Grocery Gardening

Forty-one million U.S. households grew some of their own food in 2009, according to the Garden Writers Association. That’s 38% of U.S. households. Thirty-seven percent were happy enough with their grocery gardening results that they plan to increase the size of their gardens in 2010.

Alas, 16% of people said they would grocery garden less or not at all in 2010. What was the most frequent reason they cited for planting less? Lack of success.

Millions of people are successfully gardening. So what happened to that 16% who were disappointed? Here are my hypotheses about those suffering from the agony of defeat.


#1 - They started off too large. The thrill of the rototiller is beguiling. You fire that baby up and feel the power tingle up and down your arms. Ambition sets in.

“Hey, I can grow extra and fill the basement with preserves!” Next thing you know, the back yard resembles an industrial farm and the kids have nowhere to play soccer.

Or they start off too large because they underestimate how much a single plant can produce. My friend Rebecca did this when she planted 68 tomato plants for her family of four. Hers grew beautifully, providing her with a math lesson. The average tomato plant will grow 35 to 45 pounds of fruit, thus yielding her 2,400 pounds of tomatoes. She now knows that about four tomato plants will keep her family’s tomato appetites satisfied and still leave her with some to give away.

If you’re new to vegetable gardening, make a realistic assessment. How much and what do you want to produce? How much space will it take to produce that kind of yield? Do you have the time and commitment to care for a garden of that size?

If you only want a few tomatoes or cucumbers to pick for fresh salads, you can try growing your crops in containers, some of which are now even self-watering. You can always expand your garden as your experience and curiosity grow.

#2- They didn’t prepare the soil properly. Maryland clay soil may be filled with nutrients that plants love, but it takes amending with organic matter to make it a hospitable environment for growing groceries. Scratching up the soil, tossing in some seeds and sprinkling with the water hose is bound to leave you disappointed when the seeds don’t even germinate. Or if they do they keel over before they leave adolescence.

There’s a reason that gardener’s call compost “black gold.” That’s because adding plenty of compost boosts the nutrition and helps to give soil the structure and texture that will allow delicate little roots to reach down to hold the plant as it grows up.

You don’t even have to make your own compost. You can buy it bagged or in bulk.

#3 – They planted and walked away. This is not a good thing when it’s 95 degrees and doesn’t rain for two weeks straight. Plants get thirsty and need a drink. If Mother Nature doesn’t provide it, it’s up to the head gardener to step in with the hose.

Oh, and then there are the weeds. They, by the way, will grow regardless of the amount of rainfall. The best defense is a good offense. My motto is “Weed early and often.” Strolling around every couple of days and plucking up the little opportunistic weeds when they are babies is relaxing, genteel garden work. Digging out four-foot-tall invaders is just a little less fun than a root canal.

My guess is that the 16 percent of gardeners who suffered the agony of defeat in their grocery gardening efforts last year made one of these three basic mistakes. Now you know to avoid them.

I’m pleased that so many people are rediscovering the joys of growing and making their own food. There is great joy in stepping outside your back door to pick the fruits, vegetables and herbs that are at their height of freshness, bringing them in and turning them into something scrumptious for a good home-cooked meal.

That, my friends, is the thrill of victory.

Robin Ripley lives in Calvert County where she gardens, raises pet chickens and makes as much as she can by hand, from bread to cheese to pastries to wine. She is co-author of the newly released book Grocery Gardening and blogs about her handmade adventures at  Photos by Robin.

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