What sets plants apart from other living things on planet Earth is that they are able to make their own food.
This means that animals and humans are dependent on them for the energy to carry out their life processes. Even predators such as Lions, Cheetahs and Wild Dogs depend on plants, for without the plants to eat, their herbivorous prey would not exist.
Since ancient times people have grown plants for food (crops). In fact farming of crops has been around for over 10 000 years! Growing crops resulted in humans staying in areas for extended periods of time, where they developed methods of harvesting and processing crops in large quantities.
Growing plants for food changed the speed of development to such an extent that one could say that plants and growing them for food was responsible for bringing on a new era, called the “neolithic” or post stone age era.
The enormous scale at which people have grown plants for food in the last 100 years has meant that nature has suffered. Humans have used up massive areas of wilderness for farming food and have sprayed huge quantities of terrible poisons and pesticides.
We have been using up the gifts Nature has given us without ensuring that they can be renewed or replenished. But it is not too late to benefit from growing food sustainably, meaning in a way that we are able to provide nourishment (food) for ourselves and for the wildlife, without harming the environment, or using up resources such as water, faster than they can be replaced.
In fact, we can grow food plants in a way that is good for the earth and gives healthy soil and plants back to Nature.
Planting gardens full of vegetables, fruit and herbs in areas that many people can benefit from them means access to healthy, nutritious food for whole communities of people.
Gardening in this way has many advantages. In some areas, it helps relieve hunger and unemployment. Food gardening also brings communities together, and spending time outdoors, connecting with the earth is also very good for us.
For some schools and communities it can be a good way to test entrepreneurial skills – as the fruit and vegetables from sustainable food gardens can be sold to create income for otherwise unemployed people or for schools that need to supplement their income.
Besides all that, it can be great fun and very creative to start growing your own food and eating it too.
Wherever you decide to start a food garden, no matter how large or small, the area needs to receive enough sun for vegetables to grow successfully, and it must be easy to water the plants and take care of them. Of course it goes without saying that permission will have to be given to use the space.
To start the actual gardening, here is a list of some things to think about:
Are you going to plant seeds or seedlings? Seeds are much cheaper but sometimes seedlings can be much quicker, especially for hard to germinate plants.
Seeds — Envelopes and glass jars are great for keeping seeds in that you collect from the garden. Always put the date and seed name on the label.
Plants — Make sure they are suited to your garden
Timing – when is the right time to plant. Check seed packets for the right time of year to plant the particular plants that you want to grow.
Tools — keep them well looked after and always put them away neatly after your garden work.
Organic Matter — Always include in the soil, and it’s good to make your own compost too
Fertilizer — Will help your vegetables to grow beautifully
Mulch — keeps the moisture in the soil and protects tender roots from frost.
Pest Control — Companion planting and home-made remedies are always best. Keep it as natural as possible
Water — Use as sparingly as possible, but well looked after vegetables will mean a good harvest.
Containers — for sewing seedlings or growing your vegetables in if you don’t have space in a garden.
Fencing - If you have animals near you that might eat your food plants or trample on them (cattle, sheep, goats) then it is a good idea to put some kind of fence around it.
You will need to remove any grass, weeds or other plants that might get in the way of growing your food garden. Break up the big, hard clods of earth so that the new plants can send their roots deep into the soil.
One of the best things to do for just about all vegetables and food plants is to add organic things to the soil that keep it in good shape.
These things are called soil conditioners and include manure, compost and leaves. All of the soil conditioners are put on top of the soil (about 2-3 inches deep) and then mixed into the soil.
Almost all food gardens need to have fertilizer added to them. It helps to replace the nutrients that plants use and keeps your soil in good shape for future crops. Only use organic fertilizer.
Add just a sprinkle once you have finished planting (check how much to use on the fertilizer container) and mulch the soil afterwards. Fertilizer is made of a complete balanced mix of three main nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.
On the fertilizer bag or bottle, you will see three numbers. The first number is nitrogen, the second is phosphorous, and the third is potassium. The numbers tell you the percentage of that nutrient in the bag.
Nitrogen is used by plants for lots of leaf growth and good green color.
• Phosphorous is used by plants to help form new roots, make seeds, fruit and flowers. It's also used by plants to help fight disease.
• Potassium helps plants make strong stems and keep growing fast. It's also used to help fight disease.
Mulch is spread like a thin blanket over the soil once the plants are planted. Take care to not cover where seeds need to come through.
Mulch can be bark chips, wood shavings, gravel, or anything that lets rain and other water in but slows down the passage of water out of the ground in a big way. It conserves the water in the soil and you won't have to water as often. Mulch also protects tender roots from the frost in winter.
As mentioned already, one can grow food plants from seeds or seedlings.
Seeds are much cheaper, but seedlings will be rewarding as they will be ready to eat sooner.
Always check the plant labels or seed packet to see if it the plants you want to grow will suit your vegetable garden. Look for information that will tell you:
Seed packets are like the "facts in a nutshell" of gardening. Everything you need to know to be successful is right there. All you need to do is read and follow the instructions.
You can save and grow your own seeds from your vegetables if you let some of them make flowers. You can also let the fruits such as beans and tomatoes dry out and you can collect the seeds and replant them.
One can also use recycled containers such as tins and milk cartons or plastic bottles to plant seeds in, especially if you don’t have seedling trays.
Here is an easy way to measure roughly without a ruler. You can get an exact measure if you measure the following with a ruler or a tape measure.
A centimetre or two—Thumbnail or fingernail
5cm– a thumb length
8cm—a finger length
30cm—from the tip of your fingers to your elbow.
1m—about a huge big step for you.
You can also buy a long straight dowelling rod or stick of wood, and mark off the measurements that you are going to most often use.
When you cover seeds with soil, just sprinkle the soil over so that it is not stamped down hard. This will enable the seeds to sprout and grow more easily.
Water gently once you have planted the seeds so that the water doesn’t shoot the seeds out of the soil. Make sure that the soil does not dry out completely, but also do not keep it soaking wet – just slightly damp between waterings.
Label clearly where you have planted your seeds so that you know what is planted where.
As plants grow, make sure to provide support to those plants that need it, such as tomatoes, beans and peas. Vines such as granadillas and grapes will also need to grow over a support.
All pest control should be organic in a sustainable food garden. You never want to be responsible for killing garden buddies when you were just trying to get rid of the garden baddies.
Many times nature will take its course, but you may have to step in every now and again to help reduce numbers, and then they should disappear or have hardly any around. Companion planting is an effective way of carrying out pest control. Remember it is pest control, not pest eradication!
All plants need water to live and grow. Water helps plants to stand up tall. It helps plants move nutrients through the stems and leaves and helps to keep the plant cool. Some plants need more water than others do.
For the kind of plants you will be growing in your food garden, you can almost be certain that you will need to add water.
When watering is necessary, it is always best to water early in the morning, before the sun has a chance to scorch plants and make them wilt. Keep a check on how moist the soil is, because an overwatered garden can be as bad for your plants as an underwatered garden.
There are a number of things to use to water the garden. You can also save rain water that runs off of your roof to water the garden.
As your food garden grows, it will be wonderful to pick the fruit, vegetables and herbs that you have worked hard to produce.
These can be shared with other learners at your school, or with the community around you. You can also sell what you grow in order to pay for more seeds, new tools, and other things you might need to make your food garden even better.
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