The snow came and went. Then came again, along with some ice. Then went again, only to be followed by the endless rain. Oh, how I love Cincinnati. If nothing else, it makes me very, very grateful for the eventual arrival of weather warm and dry enough for gardening. Finally, it’s time for some planting!
If you haven’t done a vegetable garden before, I am going to share a few ideas to make it fast and simple, whether you want to start small or go big. From an apartment balcony full of potted vegetables, to a single raised bed, to the multiple garden beds plus herb garden we now have throughout our yard, growing at least part of your own food is totally do-able for everyone.
The (almost) no-prep garden: If you have flower beds in your yard, you can start to grow some vegetables with practically no preparation at all by simply tucking your vegetables into the spaces between your existing plants. I visited the home of a woman who had this type of garden last summer, and I was instantly romanced by her lush, beautiful garden that resulted from this simple idea. It required no extra space in the yard and hardly any extra work since she was already watering and maintain those beds. My gardening friend had planted tomatoes, lettuce, green onions, and peppers amidst her established perennial herbs and flowers. She even had a butternut squash, typically a plant that takes a large amount of space to grow, vining its way up a pretty trellis and spilling into the grass.
There are some great ideas for this kind of garden over at Outlaw Garden. Or just jump right in-decide where you want to add vegetables to your garden, dig some holes, and start planting. It’s as simple as that! Kids can get in on the excitement by adding seeds or transplants to holes dug by an adult. With just a little instruction and guidance, kids can handle this job and will be so excited to water their plants and check their progress.
A garden in limited time and space: If you live in an apartment, don’t have a yard, or simply need to get your garden going in just a few hours, a container garden is a great way to start. Depending on your budget and how particular you are about your containers, this garden can be done on any price. If you want to keep costs low, consider planting in containers you already have like Rubbermaid containers, five gallon buckets, or even a plastic kiddie pool. Garage sales and thrift stores are also good for finding cheap pots or other containers. For some ideas on how to combine vegetables in pots, Better Homes and Gardens has some great suggestions.
Once you have your containers, your garden can come together in an hour or two. Fill your pots with a good quality potting soil. Even better—hand your kids a trowel and have them fill up the pots with soil. Because pots will need frequent watering when the weather gets hot, sometimes even twice a day, I like to use a moisture control soil. Also, pick plants that are made for container gardening—patio sized tomatoes and peppers, bush beans and cucumber plants, and compact squash varieties. Lettuce, kale, herbs, and other small vegetables thrive in containers.
Raised bed garden: While this type of garden requires a little more space and preparation than the others, it pays off with easy maintenance and bountiful harvests. It’s my favorite kind of garden. These too can be simple or complex, large or small, expensive or not. For my beds, I visited the scrap lumber bins at my local home improvement store and found four boards that matched in size. They can be as small as 6”x1” up to 12”x2” and as long and wide as you want your garden. I made all of mine 4’ by 4’ because they fit well in my yard, and the kids and I can all easily reach across them to water, weed, or harvest without needing to step in the soil. I then used my extensive handy(wo)man skills (cough , cough…an electric drill and some screws) to screw the boards together into a square and placed it into a flat, sunny spot in the yard. There’s no need to dig up grass. Simply place cardboard or several layers of black and white newspaper in the bottom of your square and dampen before filling with soil. This will keep grass or weeds from invading your garden.
Soil is an important consideration for any garden, and in this size bed, it can become a big investment. In my first bed, I mixed equal parts peat moss, compost, and vermiculite (a natural substance that helps your garden conserve water). This mix works great, provides wonderful drainage, and prevents weeds since it is free of seeds. Another option for filling your garden that is fast and easy, and of course a little more expensive, is to use a bagged garden or potting soil.
If you are really trying to keep costs down, a third option for filling your new garden bed is lasagna gardening.. Nope, it doesn’t involve any pasta. A lasagna garden means that different organic materials, hopefully some you have on hand, are layered together, and over time they break down into a wonderful rich soil. If you top your layers with compost, you can go ahead and plant right away so that you nature works its magic on your layers. providing nourishment for your plants as they grow. You can put all kinds of things in your lasagna layers, including straw, grass clippings (allow to dry out some first), fruit and vegetable peels, shredded newspaper and junk mail, garden clippings (no weed seeds), coffee grounds, tea leaves, pine needles, cow, chicken, or rabbit manure, and much more. Kids can help mix soil ingredients, collect lasagna materials, measure spacing for plants, sew seeds or place transplants, water the garden, and pluck out tiny weeds that appear.
Annnnnnnd…in less than a day, you are ready to GROW SOMETHING!
Spring Vegetables: Even though it is spring, this is still Cincinnati. We may still have plenty of cool weather ahead so it’s not quite time for summer favorites like tomatoes, peppers, squash, or corn. Luckily, there are plenty of vegetables that love to grow in the cool dampness of spring. Things you can plant right now include lettuces, kale, peas, parsley, spinach, chard, radishes, green onions, cabbage, and broccoli.
In case this all sounds like a lot of work or just one more thing for you to do, remember to get the kids busy helping. I’m not talking about the kind of helping that gets them out of our hair so we can just “get stuff done.” I’m talking about real help that involves them getting dirty and tired, that lightens your load and makes them proud of their contribution. While getting some fresh air and exercise, exploring science and nature, and learning to love vegetables, they are most importantly experiencing the joy of creating something productive in the process. Spending a day getting sweaty and sore and being able to look with pride at what you have accomplished isn’t just only satisfying for adults. Kids will feel it too.