My fascination with growing food started in the third grade, when the entire class grew tiny tomato plants on the windowsill of our classroom. The plants died before sprouting any fruit, but my interest in gardening took root. Since then, I’ve had many more successes in the garden: strawberries, melons, fresh salad greens, and yes, even tomatoes. Nurturing those tiny plants, just like I did when I was 8, is more than rewarding; these days I find myself hanging out in my garden as often as I can—pulling a few weeds, watering the plants, sometimes just sitting there—when I need a break from my crazy work schedule.
Getting a little dirt under your fingernails feeds your soul, says KK Haspel, founder of The Farm, a 2.5-acre biodynamic farm in Southold, New York. “There is nothing more joyful than being in nature and tending a garden,” she says. “Even if you only grow one tomato, it will be the best tomato you’ve ever tasted.”
Haspel is part of a growing trend: backyard gardening. Burpee, the national seed manufacturer, reports sales of vegetable and herb seeds increased 40 percent in 2007; the number of community gardens in the US and Canada has increased more than 332 percent since 1996; and the online group Kitchen Gardeners International, a non-profit organization that promotes homegrown foods, boasts more than 10,000 members—up from 4,800 just two years ago.
Haspel started growing her own food a decade ago because she liked the idea of having fresh, organic fruits and veggies at her back door. What she didn't anticipate? That the asparagus, strawberries, tomatoes, lettuce, and squash she literally has at her fingertips would drastically change the way she eats. “Instead of planning my meals, I walk through the garden and choose foods that are at their peak: a few handfuls of berries for breakfast or lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers for a salad at lunch,” says Haspel. “I let the growing season dictate what I should eat—and I eat much healthier because of it.”
Growing your own foods in an organic garden does more than up the nutritional ante, however. Studies show gardening can reduce your risk of heart disease by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The very act of digging in the dirt can boost bone density—one way to protect against osteoporosis—and burn calories too (up to 250 per hour, according to some estimates).
Lia Huber is a true believer. Working in the garden of her Northern California home helped her lose 20 pounds (and ignited a love for peas and beets—two foods that used to be on her “refuse to eat” list). She’s kept the weight off for five years thanks to the vigorous work of weeding, watering, and harvesting.
“In addition to being a great workout, gardening has also changed my perspective on foods,” says the 38-year-old. “I hated so many vegetables until I sampled them fresh from my garden.” She found that her homegrowns tasted infinitely better than the supermarket variety. “I didn’t like the way those foods in the store tasted after they’d been sprayed with chemicals and traveled 5,000 miles,” she says.
Like many backyard gardeners, starting a vegetable garden has helped Huber understand what goes into growing the foods that sustain her family. Roger Doiron, founding director of Kitchen Gardeners International, believes this is precisely what hooks so many of us once we start planting. “Instead of looking at food as a product—something you buy that is often triple-packaged and shrink-wrapped—gardening helps you see the food you eat as a process,” he says. “Eating a tomato or an eggplant that came from your garden gives you an incredible sense of accomplishment.”
Of course, you don’t need a 2.5-acre piece of land, like Haspel’s, to grow your own fruits and veggies. Whether you have a few window boxes, just enough room for a couple of raised beds, or a plot at your local community garden, you can make it happen. This spring is your time to get growing—read on to find out how.
No green thumb necessary
Don’t have much gardening experience? Choose plants that can withstand most growing conditions, require minimal care, and have short harvest times (read: They’re really hard to kill!). Here, four easy-to-grow options:
These salad favorites can be harvested in approximately 50 to 70 days. Varieties to try: Burpless, which is disease resistant; Spacemaster, suitable for pots and containers.
As long as you plant these seeds after the danger of frost has passed, bush beans (also called string beans) will mature in approximately 55 days. Variety to try: Derby, a prolific grower that produces slim, tender beans.
It’s no wonder third graders everywhere experiment with growing this plant. Suitable for containers or the garden, tomato plants mature in approximately 70 days and can produce up to 10 pounds of fruit per plant. Variety to try: Better Boy, which is disease resistant and produces medium-sized fruit.
This sweet treat takes a mere 65 to 80 days to mature, and each plant can produce up to two quarts of berries. Variety to try: Allstar, which produces large berries with mild, sweet flavor.
Gardening means lots of bending, kneeling, stretching—and sore muscles. Avoid injury and soothe aches and pains with these simple stretches from Jeffrey P. Restuccio, author of Get Fit Through Gardening (Hatherleigh Press, 2008).
Upper back stretch
Stand upright, feet together, about 3 feet from a tree. Keeping your arms and legs straight, bend forward, flatten your back and grasp the tree with both hands. Extend your shoulders and press down on the tree until there is a slight arch in your back. Exhale and hold the stretch for 10 seconds.
Stand with feet hip-width apart and a broomstick or rake handle across your shoulders, arms extended and wrists looped over the handle’s ends. Twist slowly to the left, exhaling and holding the stretch for five to 10 seconds. Repeat to the right. Do 10 repetitions.
Hip flexor stretch
Stand with feet hip-width apart and arms at your sides. Step forward with your right leg and bend your left knee toward the ground, picking up a watering can (or shovel or even a large weed) with your right hand. If your hip flexors are especially tight, pause in the lunge and tilt your pelvis up, feeling a stretch in your upper left thigh and hip flexor. Step back to your starting position, repeat on the left, and do five repetitions on each side.
Inner thigh release
Stand with feet spread wide (about 3?½ feet apart), toes pointed forward, knees bent, and back straight. Holding a long-handled hoe for balance, slowly move forward over the right leg, straightening the left leg, and stretching the left inner thigh. Hold for 10 seconds. Slowly return to center. Do 10 times on each side.
Ready, set, grow: Make your garden grow—no matter your space
If you have a patio .?.?.
What to Grow Choose foods that can be grown in containers. Your best bets? Tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and beans. Herbs like basil and thyme can be grown in pots on a sunny windowsill.
Supplies Terra-cotta pots in several sizes, organic potting soil, seeds or seedlings, a watering can, and a small trowel.
Getting Started Fill each pot 3/4 full with organic potting soil. Follow planting instructions on the package. Add more soil to cover the seeds or roots. Water thoroughly and place pots in full sun. For pests, try a soap and water mixture or a nontoxic pesticide.
For a small backyard .?.?.
What to Grow Try tomatoes, salad greens, cucumbers, beans, carrots, peas, eggplant, peppers, broccoli, asparagus, strawberries, and blueberries.
Supplies Seeds and/or seedlings, organic garden soil, compost, shovel, rake, hoe, kneeling pads, garden gloves, and a hose for irrigation
Getting Started Turn the existing soil in the garden, adding organic soil and compost for a nutrient-rich mix. Follow planting instructions on the package, paying careful attention to spacing and sunlight requirements. Water thoroughly after planting and throughout the growing season.
When you have acreage .?.?.
What to Grow Take advantage of the extra space to plant oversized crops like corn and fruit trees.
Supplies You’ll need the same tools as a backyard gardener.
Getting Started Planting an acreage is the same as starting a backyard garden, just on a larger scale. All of the same rules apply.
Jodi Helmer is the author of The Green Year: 365 Small Things You Can Do to Make a Big Difference (Alpha, 2008)