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How to Grow Your Own Food

Even if you’ve never gardened.

Person with gardening gloves planting a basil plant.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photo by Zbynek Pospisil/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

To hear tell of the gardening craze that has spread across the U.S. in recent weeks, it would seem we’re in the middle of a victory garden resurgence. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted supply chains and ground everyday life to a halt, terrified and ingenious Americans are turning to their backyards to revitalize their green thumbs or take on new planting passions.

The original victory gardens, dating from World War I, were top-down national initiatives begun in response to international crop failures and food shortages, not to mention the conscription of farmers to the battlefields. The most iconic of these gardens, from the Second World War, were also a government-led effort, spurred by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help lower the cost of food provided to the troops. Today’s pandemic-spurred gardening initiatives are more of a personal endeavor than an effort to mass produce food for a nation in international battle. But some of the original movement’s spirit remains: Gardening is a way for people to turn their feelings of helplessness into something nourishing. It’s also proved to be a way to form new relationships—community gardening projects, such as Nate Kleinman’s Cooperative Gardens Commission, have sprouted up around the country, with the goal of teaching Americans to garden and providing the food grown to those suffering the most during this pandemic.

There’s inspiration to be taken from a well-tended garden, and heart to be taken in an effort that yields something tangible you can share with your neighbors as everyone isolates. So, if you are looking to start your own garden, where to begin?

Outdoor Gardens

First, consider what you’d ideally like to grow, and how. If you’re thinking about starting right now, what are your best planting options, according to your location and season? To figure this out, you should take a look at your USDA Hardiness Zone to get a sense of your climate and the varying times for your region’s ideal planting conditions. Urban Farmer provides a thorough guide here.

Next, take stock of your yard. According to expert Joe Lamp’l, a good gardening plot should have enough space that you won’t crowd your plants, consistent exposure to at least six hours of sunlight, and soil nurtured by plenty of organic material, including leaves and bark. Here’s a guide for how much space you’ll need for various vegetables grown in the ground, and another for plants grown in a raised bed.

Of course, to plant, you’ll need seeds and/or seedlings. Seedlings can be a novice gardener’s friend, as they require a bit less coaxing, time, and care than seeds. Unfortunately, many wonderful seed suppliers are overwhelmed right now, either halting online orders or delaying shipping. Your friendly neighborhood plant supplier, if still open, may have supplies for you, but you may also be able to take advantage of an open Home Depot in your area. The popular provider Park Seed has good options on Amazon for now, and Uncle Wayne’s Tomatoes is also still selling.

When you’ve figured out your seedlings, you’ll need to assess your soil, which needs to be properly prepped for plants. Better Homes & Gardens offers a useful guide for how to do so. You can make great use out of potting soil specifically engineered for perfect vegetable growth. Speaking from my own past gardening experiences, you can’t go wrong with Miracle-Gro. Its garden mixes are smooth, efficient, and long-lasting. Miracle-Gro also has great fertilizer in its “plant food” offshoots as well as organic options and potting mixes for indoor starters.

Next up: mulch, to control the moisture in the soil and help keep out weeds. You can make decent mulch on your own, with whatever leaves, grass, straw, wood chips, and other detritus you find in your yard (check out this list for the best organic and inorganic mulches you can make and use on your own from leftover material and scraps). If you have food scraps, compost is also a good option. (If you need a composting bin, I highly recommend this; if you’re new to the world of composting and want to learn how to get started, here’s a guide from Good Housekeeping.) But if you’re lazy or don’t trust yourself to build good mulch or do a proper compost, National Cocoa Shell’s mulch should suit your needs. And as Barbara Pleasant, a longtime gardening expert and writer, told me, composted manure works wonders: It may stink, but it will give your plants “significant” nutrients.

Now that you have all the planting materials, you’ll need a bit of gear—as tempting as the idea may sound of diving straight into the earth, you wouldn’t want to go into this with your bare hands. So first off, make sure you have a nice pair of gloves. Foxgloves are comfortable, water-resistant, and have lengthened cuffs to help protect your wrists from dirt and thorns. These are good for all hands-on needs, from digging to weeding to planting.

Of course, when you can’t make the earth move with your hands, you need something sharp. The Bully Tools 14-gauge round point shovel is a strong, sturdy ground-breaker that lasts long, resists bending, has a solid grip, and can burst through thick clay and soil. In addition to a shovel, you may need something smaller for digging around the roots or weeding. For this purpose, as Pleasant told me, “many experienced gardeners would not be without a hori hori knife, but if you don’t have one, a stout kitchen knife will do.” Pleasant also recommends the CobraHead Weeder for getting those pesky weeds out of there.

If you’ve chosen plants that grow upward—tomatoes, green beans, peas—you’ll also need stakes and cages to hold them in, keep them climbing, and stave off pests and curious animals. The tomato plant cage from Gardener’s Blue Ribbon isn’t just for tomatoes; it can be used for any such vertical veggies. It’s easy to set up and stays sturdy year-round.

Once you have dug your plots and planted your plants, your No. 1 tool for maintenance is, of course, water. Even if you’re a suburbanite with a lawn sprinkler or a hose (both of which tend to be incredibly wasteful) you need an old-fashioned watering can—the spout provides delicate control and steady pouring. I admit I have a bit of a personal bias toward Cado’s 2-gallon watering can because it’s the same kind I used to use while gardening with my mom, but I really can vouch for its sturdy water-carrying; its efficient, steady sprinkler cap; and its pleasant design.

Indoor

If you don’t have access to outdoor space, there are some great options these days for indoor gardening. One popular route is rather simple: take scraps of vegetables like scallions, lettuce, and celery, place them in glasses of water, near a window for a bit of sun, and regrow them, allowing them to sprout anew. But if you’re looking to do something more elaborate, there are multiple methods you can employ.

Nate Kleinman says these are the plants that are your best options for indoor cultivation:

Herbs are a great use of indoor space—rosemary, thyme, basil, mint, parsley, oregano, chives etc., are all easy to grow inside year-round. … Most sprouts can be grown well with little more than a glass jar with holes in the lid (allowing for daily rinsing and allow some airflow). Look for sprouting seeds like alfalfa, clover, broccoli, sunflower, but you can also get creative by sprouting dry legumes like lentils, peas, or chickpeas, or even seeds you might find more easily these days in supermarkets’ spice aisles, like sesame, fenugreek, coriander, fennel, dill, celery, or mustard seeds.

Warm terra cotta decorative pots or biodegradable peat pots as a seed starter for seedlings you may take outside later are nice options in which to grow such indoor-friendly plants (and if you need it, here’s a tutorial on planting in pots).

Technology can also be the indoor gardener’s friend. Hydroponics—the process of growing plants in a water solvent instead of soil—sounds daunting, like something out of Weeds, but the AeroGarden, which Pleasant recommends, is a technological marvel. It can hold several plants, controls lighting with built-in LED, and reminds you when you need to water, which means it does a lot of the work for you. A lot of AeroGarden products also come with herbs and other supplies needed for you to get started, making the complete price of the package well worth it. The Tower Garden is another solid option for indoor growing.

With these tools at your disposal, you can begin a flourishing garden. These are dark, worrying times, but gardening, in the way it allows us to connect with the earth and watch new life develop, can give us some desperately needed positive nourishment.