Jeanne Nolan’s forthcoming book From the Ground Up (on sale July 16) follows a suburban girl’s journey from living on a communal farm to becoming a leader in the sustainable food movement in Chicago, where she’s helped hundreds of novice gardeners start their own food gardens through her company The Organic Gardener. Her story offers a wealth of inspiring advice about gardening and shows how it can help strengthen not only our food system, but also our communities and our souls. Here are her tips for growing food anywhere, which are drawn from a one-hour presentation she’s been asked to give to hundreds of audiences. —BBL Editor
Through my experience on the farm and my gardening mistakes and adjustments my the first years of gardening in the Chicago area, I’ve formed a base of knowledge and certain general guidelines for success — five principles that will help you grow food anywhere, whether on a rural farm, in the city, or in the suburbs.
1. Sunlight: Growing plants need a minimum of six hours of sun a day, eight or more if possible. When growing in the lower range of sun exposure, it’s safe to plant beans, peas, herbs, all of the leafy greens and some small fruiting plants such as cherry tomatoes and cucumbers. In these limited-sun gardens, seedlings and big seeds (for peas and beans) do best; tiny seeds often don’t come up. I’ve found that carrots, potatoes and other root vegetables need at least eight hours of sunshine, and plants such as tomatoes, peppers, melons and squash will not produce large fruits that ripen to color without full sun. Plants draw energy from sunlight, and producing a large, colorful fruit requires much more energy than producing a small fruit or leafy vegetable.
To determine how much sun a spot in your yard gets, buy a sun calculator (here’s one) or draw a simple map of your yard and go out every hour throughout the morning and afternoon, noting where it’s sunny. It doesn’t mater if the sunlight occurs in one concentrated block or at scattered times; all that matters is the total number of hours of sun an area gets from dawn to dusk.
2. Soil: Well-prepared soil acts as the immune system of the plants. Ideally, you want to have 12-18 inches of nutrient-dense, deeply aerated soil to give plants what they need to thrive. If a plant is well nourished by healthy soil, it’s less susceptible to disease and less appealing to insects because pests attack sick or weak plants first. Compost supercharges the soil with beneficial bacteria, carbon and nutrients. I prefer to use sifted compost to ensure that there are not too many twigs or branches in it, and I typically add extra nutrients with organic granulated fertilizer.
People often ask me about the difference between compost and granulated fertilizer: The compost is the bulk additive (for a new in-ground garden, we bring in a 3- to 6-inch layer; more for a raised bed), and granulated fertilizer is a topping, sprinkled on the soil lightly like a seasoning on food and then worked into the top few inches.
3. Fencing: Gardening in the suburbs without well-engineered fencing is an expensive and losing proposition. (Critters vary widely by locale, but rabbits are virtually everywhere, and deer are more and more pervasive.) Rabbit-proof fencing typically extends 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 feet high, and between 4 and 12 inches below the ground. Some insist deer-proof fencing should go as high as 7 or 8 feet, and this is, in fact, necessary in places where the deer can get a running jump, but in enclosed spaces a lower fence is often effective. I’ve frequently used 5-foot fencing with success in smaller suburban gardens with low deer pressure. Keep in mind that the fence is part of the garden that you’ll see year-round, even after the plants are gone, so you should like the way it looks.
4. Paths: Paths provide room to work comfortably in the garden, and, more important, they allow the garden to breathe — without them, the rows can get trampled and the tiny air pockets that are essential to soil healthy can get choked off. To mark the paths, you can use straw, wood chips, bluestone pavers, brick or stepping stones.
5. Irrigation: I’ve always told my clients that if they have a free hour to tend the garden, I’d rather they engage with the plants than spend the time hand-watering. I’ve found that the best method for irrigation is a system that’s on a timer. My favorite is drip-line irrigation because it waters the plants at the roots and conserves water, but if you already have a lawn sprinkling system, you may be able to modify it so the spray reaches your garden, and an ordinary sprinkler on a garden hose can work as well. A water-sensitive automatic timer that measures soil moisture and then prompts the system to irrigate as needed allows you to “set and forget” and saves resources by preventing overwatering.