I am not so alarmist that I believe utter societal collapse is imminent and we all must learn to grow our food immediately. I think we need to take care of ourselves and each other in a lot of other ways first. But the fact remains that food is at the crux of our very existence and it intersects with just about every social and economic angle that is presently vying to stab at all we hold dear. With that in consideration, here is a basic growing guide for you to have and to hold. All the practices recommended herein are organic and most are extremely earth friendly. This guide is also written in a way to help you get a garden set up as cheaply and quickly as possible without going too far down a rabbithole of hardline DIY garden building.
“Raised beds or bust” is the rule. They take more time and effort in the short term, but will save you much pain in the long run. Why?
- Old soil is often poisonous.
- Compacted soil is hard to rejuvenate into a plant friendly medium.
- Established soil is inundated with weed seed.
- Raised beds keep beds from flooding.
To make a raised bed, get some cheap wood (untreated if it’s new) to create borders. Borders aren’t essential, but they help significantly by keeping pets out, preventing small-scale erosion, and maintaining general control. Do not make your bed wider than 4 feet, or you will not be able to reach the middle of the bed to harvest, weed, or otherwise adjust your plot.
Never set foot on your bed, and try to never put any weight on your growing soil. Compacting soil is the best way to ruin it. Speaking of soil, buy new. There is good soil at the box stores, and that’s unfortunately where you’ll probably have to go for it. The decent topsoil is usually hidden in the back. Don’t buy the cheapest topsoil; buy the second cheapest, as the cheapest is usually as bad as your backyard already is. Buy eight bags per 4’x4’ bed. Do math if you are going bigger. For every 4’x4’ bed, also be sure to buy a bag of something high quality, but organic, like black kow compost, vigoro, or foxfarm, and dump that on top of your topsoil layer. This addition will give your garden a solid jump start and keep things pretty happy for about a year. If you go larger, buy bulk garden soil from Sugarland Garden Soil & Materials (504-433- 0488; 655 Bayou Rd., Belle Chasse) or Wood Materials (woodmaterialsyard. com). Both are locally owned, very reasonable, and will deliver if you buy enough. Expect to pay $25 to $40 for a cubic yard of good soil, plus a delivery fee if you don’t have a truck. A yard will take care of four to six 4’x4’ raised beds.
Make sure to place your beds someplace sunny. The overwhelming majority of common edible foods need full sun to thrive. Keep in mind that a lot of plants have vining growth patterns, so growing alongside a fence is generally a good idea for trellising purposes.
Before you place your bed, lay down one to three layers of cardboard over the space you intend to grow. This will help mitigate weed growth into your beds and give your vegetables a healthy head start over them.
SEEDS AND PLANTS
When I say from seed, I mean directly sowing your seed into the ground as opposed to buying already cared-for nursery plants or nursing young seedlings yourself in a controlled environment (also called starts).
Don’t buy your seeds from a garden center or box store if you can help it. Online seed providers and well-established catalog distributors will give you far more bang for your buck. I buy from many sources, but Johnny’s Seeds (johnnyseeds.com) is probably the most dependable with the widest selection.
In the fall and winter, grow all your root vegetables from seed. Do not buy root vegetables that have already begun growing in containers ever. Arugula is also really easy to grow from seed. Brassicae as a whole, a family which consists of most greens, broccoli, and a lot of other cool season crops, is somewhat easy to grow from seed, but buying starts might not be a bad idea. Lettuce is also fairly easy to grow from seed, but again, starts can help significantly. Legumes, or beans, are fairly easy to start from seed in most cases.
In the spring and summer most cucurbits and legumes can be grown from seed, as well as heat tolerant legumes.
In general, it is a bad idea to direct seed nightshades and herbs. There are plenty of exceptions to the herb rule as “herb” is a huge and extremely vague term, so if you’re not doing more research beforehand or are already in the know, buy herb starts rather than seed.
WATERING AND IRRIGATION
Water often, and seriously consider throwing down some dollars on irrigation. In most cases it will cost you less than $100, and I contend that a lack of watering is responsible for every single failed first-time food garden ever. Once installed, irrigation will need upkeep very rarely. If you choose not to irrigate, make sure your plants are getting deeply watered at least every three days. Even this is probably not enough, but you must do at least this. Irrigation basically consists of a timer and some soaker hoses or drip line. Water timers can be found at any hardware store and run from $25 to $40. If you want to buy irrigation at the hardware store, go for soaker hoses, 25’ per 4’x4’ garden bed is plenty. Really affordable and effective irrigation supplies are available at dripworks.com. Similarly to watering by hand, set your timer to run every three days for 90 minutes. Do not fear irrigation installation: it’s like building a snake with legos, easier than that even.
The best way to keep your plants pest free is to keep them healthy. Regular watering and soil maintenance will go a long way towards keeping the bugs away. Healthy plants have strong immune systems capable of scaring many insects off. Unhealthy plants send out suicidal pheromones asking bugs to put them out of their misery. That’s real. To this end, it’s also important to plant plants at seasonally appropriate times. Elsewise like a fish out of water, your plants will be devoured.
