So you want to grow your own food… This is a basic guide full of resources for the beginner, the complete novice in food growing. I won’t go into too much detail, but will provide links to the necessary resources. Seed catalogues are being sent out for the 2011 growing season, and the best time to get started is now, during the slower months. Winter is a time for planning and knowledge gaining so that you can have the best possible results during your first growing season. First, a bit about myself: I have a BS in Horticulture, a MS focused in Sustainable Agriculture, I am a Certified Plant Professional in Montana and Idaho, a Master Gardener, a Licensed Pesticide Applicator (which I only use at work), and an avid vegetable and herb grower. I have 15 years worth of experience in the plant industry, and 20 years worth of experience growing food on my own. I have grown produce commercially for 5-star restaurants, and currently manage a garden center. To get you started with your new garden, we’ll start with a bit of recommended reading. There’s no substitute for hands on experience, but having these books on hand will make your life much easier when you run across situations you are unfamiliar with. Gardening When it Counts How to Grow More Vegetables The New Organic Grower Four Seasons Harvest Cold Climate Gardening These five books will have nearly all the information you need to get started, they have some conflicting information, but most of it is situational, and you will need to judge which methods suit your climate, available space, soil type, available water, and funding. Let’s get started with soil. Soil is by far the most important part of growing food. Regardless of what your soil type is, or how many nutrients are in your soil, we can amend it, and build it up over time to be a wonderful growing medium. Soil is comprised of 4 basic ingredients: sand, silt, clay, and organic matter. Most of us aren’t lucky enough to have an ideal soil for growing in, so its important to build a suitable soil. Your first step is to have your soil analyzed. There are a few private companies that can do this for you, but the cheapest route is usually to contact your local extension office (Cooperative Extension System Offices) and ask them who does it locally (usually your states land grant university). They will be able to give you the appropriate contact information and tell you the proper way to take a soil sample from your garden plot. Once you have that information start amending as per the instructions in the book of your choice. There are too many variables to go into here, but at least now you know where to look to get started. Seed Catalogues Choosing seeds is one of my favorite pastimes in the winter. There are so many varieties available of virtually everything you could dream of. It is important to select a seed company that specializes in seeds for your climate, or at the very least, categorizes them for you. You should also select a seed company that specializes in open-pollinated varieties (plants that you can save seed from). Below are a few of my favorite companies, ones that I trust to have quality seeds. Seeds of Change Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds Territorial Seed Company Since this is your first garden, don’t get too carried away, lets start with things that you can plant directly in the ground and will have reasonably good success with during your first season. Here is a list of recommendations, all of which are easy to grow. Choose varieties of these that you would actually eat or that are appealing to you. Potatoes Onions Beans Radishes Kale Swiss Chard (Silverbeet) Peas Zucchini Winter Squash This list is pretty short, I know, but again, lets stick to plants that are pretty much bullet proof for the novice gardener. These take very little care, give a lot in return, and will make you feel like you’re making progress. Keeping yourself motivated is key, since I’m assuming you’ll want to continue to do this and learn and grow more for a SHTF situation. Getting frustrated with harder to grow plants can really hinder you when your just learning. Planting Your Garden So you’ve made it through the process of reading, educating yourself, and seed selection. Great! Let’s plant some of those seeds! The first seeds you’ll want to put in the ground will be potatoes, onions, radishes, kale, Swiss chard, and peas. These can all be done before the last frost in your area. Generally 3-4 weeks before the last frost date is the earliest you’ll want to put them in. (If you still have snow coverage, wait until the snow is gone and the soil is easily worked.) All of these plants are tough as nails and will come up quickly; you’ll be able to track their progress, not in weeks, but in days. One of the most exciting parts of your first garden is watching the plants come up and grow. After the last frost has passed, its time to put in the rest of your seeds, zucchini, winter squash, and beans. If you live in a northern climate, choose varieties with a seed to harvest time of 100 days or less (this information is in every seed catalogue and on every seed packet). Now all you have to do is keep your plants watered, and pull a few weeds! Weeding Weeding is probably the most discouraging part of growing a garden, but it is a necessary evil. In order to give your food crops the best chance to make food for you, you’ll need to eliminate their competition, weeds. The way in which you do this will greatly depend on the method you have chosen for growing your plants. Each of the books listed at the beginning of this guide has a section for how to do this with a minimal amount of effort. The most important thing to know about weeding is that you MUST do it frequently and regularly. It is far easier to get rid of weed seedling than it is to get rid of mature weeds. Harvesting If you followed my suggestions for what to grow your first season, you’ll be harvesting at least a little bit every week throughout the growing season. You’ll start with radishes, and then your peas, the greens (kale and chard) can be harvested all season if you only pick a few leaves here and there from each plant. Beans can be harvested over a month or more depending on your variety. Onions and potatoes can be harvested in late summer and early fall, as can your zucchini. Winter squash can be harvested right around the time your first fall frost happens. Seed Saving and Root Cellaring In my opinion there are 2 must have books for this part of the season. Seed to Seed Root Cellaring You should also pick up a book or two on canning and preserving, there are literally hundreds to choose from. Here are two of my favorites. The USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning Canning and Preserving for Dummies I won’t go into too much detail here, since it’s almost a year off before you’ll need to worry about either seed saving or preserving. I will say, however, that you should plan to plant a few extras in your garden that you will let go to seed, and also plan to have some extras to can so that you have some produce to eat throughout the winter. And That’s It! I will post more on this thread as necessary, or if you have questions, but the resources listed above should give you a great start to getting your foot in the door of growing food.