Orange flowers

A Time to Plant

From the day humans were created, we’ve been drawn to gardening. Plant a garden this year and you’ll be happier, more fit and more spiritually healthy. Plus, there are all those tomatoes.

Six kids with a limited food budget meant my parents planted a big garden each spring. It was jacket weather when we’d place the stakes at the corners of the oversized garden and run rope between them to mark the plot. Even the youngest was expected to help or at least watch the planting. When I was in grade school Dad used a pitchfork and turned the soil by hand. He was a strong man but the job took its toll. When I was older he’d borrow a tiller or ask a friend to come till for us. I remember the first turns of winter-hardened soil. The crust was weathered and brown with a mess of flattened grassy weeds. When the soil was turned, it was a rich ebony, as black as mashed Oreo wafers. Only a gardener would appreciate the earthy smell.

When Dad stopped for a final drink and rested a bit, he’d give us the nod. A couple of us would rake the soil to break clumps and smooth the surface. Mom directed the marking of rows. On opposite sides of the garden, string was tied to stakes to guide the hoe. Straight rows were a sign of a well-crafted garden to my parents, who were serious about making our garden look respectable.

First, if there were still a risk of frost, we’d plant only the cold weather vegetables—potatoes, radishes, other root crops and lettuce. Later we’d plant green beans, peas, corn, cucumbers, pumpkins, peppers, tomatoes and more. Completing the first planting gave me a feeling of contentment. I can only imagine what my parents must have felt knowing that throughout the summer we’d have a bounty of fresh vegetables. Entire meals could be eaten from the harvest. After canning, our pantry would boast garden-fresh food for winter days.

Today, I know only a very few people who garden. I haven’t had a garden in many years but each spring I remember this family event fondly. Each harvest I regret not having the delicious tasting vegetables that were used to make chili, salads and side dishes sing.

This year I intend on changing my routine and move from wishing I had fresh tomatoes on the vine in my backyard to making sure I have them planted and tended so I know they’ll be there. Granted, my neighborhood has manicured lawns like many of yours and my backyard has way too many trees but I no longer care. Providing food for ourselves and our families is wise in many ways. Economically, a garden can provide around $500 worth of vegetables in an average season. Physically, we benefit from getting off the sofa or up from the computer, stretching and exercising our bodies. Spiritually, gardening gives us needed quiet time for talking to God and relaxing. Nutritionally, homegrown foods are better for you and, when you grow your own vegetables, you know what chemicals were used when they were raised.

My dad, now in his 80s, is still gardening. Even in his retirement he plants tomatoes—Mom says the store-bought ones just don’t taste as good. Now, instead of a big garden, his plants reside in containers that sit in a little red wagon. This way, when the sun gets too hot on one side of the house he can pull the wagon to a shady spot. Come harvest time, he’s glad for the fresh tomatoes.

Pick the Right Garden

Whether your yard is large or small, sunny or slightly shady, or even if you have no yard at all, you can carve out a garden spot.

In place of grass. Covering an area on your lawn with newspapers or black plastic kills grass and allows you to plant vegetables. Start with a small plot this year; expand next.

As front-yard decor. If your sunniest spot is in front of your home, plant veggies and herbs among flowers and shrubs. Put in a fruit tree or edible shrubs, such as raspberries, blueberries or currants.

Outside the back door. Plant a kitchen garden near the door and include a few favorite herbs and veggies. As you prepare dinner, step out to pick what’s ripe.

On the patio or balcony. Select large pots or a planting system, fill with potting soil or a soilless mixture, choose patio-type plants (tomatoes, berries) and water daily. An advantage: Move the pots to follow the sun.

In a few square feet. Following a square-foot gardening system provides big yields, as you methodically squeeze many plant varieties into a small space. Learn more at www.squarefootgardening.org.

Vertically. Grow plants on trellises, cages, pergolas or up the side of a wall. Think cukes, grapes, pole beans, tomatoes and more. Bonus: Vertical plantings can hide unsightly features in your yard.

In a raised bed. If your soil is poor or compacted, fill the beds with better soil and include good amounts of compost. Build high; you won’t have to bend over to plant and pick.

Indoors. Set out a row of potted herbs or microgreens on a kitchen cart and move to catch sunshine. Puts fresh herbs close at hand.

With your neighbors. Many cities set aside open land for community garden plots. While the city may supply the water, gardeners do all the rest. Weed, trade produce and socialize with your neighbors!

Window and balcony boxes. No yard or patio? Plant a garden in a window or balcony box. Choose compact herbs or vegetables with similar soil and water needs and feed them routinely according to label instructions.

For more information on any of these techniques, check websites for state extension services or local master gardener programs.