2011-02-24 / News

Starting your own garden to feed the family

The Island Garden
By Roger Marshall

According to several gardening sources, the hottest trend for the foreseeable future in gardening is growing for the dinner table. Many parents are concerned about pesticides, heavy metals, fertilizer residues, and germs such as E. coli, listeria, or botulism in their children’s food.

They do not want to be part of food recalls because of tainted salad, onions or spinach. Homeowners with a small piece of land or a number of pots are growing their own table vegetables.

Where do you start? Take small steps until you feel that you have mastered growing the foods you like. For example, you might start by growing lettuce. It’s simple: Sprinkle the seed, water and leave until the sun warms the seeds. When the lettuce gets big enough, cut it and eat it. Sounds simple, doesn’t it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of other critters that like lettuce. The smallest can be flea beetles that gnaw shotgun-pellet sized holes in your produce; the largest – a deer – can eat an entire row of lettuce, burp, and eat a second row of prize lettuce in about half an hour.

Your first garden should be in a location that is facing south so it gets at least eight hours of sunlight each day. The land you plan on growing on should also be protected against predators, near a source of water and have reasonably good soil.

First, find your site, then get a soil test from your local extension service. Only then will you know whether you want to protect it from predators.

According to the University of Rhode Island Cooperative Extension web site, the standard soil test checks for the pH level and lime requirement. That means they look at the acidity of your soil and decide whether it requires lime. Most plants prefer a pH value between six and seven. If your soil is too acidic you will need to add lime to “sweeten” it. Lime is not a fertilizer, it merely makes it easier for plants to take up nutrients. A pH test costs $4 and a standard soil test, which tells you what extractable nutrients your soil has, costs $9.

Armed with a soil test you will know what you need to supplement your soil. Organic supplements take the form of compost, manure, greensand, blood meal and bone meal. Each adds a specifi c nutrient to your soil.

For a beginning gardener the best way to supplement the soil is to make a raised bed, which means that it is raised above the surrounding soil level.

Make your growing bed 3- to 4-feet wide and as long as you like. You’ll find it better for the plants if it can run east to west rather than north to south.

I have found that the easiest way to make a raised bed is to put bricks or concrete blocks in the shape I desire. You can also use regular wood, but it will eventually rot. I do not recommend using pressure treated wood. Even though manufacturers say the solution used to pressure treat the wood cannot leach out, I am not happy putting plants that I might eat next to pressure-treated wood. You can also use plastic wood, but I have no knowledge of whether they break down or put unwanted chemicals in the soil.

The bottom of the raised bed is dug over so that any grass or weeds are buried and then the bed is piled with organic matter. This method is known as sheet composting.

The best way to do this is to add a layer of carbonaceous material such as brown leaves, wood chips, shredded newspaper (not colored), and other “brown” materials, alternated with a layer of nitrogenous materials such as horse or chicken manure, untreated grass clippings, blood meal, green leaves and other “green” materials. Pile the layers twice as high as the edge of your bed and leave it to rot down.

This will take about four to six months. You should dig the bed over every month after the first six weeks to mix the contents. Only then will your growing bed be ready for planting.

Return to top