Three Reasons to Grow Your Own Food
#1 Food Security: In the last two years, we’ve experienced some interesting situations with regard to our basic food supply chain. Of course, some of this started in 2020 when we were all looking for bread-making supplies and couldn’t even get ahold of yeast or toilet paper for that matter. But as those situations were resolved, recently some new ones have been popping up.
I’m not a fan of the fear-based mentality and scarcity-driven decisions that can get a bit extreme. However, it’s the elephant in the room that needs to be addressed, and it’s time. With inflation rising, grocery prices increased by 50% and are expected to go even higher, let’s take a few steps now to increase our food security by learning how to grow food in a small space in the backyard.
Knowing you can increase your food security gives you peace of mind when there are supply chain issues or prices go up. You can still go to the store to buy food, but supplementing with your own fresh or preserved produce can take the worries out of the situation.
#2 Health Benefits: Starting a garden is good for your health. Even when you are buying so-called healthy produce from the store it may be genetically modified or shipped from across the world with random shipping methods in an attempt to keep it fresh. Peaches take weeks to get to you from other countries or across states. If you have your own peach trees, suddenly you can smell them. The scent fills the air, and you know it’s time to harvest.
You may not be able to smell your vegetables the same way, but you can leave them on the plant until they feel right when you hold them. It’s so simple and you get peak harvest produce the moment it’s ready and you can eat it that day. There is nothing better.
#3 Joy: Growing your own food is rewarding. Playing in the dirt, planting your seeds, cultivating the seedlings, harvesting, and then preparing them as a meal for your family is a full-circle moment. It’s a great hobby, and with a few simple hacks, it doesn’t have to take up a lot of time. There is so much comfort in knowing how to grow food you and your family can eat and enjoy.
Start a Garden Bed
You can create a raised bed garden economically using our cedar fence post plans in the Backyard Farm Academy, by flipping an old bookshelf over or using a large animal feeding trough or another container. You can also go directly to the ground without a raised bed which is the easiest method when learning how to grow food.
To get your garden started as quickly as possible with minimal effort and long-term results, I recommend a no-till, layered garden. You can go right over your grass, as long as you haven’t sprayed it with chemicals. Using smart permaculture methods of building up your soil, layering compost, leaves, and mulch gives you the richest dirt ever, without purchasing bags of expensive soil.
Because your soil is healthy, the worms and microbes are working, just like they do out in the natural forest, and your plants will thrive. Many people think that you can’t practice these permaculture methods in a small backyard, but you can. These methods of building a layered garden lasagna will help keep moisture in, keep pests and weeds at bay and you won’t need to fertilize. We do not fertilize our plants, we usually don’t need to because we are constantly layering more goat and chicken manure hay.
Layer 1: To start your layered garden, either in the ground or in the bottom of your raised bed container, layer over the top of the unsprayed grass or soil with contractor’s paper or recycled cardboard boxes. If you’ve sprayed your grass with chemicals, simply cut out your sod and start your layers on the bare ground. I recommend waiting an additional year to allow it to sit. If chemicals were involved, it’s important to ensure your underlying soil is not contaminated.
Layer 2: You can use various forms of compost from hay, straw, leaves, sticks, and garden clippings. I recommend 6-12 inches deep. Adding sticks and logs to your bottom layer of the bed will quickly fill it and allow for soil gold, as it starts to break down. If you have any downed limbs or sticks in your yard, this could help you fill a large area with nutrient-dense compose for free.
If using manure, make sure you are waiting a couple of months to plant, so it’ doesn’t burn your seedlings. If we are adding new beds in the fall, we will add our goat and chicken hay and straw bedding that is full of their recent manure directly to the new garden bed for planting in the spring. We also layer it on top of all of our old garden beds in the fall. Recent manure bedding is considered hot and needs a few months to break down so that it doesn’t burn your plants. In the spring, we make sure that we are adding piles of this same goat and chicken hay or straw, but that it has sat and broken down for at least 4 or 5 months.
Layer 3:Instead of buying soil, you can create a healthier version with layered compost. Many small farms and gardeners who have soil delivered have run into problems with heavy metal contamination in the soil, so it’s best to save money and be safe by creating your own. To finish the top of your raised beds, I recommend a couple of inches of top soil. You can make your own soil recipe with a 3/4 ratio of a peat moss base and 1/4 mixture of vermiculite or perlite. Many gardeners also like to place mulch on the top layer once their seedlings have been planted or come up. You can also place your mulch before sowing seeds directly in the soil and simply move it away from your seed until it emerges. Mulch helps the soil retain water and prevents weeds from taking over. Using compostable mulch will give your soil the added bonus of slowly breaking down over time and feeding your soil.
Some of the most popular mulch materials are wood chips or hay. You can buy the hay from your local feed store, but if you are an organic gardener keep in mind most hay is sprayed with pesticides, so you may want to search Facebook groups or neighbors for a local farmer who doesn’t spray their hay. Some hay can also attract slugs, or grow grass depending on if it was cut before or after it went to seed.
