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Urban/Suburban Hippies

Mar31

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Hello Amalah…

I’ve never submitted a question before, but have been a loyal follower of your multiple columns since I found you at Zero to Forty. I feel like I should ask my question in a clever way but I also know that I will fail so I’m just going to get to it – can you explain how you got into or started vegetable gardening? I’m intrigued and think I would like to try this. We recently moved from a townhouse to a house with an actual yard and space that we can grow things. (If it helps or matters, I live in Northern Virginia.)

Also how do you deal with increasing “crunchiness”? Despite formerly making fun of crunchy people as “damn hippies” because of you I am now officially a cloth diaper enthusiast. Home grown produce, cloth diapers, what’s next?!?! (Note, I’m genuinely only interested in the first veggie gardening question.)

If you choose to answer my question, feel free to edit and make me sound funnier/clever-er/more Amalah-esqe if you will.

Thanks!
Michelle

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I know, right? I try to imagine what the Me of several years ago would think of the Me of today: making her own baby food, cloth diapering, composting, and obsessing over home-grown Brussels sprouts and asparagus. All while wearing perfectly sensible shoes.

Actually, I can TOTALLY imagine what she’d think of me: LAME HIPPIE WEIRDSAUCE.

But! I don’t care. Being lame hippie weirdsauce is practical, cost-effective, easy and (shut up) fun.

One big distinction about our vegetable garden: We don’t actually plant anything in the GROUND. At least not yet. The soil in our backyard is terrible, and the previous owners were big fans of chemical pesticides and lawn treatments. Anything edible that was there when we moved in (which wasn’t much — just some herbs) got yanked up and tossed. We now use environmentally-friendly (and not to mention kid- and pet-safe) treatments on our yard and gardens and are bring the crappy, unbalanced soil back to life with our own compost, but we’re probably not going to dig out an actual vegetable garden bed for another season or so.

container-garden-1.jpgBut that’s the best part: You don’t NEED to. We do everything in containers, and I was completely floored to learn that you can pretty much grow any vegetable you want in a container. (A self-watering container at that, which you can either buy as a kit or build yourself.) Last year we grew kale, arugula, carrots, parsnips, beets, turnips, three kinds of squash, peppers, cauliflower, fennel, a bajillion herbs and more tomatoes than we knew what to do with — all in a series of different-sized pots and planters around our (small) deck, with window boxes adorning our fence, leaving the boys with the full use of our (even smaller) yard. This year we’ve added garlic, onions and potatoes…so far.

If you’re just starting out, though, or have never gardened before or have zero confidence in your ability to keep plants alive (guilty on both counts), start with an herb garden. Go to a nursery and buy a big pot and some soil and some small already-sprouted seedlings. (Growing from seed is cheaper, but can be a pain if you don’t start them early enough, which in our climate usually requires use of a heat lamp inside, and gaaaaah your eyes are glazing over, I can sense it.) Start with easy, hardy plants like basil, rosemary, thyme, chives, cilantro — whatever you use already in cooking. (If you plant mint, put it in its own pot — it’s viciously take-over-y.) Plant. Keep soil moist. Move outside for sun. Move back inside if the temperatures drop or toss a sheet over the pot at night. And…you’re done.

Some of your herbs will come back the next year — some might not, if you leave them out all winter. Either way, you can reuse the planter and the soil (stuff grows better in re-used soil anyway). If your herb garden was a success and you’re feeling ambitious, get these two books: Ed Smith’s Incredible Vegetables from Self-Watering Containers and Garden Anywhere by Alys Fowler. There are HUNDREDS of books on container gardening, and probably all contain the same basic information, but these are the ones we use. The first book is a non-flashy, straightforward guide: what to plant in what kind of container, and when, and where, and when to harvest what you grow. (If you’ve ever had a hard time gauging ripeness at the grocery store, you’ll appreciate that part.) The second book is a bit more aspirational (though great if you’re working in a small, urban space and think that limits you in any way) as the author has FULLY embraced the crunchiness and taken it to Martha Stewart levels. I adore her use of vintage wooden wine boxes as planters…not so much her tips on the etiquette of dumpster diving.

Oh, I do hope you decide to try a vegetable garden — start small! Some herbs and one measly tomato plant from the farmer’s market is how we did it, and now we’re literally bouncing off the ceiling because HEIRLOOMS! SALAD! ASPARAGUS! RAMPS! Homemade pestos from home-grown cherry tomatoes or kale! Ratatouille! It’s so much fun, and I cannot even pretend that I’m not a huge dork about it.

