Gardening yields all sorts of benefits, and you don't need a gigantic yard to get great results. If you’ve ever wanted to give your green thumb a shot with fresh produce, here are four steps to growing your own food.
Step 1: Decide where you're going to plant
Consider your space: If you live in a condo or townhome—or just have less yard space and limited sun exposure—container gardening is a great alternative to planting directly into the ground. Depending on what you're planting, container gardens can be strictly indoors, on a patio or in a small yard.
Even if you have a sunny window, though, plants that require a lot of sunshine like tomatoes may not do well indoors. But smaller herbs and vegetables like basil, lavender, parsley, cilantro, peppers, scallions or lettuces can do really well.
If you have enough space and sun in your yard, you may want to consider a raised bed, which offers room for greater volume and variety. Plants that vine—like zucchinis and cucumbers—generally need a raised bed.
Other benefits of a raised bed? You don't have to worry as much about drainage or overwatering (containers can easily get overwatered), and even though you still have to add soil and fertilizer, a raised bed benefits from the natural soil below.
Pro tip: When picking a location for your bed, consider how much sun the spot gets. Different plants need different amounts of light (tomatoes need a lot, while lettuces and herbs need a mix of sun and shade). Keep in mind, the best hours for sun are usually between 10 am and 2 pm.
Step 2: Decide what you're going to plant
When deciding what to plant, start by learning your "zone." Search online—depending on where you live, your zone will determine what will do well in your area as well as the best times of year to plant. (If you're in the Northeast, for example, you won't plant the same things as early as somebody in Florida.)
Certain plants like kale, radishes, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and beets are more resistant to frost and less dependent on your zone.
Pro tip: What do you like to eat? What will you use most? If you're taking the time to grow your own food, but you aren't big on tomatoes or dill, don't plant them!
Step 3: Pick a planting method
When you grow your own food, you could start with seeds or plant "transplants."
Starting with seeds costs less but takes more time (and tender loving care). They're more delicate than starting with seedlings (aka transplants), which have already sprouted through the first stages of growth. Transplants are more expensive, but they're also more established—and you won't have as long to wait before your first yield.
Some plants are naturally heartier as seeds—you'll have better luck with lettuces, okra or corn. Tomatoes, on the other hand, can be finicky, and you may have better results starting them as transplants.
Pro tip: If you're in a zone with shorter time between frosts, don't start long-season plants from seed. Start with a transplant because you'll have a limited amount of time.
Step 4: Make it grow (with water, fertilizer, and weed and pest control)
Once you've planted, maintaining a good watering schedule is rule No. 1. Watering when it's cool is better than watering in peak sunlight because you lose less water to evaporation. Watering when it's too hot also runs the risk of "burning" the plants' leaves. Different plants need different amounts of water, so do a little research to get to know your plants.
You'll add fertilizer when you first plant, but continually adding fertilizer can help replenish nutrients plants lose over time—just like replenishing vitamins in your body. Most plants will benefit from additional fertilizer every three to four weeks (even indoor container plants).
Weeds can wreak havoc in a raised bed and ultimately kill your plants. Be sure to regularly weed your outdoor gardens to allow your produce the chance to grow.
When you grow your own food, pests are also inevitable—especially with raised beds. Not only can you face bugs, but your garden may attract rabbits, deer and birds. Like your plants, every pest is different. Fences will help keep rabbits and deer out, while nets can keep birds away. For insects, you can buy over-the-counter pesticides but be mindful that the goal is to eat what you grow (so don't use something you're not comfortable ingesting).
Pro tip: Marigolds ward off all types of bugs. You can make natural insect repellents yourself, too. For example, a combination of water, vinegar, garlic and chili powder is a good natural alternative you can spray once or twice a week on any outdoor or indoor plants.
Above all, successful gardening is about trial and error. Know you're not always going to succeed on your first try and you may find you're better with certain vegetables than others. But now you have the know-how, so get out there and give that green thumb a shot.
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