Wood chips can be purchased in bags at your gardening center, or you can also call a local tree trimming company that will often deliver loads of wood chips near your garden for free or for a small fee. You can also go to www.getchipdrop.com and sign up for a service that lets local tree trimming companies know you are available to receive their excess wood chips. Creating these layers is the most important step you can take as you learn how to grow food, after all, your plants will only be as healthy as the soil beneath.
Tips for Maximizing Your Space
Tip 1: Plant high-producing plants. If you have limited space focus on the plants that yield the most per plant. For example, one tiny tomato or pepper plant doesn’t take a lot of space and will give you a load of produce off of one plant, especially those indeterminate varieties of tomatoes that keep producing way into the fall. Don’t waste your time on low-production plants. Unless they are super delicious and bring you joy. Examples of low-yield plants you’d want to use in moderation are melons and pumpkins. Which are so fun to grow, but require a ton of space in your garden. Some of the best plants for small spaces are:
- Pole Beans
Tip 2: Plant vertically if you are in a small space or backyard. This could be trellised, as we have for our tomatoes. Our potatoes have been grown vertically in a potato tower that takes up limited space or a cucumber tunnel to get your vines off the ground. Growing vertical will allow you to pack so much goodness into a small space, backyard, or even a large container on your apartment patio. And I will add, if you have fences, especially shared with neighbors you like, they are a great pre-made trellis for your plants.
Tip 3: Use edible landscaping. Even with most HOA rules, you can plant fruit trees and a few raised beds in your front yard. Hanging baskets on your front porch are also a good way to plant fruits and veggies that do well in baskets, such as
- Mustard Greens
- Cherry Tomatoes
- Small Peppers
Window boxes are another great way to utilize your available space to grow food. Get away from manicured lawns and chemicals, which harm bees, but instead collect your edible weeds like dandelions before mowing.
Tip 4: Use season extenders to get more growing time each year. This is especially important if you live in more northern climates with shorter growing seasons. Season extenders can be a hoop house, greenhouse, or even make-shift fencing you put plastic sheeting around. With a greenhouse, you can sometimes get several extra months to grow food so you have more to eat, share, and save by preserving through the winter.
Tip 5: Succession planting is another great way to get more out of limited garden space. With space-saving succession planting, you would plant spring crops in a space, then harvest and use the space for a summer crop, then in the fall, you can replant that same spring crop again. Some good examples of this are:
- Spring: Lettuce, Summer: Peas, Fall: Lettuce
- Spring: Kale, Summer: Cucumbers, Fall: Kale
- Spring: Radish, Summer: Tomato, Fall: Radish
- Spring: Cabbage, Summer: Peppers, Fall: Cabbage
These combinations may or may not work for you depending on your climate. The length and temperature of your growing season will determine when you can harvest and plant each of these crops, so you’ll need to look up planting guides for your specific hardiness zone and see if you can rotate multiple crops through your planters in a growing season.
The quickest problems that can ruin all your hard work in the garden, are weeds and pests. If you have a wide variety of critters around your home, particularly in rural areas, consider placing a simple t-post and goat wire fence around your garden. You may be surprised to know all the critters that would love to eat your garden produce—coyotes, raccoons, possums, rats, squirrels, deer, rabbits, and dogs are all possible offenders.
A physical barrier is the best way to keep them out, but if you live in a neighborhood, your location and fencing may be enough to keep most of the garden critters out. If you have chickens with a large run, some people even place their garden inside the chicken run to keep predators away from their produce.
The other type of pests are bugs that can destroy your plants in a short period of time. If you’d like to keep your garden organic, most pests can be controlled with a weekly or bi-weekly spraying of Neem oil. Some pests, like squash bugs, need to be sprayed with dish soap or hand-picked off in order to kill them.
You can also naturally control pests with some creative companion planting where you plant pest-controlling plants near susceptible vegetables. Some of the most effective companion planting pairs are:
- Nasturtium flowers near brassicas like cabbage, kale, and broccoli. The Nasturtium will lure away caterpillars and take the brunt for your vegetables.
- Garlic is especially effective planted between rows of potatoes. The strong smell of garlic can keep the potato bugs at bay.
- Marigold flowers planted between your tomato plants have essential oils that repel the moths that lay hornworms that love to destroy tomato plants.
Weeds overtaking your garden is not only a visual nuisance but can steal valuable nutrients from your soil leaving you with undersized fruits and vegetables. Weeds can also provide extra cover for pests that will feast on your plants. I always attempt to weed after a hard rain or deep watering. The weeds will pull out so easily when the soil is damp and loose. Catch the weeds as they just begin to pop out of the ground. They are much easier to control when they are tiny.
If you follow the no-till gardening steps outlined earlier in this article, I have found weeding to be very minimal in my garden. Weeding can take me about 15 minutes a couple of times a week, which is very manageable. I have also found with the no-till gardening method (also referred to as permaculture) my produce is healthy and high yielding, so that’s a win all around.
No matter what time of year you’re ready to start learning how to grow food, there is something you can begin with in this season.
- Winter: This is the perfect time to start seeds indoors under grow lights.
- Spring: Move your indoor starts outside after your last frost date, and plant other seeds directly in the ground.
