Growing food

If you don't travel frequently, have some time, and find gardening intriguing, take a close look at growing at least some of your own food. Since I am more experimenter than serious food grower, I turned to Cindy Brown, horticulturist and assistant director at Green Springs Gardens in Alexandria, VA, a public park dedicated to studying and teaching gardening. There are many books and articles about food gardening, but it is difficult to find out exactly how to start and step-by-step how to do this. We're going to make that leap right now. Our society has lost touch with this most important skill. It's time to get it back.

Also, don't expect growing food to be easy. It takes years of experience to successfully produce a lot of food. Since you are reading a green living site, I assume you know to grow organic, but I'll brush up on the reasons why.

A University of Washington study tested a group of preschool children, about half with conventional diets and half with organic diets. Researchers found that the exposure to toxic pesticides was six to nine times higher for children with conventional diets than for children with organic diets. Another study at Emory University supported this conclusion. Researchers found that after switching from a conventional to an organic diet, urinary levels of two toxic pesticides decreased immediately to an undetectable level. "Acceptable" levels of pesticides mean little because the standard is for a 160-pound man, and because pesticides considered safe at one time are often later found to be very dangerous.

Exposure to pesticides has been linked to many forms of cancer, decreased fertility, and damage to the genetic structure, liver, pancreas, and nervous system. These chemicals do the same type of damage to other animals and plants. Commercial pesticides are substances especially created to kill. They work all too well.

Now let's start on your organic garden.



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Determine your planting area

Some plants require full sun, six to ten hours a day, and some can handle part-sun, about five hours per day. What areas on your property get this sun? And get imaginative. You can incorporate food-bearing plants into your landscaping, including in your front yard. If you don't have a single family home, you can use a deck or small townhouse backyard. Many neighborhoods offer community plots. You can grow many crops, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, vertically on single supports, which take much less room. Make a little drawing of where your sunny areas are, and write down about how large they are.

Figuring out where sun shines is not as easy as it sounds. It can be different at different times of day, and at different times of the year. According to Cindy Brown, "you wake up in the morning and it's sunny. You forget that the sun is going to move to the other side of your house. And when you get home it's dark." To determine where the sun shines in your yard, "you've got to go out on the weekend, when you are there all day long."



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Decide on your favorite and near-favorite foods

You probably have some physical limit to how much food you can grow, so you want to make sure your favorite foods have space reserved for them. I have listed the most well-known food-bearing plants here, grouped by annual / perennial, growing season, and size to help your planning. The growing season is for here in Virginia, which has mild but often below-freezing winters, substantial rainfall, and hot summers. Your growing seasons may be different.

Annual spring and fall low-height crops


Annual spring and fall medium-height crops


Annual summer low-height crops


Annual summer medium-height crops
Sweet Potatoes
Squash, including pumpkins


Annual summer tall crops
Tomatoes (supported)
Cucumbers (supported)


Annual spring/summer/fall medium-height crops
Swiss Chard


Perennial low-height crops


Perennial tall crops (though a wide range of heights)
Grapes (supported)
Cherry bushes
Fruit trees
Nut trees


When you make your list of favorite and near-favorite foods, remember that food from the garden does not taste like food from the store. It is, of course, way way better. You can also grow herbs, perhaps one or two plants per type of herb. Says Cindy Brown, "Herbs are something that cost a lot of money in the grocery store yet are so easy to grow."

But now you may need to eliminate a few food plants from the list. Some may be too difficult to grow organically. In Northern Virginia, peaches, apples, plums, one type of pears, and grapes for wine are too prone to disease. Cindy says that "I don't grow some things that I know are going to be really disease-ridden. Like peaches, forget it. We just don't grow them because we know they are too hard to do organically." But some of these plants may do well in the mountains, where nights are cooler and fungal diseases are less at home. You can find out what crops do well from experienced local gardeners, the extension service, farmers at the farmer's markets, and other sources.



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Research the plants you want to grow

"Read about the plant." Find out everything that the plants on your list need. Sources of information include Virginia Cooperative Extension, and Cornell University's Growing Guide for Vegetables and Growing Guide for Fruits.



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Make your garden plan

"You walk around the area that you have, knowing what you want to put in, what will do well in what situation. For instance, if you're going to do blueberries, you're going to need an area that's really acidic or can be made acidic." Look at whether the plants are annual or perennial, what time of year they will be in the garden, and how tall they are when full grown (make sure they do not shade each other). You can do rows inside a rectangle, but you don't have to. Plants can be planted as landscaping, in curves, any way you want, as long as they get what they need and you can access them. Make sure they have the right amount of space. Too much space wastes sunny area. Too little can lead to poor air circulation, lack of light, and disease. Leafy vegetables can handle part-sun (about five hours per day). Many plants, including tomatoes, need a full day of sun.



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Order seeds and prepare the land

Cindy says that you should be particular about where you buy
seeds from, and recommends Pinetree, Johnny's, Fedco, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Stokes, and Cooks Garden.

