From Farm to Table: Growing Your Own – Part III

gardeningGrowing your own is the very best option.  From the garden straight to the salad or the pan is the finest choice for flavor, nutrition, and satisfaction!  You may not have garden space or the inclination to garden, but you can accomplish a surprising amount in less space than you thought possible.  Don’t skip the essentials, below.


Micro gardens are designed for small urban spaces and are designed to be extremely productive, sustainable, affordable, and energy and space efficient.  They can consist of a few pots or raised beds in your yard or on your balcony.  Here’s a great place to start:


Mini-gardens take planting ‘to new heights’ by planting vertically.  Almost anything can be grown on a trellis and they are a great way to have an urban garden on your apartment or condo balcony.  Here are a few ideas:

Planting in raised beds

If you have a small yard raised beds are great way to grow vegetables.  They can be neat (satisfying your neighbors); it’s easier to keep weeds out, they are slightly out of reach of urban wildlife (rabbits are not too smart).  Cedar or plastic (sometimes not too ugly) will not rot.  Do not use pressure-treated wood which will leach poison to your plants.  2 x 8’s or 2 x 10’s make great sides for your planter.  The bonus is that you can sit on them while harvesting or weeding.

If you mulch your vegetables heavily with straw once they are at least 3 or 4 inches tall, the bonus will be few weeds and you won’t have to water as often.  Invest in a bale of straw which will generously cover several 3′ or 4′ by 6′ or 8′ raised beds.

A full-on garden

It’s not hard to grow from several raised beds to half a dozen or more.  You can start with one bed the first year, and gradually increase the size. That way you’ll find out what does well in your part of the country and how much work is involved.  Again, mulching saves hours and is extremely energy efficient.

Preserving food note

Note that if you are preserving vegetables and fruits from your garden that nutrient retention is greater when vegetables are briefly blanched.  For example, green beans lose 45% of their nutrients when blanched, and more than 75% when unblanched.1  Fruits and meats are less vulnerable.  Canning doubles the nutritional loss. 2

OK, let’s consider a garden

A bit about soils

Most vegetables prefer a slightly acid soil. That means pH less than 6.  This includes most of the east coast west to the Mississippi, Missouri and south, and west of the Rockies.  Basic soil means a pH greater than 7, which includes most of the rest of the country west of the Mississippi.

Be careful of store-bought compost.  Make sure it is not labeled “biosolids” which comes from recycled sewage and/or other waste and can be full of toxins and pharmaceuticals.

What to plant for vision health

If you only have a few large pots or planters on your deck, terrace or balcony you can still grow your own.  Here are suggestions for some combinations.  If pots are all clay be sure to keep them well watered since clay dries out quickly, and if all plastic, be sure they have excellent drainage.

For a tiny pot garden:

  • A 16″ or bigger pot with a red bell pepper in the middle and 3 parsley plants around the outside
  • A 16″ or bigger pot with a tomato in the middle and 4-5 spinach around it in the spring and fall, and 3 romaine lettuce or swiss chard around it in the summer.
  • A 20″ or bigger pot with 1 Russian or 3 Lacinato kale in the middle and 10 beets around it.  Red ace is a very good sweet, high nutrient beet.

Raised beds can stay small or grow to a full-scale garden

For half a dozen  4′-5′ square raised beds, just double or triple the amounts.  For 2 people you’ll only need:

  • about 5 chard plants
  • 10 spinach plants
  • 2 or 3 each of several types of kale
  • Shallots
  • You don’t need more than 10 or 12 beets (unless you love beets)
  • 10 lettuce plants, 3-5 different varieties including a deep red variety and a romaine for hotter weather
  • Parsley and basil
  • Rosemary planted in the center of one of the raised beds if you have mild winters, or if not. Be sure to move it indoors in the winter. There’s nothing quite like fresh rosemary with potatoes and garlic.
  • 2 red peppers
  • 1 – 2 tomatoes (there are always too many by August)
  • A square of bush beans; try the purple ones too, as well as bush lima beans. Grow parsley around the outside edge of this bed and put a tall basil in the middle. Don’t plant shallots in this bed.