- Summer: Head to your local nursery or hardware store and purchase a couple of larger growing plants, they may even be on clearance and can provide for you through the fall months.
- Fall: Prepare your beds now, and you will be far ahead when the seed starting begins in the spring. You can even plant some cold weather crops in the early fall like lettuce, kale, and cabbage.
Start an Herb Garden
Herbs are great for adding flavor to our food and they are wonderful plants to dry. Use dried herbs throughout the year for adding flavor and for medicinal value. Growing herbs is also the easiest first step to take as you learn how to grow food.
Herbs can be a base for a meal. This week we used our fresh basil, and added pine nuts, olive oil, and parmesan cheese for a delicious pesto pasta sauce, it was seriously amazing. Preparing food that came from your garden is the good life y’all. Don’t miss out on this joyful experience.
In this consumer product-driven society, we are trained to constantly be looking for the next best thing. To find our joy and happiness we look to things like awesome cars, purses, and boats and not to mention the experiences like lavish vacations, etc., and I’m preaching at myself here too.
The true good life and joy happen with the people you love gathering for food. We make it so complex chasing all these crazy desires and it’s as simple and cheap as walking out to your herb garden, grabbing a basket full of basil, and enjoying pesto pasta with the ones you love. We need to shift our thinking of what true happiness and success is.
Preserving and Canning
Once you’ve learned how to grow food, make it a goal to learn one or two preserving methods this year. You don’t have to be an expert at them all right away. It can be as simple as properly freezing fruit like I just did with all our extra strawberries. It can be canning tomatoes, pickling cucumbers, or drying your sunflowers for seeds. Just pick one method, keep it simple and learn it. Loop your kiddos in or invite a friend over to make some jam. How fun is that?!
When harvesting and preserving, it’s important to know your approximate harvest dates and plan accordingly. We’ve learned by making mistakes in this area on our timing. There is nothing worse than getting busy, waiting too long to pick your produce and it going bad on the vine or plant.
Set aside a little time each week when you are getting closer, so you are ready to roll when the time comes. Also, plan out what you are going to do if your harvest is bigger than you expected. We just harvested another round of strawberries and had more than we could eat or use in our desserts, so we made some jam and then froze the extras.
Foraging for food is a wonderful skill you can cultivate with minimal effort right now. Believe it or not, there are dozens of edible plants that grow in the wild or as weeds you can gather and use in the kitchen. The process will also make you much more knowledgeable about plants and the climate around you and give you that quick win as you learn how to grow food.
Foraging, however, requires some knowledge and caution, as some plants can be poisons or even deadly. It’s imperative you get a book on foraging and make sure it has information on plants in your region. Finding a mentor can also be helpful if you know of neighbors who forage, or can find a local foraging group to join on Facebook.
You’ll want to learn about the few dangerous species in your area, and practice identifying plants by their scientific name because many plants have several common names, you need to make sure you know which one is being referenced. Keep a journal of plants, location, and time of year so you can return. It will be a wonderful time spent outdoors or with friends or family as you forage.
Some of the easiest and most common edible plants you can forage, that may even already be in your backyard are:
- Chanterelle Mushrooms
- Wild Onion
- Chick Weed
- Hairy Bittercress
These steps will get you started on your journey to becoming more self-sufficient and having some food security just with a garden and plants. You now have all the basic knowledge to know how to grow food. You have a couple of the food groups covered there when you include the potatoes as carbs. Remember the gardens could be just a first step for you. A fair warning, this gets addicting, so I want to be honest with you upfront about it. Gardening and growing your own food is what I call a gateway drug to the homesteading lifestyle and going all out on your backyard farm.
To truly get to food security and seriously not worry about grocery prices and the supply chain, there is more involved, of course. You know I love my chickens and the delicious eggs. Raising a flock of birds in a small corner of your yard is so easy to do. And how nice it would be for you to know you are eating organic well-nourished and healthy eggs from happy chickens.
It’s a great protein source, and many of my friends process their chickens as meat birds as well. This can all be done in your small backyard. And then, If you want to take it further than just the produce, carbs, proteins, and even meat if you choose that, you can get a dairy goat for your milk and cheese needs. I know that it is taking it a bit far, but you also get the goat snuggles as well. And another step deeper into the homestead journey is adding bees for that sweet source of honey.
Of course, that is a bit extreme and the first place to start is right in your backyard dirt with a few plants. Producing your own fruits and veggies in your backyard is beyond rewarding. It’s a delicious way to bond with your family, have a hobby, be healthier and drastically reduce the need for grocery store runs.
We do have some amazing trainings on how to grow food in the backyard farm academy. There are raised bed plans, how to make a garden bed right in the ground without a raised bed, and we have a training and printable grid on planning and mapping out your property. The keys to a large tomato harvest, our soil recipes, composting, as well as how to deal with pests and disease. Right now we have a free 7-day trial, so we would love for you to check it out at lanastenner.com\academy.
Regardless of how you get there and who helps you, you should take that first step to get your garden started now, and in no time you will be biting into delicious produce that you grew yourself. This month is a great time to get started!