The green thumb’s guide: how & why to start gardening

By John Linderman

Elm Staff Writer

Many of us have found ourselves home again, with the springtime exuding joy during this uniquely anxious time. One way to keep our mental health in check is to spend ample time outside, even if a non-essential travel ban is in place in your state.

You may already know that springtime is the best season of year to be outside, since it’s wedged between the frigid winter and humid summer. It’s also the ideal season of the year to begin gardening, since the longer days and nice temperatures can keep both us and our plants happy. If you lack the resources to begin a garden, don’t look back, because here is why it’s optimal for us to start gardening, and a short guide on how to get started.

  1. Sustainability for Us and the Earth

Unless specified otherwise, most of your produce you buy at the grocery store will have come from a farm run with commercial, industrial motives. Consider the avocado, a traditional Mexican staple and fruit of the Los Angeles hipster-elite. Large-scale avocado farms have both degraded the seasonal quality of the fruit, and the environment needed to grow it.

According to a 2013 Michigan State University report, “As a result of the demand from the U.S. for avocados, farmers in Mexico are influenced to increase the size of their farms, which is now leading to environmental issues including deforestation and increased greenhouse gas emissions.”

If you’re also buying the fruit anytime not in between March and July, then the avocado was most likely freeze-dried and imported, losing a great deal of wholesome nutritional quality in the process. This is also the case for tomatoes and mangoes.

For the big picture, OneGreenPlanet encourages gardening to combat the environmentally destructive practices of Big Agriculture, as “Large-scale farming of monocultures depends on massive amounts of synthetic fertilizers to replace nutrients that are continually drained from soil,” reports one article.

Save yourself a bloody avocado hand and start growing your own fresh food to the benefit of your health and the environment.

2. Tastier and More Nutritious Food

As mentioned earlier, fruit bought out of season is processed for a longer shelf-life. Supermarkets also buy largely uniform versions of fruit to meet demand, and many of us are unaware that there are more than one types of tomato, lemon, banana, etc.

Different types of fruits and vegetables have different nutritious quality, and a hearty Cherokee Purple tomato has a drastically different taste than the juicy, bantam Campari.

Educate yourself on fresh and conventional food. “The nutrient density of produce begins to decline the minute its harvested,” said Natural Force, “That means your (supermarket) fruits and veggies are up to 40% less nutrient dense by the time you eat them, as opposed to when it’s fresh.”

Supporting your local farmer’s market, or growing your own produce, can have a positive benefit to your health, while teaching you about the delicate balance of food in nature.

Interested in herbalism? Your garden can even be home to plants like St. John’s Wort and American Ginseng, expanding your view of how natural plant life can interact with the body and mind.

3. Where to Start

You can’t ignore the exponential learning curve of gardening, and for most people, it’s the first aspect they see. A layered, raised bed 16-foot garden with loamy soil is leagues away from a four-foot earth bed with silty soil. Technical jargon aside, where do you even start, mentally?

Shane Brill, assistant director of the Eastern Shore Food Lab and advisor to the Gardening Club, shared his wisdom.

“Look up the ideal growing conditions for what your foods like to eat — most herbs and vegetables prefer full sun and well-drained soil. Start with a small garden and expand with experience,” he said.

Consider what you want out of your garden; what produce you want to grow, and when you’ll be able to work with it

“If space is limited or soil quality isn’t ideal, consider building a raised garden bed or planting in pots to create the conditions for your plants to thrive. Consider amending the garden bed with organic matter, such as compost or decomposing leaves. Topdress the area lightly and let gravity and rainwater introduce the nutrients to your new seeds or plant starts,” Brill said.

You will need to study and familiarize yourself with essentials like beds, soil types, companion planting, and your local conditions and how it will affect the produce your growing. Some places you can start could be the American Horticultural Society’s website or even YouTube for videos on basic gardening tips.

“Gardening presents a gateway to permaculture, which is a framework for harmonizing people in the environment. Inspired by ancestral wisdom and modern ecology, permaculture aligns our efforts with patterns in nature and deepens our capacity to experience the joy of being alive,” said Brill.

The Center for Environment and Society is also sponsoring the Eco-Campus Challenge, which has information on how to start gardening in your own location and ways of promoting sustainable action. For better or worse, we have all been granted a great deal of free time. With the springtime blooming, we can either make use of this harmonious season, or stay inside. I know what our hunter-gatherer ancestors would prefer.

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