A few days ago, Amanda Marcotte posted at Pandagon on the trend toward urban gardening/farming – a trend that she diagnosed through similar trend pieces in Salon. So I’m not sure if she’s right about this being an actual trend, or if we’re just seeing the media flurry around Michelle Obama’s veggie patch. But I’m glad to see any rise in gardening, if only because everything you grow makes you more conscious of the origins of your food, and thus more skeptical toward the agri-industrial complex.
What’s interesting about the trend is that it’s not really certain that growing your own garden is necessarily going to save people money, as Amy Benfer notes. In the 1940s, Eleanor Roosevelt’s push for people to start victory gardens was incredibly effective—up to 40% of all produce grown in the country was in victory gardens. Numbers like that would make one think that this resurgence would have similar results, but I think a lot fewer people (particularly the political foodie types that generally live in urban centers) have as much space to garden, and collectively, we have a lot less know-how. Of course, if people stick with it for a few years, they’ll learn what works and what doesn’t, and it will start to save them money. Of course, that requires staying put for long periods of time, which is also not so easy for modern urbanites.
(More here, including a mostly fruitless discussion – pardon the bad pun.)
I can’t create a sea change in how we see our food supply, but I can offer a few tips on the economics of small-space gardening. People shouldn’t have to reinvent the plow to discover gardening’s rewards. Giving authoritative advice feels funny to me, because I’m still a relative newcomer to gardening myself, but these few things I know. Any excellent tips in comments will be boosted into the main post, because I know I have reader who are much more accomplished gardeners than I.
First, grow what you love to eat, but bear in mind that certain veggies offer much more in return for your time and your precious garden space. Tomatoes top the list. Good quality fresh tomatoes will run you a few dollars a pound, maybe more for heirlooms. Most heirlooms are fussier and won’t bear as prolifically as hybrids, but they offer wonderful variety and flavor, so I grow them anyway. But I have some favorite hybrids, too, notably Sungold and Brandy Boy. If I bought as many Sungolds as I harvest, I’d probably spend as much as I lay out for all my vegetable garden supplies (and I tend to go all out on tomato seeds, because I’m greedy for variety).
From Virginia Tech, here’s a nifty ranking of the veggies that give you the best value for your space. The ranking is subject to debate because it depends on how you value and weight labor inputs, space constraints, and of course what you think is yummy. Still, I think it’s basically sound:
- Green bunching onions
- Leaf lettuce - and most “gourmet” greens
- Turnip (green + roots)
- Summer squash
- Edible pod peas – shelling peas give you a lot less to chew on, so look for sugar snap varieties
- Onion storage bulbs
- Beans (pole, bush) – but pole beans will keep going
- Beets – don’t forget the greens are yummy
- Head lettuce
- Swiss chard
I personally am a big fan of chard, as are my resident rabbits. And I just as passionately don’t care how economical turnips are; they’d only be used for lawn bowling around my house. The list doesn’t mention radish, and I don’t either because I dislike it, but you can interplant it among your lettuce. Also, I want to put in a plug for leaf lettuce which, like chard, is cut and come again. Arugula grows like a weed and is pricey in stores but dirt cheap from your garden (pardon another bad pun). If you’re short on sunny patches, virtually all greens can tolerate some shade, whereas fruiting veggies like tomatoes really need at least six hours of sunlight, preferably more.
But oh, did I mention tomatoes are the big win, economically and culinarily?
Grow these plants if space isn’t much of an issue, or if you’ve got kids who really, really want to see a pumpkin grow:
Note that the good extension agents must mean sprawling winter squash, because zucchini and other summer squash give you oodles of produce for the space they take. I planted winter squash this year despite my better judgment, and now I have to worry about it becoming the Godzilla of vegetables, tearing down the rest of my garden while I’m out of town.
While they’re not on either list, herbs don’t take much space. You can put them in a planter or window box. If you like to cook (or eat!), they’re really rewarding to grow. Yum basil!
My second tip for keeping things economical is to grow from seed whenever possible. If you don’t have a very well-lit space for seedlings indoors, you might want to buy tomato, pepper, and eggplant starts. (Assuming you can do anything with eggplant, which has always been an utter failure for me.) But it’s just folly to buy starts for melons, squash, pumpkins, or cukes. These seeds germinate easily and it’s fun to watch their big seed leaves unfold. Ditto for beans and peas, which actually resent transplanting. Among the herbs, basil and sage grow easily from seed. Other herbs tend to have tiny seeds, though mint is easy to grow anyway.
And finally, my third bit of advice is to read up a bit on intensive gardening techniques. They let you use the space you have (instead of squandering much of it for paths between rows). Also, by planting closely, you’ll shade out the weeds, though you will still save yourself lots of work if you lay down a good layer of mulch. For more info on intensive techniques, check out square foot gardening (which is useful for deciding how to space plants even if you don’t have all the raised beds, etc.) and that Virginia Tech site.
No, sorry, here’s my real final point: Do as much or as little in your garden as you enjoy. The point is to connect with the earth, get dirty, and enjoy delicious food in the end. If gardening turns into an endless chore, that won’t happen. I thought that the recent article in Alternet arguing that gardeners make better lovers was a bit overblown, but not entirely wrong: Gardening is like sex in that you should get messy, feed your senses, and enjoy it, even if you’re a bit sore the next day.