Whether you’ll be growing food in a big backyard, a community garden plot, or in a small windowbox, now is the time to plan what you’ll grow this year.The goal is to transform this
But whether you’re an experienced gardener or a novice, there are certain “laws of the land” that you just can’t mess with. So before you decide what seeds to order, i.e. what you’d like to grow, let’s take a look at what you can grow. You need to think in terms of edible sunlight.
Plants turn sunlight into the sugars and starches through photosynthesis. If you try to grow a full-sun crop like tomatoes in a shady spot, it will be starved for those sugars and starches, and you’ll be disappointed in your harvest no matter how carefully you water and compost. Other plants are more efficient photosynthesizers, and can withstand a little shade.
If you have a full-sun (6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight every day) garden, you can grow pretty much anything. For those plants that actually prefer a little shade, you can use tall crops such as corn to provide it.
If your garden gets only a few hours of direct sunlight, don’t despair. Some crops that would prefer full sun actually can do quite well with less light. These include all of the leafy greens and most root crops. Your yield won’t be as big as if the plants were getting more light, but still worthwhile.
If your garden is really shade-challenged, look to woodland crops such as ramps and fiddlehead ferns. These evolved under forest trees, and so are perfectly adapted for dappled light and shady conditions.
The next thing you need to think about is timing, and what kind of growing space you do (or don’t) have indoors to start plants from seed. Read the fine print in the catalog descriptions. If you live in a region where winter temperatures regularly drop below freezing, then anything that takes longer than 60-70 days to maturity needs to be started indoors and transplanted outside once nighttime temperatures are warm.
That bit about “nighttime temperatures” is important. Too often novice gardeners get energized on the first warm April day and think it’s a good time to start planting outdoors. But those pansies blooming in your neighbor’s windowbox are cold-hardy, and your tomato plants are not. How warm it gets during the afternoon is not important; how cold it gets at night is. Many plants, including tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, basil, eggplant, and peppers cannot survive outdoors until the night temperatures are reliably above freezing.
If you have lots of sunny (8 hours of direct light or more) windows, or plant lights, you can start your frost-tender plants indoors from seed. If you don’t, you’ll need to buy starter plants later in the spring and skip the seed planting.
Okay, so now you’ve narrowed down your list from what you wanted to grow to what you actually can grow, and decided whether you’re starting your plants from seed or seedling. Before you send in that plant and/or seed order, let’s make your edible garden list even more efficient (and ultimately more gratifying).
What can’t you get via your farmers’ markets or community supported agriculture (CSA) share? Or what is costly there?
If you’re a CSA member who gets tons of leafy greens in her share, then there’s no point in planting kale in your garden. I grow asparagus, rhubarb, and raspberries in my shared apartment garden because we get little if any of those from my CSA and they are pricey at the farmers’ markets. I also grow chervil, ramps, and red currants because either they don’t turn up from other sources or are too costly for my budget when they do. Shallots, heirloom tomatoes, pinkie-finger sized cucumbers (for pickling) are also in my garden for the same reasons.
Then there are the herbs you only need a little of at a time. The recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of fresh sage leaves, but the smallest bunch for sale at the market is many times that. Well, you could dry the extra, or you could grow a sage plant and just pick what you need (and dry some for winter, at a fraction of the cost).
While light, temperature, and indoor seed-starting constraints may seem restrictive, if you pay attention to them they will be the difference between a disappointing edible garden and a harvest worth celebrating. Here’s a toast to the latter: may our 2010 gardens be worth bragging about!
Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch: A Memoir with Recipes by Leda Meredith