by Julia Frisbie
posted March 9, 2022
Also shared with the readers of the Anacortes American for the March 9, 2022 edition
Growing plants is like anything else: the more you learn and pay attention, the more complexity emerges. People have lived alongside food crops since time immemorial, and there are a lot of different ideas about how to do it. But it doesn’t HAVE to be complicated. This article describes how beginners can get started with a new garden.
First, choose a site that gets at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. More sunlight is better. If there are lots of deer in your neighborhood, you’ll need to fence your garden, because they like edible plants just as much as we do! Err on the side of making your garden too small rather than too big. It’s better to be itching for more than it is to get overwhelmed. The closer your garden is to your door, the easier it will be to notice and take care of. As Adrienne Marie Brown writes, “What we pay attention to grows.”
Next, prepare the soil. The islands of Puget Sound are what’s left after a glacier scraped the rest away, so we’re short on topsoil. For this reason, I recommend adding compost on top of the existing soil at your site rather than trying to till. You can mound it up if your site is large, or make a raised bed if your site is small. A fluffy, six-inch-deep layer of compost will turn almost any site into a garden.
Choose what to grow based on what you like to eat or look at. For example, I am in love with tomatoes and dahlias, so those two are the queens of my garden and everything else has to fit in around the edges. Some easy and delicious choices for beginners are peas and beans. Herbs are expensive in the grocery store, but most are easy to grow, so that’s a good way to get a lot of bang for your buck. You can either plant seeds or buy small plants called “starts” from a nursery. All seeds need moisture to germinate, but beyond that, their requirements are as diverse as the plants that made them; if in doubt, buy starts.
With our arid summers, we have to irrigate rather than relying on rain to water our gardens. In a small plot, you can water by hand. In a larger plot, it’s worth setting up drip irrigation. First thing in the morning is the best time to water your plants, because that’s when they begin photosynthesizing, and they need water for that process. It’s best to pull out weeds as soon as you notice them, and it’s easiest to do this when the soil is damp, so I like to do my weed patrol and my watering at the same time.
Fertilization depends. If you start in a place with very rich soil– for example, a spot where a chicken coop or a compost pile used to be– you might not need to fertilize during the growing season. But if you start on a place that used to be a lawn, you’ll need to fertilize. Sprinkling slow-release fertilizer pellets over the soil might be easiest, but I think plants absorb fertilizer best and fastest in liquid form. My favorite is a concentrated solution called “liquid fish” or “liquid kelp”, which I dilute with water and spray directly onto the plant leaves first thing in the morning. I keep backyard ducks, and a basin of dirty duck water dumped over the plants has a similar effect. Another low-cost nitrogen source is your own urine, which can be diluted 1:10 with water and poured over any plants whose leaves you don’t plan to eat. (My preschooler knows he’s always welcome to pee in the corn patch, because corn is an especially hungry plant.) When should you fertilize? With average soil, I aim for once every two weeks, or anytime my plants begin to look yellowish.
Finally, after all this preparing, planting, watering, and weeding, and fertilizing, it’s time to harvest and enjoy! You can get very creative with recipes, but my favorite way to eat homegrown veggies is raw, sun-warmed, and immediately after picking. A relationship between people and plants allows both partners to be fed. This type of reciprocity has lured wild plants closer to human settlements, and children into gardens, for millennia. We co-evolved to care for each other. The memory is right there, just under the surface, ready to germinate.