Monday, May 16, 2011


Small-scale farms, over the centuries - if not millennia, have been the basis of family subsistence and sometimes provided farmers with additional seasonal earnings. But, over the past 100 years, more and more small farms have given way to large-scale agro-business. The principle that guides agro-business is the maximization of all (or nearly all) available agricultural resources for the purpose of generating profits. Agro-business depends primarily on monoculture, and the outcome of large-scale monoculture has been massive soil erosion, overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, and toxic waste in our waterways. While agro-business has been efficient in filling up our supermarkets, much of the food that's produced is of poor quality, having lost part of its nutrients and flavor in its long journey to the family table.

Over and over again, agro-business, by its practices, has ignored the health and well being of local communities and harshly damaged eco-systems. Worse yet, it has all but strangled traditional farming efforts. Now, very few farm families are able to make enough money to sustain their costs and turn over even the smallest income, and only a small fraction of the U.S. population lives in rural areas. This is a sad story and our government (and those of a lot of other countries, too) has done little or nothing to stop this process.

Today, most family farms have been turned into sub-developments and commercial centers, and almost everyone, excepting the rich, has been forced off rural lands. With no small-scale farming, a large majority of the population has to work for wages in businesses or receives government money - either in some direct capacity or as a dependent on government aid. Food has become "something" that you buy in the supermarket.

But, with the recent emphasis on “doing more with less” (money, that is), families have found that, even in the cities, they can turn some of their efforts  into farming resources that produce family.  All this can be (and mostly has been) done without the need for large investments. And, just about anyone, who hopes for a greener world, should consider family gardening as a clear reflection of their personal values in areas such as better nutrition, family solidarity, greening of living space, saving money, and sustaining eco-systems. What’s more, family gardens can be decorative additions to the home when they include a mix of beautiful flowers along with the veggies.

Whether you have a lot, a little, or no yard at all, you can come up with a way to grow some food. The satisfaction of seeing green plants grow and the good taste of homegrown food will be well worth the cost and work involved. So, if you have space, time and money for a good-sized family garden, by all means go for it. And, for the majority of us who are (almost)  gardening novices and facing what we once thought were insuperable limitations, the good news is that we can also succeed using non-traditional ways of gardening. What’s important is that more families follow green garden principles. And, if enough people do green gardening, not only will their individual families benefit, but their combined efforts can contribute to healthier ecosystems.

Don’t let limited garden space keep you from growing vegetables in containers. Small patches of yard, patios, and even rooftops can be sites for container gardening. It’s fairly easy to do this kind of gardening with a minimum of equipment, and many different kinds of vegetables can be grown in pots. You can be pretty much imaginative with the types of containers. Recycled containers of all shapes and sizes can be used, and they are a greener alternative than buying a lot of new pots. Just be sure that all containers are washed clean and deep enough to grow the crops you plan to sow. Even old tires can be used if you line the tires with heavy weight plastic to prevent possible toxicity. Here a list of some popular veggies that are easy to grow in containers.

Green onions - Choose mild-flavored varieties and sow small bulbs anytime from March to July. Thin out the seedlings to 1-inch spacing. Harvest them when the bulbs are about 3/4 inch in diameter.

Lettuce - The loose leaf varieties are the best in containers. Plant the seeds 3 inches apart and don’t overwater them while they’re germinating. Use good potting soil and water them with a low-volume sprayer (rather than hosing them down). When the leaves are the size that you want, pluck off the outer ones in just the quantity that you need for the day. This stimulates more leaf growth. You can continue to plant seeds in emptied spaces every 2 weeks or so. That way you’ll be harvesting for several months.

Green beans – Opt for beans that grow into bushy plants with red, white or pink flowers. French green beans are a favorite. Their pods are 4-6 inches long. Sow the seeds in early June. They need to be planted about 2 inches deep and use stakes to provide the stems with support. Some of the climbing varieties can be 5 feet tall, so they'll need a solid support. Pick the pods when they are about 4 inches long.

Tomatoes - With the price of fresh veggies as high as it is, you'll be glad to have a good supply of salad-size tomatoes almost the entire summer. The best small container tomatoes are compact plants that don’t require pruning and the bushy varieties are good  because they don't require staking.There are also great cherry varieties that have bright colors and a delicious flavor.  Standard tomatoes will need larger pots with at least 3 cubic feet of soil. Tomatoes are best when grown in a sheltered and sunny spot. Insert a stake or a wire tomato cage in the pot at the time of planting. Stems can be tied to the support as needed.

Cucumbers - These veggies can be climbers or ramblers. They need a lot of water and like a sunny location. Choose the smooth skins ones unless you plan to make pickles. Sow them in tubs, placing 3 seeds 1-inch deep and a few inches apart. You can do this any time in late spring or early summer. Thin them out to leave only the strongest seedlings and cut them off with a sharp knife when they're about 8 inches long. 

