tomato seeds, and other plants, like peppers, that benefit from an early start in peat starter kits that expand when watered. From each peat “bag” I will nip the weakest two or three and leave the strongest to plant directly in the ground if the weather is warm enough, gradually moving the seedlings to brighter light outside before doing the final planting. Seedlings taken out too young run the risk of getting burnt by the sun or damaged by very cold night temperatures.
Tomatoes tend to prefer more alkaline soil, so I often will mix in dolomite or limestone, and are rich in calcium and magnesium to both increase soil pH and add nutrients, plus the elevated calcium prevents or reduces blossom end rot, a bane of tomato, squash and pepper gardeners. I usually start the heirloom varieties from seed in late March…southern Ohio weather this time of year can be hard to predict.
Tomatoes generally like about 10 hours of sunlight, and generally like to be watered deeply every five days or so. Avoid watering the leaves too much to avoid spotting.
When the tomatoes are finally ripe, nothing in the store will compare!
Garlic has to be one of the most ridiculously simple plants for a gardener to grow and maintain. Towards the end of October here in Ohio, I round up my healthiest stored bulbs and break off the best looking cloves from each type and start next year’s batch. I sow mine about 3-4” deep, about 8” apart, put a little mulch on the bed, and forget about them until next spring. Usually around early March I start to see a few leafs poke up and in our climate don’t usually have to worry about frosts as they tend to be hardy like daffodils, and don’t typically need to water them until late April when it starts to warm up.
Further on in late May or early June, a secondary benefit will appear from hardneck garlic: garlic scapes.
Garlic scapes are the flower buds of garlic, and once they do a twist or two, you should harvest them anyway as the garlic will otherwise devote too much energy to them and the bulb might be smaller. Scapes can be cut up and used like scallions, having a slight, but no overpowering, garlic flavor. Come late June or early July, my garlic is usually ready to harvest via careful spading. Shake the dirt off (don’t wash!), clip the stems about 6” up and store in a dry, dark area for a week or two, and soon you’ll be able to grab your own garlic for cooking.
The other advantage of adding a larger raised bed was that larger plants can be more easily grown, as one might guess from the size of the squash plants in the EarthBoxes pictured earlier. You don’t want to try to grow too large a plant in too small a space!
This year I’ve added two smaller beds for the family to try their own vegetables, so it will benefit us all by everyone learning more about growing their own food and experiencing the wonders of gardening. A bonus for us is that more boxes means the opportunity for more vegetable varieties!
For those budding gardeners sporting iOS devices that might like some planting tips for their garden, the ad-supported Vegetable Planting Calendar might be a good place to start.
Obviously the information is fairly top-level for the plant variety, but is a good start for beginners or those wanting a quick resource at their fingertips.
Depending on the scale, you might be interested in starting, the upfront costs and effort will be rewarded with crops of your choice. Best off all, you will have a better understanding of what goes into your food, and have the opportunity to spend more time outside enjoying and learning from your garden and less time driving to the market. Plus with heirloom plants, you might not even need to shop for more seeds!