by Ben Barkan
Think of time spent in nature as a nutrient that we are all deficient in. It used to be normal to grow our own food, spend time in the forest, and connect with the seasonal changes. For many of us, that’s no longer the norm, but we have options. By growing and harvesting our own food, we can restore our connection with nature and our food source while also having fun and growing the healthiest food possible! Plus, edible plants add an exciting element to the landscape.
There are many ways to grow food and all the different strategies are appropriate in different settings. The best time to start growing your own food is right now! Try growing some herbs in a large pot on your patio. Build a raised bed for your annual vegetables. Plant some fruit trees along your property line in the sunny areas. Rip out that privet hedge and plant 50 high bush blueberries. Plant some raspberries and blackberries along the back fence. Build an arbor over your patio and grow some grapes, hardy kiwi, scarlet runner beans, and hops. Experiment with micro greens or indoor gardening under lights. Learn about hydroponic or aquaponic gardening in your garage or basement.
The goal is to grow food that is healthier than what you can buy in the supermarket. You can achieve the goal; however, we find lead contamination in about half the sites that we test. It’s usually results from lead paint, leaded gasoline spills, or lead arsenate fungicide applied many years ago. Lead persists in the soil for hundreds of years and certain edible crops have the ability to absorb lead into their tissues, particularly leafy greens, root crops, and vegetables.
Lead is pretty easy to work around once you know it’s there.
Test your soil. In Massachusetts, we recommend using UMASS Amherst’s local labs. (Out-of-state gardeners living in somewhat similar climates could use the UMass lab; however, whenever possible, use local labs that base recommendations on weather in your area.)
If lead is found, mulch all areas of exposed soil to prevent lead dust from becoming airborne and able to be inhaled.
Grow vegetables in raised beds with clean compost/loam if there’s lead in your soil. Separate the lead from your food production area with as much compost as possible. Lead generally doesn’t accumulate into fruit, so fruit trees and berries can be safely grown in most soils as long as the soil is mulched and the lead levels aren’t extreme.
Playing with Design & Functionality
Once you take lead into consideration, start to think about how you’ll access your garden. Make sure you can comfortably walk through the space and designate solid pathways that allow you to effortlessly move throughout your garden. Design your pathways based on the shortest distance between two points, which is usually a straight line or gently curving line. Design your raised beds and plantings to harmonize with the pathway and always design your paths first, then garden beds second. Then comes the fun part. Think about multi-functionality with every design element and everything you plant.
Most of the construction in our cities serves one use. Parking lots are used for parking. Sidewalks are used for walking. What about your patio or driveway? This hardscape can be used to funnel water into your rain garden, the thermal mass from stone absorbs heat and can favor the growth of your figs and hot peppers, and the little pocket between your patio and driveway is a perfect way to contain your mint and quickly spreading plants.
A fruit tree is no longer just a fruit tree. A fruit tree is also an attractive garden feature, a way to screen off views you don’t want to see, a source of shade for your herbs, mushroom patch, or garden bench, a place to hang a hammock, or a way to delineate your social space and make it seem more like an outdoor living room. A chainlink fence is no longer just an ugly fence; it’s a grape trellis and a place to grow your clematis and roses.
Your raised bed can also be a beautiful sculpture, backrest to your chair, opportunity to delineate a social space, and also, of course, a way to grow food. Chickens aren’t just egg producers; they’re weeders, rototillers, they eat rotten fruit and they create fertilizer. Greenhouses aren’t just for growing winter greens; they can also heat your home, grow tropical plants year round, grow seedlings, and be an entertaining and beautiful new room of the house. Think big. Everything has multiple uses when you start to think creatively. Not only is this better bang for your buck, but it’s also more fun!
Gardening is supposed to be fun. It’s not a chore, it’s a hobby. Rather than pay for a gym membership, learn to use a shovel and rake. Get vitamin D, grow some muscles, make your garden more productive and beautiful, and grow your own food all at the same time. You’re lucky to be able to weed and water your garden. You’re lucky to be able to harvest beans for dinner or share Asian pears, persimmons, and paw paws with your neighbor. Gardening is a gift and there’s no one right way to do it. Plant some tomatoes next to your iris and peonies and turn your flower garden into a food-producing space. Incorporate some fruit trees into your flower beds. Have fun with it.
Make your garden into a beautiful sanctuary space that feels like an outdoor living room. Design seating, social spaces, and unique artistic elements throughout your garden that encourage you to spend more time outdoors. Watch your garden change with the seasons and evolve. Get excited about the ripening persimmons, the tomato sauce you’re about to make, the garlic that’s curing in your garage, and the first harvest of figs. Inspire your neighbors and friends to try growing their own food.
At a time when it’s more common to identify the logos of corporate brands than the leaf shapes of common edible plants, it’s clear that humans are too removed from nature. Use your garden as a gateway to reconnect with nature. Our purpose isn’t just to survive; it’s to thrive. And to thrive, we must learn how to be resilient. Nature is resilient and connecting with nature is important. Growing your own food can create profound positive change.
All the world’s problems can be solved in a garden.”
– Geoff Lawton.
About the Author
Ben Barkan is the owner and founder of HomeHarvest, a Boston area landscape design company that creates edible landscapes of abundant, nutrient-dense produce in gardens that are aesthetically pleasing and function as resilient and regenerative ecosystems. Ben holds a degree in Sustainable Agriculture from the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, is permaculture-design certified, and has worked on more than 35 organic farms in New England, California, Oregon, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, and Costa Rica. With a rich set of experiences, Ben applies lessons learned to HomeHarvest’s unique custom garden installations.
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