Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
As a person that has been in a vegetable garden every year since she could hold a trowel, I find it humorous that according to the 2011Trend Report by the Garden Media Group, "gardening with a purpose"— which includes growing your own food, is one of this year's hot trends in gardening. I guess my family was trendy without even realizing it!
Their surveys also found that vegetable gardening has increased by 20 percent over last year alone, and community gardening has risen 60 percent over last year as well. The large volume of gardening catalogs I received this year tout the virtues of growing your family's food, and "home farming", so retailers are acknowledging the trend also.
Judging by the volume of questions received at my office, I think this vegetable gardening "trend" is true for central Illinois. The rising cost of groceries seems to be a major reason local interest in vegetable gardening is increasing. Many also desire to control application of chemicals to the food they eat, whether they are proponents of organic gardening which uses no artificial pesticides or fertilizers, or simply choose to limit their use of artificial pesticides and fertilizers. Also, after scares in recent years with Salmonella and E. coli contaminated produce, some people feel safer growing their own food.
Many gardening catalogs and magazines encourage growing "kitchen gardens". The definition of this type of garden is many and varied. Basically, the idea is to have a small planting of food crops near your kitchen door, making it easy to step outside and pick what you need when making dinner. The garden may be planted in a container, or in the ground, depending on your situation. This time of year, a large pot planted with lettuce would be a great way to start your kitchen garden. A small plot or several pots of your favorite herbs would also be a flavorful option.
One way to maximize production in a space as little as four feet by four feet is to consider the Square Foot Gardening method, described by author Mel Bartholomew in his book by the same name. Each crop is grown in a one foot by one foot square, in a raised bed with a rich mix of peat, vermiculite and compost. I have grown my vegetables in wide rows or blocks for years, but last summer I made my first attempt at the "true" Square Foot Gardening method, and I am hooked.
I have found several advantages to growing plants in blocks or wide rows. One is soil compaction. When you plant in blocks or wide rows, ideally you never step on the row, you step around the edge. So the soil stays nice and loose, perfect for root growth. In the square foot garden, I had the added advantage of very little weeds because I created my own planting mix.
Another advantage I see in my garden is weed control as the season progressed. Planting seeds such as green beans in a grid over a wide row or broadcasting tiny seeds such as lettuce in a block creates an environment where the mature plants will mostly shade out any weeds as they appear. Since the soil remains nice and loose in a block or wide row planting, it is very easy to remove any weeds that germinate while the desirable plants are still small and unable to shade out the weeds.
Last year in just a four by eight foot Square Garden, I had 32 square foot sections to work with. I chose a few crops that needed more than one square foot of space, but still I was able to grow 24 different crops in that single four by eight foot plot. My husband and I were so pleased with the results we are planning to grow our entire garden this way this year.
My family has always had a large vegetable garden. Our garden was always a huge undertaking, requiring everyone's help. My dad would probably argue with me on this, but your options are not grow a gigantic garden or grow none at all.
Starting with a small kitchen garden is a great way to start for people new to vegetable gardening, or for people with busy schedules, or limited space. Maybe you don't have room for a four by eight foot square garden, but how about a four foot by four foot plot, or even a few containers? Better to be encouraged by success in your first years of growing a few plants than discouraged by a too-large garden that is overwhelmed with weeds by July.
Keep in mind that nothing says you have to have a dedicated vegetable garden. In our first years at our home, my husband and I planted vegetables in the beds around our patio, just outside the kitchen door. Even though we have a dedicated vegetable garden today, we still continue to plant vegetables around the patio. All these years we have had a kitchen garden without really realizing it! Having the plants so close to where we spend a lot of time outdoors is convenient, and the plants get a lot of attention as a result.
One of the best parts of my job is hearing from people who have just grown their first vegetable plant or garden. They are always amazed at how wonderful fresh ripe produce tastes. If you have never grown vegetables I encourage you see what you're missing and make 2011 the year that you try growing at least one of your favorite vegetables at home. University of Illinois Extension has great websites for beginners called "Watch Your Garden Grow" and "Illinois Vegetable Garden Guide" through the "Fruit and Veggies" tab on the Hort Corner website: http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/hort .