Growing them!

Growing red peppers

Red peppers do very well in a pot and they are beautiful too. They like full sun, a minimum of 6-8 hours. They are heavy feeders and like plenty of soil nutrition.  They sulk in cooler weather, so buy organic plants at the farmer’s market, repot them in a large pot, and don’t put them outdoors until nights are about 50 or 60. Organic fish emulsion is easy way to add to watering once twice a month.

If you move them indoors  in the fall and keep them in a sunny south window they will grow all winter and the peppers that had not yet ripened will do so.  In March as the days get longer they will begin to flower and using a soft paintbrush you can pollinate them by gently brushing the interiors of all the flowers.

Growing spinach

Spinach loves cooler weather and can be quite happy in a shadier place.  You can start spinach quite early from seed since it is very hardy, and it will grow well into the fall.   Spinach tends to bolt (go to seed) in hot summer weather, so plant and enjoy your spring spinach, then replace it with chard when it starts getting hot.  By that time, the days will be longer and the chard will appreciate more sun.

Spinach does like nitrogen, so watering with organic fish emulsion or a balanced organic fertilizer.  It prefers a neutral soil, so a tiny bit of lime might be helpful in the far west and east of the Mississippi  (also Missouri and south) where soils tend to be more acid.

Growing beets

They don’t require a lot – but they do need good drainage.  If you have sandy-loamy soil, all the better.  They do better in a soil that is not too acid.  Midwestern soils are generally perfect.  In eastern and far-western soils which may be may more acid, they’ll appreciate a little lime.  They  like compost but not fresh manure.  They are very hardy and you can plant them as early as you can work the soil.  If the weather is dry when you plant, pre-soak the seeds to give them a headstart to germination.   If you want fresh beets all summer, plant more every two weeks.

Growing shallots

This small sort-of-onion is easy to plant and grow.  You buy a dozen bulbs and get 60 to 80 bulbs in return, provided you supply nice rich soil.  When you plant them don’t go too deep or they’ll rot.  Leave 1/2 of the bulb sticking up out of the soil.  Nip off any stiff shoots that are developing seed heads.  If you make your own compost, give them a generous amount – they’ll love it.

Growing kale

This productive green is easy to grow.  It just needs decent soil, regular watering and basic nutrients.  Fish emulsion once a month or so is plenty.  It does attract cabbage moths (little white fluttering moths).  To confuse cabbage moths don’t plant all of your kale in one place.  Put one plant in each bed and plant other things (lettuce, herbs, chard, shallots, beets) around them.   If all else fails and you don’t like picking off the caterpillars, then organic Bt spray is a natural way to protect them.

Growing small fruit

Blueberries and raspberries are two small fruits you can easily grow on your own.  You will probably have to net them unless you want to banquet the birds, but it’s worth it.  If you have the space for blueberries and raspberries you can produce enough to enjoy these fruits lavishly and freeze more for the winter.  For example, a garden with 6 red raspberry plants and 8 or 10 highbush blueberries can produce daily eating fruit and freezing for another 10-30 pints of berries.  These berries do like an acid soil so in many parts of the country adding soil sulfur is essential to increase the acidity.  Yes, blueberries do take a couple of years to produce, but once they get going they do very well.

You can grow them in large pots, although the production will be a little lower.  They are quite ornamental in the fall.  They are fairly shallow rooted which means that they like lots of water.  If you notice that your raspberries are not flowering as much, it’s likely because they are getting too dry.

With these basics for a starter you can go a long way towards growing your own.  For more information, here’s a few good resources:

Grow BioIntensive , Grow BioIntensive Video Series

Four-Season Harvesting


  1. Ibid.
  2. Ibid.