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About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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12 Responses to “Urban/Suburban Hippies”

  1. Natalie Mar 31 at 11:56 am Reply Reply

    I bought Grow Green Grub – Organic Food from Small Spaces. It has some good info. (http://www.amazon.ca/Grow-Great-Grub-Organic-Spaces/dp/0307452018/ref=sr_1_fkmr1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1270050943&sr=8-1-fkmr1)
    (I’m also an urband cloth diaper/homemade baby food hippie. My 20yo self would be horrified. =)

  2. Michelle Mar 31 at 2:21 pm Reply Reply

    Truly geeked out that you chose to answer my question! Thanks! Now on to find some things to grow…

  3. incognito Mar 31 at 6:29 pm Reply Reply

    How did you suspend those window boxes on the fence? What a brilliant solution.
    I’m so glad you were able to grow root vegetables in pots. I have always assumed you’d need a ton of space and never tried.
    Totally agree with starting with herbs. A vote for Johnny-Jump-Ups (Violas, I think), which are pretty, easy to grow from seed, very resilient and give you tons of little edible flowers that make your salads look SO gourmet. And the seed package told me they prevent varicose veins. They come back year after year (self seeding) unless you forget to water them for a month. :o(
    My only caution to a first timer would be that the startup costs might be higher than you expect. The first year I was surprised at the per-tomato cost of all that dirt/pottery/trowel/chicken manure/seed outlay. It’s tough to put a price on the satisfaction of a home-grown dinner, but you could up the hippie factor and see what growing supplies you can score off of Freecycle or Craigslist.

  4. kristin @ going country Apr 01 at 9:45 am Reply Reply

    Anytime you’re feeling a little geeky about your gardening enthusiasm, you can feel safe in knowing there is someone out there who is MUCH, MUCH geekier about it than you are. And that person would be me. We have a 2,800 square foot garden. I CAN THE PRODUCE, for God’s sake.
    Plus, we have sheep.
    My suburban parents have no idea how they spawned such a weird child.

  5. Ms. K Apr 01 at 11:19 am Reply Reply

    Yay! Urban gardening! I want to second the root-veggies in pots. We grow marvelous carrots on our roof in downtown Washington, DC. They need deep (at least 18 inches) soil to really thrive. But don’t think you have to spend $$ on pots. We bought cheapo plastic file bins at Home Depot (a few dollars a piece) and filled them with required amount of soil. Worked beautifully. Five-gallon paint buckets also work well. We were pulling fresh carrots out of the buckets for Thanksgiving last year!

  6. kakaty Apr 01 at 12:15 pm Reply Reply

    I’m so stealing that windowbox on the fence thing this year!
    I echo the idea to start in pots – we have to do pots because our neighbor has a black walnut tree which essentially ruins the soil for growing edible things. I’m too lazy to do the seed thing and just buy my seedlings from the farmers market.
    Start up cost can be a factor but don’t limit yourself to “flower pots” We actaully plant tomatoes in old, large plastic storage bins. Compost can be pricey but now that we have our own we don’t have to pay for it anymore.
    I love that my veggie-phobic daughter will eat just about anything out of a container but not on her plate. We plant 4-5 cherry tomatoe plants just for her to snack on while playing. Hippie parenting at it’s finest!

  7. Aimee Apr 01 at 12:36 pm Reply Reply

    Great column! My 2 cents: Be PROUD of being green! No need to feel dorky or lame or weirdsauce or whatever negative term you might use. This trend of eating locally or homegrown, using cloth diapers, using reusable bags, composting, etc. is wonderful and GREAT and should be EMBRACED and ENCOURAGED!

  8. Umi Apr 01 at 4:38 pm Reply Reply

    This is such a timely question! I’ve been itching to start something in my apartment/fire escape. I will definitely check out the second book!

  9. Stefanie Apr 01 at 7:30 pm Reply Reply

    Last season my husband and I decided to get rid of all the flowers in our flowerbeds (we live in a row house so our backyard consists of a deck, flagstones and flowerbeds) and plant vegetables. Spinach, tomatoes, watermelon, cucumbers, an herb garden and zucchini. We learned two lessons: first, an irrigation system sounds like a great idea until until you forget to shut it off for two days (sorry, planet, HELLO bazillion dollar water bill). Second, zucchini grow. like. crazy. We had towering plants and two pound zucchini and they killed all of our other plants by stealing all the sunlight. Beware the zucchini.

  10. Karen Apr 01 at 8:59 pm Reply Reply

    Love this! Thank you for posting. My list of potential hobbies/distractions from housework was getting too short so now I can add an herb garden!

  11. KB Apr 06 at 8:51 am Reply Reply

    FYI, Ikea has large terracotta pots (RONNBAR) for only $5.99. They are large enough to accommodate the root ball of tomato plants, and they look pretty nice. I use them to grow tomatoes on our semi-shady deck.

  12. Jennifer Apr 06 at 11:01 am Reply Reply

    We just started our first garden. We’re doing square foot gardening which I really love so far. I’ve never even kept a plant alive so I was a little worried about killing a bunch of veggies but so far it is wonderful! We’ve already got onions, potatoes, shallots, asparagus, beans, and lettuce growing like mad. We’ve been using this method down to the soil combo he recommends http://www.squarefootgardening.com/

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