Most farmers and other self-sufficient folks agree that a garden is central to self-reliance. And nowadays, with COVID-19 restrictions and shortages firmly cemented into many of our psyches, even more people are realizing this truth. But, how do you get started? Which vegetables and fruits should you choose? How big should the garden be? Let’s explore these questions as they pertain to each individual seeking a better way to secure their family’s food sources.
Instead of only growing the usual staple crops, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and okra, think outside the proverbial gardening box. A diversified garden is loaded with as many varieties as the gardener can manage in order to provide a diversified offering of produce to meet their family’s needs.
How and Where to Start
If you’re reading this publication, you’ve already taken your first step: seeking knowledge. A diversified, self-sufficient garden varies from person to person. A family of four living in the country will develop a different garden than a single person living in an apartment complex. Yet, both types of individuals are more than capable of growing a diversified garden with a few minor – and major – tweaks.
To get started, seek out local gardeners through the Master Gardener program, gardening clubs, friends, neighbors, and even your local farmers market vendors. These folks can tell you which crops grow best in your region, approximate planting and harvesting dates, how best to preserve your excess harvest, and where to find further sources of information. They’re often the best sources to start with, because they’re local to you and are familiar with your particular USDA Plant Hardiness Zone, and all the nuances and quirks specific to your region.
Once you have an idea of what can grow in your area, seek out trustworthy publications that are filled with information from experts across the nation who can also guide you on how to best grow various crops, how to set up a garden via soil testing, and more.
The key here is not to just till up some ground and throw some seeds or transplants into the soil. More often than not, in most gardens, this haphazard approach leads to disappointment. As with most things in life, a little time spent gathering solid information will go a long way toward successfully reaching a goal.
Which Crops Should You Grow?
You can choose from many different crops, along with their many cultivars. One of the best tips I can give is to sit down with everyone intending to enjoy this produce, and list all the favorite fruits and vegetables you can think of that make the dinner table welcoming and satisfying. Maybe that’s loads of tomatoes and cucumbers, crisp lettuces, strawberries, and apple pie. Maybe it’s fried okra and buttered squash. Think on the possibilities, and determine whether those crops are readily grown in your area. If so, begin seeking out cultivation practices in your area for those specific fruits and vegetables. The key here is to only plan to grow what you know your family and friends will enjoy. Don’t plant collard greens if no one really enjoys them, no matter how easy they are to grow.
Once you know which foods you like, determine how easily they’re grown. For instance, strawberries, while rewarding and delicious, are finicky in many regions and aren’t always the best choice for a starter garden. On the other hand, if you have a friend or family member who’s well-versed in growing strawberries or some other more difficult crop, ask if they’ll help guide you on your new venture to ensure you don’t waste your time making too many mistakes. Most often, you’ll find many gardeners are eager to share their knowledge and help you grow into your own gardening style.
Easy Crops for a Diversified Garden
The simplest method for creating a diversified garden is to fill the garden not only with those foods you and your family enjoy eating, but also those that are the simplest to grow. Here’s an incomplete list of fruits, veggies, and herbs that mature the first season and are easy to grow:
Basil Bulb onion Carrot Cilantro Cucumber
Green onion Irish potato Lemon balm Lettuce Mint
Okra Oregano Radish Rosemary Spinach
Sweet potato Tomato Yellow squash Zucchini
Here are a few fruits and veggies that aren’t necessarily the easiest to grow, but are worth the effort if your family enjoys them:
Bell pepper Broccoli Cantaloupe Cauliflower
Corn Hot pepper Pie squash Rutabaga
Strawberry Sweet pepper Tomatillo Watermelon
Finally, here’s a list of crops that are easy to grow, but take more than a single season to produce an edible harvest:
Apple (select varieties in select locations)
Focus on a Diversified Approach
To ensure a diversified garden that’ll meet your family’s needs should another global crisis – or even a family crisis – occur, select as many cultivars or variations as possible of the primary foods your family needs out of your list of favorites. And remember, don’t limit yourself to just the typical garden staples. Consider growing lettuces and other greens, green beans and sweet peas, sweet potatoes and other root crops, and similar pairings of food types. In many regions, nearly every vegetable group has something that can be grown for at least a portion of the growing season.
One of the best tips for a diversified garden is to also explore those crops that mature rapidly. Vegetables such as radishes, green onions, lettuces, and greens mature in 45 days or less, making a quick spring or fall garden an easy success with proper planning. Then, fill the garden with the longer-growing items, such as tomatoes, okra, cucumbers, and squash.
If you’re really feeling eager, you could even tackle the longer-growing crops that first year with proper knowledge and planning, such as Halloween and pie pumpkins, butternut squash, and even watermelon and cantaloupe. Just be aware that some of the crops, particularly the pumpkins, squash, and melons, can be a bit finicky and may take you a few attempts to get the growing conditions sufficient to ensure a harvest. But learning is half the fun; just don’t let the so-called “failures” discourage you from trying again the next season.
How Big Should Your Garden Grow?
This is the part that gets so many new gardeners into trouble before summer ends, causing many to forego gardening altogether. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Many first-timers till up as large of a space as their location can manage – only to discover weeding, watering, and general gardening chores take up so much time that they can’t keep up with the proper gardening care. The result: a lost garden, and a lost enthusiasm for gardening.
To get started, think of the garden size you’d like to have, and then halve it. Then, halve it again. If you tend to be a person who really goes all out, halve it yet again. (That would be me, by the way.) It’s much simpler to learn to grow a diversified garden with only two different types of plants in a small 10-by-10-foot plot than it is to start with 30 different crops in a 50-by-100-foot garden. The weeds still grow, the plants still need watering, and the crops still need harvesting and preserving no matter what size your garden is, so make sure it’s completely manageable and can fit nicely into your regular daily schedule of work, family, and leisure. You can always grow the following year, and the year after that. And every year thereafter.
Planting in Smaller Spaces
What if you live in an apartment, condo, or simply have nowhere to place a garden? You, too, can grow at least a little bit of diversity around your home. Think about growing container-suitable crops, or utilizing a community garden in your area. Some crops, such as many of the culinary herbs, readily grow in little pots sitting in a windowsill or under a cabinet-mounted light. And while it’s true that it’s unlikely for a gardener to be able to grow an entire year’s worth of food from containers, or even in a community garden, the opportunity to grow what you can, even on a smaller scale, will still provide your family with variety, a level of self-sufficiency, and the satisfaction in knowing you have the ability to produce food for your family in the worst-case scenario.
To help point you in the right direction for this modified form of gardening, take a look at this short list of crops that do well in containers. As an added bonus, many of these options have cultivars specifically bred for containers or for growing under cover. Seek out those cultivars first when growing in smaller spaces or indoors, such as in the kitchen, a greenhouse, or other form of limited growing space.
Cucumber Lettuce Spinach Green onion Mint Sweet potato
Irish potato Oregano Thyme Lemon balm Radish Tomato
Once you decide to grow your own garden, and especially one that’s as diversified as possible, taking that first leap of faith may be a bit overwhelming with all the questions that need answering. But before you place your spade into the ground, you must know what to grow, how much to grow, when to grow it, and how to grow your selected crops. With a little preparation and research, a diversified garden full of nutritious goodies is more than possible in nearly any region or location in the United States.
So, jump right in, and give diversified gardening a try. You may just find that your family never wants to go back to store-bought fruits and veggies after you all taste the freshness of homegrown produce and feel the satisfaction of growing your own food.
Kristi Cook and her family have been building their homestead for many years. Kristi shares their vast experiences through her articles, workshops, and her store, Tender Hearts Honey Bees.