This is the year you garden
March 22nd, 2012
01:30 PM ET
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Eatocracy's Managing Editor Kat Kinsman attempts to vegetable garden on a roof deck in Brooklyn, NY in USDA Hardiness Zone 6b. Feel free to taunt, advise or encourage her efforts as this series progresses.

This year, you'll grow your own food. Not all of it and probably not even most or much of it. But you'll grow some, and that's going to change your life.

There are plenty of reasons to do this. Andrew Zimmern told us just this week that. "If everyone grew what they could, supported urban farms and community gardens in cities and local CSAs, the pressure relief on our overtaxed system would be immense. The resulting dollar shift would be staggering and deliver a positive shot in the arm to local economies. Our food would also be safer. Small action here can yield tremendous impact, immediately."

That's awfully compelling - and pretty intense. Perhaps start small. Grow an herb you are sick of having to pay money for at a store. Grow a vegetable that reminds you of how a grandparent's kitchen smelled. Grow a fruit you always want to have at your fingertips. Grow an ingredient that will make your sauce, stew, soup or salad taste the way it did when you had it at that little cafe in Rome, France, Mexico City or Des Moines.

Grow purple carrots because they look cool. Grow spaghetti squash because you need an excuse to go outside and not check e-mail for a few minutes. Grow heirloom corn to save a variety that's dying out. Grow tomatoes so they only travel a few feet, rather than a few hundred miles and taste like sunshine and summer and bliss when they hit your tongue.

Just grow something.

But...but...but you have no time and possess neither arable land nor green thumb. You live in a mineshaft several kilometers below the Gobi Desert, and it is dark, arid and oh, so cold. American Idol is on.

Nope. Nuh-uh. We're having none of that and will no longer accept any of the following excuses.

I have no outdoor space.

You do, presumably, have a window in your cell, yes? Congratulations. You have outdoor space. Shocking quantities of vegetation can be grown in window boxes, hanging baskets and those Topsy Turvy planters that blonde people smile near in commercials.

In my fifth-floor walk-up bachelorette apartment, I grew 23 varieties of heirloom tomatoes and a slew of peppers in an elaborate rigging of containers strung from my fire escape. This was, most likely, not especially prudent or legal, but boy, did my landlord dig the fresh salsa I bribed him with handed over on the regular.

You have space; just get clever about it.

No, seriously, I have no outdoor space.

There is a community garden near you. Look it up online at, or ask that vegan who your cousin used to date. They'll totally hook you up.

A community garden is defined by the American Community Garden Association as "Any piece of land gardened by a group of people." That's it. You won't suddenly become a Communist, break out in a case of tie dye or even have to make friends if you don't want to (though you could). You'll just have a small, nearby chunk of land over which to fuss. You'll acquire a new place to go outside your house that isn't a cafe with wi-fi, a bar, or anywhere else you would spend a wad of cash on a regular basis.

Oh, right - money.

I'm totally broke. How can I garden?

– Containers and tools

If you want to pony up for a $299.95 Hammacher Schlemmer Standing Patio Garden or an $80 garden fork from Smith & Hawken, hey, they're really pretty and I'm not going to stop you.

The rest of us will grab old bathtubs, dented cooking pots, egg cartons (and eggshells), takeout containers, tires, soup cans, and even newspapers stuffed into old soda bottles, throw some soil into it and call it a garden. You could, in theory, scoop dirt into an discarded pair of stockings, nail it to a windowsill and call it a planter. Martha Stewart might not come calling, but did you really want her dropping by your house, anyhow?.

You don't need schmancy tools, pricey chemicals (which aren't necessarily great for you anyhow), artisanal farming cleats or any such frippery. At the bare minimum, you require dirt and seeds. Yes, sunshine and light as well, but for the most part, those are available for free from the sky.