These actions will mitigate pests, but pests will inevitably come all the same. If you need to use pesticides, make sure to use organic pesticides, and use the right ones. Also note that just because a pesticide is organic does not mean that it’s good for your garden ecosystem. Many organic pesticides do serious damage to beneficial creatures in your garden as well as pests. When looking at pesticides, you need to look not at the brand label, but at the ingredients, as that is where you will find all the words listed below:
Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT): A bacteria that kills caterpillars and mosquito larva very effectively. Harmless to pretty much everything else, human, animal, or insect.
Diatomaceous Earth: Effective against fire ants and other insects with hard exoskeletons, like cockroaches and some beetles. Again, harmless to most other creatures.
Iron Phosphate: The best and only solution against slugs and snails, except of course beer. Again, harmless to other creatures, though there are a few not-quite-conclusive studies showing evidence it may harm earthworms, so keep that in mind.
Insecticidal Soap: Smothers bugs. Great against aphids, but be forewarned that it smothers all bugs, so use with caution. Home dish soap is not the same—insecticidal soap has significantly less surface tension than regular soap and water. Imagine an ant on top of a raindrop; this is what happens if you try to DIY insecticidal soap. That is to say, nothing. Nothing happens.
Spinosad: This is a full-spectrum insecticide that harms most tiny creatures good or bad. It is also the only organic insecticide that works against leafminers. Try not to use Spinosad unless your situation is dire.
Neem: Well known by the hippies as a cure-all. This is the problem: it kills everything: good bacteria, good fungi, and good bugs. Of course it kills the bad ones too, so there’s that. Use with caution.
Pyrethrins: Derived from a flower. Sounds lovely, does it? It is not. This is the nuclear option in organic pest management. Please don’t push the red button.
Copper Sulfide: Effective against bad bacteria. Also against good bacteria. Great for combating powdery mildew, which wreaks havoc on cucurbits every summer here. You have tons of little allies in the garden as well, including ladybugs, assassin bugs, anoles, lacewings, nematodes, frogs, wasps, and so much more. They all play significant roles in the pest control game, so if you see any of them around, do everything you can to keep them around. Always take your ecosystem into account first. To take care of your plants, you need to take care of everything around your plants. It just so happens people work the same way.
This is pretty straight forward. Don’t use Glyphosate (i.e. Round-Up), or other chemicals to kill weeds. Use your hands and use hand tools. When you pull weeds, try to pull all of them: their strength is in their roots. If you just yank out the green bits, the weeds will come back. My favorite organic tool against weeds is a garden torch. It’s basically a flamethrower designed especially for burning plants up. Great stuff. Make sure you mulch everything all the time to mitigate weed issues as best as you can.
Don’t worry about cover crops unless you have acres to grow on. We live in an urban environment, in a climate where we can grow food all year long. Grow food and use compost and organic fertilizers instead. Make your own compost if you have the time and space, but don’t feel guilty about buying compost. It’s way better than not adding organic matter to your bed. Ideally, you want to add 4 to 8 inches of compost to your bed twice a year.
There are plenty of granular and liquid organic fertilizers out there that are great for keeping your soil healthy and amenable to your plants. Most are made up of bone meal, fish meal, feather meal, blood meal, and kelp. Almost without exception these are byproducts of factory farming, and if you take issue with this, I respect that. But keep in mind that if these products were not being made and used, animals would still be getting slaughtered the same way, but it would be even more wasteful and devastating to our environment, because all that nutrient-rich waste would be, well, wasted. Also, I’m going to take a stand here: veganic farming isn’t real. Come at me, bro. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, please don’t look into it.
Mulch keeps down weeds, retains moisture in the soil, regulates soil temperature, and eventually breaks down to create organic matter that is great for your soil health. I grab most of my mulch from front yards in the Garden District. Live oak leaves make for great mulch, and there are garbage bags full of live oak leaves lining the streets of New Orleans for most of the winter months, all day, every day. Pine needles are a somewhat sustainable alternative readily available at most garden centers for a reasonable price. If you’re feeling cheap and lazy, you can use your pulled vegetables and weeds from the garden to mulch your beds. Beware seeds in the weeds, though. They will wreck your universe. Outside of pine needles, most mulch you can readily buy is terrible for your garden.
This is just a primer for urban farming, and there is infinitely more to be said on each topic. But the above information should be enough to give you the knowledge and confidence necessary to start growing food. Regardless of how dystopian our near future becomes, I think it is crucial that growing our own food becomes commonplace again. It is a way to insulate our culture rather than isolate ourselves, to commune with each other and the whole world in a manner and pace utterly contradictory to the internet. More on that next month. Meantime, stay healthy, stay safe, never stop growing. Our strength is in our roots.