Growing Organic Food

The organic food revolution has begun, which means that more and more Americans are looking for ways to get more foods that have not been genetically modified or exposed to chemicals. In many places that leave the only economically viable option to be growing their own food. For first time gardeners this can be a daunting task – especially if that gardener wanted to grow enough food for their family to live off of. This means that they need to do a lot of research before attempting to leave the grocery store in the dust.

Photo by Russell French, 2006

Photo by Russell French, 2006

One of the most basic things that a new gardener can do is to read the packet that their seeds come in. It holds a large amount of information. It can tell you what the plant needs to survive in addition to things like how long the plants will take to mature. The next thing they need to do is to take a good look at the soil that they will be planting in. All gardens need a good base and if your garden doesn’t have one then you can buy organic compost at the local gardening store. In fact, now might be a good time to consider starting a small home compost pile for future care of your garden.

Early March marks the beginning of spring for many parts of the United States. The days are warm and feel welcoming to the first buds of flowers or chirps of crickets, but the nights can still become frigid. The first plants to break through the ground quickly shrivel as the night-time freezes engulf their fragile stems. This variance in temperature once prevented small, back-yard gardeners from getting an early start on planting. Today, technology has allowed even the smallest of growers to get a head-start on planting. Gardeners can now extend their growing season by two or even three months with the right tools.

Large scale greenhouses have been used for years by commercial growers and wealthy hobbyists. For years these pieces of equipment have been far too expensive for the everyday grower, but today you can go to your local hardware store and buy miniature pop-up green houses for as little as $100. These miniature versions don’t have all the heaters and fans of the larger versions, so they can generally only extend the growing season for one to two months. Their size is also limiting and they’re primarily used for starting seedlings that will later go in the garden.

Another relatively low cost solution to extending your growing season is the use of plastics to trap heat on the fledgling plants at night. This solution may involve something as simple as a plastic sheet being tossed over the rows, but this can damage the plants. A more effective solution is using PVC piping to create hoops covered in plastic over the rows. These items may be necessary both in the early spring and the late fall when frost could attack your plants.

There are a number of free things that you can do to extend your planting season, a number of which are just good gardening habits. Your plants will grow bigger and faster if they are not competing with weeds for space and nutrition. As long as you hoe or pull weeds in the first few weeks that they appear you’ll see fewer of them throughout the season. Tilling, while necessary for planting, is known to stimulate weed growth so there are very few gardeners who won’t have to deal with the unwanted invader.

Rotating your plantings will ensure that your different plants get all of the nutrients that they need. At least one season should pass between the planting of vegetables in the same family. This gives the ground enough time for certain diseases that could harm the plant to die off, while the ground recovers nutrients and minerals that will aide in your plants growth.

Inter-planting can also be a great technique to extending your growing season. First, the technique allows you to make the most out of your planting space by planting faster growing vegetables around slower growing vegetables. You will be able to harvest you faster growing plants and possibly replant them while you are waiting for your slower growing crops, like corn, to mature. Another advantage to this method is that the closely planted vegetables could push weeds out of the planting bed for lack of space and light.

Most gardeners over-water their plants. If you can develop a system where your plants only get the water they need then they will mature faster. A good option for doing this may be a series of drip hoses connected to rain barrels. While this method might cost you a little bit initially, you’ll save money on water in the long run.

Simply extending the harvest season may not be enough for some gardeners. As the organic movement grows some people want to become completely self-reliant and provide food for themselves year round. In northern climates this can present a real challenge during the cold winters. This means that you may have to sacrifice at least part of your indoor garage and turn it into a growing space through a variety of methods.

Plant lamps are a cheap solution, but they cannot provide enough food for one person throughout the winter months let alone a whole family. If you could figure out some way to hang enough of these lamps to produce a crop large enough to use the electricity for this system would make it impossible to run sustainably. Using lamps alone you would really need to have canned large amounts of food over the harvesting months to make up for only getting a small amount of fresh vegetables in the winter.

A new trend that has started in local garages over the last few years is aquaponics. Aquaponics involves growing fish and produce in the same system. Most of these systems will have a large tank on the ground and a smaller container raised above it where the plants grow. A pump moves water and waste from the fish tank up into the growing beds. The wastes from the fish fertilize the plants while they, in turn, filter the water for fish. The problem with keeping this type of system in your garage is that it will drive you electricity costs up because you won’t be running just a pump, but also plant lights.

Those small hoop houses that can be used to extend harvest seasons can be scaled up well. The larger hoop houses also retain heat well, so they can grow cold tolerant crops in cold climates. A space heater may be an option if you are wanting to grow some plant varieties that are less tolerant of cold, but it won’t heat a large hoop house evenly and it will cost you a lot in electricity to run. In short, this method is great for a number of cold tolerant leafy greens, onions, and garlic; but it’s not so good for plants that need warmer climates such as tomatoes.

Another new trend is the use of hydroponic tents which accomplish the same task as grow lights, but does so in less space with less power. These easy to assemble structures are made of Mylar and have a reflective interior in addition to being water proof. They also have temperature and light controls in addition to ventilation. They essentially have everything that a full grown greenhouse does, but are considerably smaller and considerably cheaper.

A great idea with any of these winter growing methods is to use at least one shelf under light to jump start your outside summer garden. To do this start your plants inside the tent and have them half grown before they ever go outside in early spring. When you will need to start these plants will vary depending on the type of plant and variety. Most vegetables will list the number of days it takes them to mature on their packets, so simply divide that number in half and start them that many number of days ahead of your spring planting. It will be a good idea to start a few of each type of plant you’re putting out every week through mid-summer. This will ensure you will have a constant supply of plants to replace those that you are harvesting through spring, summer, and fall.

Growing your own food can be a rewarding experience, but it can take some finesse to supply enough food for your family year round. It takes a variety of techniques to accomplish this task and the home gardener needs to be able to plan ahead if they want to do it. If someone is serious about becoming completely self-sustaining then they might consider buying a solar generator to run some type of indoor growing system through the winter; after all the public electricity grid could go down anytime during the bad weather that comes with winter. It is entirely possible to grow almost all of your own food at home if you’re willing to put in a little hard work and get a little creative.

You can get more information about organic food at

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