Why Grow Your Own?

As a cook, nurturing your own vegetables is the perfect way to seize control over your ingredients. And “victory gardens” (also known as “war gardens” since they popped up during World Wars I and II to reduce pressure on food supplies) couldn’t be timelier: Spring and summer are planting season, do-it-yourself projects can save money, and you don’t have to be a gourmet eater to recognize the advantages of using local and seasonal ingredients.

Gardening is trendy too: Nearly 43 million U.S. households are planning to grow their own produce this year, which is up 19 percent from 2008, according to the National Gardening Association. Even Michelle Obama is into it; she has become the first First Lady to maintain a veggie garden since Eleanor Roosevelt.

Yes, there will be some down-and-dirty moments. But the pros far outweigh the cons. For example: You’ll always have fresh, tasty, nutritious food on hand. You will know that your food has not been sprayed with chemicals. Your diet may improve now that you have healthier options at your fingertips. Flavors will taste better, brighter. You’ll save money in the long run.

Read More epicurious.com/articlesguide … itsveggies#ixzz13X34B9mb

  • Read the seed packet

Most people don’t read the instructions and then wonder why the plants don’t thrive. You’ll get tips on planting, nurturing, and harvesting your vegetables on better labels. These recommendations come from seed experts who have run trials to determine the best growing conditions for each variety of plant.

* Try this compost mix to improve your soil

Alys Fowler, author of Garden Anywhere (Chronicle Books, May 2009), shares this compost mix for vegetables: 4 parts multipurpose potting soil, 1 part vermiculite, 2 parts composted fine bark, and 1 handful per pot of slow-release organic fertilizer, such as bat guano, sea kelp, or fish manure. You can also buy this type of organic fertilizer at online stores such as Dirt Works and Earth Juice.

* Plant root vegetables with plenty of space

The larger the space between them, the bigger the vegetables grow.

* Grow flowers to attract "good" insects

Nasturtiums, California poppies, and marigolds all invite helpful pest-eating insects such as ladybugs, hoverflies, lacewings, and ground and soldier beetles to your garden.

* Thin seedlings so they have room to grow

You can share whatever you’ve pulled out with friends or compost any unneeded seedlings. Plants that have to fight for water and nutrients won’t be productive and can be more likely to develop diseases.

* Stagger the plantings

You’ll want to enjoy fresh veggies all summer long so stagger your planting with early, main, and late harvests in mind.

* Fertilize your garden

Most plants need a nutrient boost to thrive and produce a fine harvest. Add fertilizer every month during growing season. Use a high-nitrogen fertilizer during active growth (before the plant develops flowers) and switch to a low-nitrogen variety during flowering or fruiting.

* Rabbit-proof your veggie patch

Bunnies may be cute but they can wreak havoc on a garden. If rabbits are a problem where you live, try putting up a two-foot-high narrow-mesh wire fence to keep the critters out. Push the bottom of the fence a few inches into the ground. Some gardeners suggest motion-sensor sprinklers or planting onions as a deterrent.

* Coordinate with neighbors

There’s no point in everyone having a glut of cucumbers; talk about what you’d like to plant and agree among neighbors who will grow what. Then you can share fresh veggies all season long. Perhaps you can even prepare meals together and enjoy your gardens’ bounty at the table.

* Gauge soil pH level:

Just as we absorb nutrients from our food, plants derive nutrients from the soil. Your soil must be in the mid-range of pH levels—in other words, the earth has to be neither too acidic nor too alkaline. You can test soil with a simple, inexpensive kit from the store. Check the ideal range of pH levels for various vegetables here. If the soil is too acidic, add lime to balance it out; if it’s too alkaline, mix in compost or manure. Ideally, make these adjustments in the fall, not just before you’re ready to plant.

* Eradicate insects organically

Since you’ll be eating your produce, it’s best to avoid chemical sprays. Pick off caterpillars or blast bugs with a jet of water. Clear away dead leaves and keep paths and pots clean to make your garden less tempting to unwanted visitors. The smaller the slug, for example, the more damage it will do. You can compost the big black ones and squish the brown ones. Watch out for aphids, which include greenfly and whitefly types. Ladybugs eat aphids, so plant flowers to encourage the ladybugs. Cut away leaves where you see clusters of aphids, and try blasting the plants with water. You can also treat with a natural spray: Mix 1 cup of vegetable oil with 1 tablespoon of liquid dishwashing soap. Add 1 ½ tsp. solution per cup of warm water and spray on the affected plants.

* Recycle Containers

Alys Fowler, author of Garden Anywhere (Chronicle Books, May 2009), shared some of her favorite plant containers—which are often inexpensive.

Wine boxes
Portuguese port boxes are the best as they’re constructed with high-quality wood, and Champagne boxes work well, too. Add corner braces, preserve the wood with weatherproofing oil, and drill drainage holes.

Old drawers
These tend to be made from very good wood with lovely dovetailed joints. Big drawers around 12 inches deep are the best find, as you can grow beets, turnips, rutabagas, or an entire salad crop in one drawer.

Large food tins
Look for big square ones containing bulk-cured olives, with lovely designs on them. Then just cut off the top and drill holes at the base of the sides rather than the bottom. Enjoy till they rust.

Coffee cans
Remove the labels and paint the cans, make holes in the bottom and set up a row on your kitchen windowsill for fresh herbs. They also look great along the top of a garden wall.

Compost bags
Buy small to medium bags of multipurpose compost mix for containers and just open up the top and poke some drainage holes in the bottom. You can grow tomatoes, zucchini, potatoes, chard, and peas in this way.

Read More epicurious.com/articlesguide … z13X3W3Fjq