Grow a Healthy, Edible Garden and Reap the Rewards

Imagine your back door leading to a verdant edible garden, where your inspiration for dinner is right at your fingertips. Feel like a mesclun salad? Just pinch off a few leaves. And while you?re at it, harvest some vine-ripened tomatoes, zucchini, and basil for a delicious, healthy side dish. Thanks to soaring food prices and a bounty of health and environmental benefits linked with enjoying local produce, more people are turning their backyard paradise into a kitchen garden.

“The pleasures of home-grown food will always exceed anything you buy. You can also contribute to the smallest carbon footprint possible,” says Amanda Archibald, R.D., dietitian and founder of the food education company, Field to Plate. There’s no better time to dig into Mother Earth and sow the seeds for a garden that will give back in so many ways.

Slash your grocery bill. During a tough economy, feasting on fresh, organic produce can seem luxurious. According to the National Garden Association, the average annual amount spent on an edible garden is $58. A 200-square foot plot can produce 200 pounds of produce per year with a market value of $400.

Cancer-proof your diet. The more plant foods you fit into your diet, the better you can fight off cancer. The American Institute for Cancer Research reports that vegetables protect against a range of cancers. The vitamins and minerals they contain help to strengthen your immune system. Phytochemicals in plants protect your body cells from damage that can lead to cancer. Gardens can encourage people (even kids) to eat more produce. A recent study found that 6th graders participating in school gardens increased their fruits and vegetables intake.

Lose weight. Eating more fruits and vegetables as part of a nutritious diet can help you maintain a healthy weight. Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in calories and fat, yet high in fiber ? nature’s formula for weight loss. Not to mention that gardening is wonderful physical exercise that can burn up 272 calories per hour.

Reduce your carbon footprint. Our current fuel-intensive agricultural system finds produce being shipped to far off destinations, which increases the carbon footprint (the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced). By purchasing local goods, you can reduce your carbon footprint. And it doesn’t get any more local than your own backyard.

De-Stress your life. It’s a fact that stress can eat away at your health. By getting back to nature and enjoying the touch, look, and smell of soil and plants, you can significantly reduce stress. Scientists discovered that people who interact with plants recover more quickly from everyday stress and mental fatigue.

Enjoy great taste. Best of all, a home garden provides you with the great taste of fruits and vegetables the way nature intended them, luscious and ripe. With so much bounty at your fingertips, you won’t be able to resist the flavor of produce picked at its seasonal best.

How Does Your Garden Grow? You don’t need to have a green thumb to carve out a simple edible garden in your back plot. Just follow our simple step-by-step guide.

Plot your garden. Before you start digging, create your garden master plan. Find the perfect sunny location for your garden and measure it out. A 20 foot by 20 foot garden will give you plenty of room to plant a wide variety of crops. Plan your plant beds and rows on pen and graph paper before you get your hands dirty. Consider how you will irrigate your garden. Raised garden beds may be an option for keeping the garden neat and organized.

Prepare the soil. Clear the soil of weeds and turn it by hand, mixing in compost. Make your own compost from grass clippings and non-greasy kitchen scraps for a nutritious, eco-friendly soil addition. For raised beds, add soil until it is built up 8-10 inches tall, line with wood, bricks, or stone, and finish with another 1-2 inches of compost.

Pick your plants. In order to decide what plants to grow, think about your favorite vegetables. At the Cooperative Extension System Offices website, (www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension/) you can select from a map to find growing recommendations for your location. Choose easy to grow plants including tomatoes, beans, squash, cucumbers, carrots, radishes, and peppers to start with.

Get planting. Check your local Cooperative Extension, garden center, or seed packet to find out the best times to plant particular vegetables in your area. Cool season vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, peas, and spinach can be set out a few weeks before the last frost. Warm season vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, summer squash, corn, and green beans should be planted after the last frost. You may want to try plants rather than seeds to get a head-start on your garden. Plant vegetables in rows with markers, allowing plenty of room for growth.

Nurture your plants. Make sure that you give your plants the right amount of water by using the shovel test. When you insert a shovel into the soil, it should be moist to the shovel base. Top with a thick layer of compost when the temperature rises to provide nutrition and moisture. Keep the rows clear of weeds and be on the look out for pests such as aphids and slugs. Try non-synthetic pest removal like filling a saucer with beer to attract slugs. Plant colorful flowers nearby to attract pollinators.

?Sharon Palmer, RD

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