As I was working on the next two posts for this series—on garden planning and taking care of the soil—I realized that all of that might sound daunting to the novice gardener. So, before we launch into all of that information, let me make sure to say this: Veganic gardening is a joyous and rewarding activity that anybody with access to a few feet of land (or even a sunny patio or windowsill) can pursue. If you do decide to try it, you will find yourself rewarded with much more than fresh produce.
Here’s how I got started: Back in the early 90s, I was living in Ann Arbor and working at the Tenants Union. On Sundays, I helped out at a feminist bookstore in town, covering the store for the day so that the co-owners could have a day off. One June, I covered the store for a whole weekend, so that the co-owners could staff a table at a big Pride festival in another city. Perhaps because of that festival, business was slooooooow.
Idly, I picked up a gardening book from a display table and began to read. It wasn’t even one of those glossy books with pretty pictures of plants, just a nuts-and-bolts book with hand-drawn black-and-white illustrations designed to help the reader understand the principles of organic gardening for small spaces. And yet I was entranced, captivated, thrilled. The author seemed to be telling me that anybody could grow tomatoes or corn or anything they liked. That sounded like magic to me.
I read every word of that book that weekend and then bought it and brought it home to use as a reference. The next weekend, I found a shovel in my landlord’s garage and turned what had been a disused sandbox in the back yard into a garden plot. (I also removed a six-inch wide strip of sod along the side of one fence, for reasons that will be clear to you if you read the rest of the posts in this series.)
Every morning I woke up and went out to the garden, to see if any seeds had sprouted or any seedlings had grown overnight. Every night, I rushed home from work eager to see how the garden had changed while I was gone.
Along the way, I changed. I felt myself becoming more –dare I say it?– grounded. Also more patient and just a bit more hopeful, perhaps from enacting what Thoreau called “faith in a seed.”
Wanna try? OK. Here are a few tips for the absolute novice:
- Radishes, cucumbers, and beans are the easiest things to grow. Be sure to include those.
- Don’t say you don’t like cucumbers or beans (or any other vegetable) until you’ve eaten some fresh from the garden. You have no idea of the flavors you’ve been missing. Fresh-picked young cucumbers, for example, can be super-sweet. I eat them, plain, for breakfast!
- Lettuce is also easy to sprout, so you should definitely give it a go. But it and other salad greens—arugula, anyone?—very easily “bolt” and become bitter in hot weather. They’re springtime crops. Pick them while young and then grow another crop in the fall.
- Sprout? Yes. Some garden vegetables can be bought and transplanted as seedlings (try your local co-op or garden store), but some must or ought to be directly sown. Root crops such as carrots, radishes, and beets must be directly sown. Beans and cucumbers don’t transplant well and so ought to be directly sown. It’s not hard! Just follow the directions on the seed packet, which will tell you how deeply to place the seed. As a general rule, big seeds like beans need to be set much more deeply than tiny seeds like lettuce. You can find seeds at co-ops, garden stores, grocery stores, and of course online.
- When your beans sprout, notice that they look like dragons.
- When is it safe to plant seeds or transplant seedlings into your garden? That depends on your location as well as on the type of plant. Look up your location on the plant hardiness zone map. Don’t worry about the letters, just the number. Memorize it. Seed packets will tell you when it is safe to plant those seeds in your zone. You should also familiarize yourself with the first and last frost dates for your area. That will tell you when it is safe to transplant seedlings into your garden. While cool season plants like kale can be transplanted while there is still a chance of frost—and may even be made a bit sweeter by that frost—hot season plants like tomatoes and eggplant cannot be put out until all chance of frost is past. This is mostly information that you need to know if you are starting your own seeds inside. When buying seedlings, it’s usually safe to assume that you won’t find them for sale in your area until its safe to transplant them in your area.
- Use your public library. While there’s plenty of handy gardening information online, nothing beats a book.
- Talk to your neighbors. While there’s plenty of gardening advice online, the people in your own neighborhood are going to be the best source of information about growing conditions in your neighborhood. Most experienced gardeners love to swap information — and seedlings! — and seeds!
I hope this has convinced you to give it a go. If so, feel free, but not obliged, to join VINE’s Veganic Gardening Club, which is an easy way to support the sanctuary’s educational efforts while increasing your own gardening expertise. Either way, please do let me know how it goes.