Start a Garden in Your Own Space

Nine Steps to Save the Earth and Eat More Healthily

By Nina Cestaro

Have you ever wanted the satisfaction of growing your own vegetables and fruits? Gardening your own vegetables may sound difficult, but it’s a lot simpler than you may think. My obsession with growing a vegetable garden began a year ago, when a neighbor started a Richmond garden club. I have attended permaculture workshops and even a class with Toby Hemenway, the main proponent and founder of permaculture. Permaculture’s ethical vision is built on three principles: Care for the planet (earth care), care for others (people care) and sharing abundance (fair share), according to “The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture.”

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Southwest corner of PlantToGrow community garden in Richmond, Calif., maintained by Darnell Stewart. Photo Credit: Nina Cestaro

To jump start motivation for sowing seeds, The BCC Voice interviewed Darnell Stewart, a gardener who went through Merritt College’s horticulture program. Stewart founded PlantToGrow community garden in Richmond Annex. Ready to start the planting? Here is an easy step-by-step guide to growing a vegetable garden.

1. “Test your soil,” says Stewart. You can get a kit or send away to one of the many labs in the US, such as UC Davis’ soil lab. This way you can detect if any lead has leached into your soil, as you wouldn’t want to inadvertently eat it. A standard test costs around $40 and can provide you with information on what other nutrients may be missing from the soil.

2. Observe and pick up your soil to get a feel for what kind of soil you have, whether it be sandy, loamy, clay or some combination of all. If you roll a small ball of soil in your hands and it stretches to be about 2 inches long before breaking, chances are it’s clay. The tiny molecules in clay are arranged in horizontal stacks and do not readily allow oxygen to break through.

3. Get amendments (nutritive fixes) for your soil. My soil was mostly clay, so I needed Clodbuster from American Soil and Rock in Richmond, as well as compost and potting soil. Your soil may be more loamy or sandy.

4. Use a pickax or broadfork and mix the amendments down into your soil about a foot deep. In strict permaculture, they say the less tilling the better. However, you at first have to aerate the soil manually. If your space doesn’t have dirt, just get pots. Terracotta are fine.

5. Cover your dirt with sheet mulch, stacks of cardboard and compost. Wait two or three months, or grow cover crops, like vetch or radish, that can be harvested and then thrown back into the soil to aerate it. Interestingly, the more precipitation you have during this period, the better to break down the nutrients from the sheet mulch and compost.

6. Research what foods do well in what season and try putting your seeds or seedlings into the soil about 2 to 3 inches down and cover with fresh potting soil. My go-to crops are mint, broccoli, carrots and peas.

7. Water the seedlings morning and night and ensure the temperatures are neither too cold nor too hot. Pick out crabgrass or dandelions. Watch for birds trying to eat your seeds, but don’t shoo them away as with insects, since they are pollinators and add to the biodiversity of your food-shed. What to do about aphids?

“Try spraying soapy water on them until they fall off,” says Pilar Rebar, owner of Sunnyside Organic Seedlings farm and master horticulturalist.

8. Pick your vegetables and fruits, and eat or share with friends. “There’s something about humans,” Darnell Stewart reminds us, “we like to get together and eat, and gardening healthy food is just another incentive.”

9. Save the seeds and scraps. Compost the scraps and plant the seeds in your garden next season. The seeds will adapt to your soil and get stronger in time.

“The best class to take at Merritt [College] in the horticulture department is Edible Landscaping,” Stewart says, “because both instructors are so giving, and Forlin brings in baked goods every night.”

Jessica Bates, owner-founder of Food Forest West, said, “Permaculture is more than just gardening. It’s about designing our culture for the health of the planet, changing the economy and wasting nothing…if you want to grow your own food, add various things to your soil like you feed your body. Don’t add only one compost scrap or leaf type. The best way is to aerate your soil, but not tilling, which destroys the friendly microbes, worms and helpful bugs. Only poke with stakes. Mulching with leaves or twigs can help.

Pilar Rebar of Sunnyside Organic Seedlings says, “it’s never too late to start your own crops. Don’t be afraid to have some die in your learning process.”

Reber also says, “You will want to condition the soil with compost, horse manure or some other manure to fluff up any extra-hard-packed areas. Plants do not like hard clay soil. They want to be able to move roots easily. They need the oxygen that goes with fluffier soil.”

The work you put in helps offset all the costs of transporting and storing your produce by big multinationals, which of course can’t sell you the freshest produce possible.

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