So You Want to Grow Your Own Food

bountyBeing a farm that engages in work trading, I find a lot of people who apply here want to learn how to grow their own food. I see many replies to our application saying that they really want to know where their food is coming from, how it’s grown organically, and to gain a relationship with their food source. They also usually include; what they lack in experience they’ll make up for in enthusiasm.

Recently,  I asked a work trader, how her eggplant starts were coming that she just transplanted the day before. She looked sort of puzzled and said that she hadn’t checked them yet. I knew anyway, I had checked them and they were wilted. I went into my spiel about how gardening isn’t just about planting a seed and she said, I don’t want to learn how to be a gardener. I said, “Then why are you here?” One doesn’t come to an organic farm to hone their literary skills.

Several years ago, I asked one intern to water the starts in the greenhouse and when I went in to check on her work they were all plastered to the soil in the pot like hurricane force rain and wind had driven them into the dirt. I have to be patient and make corrections as they happen. Who could have foreseen that?

Beginners usually start some seed or plant a transplant and forget to water them or don’t ever pull a weed and soon the tiny vegetable plants gets strangled out. It’s not about planting a seed and low and behold in a few weeks you’ll have bountiful food. I always tell them gardening is 90% weeding and to be a gardener you have to sort of love weeding.


Green onions

First of all, you must stay on top of the weeds. The minute your back is turned and it will seem like a minute, when it’s actually two weeks, your garden will look like a lawn. So, if you don’t continually pull out those little weed starts you’ll soon wish you had because it’s a lot more frustration to have to get the shovel out then to pull up a tiny weed sprout. There’s a lot of truth in the saying, “One years seeding, seven years weeding.”

The good thing about weeding, is you get to do a lot of thinking. I do my best thinking weeding. I write things in my head. I plan my day. I contemplate any issues I’m having and come up with solutions. It’s very therapeutic too. Weeding clears your head and gets rid of a lot of residual junk, sort of like the bed you’re weeding.

Once I told a girl to weed the maile pilau vines in the garden and she weeded the wing bean by cutting it within an inch of the root ball. It had recently gone to bloom and was beautifully growing on a bamboo trellis. I was terribly excited about trying my first wing bean. Little did I know it would be years later that I actually got to. How does one cut the only thing growing on a trellis and think it’s a weed? Of course, knowing a weed from a plant is complicated for a beginner. I’ve gotten used to using marking tape on everything.

Sometimes when you explicitly tell someone not to cut this plant out, you will find that they did anyway. It took me years to get a Barbados cherry tree to grow. I told this young man to hack away at some cane grass from this spot to that and to be careful not to cut down this Barbados cherry. He agreed and happily went about his job. Because I physically showed him, I felt relatively confident that my tree would be unharmed. Upon inspection, however, the tree was literally hack down to about an inch tall. After I replaced it, I plastered it with colorful fluorescent ribbons only for it to be completely ringed by a so-called once professional landscaper. Thinking I’d have to replace it again, it amazingly recovered.



If you address your plants concerns daily, you will find that everything is usually fixable except for accidental  weeding. If you don’t see what’s wrong or skip a few days, a lot of things can pile up and they may go beyond simple repair.

I think what makes a good gardener, is one has to love results; like a fisherman going to sea, he wants that big catch or a hunter tracking that deer to eat. They all want what a gardener wants except a gardener wants a big fat tomato.

A gardener must check his garden every day. I’ve heard some people say that plants talk but they don’t really talk, but they do have a lot to say. You just have to listen. A plant will tell you if it needs water, fertilizer, has a bug eating it or a myriad of other things. You listen by looking.

tomatosGardening is a lot like beekeeping. You don’t bust into the garden or beehive dictating what you want your plants or bees to do. You see what they need and you help them get it. A gardener is a house keeper of the outside world. Not to interfere too much but to guide your plants in the proper direction.

One of the foremost things a plant needs is good soil. The first rule of organic gardening is soil first and everything else falls into place. If you have properly built some nice soil by adding organic material including organic fertilizers consistently, you won’t need to do much more. Soil health is essential.

Always make sure your fertilizer is organic and not chemically produced. Chemical fertilizers are like candy for the plants, they love it and they eat it but it does nothing for the soil. You can tell chemical fertilizers by their high NPK numbers. Something like 16-16-16 would not be organic. Look for 6-6-6 or lower. More is not always better.

Usually, I use several types of fertilizers depending on the growth stage of my plants. If you are growing tomatoes and just put them in the ground they would need nitrogen (N) to gain size, develop stems and leaves. Then switch to a Phosphorus (P) based fertilizer to develop flowers and roots and Potassium (K) for fruit development. It’s hard to over fertilize and burn plants with organic fertilizers and they tend to linger in the soil and add to its general overall health.

A healthy plant can defeat pests that come along with the help of beneficial insects when they show up. Why would you spray something on the bugs to kill them when these soldiers called lady bugs show up and do it for you? If you were to use a poison spray, you would kill the lady bugs too. You would find yourself in an unsustainable situation of always needing poison year after year instead of allowing the beneficial insects to take care of things for you naturally, with the added benefits of chemical-free food.

If you discover bug damage, one of the many tell-tale signs are chewed on leaves, tiny caterpillar poop and curled up leaves. I then check the leaves on the plant and find the perpetrators. I seek them out and kill them with my fingers or wash them off with the hose. Any of those leaf sucking bugs like white flies, aphids or mealy bugs will come off with a steady stream of water. Just try not to damage the plant in the process. If a lady bug is there, I consider the job handled and move on to another leaf. If it’s a caterpillar I squish it and wipe the goop on the plants stem as a warning sign to other egg bearing moths or butterflies that this is not a good landing spot.


Tomato flower

Another helpful thing to know is how are your plants propagated. How is it that a tomato plant makes a tomato? How is it pollinated? In my garden, I know the pollinators, I can differentiate between male and female flowers, and how to hand pollinate them. For instance, a tomato is wind pollinated. When I water my tomatoes, I do several things, two of them are find and remove suckers and to shake the branches that have flowers. By shaking the flowers, I’m giving nature a hand and simulating a nice breezy day thereby pollinating the flowers and assuring a good crop of tomatoes.

All of this may sound intimidating to a beginner but I assure you will make mistakes but this is also a good way to learn. Even if your attempt at growing a particular plant continues to fail, discover why and try again. I guarantee you will find the right way eventually. All of this will keep you engaged as well. Gardening is a rewarding and healthy way to spend your time. In a way, it’s a challenge and key to getting the prize in the end, which for me is a real home grown tomato that has vine-ripened.






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