Herbs - It's really easy to grow herbs in pots, and they make attractive additions for porches, front lawns, and sunny kitchen windows. Their root system is very shallow  so they can grow in almost any container.  Most herbs do best with at least 6 hours of daily sun, but if you live someplace with near triple-digit temperatures, you’ll need to shade your herb container gardens from the afternoon rays. Also, herbs grow better in potting soil and most don’t need any extra fertilizer. Drainage holes are a must to prevent root rot. Just be sure to sow your herbs in separate pots or combine them with others that require similar levels of watering. Popular herbs for container gardening include rosemary, thyme, cilantro, parsley, sage, and mint.

Raised beds
Raised beds are freestanding structures typically made from wood, stone or concrete filled with soil and compost.  Like containers, beds can be placed on concrete slabs or rooftops and are excellent in small yards or anywhere there is poor soil.  They keep soil warmer, provide better drainage and require less maintenance than traditional gardens.

Most often, these "constructions" are rectangular, longer rather than wider, and about 3 feet in height. For comfort, your bed should be about 4 ft wide so you can reach from both sides. They can be any length you like, but most people choose to have them from 10 to 16 ft feet long. (In the small space I have in my yard, my raised beds are only 2.5 ft wide and about 8 feet long because they end up against walls on three sides. It's a sort of a hybrid raised bed/container garden .)

Raised beds can grow standard-sized plants and involve less back-breaking work than earth-level gardens and their soil warms up faster in spring allowing for earlier planting. The disadvantage of raised beds is that they dry out fast and require daily watering. With a north-south bed, you can use the sunny end as a hot slope for early crops and herbs while salad and other leafy crops can grow on the shadier end. Beds will have better drainage if you use a  mix of soil, compost and other growing materials.

Community and pirate gardens
If you really want to grow some veggies, but don't have even a square yard of patio space, you might look for some other people who want to work on a neighborhood or community garden. By sharing the costs and work with a bunch of people, you can have more varied and abundant crops. Of course, administrative questions, such as how the work will be done and how to divide the harvest, need to be established before starting up a cooperative venture. Beyond that, there are even those brave souls who garden on land that's not theirs, choosing empty lots, pieces of urban green, and even public park areas. This could be tricky in several ways besides being technically an illegal act. You'd have to find land that's not likely to be identified as pirated space or seen by other people who might take away your harvest. So, GrandmaS doesn't recommend pirated gardens. A better thing to do is to get permission or rent a space - doing this might be easier than you imagine.

So, I hope you're now convinced that you can grow veggies (and/or flowers), someplace in your home or yard or elsewhere. And it's best if you can follow the green gardening principles listed below. But, if you think that all that’s a lot to do at once (or too costly), then just focus on a couple of projects right now. Later on, you might be able to do more. (Get started by doing an Internet research on some of these topics and select the ones that suit your gardening style and pocketbook.)

- Use recycled containers whenever possible instead of buying new ones.
- Compost your food and yard waste.
- Water wisely and use water conservation methods.
- Use a rain barrel in the months with adequate rainfall or create a rain garden for runoff from roofs and other overhangs.
- Use natural organic fertilizer and pesticides.
- Re-purpose and recycle your garden tools and equipment.
- Have a plan for freezing, canning or sharing your veggies with others should they appear in quantities greater than your immediate family needs.

For inspiration on green home gardening, see This blog is the story of super-successful urban homesteaders who grow almost all of their own food and do lots of other major green activities at the same time. And they do all this on 1/10th of an acre!

GrandmaS' Almanac Calendar includes a list of gardening activities (taken from Farmers' Almanac) to do according to the phases of the moon. 

Related posts
Shrink your carbon footprint
Planning a kitchen garden



Mary Jane said...

Last summer I visited a young man born to neighbors during the time that I lived in that neighborhood. I have literally known him all his life.
Up the walk to his front door he had planted cabbage on either side. On the side of the porch were green beans using the corn growing there for support (like our father did). I observed all this before getting to the front door.
His back yard was taken up with more planting, even hills of potatoes. Flowers were everywhere.
I found his home to be beautiful, too, with herbs growing in the kitchen window and plants everywhere.
My attempt this year? Two Upsidedown tomatoes and a pepper plant hanging on the side of my porch.
It's hard... getting old.

GrandmaS said...

Thanks for sharing - it's always appreciated. And, knowing you as I do, you've always been about "greening" things and helping the people around you. So, be pleased with the efforts you're making this season. Here's hoping you harvest lots of tomatoes and peppers, as well as brighten your yard with glorious flowers.