– Dirt

As for dirt - if you're lucky, it's just right there underfoot. If you're concerned about its quality, stick it in the oven at 200°F for about an hour to kill off any nasty fungus or nematodes. If you indeed live in a concrete jungle, grocery and dollar stores tend to have inexpensive potting soil that you can amp up with coffee grounds - which are usually free for the asking from your local cafe, or many Starbucks outposts.

– Seeds

Seeds. Ohhhh...seeds. They can become an obsession, and there are many incredibly worthy operations like Southern Exposure, Seed Savers, Baker Creek, Victory Seeds, Amishland and D. Landreth, dedicated to saving heirloom and non-genetically modified produce for generations to come.

You could consider that an investment in yours and the planet's future, but if you haven't got the scratch, that's okay. Gardeners are some of the most delightfully generous and freaky people on the planet, and if you say you'd like to join their ranks, they'll likely throw fistfuls of seeds and cuttings at your head in welcome. Gayla Trail's You Grow Girl is a remarkable resource and rallying place for people gardening on a budget, and any urban gardening group will be more than happy to pitch and help you start.

Dollar stores and Asian markets often have incredible deals on seeds, but there's an even cheaper way. Just save the seeds from the food you're eating. Skip any potentially genetically modified produce, and scoop out some of the seeds from your favorite farmers market tomato, pepper, melon, okra or whatever you'd like to replicate.

For tomatoes, include any surrounding glop (a.k.a. locular jelly) and put in all a glass of water. Cover with plastic wrap, poke a small hole in the wrap and place on a windowsill for a couple of days. Stir it once a day and replace the wrap.

You'll see a little bit of white mold floating on top of the water. Scoop that off, along with any floating seeds (they're duds). Pour the water and seeds in a sieve and rinse thoroughly, agitating with your fingers if you'd care to.

Put the seeds on a paper plate, labeled with the seeds' variety if you happen to know it, and let them dry thoroughly. Then store them in an envelope in a cool dark place (the fridge is fine) until the next planting season. Saved properly, they'll germinate for up to ten years.

For peppers, just separate them from the inner membrane and dry on paper plates. Corn can be dried on the cob and stored for future use. Okra seeds just need to be removed from the pod, dried, and used within the next year. Once you have a stash, start trading them with your new Communist hippie vegan pals from the community garden and explore a whole new world of freshly grown freebies.

I am just horrible at gardening and kill my houseplants. It's just too hard.

I grew corn and potatoes on my Brooklyn roofdeck and sweet potatoes on my front stoop with a bus stop a few feet away. You can do this.

Give yourself permission to fail. Some things just aren't going to work, and you have to accept that. Others will just go gangbusters. You can stack the deck in your favor by finding out what grows best in your hardiness zone, when you should plant it, and how much light and water it requires. Take a spin through your local farmers market or CSA and see what was grown nearby (rather than the tomatoes that were trucked across country) to get a sense of what might work.

You can indeed use seedlings from a friend or garden emporium, but try starting at least one or two things from seed. This may sound incredibly dorky, but it's simply thrilling to see something you planted spring to life. As our very own commenters have said, "It truly is a miracle that happens right before you." and "These are like your children right now. Of course you will think about them often, especially at the end of the day."

Some sort of primal, protective instinct kicks in, and you will not forget to water, shade and nurture that plant. I promise. And if you need encouragement, I'm here in Zone 6b. Drop me a line in the comments.

Seriously, I have no dirt, sunlight, community garden or friends.

Lettuce. Countertop. Kitchen sponge. Fluorescent light. Have at it.

Got a gardening question? We're partnering with CNN and Sanjay Gupta's Fit Nation to empower people to take action and grow their own food. Follow along at Eatocracy as we garden all through to winter, and don't be afraid to ask for help. Let's grow something together.

soundoff (133 Responses)
  1. Kent Woudenberg

    Good work :) cheers!

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  3. ReneeB

    Why bother when the criters take over your investment. It's easier to just go to the farmers market.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
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