You also need to set up raised beds, instead of planting at the same level as the rest of the yard. The beds do not need to have any structure on the sides. They need to be "six to eight inches higher than what's around it," with soil completely loosened underneath "especially if this is the first time you've even gardened in that area." In her own yard, "I brought in some compost and leaf mulch. I loosened up the soil and added the amendments and incorporated them into the soil." The soil needs to be loose, very rich with organic matter. "You have to keep adding organic matter because it breaks down very quickly."

The advantages of raised beds are many. Plants in a raised bed are less likely to get the all-too-common fungal diseases because they are less likely to stay moist from wet soil, since raised beds drain much faster. That quick drainage allows the gardener to plant earlier in the spring than could be done in the wetter flat bed garden. "Raised beds also have the benefit that the soil's usually looser because you're not walking all over it." Loose soil allows air, water, and nutrients to circulate better. And quick drainage makes it unlikely that roots will sit in water, which kills a plant.

You will be putting a layer of mulch on top of the soil. One of the best sources of this are the leaves laying all over your yard, which you can chop up with a lawnmower.



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Set up a schedule and start following it

I asked Cindy for a general schedule that included starting seeds inside, based on what they grow when at Green Springs Gardens in the Northern Virginia area.

January. "We can start indoors leeks and endives, lettuce, onions, chicory."

February. "We're starting indoors the different brassicas: cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower."

Early March. "We don't plant anything outdoors until the beginning of March, and that would be peas and fava beans." These are directly seeded outside because they grow so quickly. But she emphasizes that you never blindly follow the calendar. You look at what the weather conditions are. "If it's three inches of snow, I'm not going to put anything out."

Mid- to late March. Start planting the cool weather seedlings outside, after letting them harden off (gradually adapt to outside conditions). "Lettuce I would probably wait to the end of March, beginning of April. Leeks probably mid-March." You can also direct seed these plants at this time, but you will lose some growing season. You also start summer vegetables, such as tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers indoors. These have to be started indoors to allow any real growing season, but you can also buy them later in a plant nursery.

May. Summer crops go outside, but make sure the weather is May-ish with no freezing.

Mid-July. Start fall crops (the same as spring crops) inside.

September. Plant fall crops outside.

She also said that you can grow crops in the winter. Spinach, endives, and kale will grow unprotected if the plant is already established, and lettuce will grow under a cold frame. "You can also have the turnips and the carrots and the radishes in the ground. Our weather is really very temperate in the winter time."



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What goes wrong

Lots. Be ready. Cindy recommended Cornell University's web site on gardening. We discussed problems either she or I saw frequently.

Fungal diseases have killed many a plant. "Ninety-five percent of the time you prevent the fungus. Once you have a fungus, it is very hard to get rid of. So you make sure you are picking the right plant for the right situation. You make sure you are getting good air circulation. You make sure you get plants that don't have a problem with fungus. When I am picking tomato plants, I will pick plants that say they are more disease-resistent." Also you need to use raised beds and plant at the right time, based on the weather. What do you do with the plant that gets a fungal disease? "I rip it out and throw it in the garbage."

"Our biggest pest is cabbage worms that bother all the brassicas, "cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower. A fabric called agricultural fleece, which blocks bugs but lets in sun and rain, can help. "But since I have pots at home, it's hard for me to cover them, so I use the Bt. And that helps." Bt is a bacterium used as a pesticide and is considered organic because it is highly specific—it doesn't affect humans, wildlife, or most beneficial insects.

If you look at many gardens you will see many small holes in the leaves. Enough holes cause the plant to die. These are likely caused by slugs, who come out at night and think you planted all those vegetables just for them. "I don't have a problem with slugs. At Green Spring we really don't, because the vegetable garden is in full sun, we're very clean, and there's no place for the slugs to hide under things. At home, I used to have a problem with slugs, and then one night my husband and I went and we picked all the slugs out of the garden. Since then, I really haven't had a problem," for six years, though such a clean-up might not work as long for everyone. With flashlights they found "half a bucket of them in my townhouse yard. It was amazing." Although there are other organic solutions for slugs, such as traps made with beer, which attract and drown them, and slug bait, this seems like a better and more reliable solution in the long run. Not for the squeamish, though. But then again, neither is gardening.

At Green Springs they have also battled the squash vine borer. This moth lays eggs at the base of squash leaf stalks. The caterpillars develop and feed inside the stalk, eventually killing the leaf. They soon migrate to the main stem and start killing the rest of the plant. "Squash vine borer. That's another one that can be fun. I pick the varieties of squash that are more squash vine borer-resistent, such as butternut squash. And then I check
the plants when I know that the female borer is going to be laying her eggs. If I see any sign of the borer inside the plant, I'll cut the vine open and pick out the bore and then rebury the stems. Hopefully they will take." A squash plant will also create nodes that can make their own roots. That is handy in this situation. "If the squash vine borer attacks the mother plant, all the little places it's taken root will still produce."


If you are new to gardening, don't get in over your head. Maybe start with a few herbs or tomato plants. Says Cindy, "Remember that's it's just fun. You're not doing it for a living. It's just fun."