Grow Your Own Food with Tips from A School Garden Teacher
The coronavirus pandemic has inspired a lot of people to explore self-sufficiency in the form of scratch cooking and growing their own food. But for many first time gardeners, growing your own food is an intimidating task that brings up lots of questions: what to grow, where to grow it and, well, how not to screw it up? Is it as simple as throwing some seeds in some dirt, watering them and giving them sun? We asked an elementary school garden teacher for her tips: we figured, if she can teach young kids to grow their own food, she can teach you, too.
Sanaya Irani is a FoodCorps service member with Detroit Public Schools. She teaches kindergarteners through 6th graders how to turn nothing into something — how to feed themselves. She has found that “the detail-oriented aspects of gardening are especially challenging for students,” which is probably true for a lot of first time gardening adults as well. Here we dig into some of those details.
“You honestly don’t need a whole lot of tools to get started,” says Irani. “Some of the essentials are a pair of gardening gloves and a spade to turn the soil or remove aggressive weeds. Make sure you also have a small plot of open soil or a few containers with soil as well as a way to water your plants (hose, water cans) along with some seeds of your choosing. And finally, it doesn’t hurt to come to this work with creativity, as well as some patience, as you wait for your new seeds to germinate!”
Visit FoodPrint’s sustainable seed guide to find the best sources for heirloom and sustainable seeds.
Where to Plant
First, figure out where you can grow something. It might be a windowsill, a terrace or maybe you’re lucky enough to have a small or large patch of ground.
Grow Your Own Food on a Windowsill, Balcony or Rooftop
For windowsills, balconies and rooftops, Irani says you’re talking about “container gardening,” i.e. filling a pot with dirt and growing your plants there. If you want to start small and go dirtless, you can always hop on the scallion bandwagon.
Indoor windowsills are good mostly for herbs or starting plants that will later be transplanted outside. But outdoor containers can range in size and have almost limitless possibilities. “Some people who do not have plots of land or raised beds grow their produce entirely from containers,” Irani points out.
Growing in the Ground
If you’re planting directly into the ground, Irani recommends conducting a soil test before you begin. “This is important to confirm that you don’t have lead in your soil and to also assess the pH in your soil to determine which fruits and veggies are better suited for your specific soil pH.” You can order soil tests online or get them from local agricultural colleges (Googling “who does soil testing in [your town or city]?” is a good way to start).
Do Some Reading and Planning
Irani loves the book “Grow All You Can Eat in Three Square Feet.” “This is a wonderful book with unique tips for gardening in small spaces,” she says. “If you are working with a small patch of soil, I recommend setting up a plan and deciding what vegetables and fruit to grow [in each square foot]. Creating a garden plan using graph paper is a great idea – make sure to check the growing instruction for each plant [on the seed package].”
She also finds good advice and guidance at Michigan State Extension’s gardening website. While this information might be directed to Michigan gardeners, there are extension offices in every state that offer state-specific guidance just right for you. Use the information from these websites and gardening books to determine which plants are best for your soil, climate, pH and other details to make your plan.
Ultimately, though, “I think trial and error is key to growth in the garden,” she says.
Seeds or Starts?
You might already know that some home gardeners plant seeds and some buy young plants (called starts), and some use a combination of both. But how do you decide what to grow from seed and what starts to buy? Irani says that in her home state of Michigan, where the growing season is short, “many crops are started as seeds earlier in greenhouses and then transplanted into school or community gardens when the weather warms up.” That’s a process you can mimic at home: plant seeds in small pots on your windowsill or under heat lamps, and then move them outside when they have started growing.
Irani advises that “cold weather crops such as kale and bok choy should be started indoors in the winter and then transplanted into gardens in late April or early May. Hardier root vegetables such as radishes, carrots and beets can be grown from seed starting in the spring in the Midwest [and earlier in other places]. Radishes have the added benefit of growing really fast, and offering you something to harvest after just a few weeks.
“Using a combination of seeds and starts will allow for the greatest production,” she advises, “and will also allow students to see some veggies from entirely from seed.” That means, for those of you who want to learn as much as possible while you grow your own food, gardening with the curiosity of an elementary student: make sure you do at least some of your growing from seed so you can observe the whole process.
How Much Water is the Right Amount?
Whether you’re using a watering can or a hose (or if you’re fancy, a drip irrigation system), how do you know how much water is the right amount? Irani tells her students to water vegetables at the base, so the plants don’t have an unnecessary spray of water at their upper foliage. “This extra water on their leaves can cause disease,” she says. “I show my students how to pool the water at the base of each plant and wait for the water to soak into the soil. If the soil is moist and does not have extra pools of water on its surface, the plants have gotten enough water which has successfully been absorbed into the soil.”
Love What You Grow
One great thing about kids, says Irani, is that they “fall in love with everything they encounter. Even if plants or aspects of the garden aren’t perfect, they still love them and are excited by it all. Working with students, I quickly learned that even if a fruit, plant or veggie is not perfect, it’s still wonderful and we have so much to learn from them.”
One way to guarantee you will fall in love with growing your own food is by choosing vegetables and fruits that are easy to grow and that are your favorites. Radishes, cucumbers, salad greens, carrots and squash are all relatively easy to grow.
Keep On Learning
During this period of remote learning, Irani, like a bunch of her FoodCorps peers, has started a YouTube channel for her students to watch video lessons about gardening. They’re really charming and worth checking out: you’ll probably learn something new. FoodPrint’s Gardening 101 guide also offers other resources to help you master growing your own food.
Photo courtesy of Steve Ettinger