Why I Learned to Grow My Own Food, and 4 Tips for Starting Your Garden

Never thought you could raise tomatoes? Think again.

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You look at me now and you see a 36-year-old green business owner with a wife and new baby in metro Atlanta who’s known as Farmer D. What you don’t see is the clueless-about-food college student I used to be, who sat there one day in the cafeteria holding a sandwich and wondered why he knew so little about how that sandwich came to be. That pivotal moment changed the course of my life and set me on a path to learn how to grow my own food. Now, I show others how to do this, whether they want to grow a few veggies at home, teach children about healthy food at school or camp or even a hospital, or plan a city green space where citizens can grow not just food but community.

Eat-Run_FarmerD.jpg
Eat + Run -- Farmer D

What I’ve learned over the years, besides how to grow that sandwich, is that getting started on a new garden is sometimes the hardest step of all for many people, especially since most of us have simply never done it before. So I’m going to help you get started through this blog. Check back every Monday, and I’ll give you new tips for growing your own food and maybe one day, you, too, will grow a sandwich. (This actually eventually requires growing grains and raising a turkey, so I’m not sure we’ll get that far, but who knows?)

Follow today’s tips and take your first steps toward your new garden:

Step 1. Choose your location. A vegetable garden requires at least six hours of sun a day. As you consider locations around your home, don’t discount the sides and front of your property. If you live in a condominium or apartment, ask your management company if there is a place you might be able to start a garden if there isn’t already one. If not, you may be able to plant a garden on your patio or balcony, if you have one, or you could even simply put some herb planters in your kitchen window. You may also consider one of the new indoor hydroponic gardening systems available now.

Step 2. Test your soil. If you are going to use your native soil, be sure to get a soil test (skip to step 3 if you are going to bring in soil). Not only will that tell you exactly what nutrients may be missing so that you can amend accordingly, but it will let you know if the soil contains lead or any industrial toxins that you simply don’t want in your food. Contact your county’s agricultural extension service for help with this. Ask to have your results converted to organic recommendations if your extension service doesn’t already do this.

Step 3. Build your beds. Determine the size and shape of your garden and then build your planting beds (or you can purchase them pre-made). These can either be mounds of soil right on the ground or raised beds made out of untreated wood, cinder blocks, stone, coconuts, or whatever non-toxic material you have available or can afford to purchase. Having some sort of border will help prevent erosion during storms, help your soil warm up in the spring and fall, and enable adequate water drainage. If you are using pots, be sure they have drainage holes. You may need to drill them in ones you purchase.

4. Add and amend your soil. The ideal growing medium for plants and vegetables is what’s called loam, and it is a combination of soil; organic matter, such as compost; nutrients, including potassium, nitrogen, phosphorus, and trace minerals; and air. (If you have good, healthy, non-toxic soil, the earthworms this attracts will dig holes that give your soil air.) Follow your soil test results to create this perfect mixture, or consider buying a pre-mixed version. An easy-to-do pH test, which you can buy at a garden center, will let you know the pH level of your soil. Most veggies like the pH to be a little below 7. You can “sweeten” it with lime or “sour” it with gypsum or coffee grounds if you need to adjust it a bit.

Tune in next week and I’ll share tips about planting seeds in your new garden. Let me know how it goes with getting started this week, or share other get-growing tips that have worked for you.

Daron Joffe is a 30-something eco-entrepreneur who lives to make a difference in the world one homegrown organic fruit and vegetable at a time. Known as “Farmer D,” Joffe has grown food for celebrities, private communities, and elementary schools in his “town-by-town mission to re-energize the food culture.” His products are sold at select Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma stores. Born in South Africa and based in Atlanta, Farmer D is online at www.farmerD.com.