Although growing your own garden may sound ambitious—especially if you live in an apartment—it’s not only doable, but it’s also good for your health.
Today, more and more people across the U.S. and around the world, in both rural and urban settings, are cultivating their own gardens, driven by a growing desire to grow food locally.
Health is the number one motivator, but while it’s no secret that we are what we eat, Daphne Miller, a San Francisco M.D. and author of “Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing,” believes that the connection between farming and our bodies goes far deeper than that.
“As a doctor, I am always trying to practice in a more ecological way and to think of my patients as part of a complex ecosystem rather than as a series of organs with their own specific malfunctions and diagnoses,” Dr. Miller says. “Healthy farms, healthy soil and healthy plants create healthy families and healthy communities—and vice versa.”
The crux of the connection between farming and our health, Miller says, is to treat our bodies the way a mindful farmer treats his or her soil, and treat the soil in the same way that we should care for our bodies. “If we do this, we will be healthier, our food will be healthier and our environment will be healthier,” she says.
Although more people are realizing that growing their own food is vital to their health and wellbeing, the logistics of individual farming are daunting to many, who have no idea where or how to start.
Crowdsourcing Garden Knowledge
It’s only natural to doubt one’s ability to grow something worthy of eating or feeding a family, but although farming isn’t easy, Miller is convinced that “we have much more wisdom and many more skills than we realize, and it’s just a matter of putting them into practice.”
And the key to that is sharing knowledge, points out David Hughes, a professor of biology at Penn State University and the brains behind PlantVillage.com, an online community designed to crowdsource solutions for farming at all levels anywhere in the world.
Hughes launched PlantVillage to enable farmers—both large and small—anywhere in the world to connect with each other online to share their experiences (positive as well as negative) on just about anything related to farming and growing.
From Nairobi, Kenya, to Newport, Ky., from the open spaces of British Columbia to the innards of Brooklyn, PlantVillage connects anyone who wants to grow their own food.
Since the site was launched in February 2013, it’s been swarming, Hughes says, with questions from users wanting to know how to transplant watermelon seedlings; what’s the best way to support tomato plants; whether young grapes can suffer from an unexpected spring frost; and whether root plants can grow in partial shade.
As the discussions flourish, Hughes believes that PlantVillage will bring together billions of people from around the globe, all of whom will eventually be able to grow more and better food.
How Does Your Garden Grow
Anyone, regardless of where they live, can start growing their own food. Here are some tips from the experts to set you on your way:
• Never bite off more than you can chew. It’s the first rule of farming. “Start out small and gradually build up,” suggests Steve Coghlan, assistant professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Maine, who has been home-farming for seven years, “because if you do too many new things at once, they’re likely to all mess up. But don’t be afraid to mess up, because the only way you’re going to learn is through trial and error.”
• Start small. A sunny window box or raised beds and a couple bags of organic potting soil are all you need to get going, notes Miller.
• Get to know your terrain. That means, learn about the quality of the soil, its pH levels, how it varies across the length of your land in order to figure out what would grow best where, and then start out easy. “We found a few areas on our land where we could grow simple stuff like broccoli, carrots and beans in our first year, and when they were a success, we gradually added onto that,” Coghlan says. Again, raised beds are the safest way to go since they guard against changes in soil condition.
• Choose starter plants. Start with a baby plant (as opposed to seeds), such as squash, tomatoes or beans, which will thrive everywhere, Miller says. “If you have success with these, then move onto seeds.”
• Keep tabs on your successes and failures. “My wife takes very good notes, so she was able to track our progress,” Coghlan says. You can make adjustments on what you plant based on what’s growing well and what isn’t.
• Don’t be afraid to turn to others for guidance. “There are a lot of older farmers around us who make a living out of farming,” Coghlan says. “Having professionals interspersed with local farmers makes for a much better informed and more resilient community.”
• Have confidence in your own knowledge and intuition. “I plant my crops much earlier than many of the older farmers in the area because I’ve adapted to climate change,” Coghlan says. “If the weather’s warm, I plant early and I enjoy fresh greens before anyone else.”
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