Raising a crop of tomatoes or beans or lettuce does not need to be hard and gives great satisfaction. “My life is so real, and it’s because I’m around plants and food all the time,” says Rosalind Creasy, a champion of edible landscaping. Creasy’s book on ornamental vegetable gardening was ahead of its time when it was first published in 1982, and the new, revised edition of “Edible Landscaping” is something of a sensation, hitting the market just as interest in home-grown vegetables reaches a new high. First-time gardeners cultivating a window box full of lettuce or harvesting cucumbers for their own homemade pickles can find plenty of help and advice these days in a bumper crop of vegetable gardening books. The authors are experienced vegetable gardeners who still feel a thrill when they pull a carrot out of the ground.
Creasy grows cherry tomatoes on an arbor and bright red peppers in big red pots in her densely planted vegetable garden in her front yard in California. Zucchini plants fill the gaps between cosmos and marigolds along the driveway. She loves fresh food, and growing vegetables among the flowers has developed her appreciation for both. “The single best thing you can do for yourself is to grow your own,” she says.
Rita Pelczar, author of “Homegrown Harvest,” is a North Carolina gardener whose modest beginnings on the weeding detail in her father’s vegetable garden developed into an abiding interest in organic gardening and a career as a gardener and author. Pelczar’s advice for beginning gardeners is to start by growing what you like to eat, but to experiment like crazy. In her garden, she always grows peppers and turnips because her family loves them, but she introduces unexpected crops, too, such as kohlrabi, rutabagas, lima beans, sweet potatoes and greens of every description.
“I always try something new,” she says. Seasoning celery, which has shiny leaves and does not form stalks, was one of her new crops last year, and she’s still sold on it. Sweet potatoes and other root vegetables are among her favourites. “I love growing things that are invisible,” she says.
If you’re just getting started as a gardener, it’s best to start small, Pelczar says. Build a raised bed with untreated lumber (plans are available on the Internet) in a sunny spot, and fill it with good soil. In general, small gardens and raised beds are easier to take care of than long rows of crops, and you’ll be surprised how much you can harvest from a small space, she says.
“There are lots of things you can do to tip the scale of gardening in your favour,” Pelczar says, and building healthy soil -- for vegetables or for flowers -- is one of the most important. Compost (homemade or store-bought) adds essential organic matter to sandy soil, and it also improves drainage in heavy soil. “Getting that organic matter in the soil is the answer to everything,” she says. “Getting a biologically active soil -- once you get it going -- everything is so much easier.”
New gardeners tend to worry about crop failures, but every year is different, Pelczar says, and even experienced gardeners have occasional problems. One year she grew lima beans on tepees that blew over in the wind, one after another. Now she grows them in a row, instead of clustered around teepees, and lets them climb an A-frame trellis. She learned from experience not to let her turnips grow too big, and that they taste even better after a light frost.
Eating vegetables you’ve grown yourself puts you in touch with the rhythm and the flavours of the seasons, says Barbara Damrosch, author of the authoritative “Garden Primer.” Damrosch and her husband, Eliot Coleman, are market gardeners and the owners of Four Season Farm in Maine. The growing season is short in Maine, but Damrosch plants early and harvests late, organizing her crops so she nearly always has something fresh. At a grocery store, you can buy asparagus, strawberries or tomatoes year-round, of course, but that isn’t really a luxury, she says: “The real luxury is to have those things at the moment they are most perfect.” She likes to harvest herbs just before she tosses them in a salad, and eats tomatoes “standing there in the row, with juice dribbling down my chin.” There’s nothing fresher than that, and nothing more delicious.
Lettuce and other greens are among the easiest crops for pots or in the ground. Start with transplants of loose-leaf lettuce and you’ll be able to harvest a few leaves as soon as you plant. Picking encourages the plants to continue to grow.
Mulch around plants to conserve moisture and help control weeds.
Experiment: Kohlrabi is in the cabbage family, but it looks like a spaceship and tastes a little like broccoli. The greens are great in salads and soups, and the bulb is delicious grated in salads and in stir-fry dishes.