Low-Maintenance Food Plants for Novice (or Reluctant) Gardeners

By Catherine Winter

Are you interested in growing your own food plants, but you’re intimidated by the prospect of doing so? Or is it something you’re reluctant to do but feel that you should be doing for health, wellbeing, and planet-saving? Well, don’t worry: there are some delicious, easy-to-grow plants you can try out that won’t break your spirit, and might just encourage you to keep at it.

lettuce, leaf lettuce, cut-and-come-again lettuce, salad greens, organic lettuce, heirloom lettuce

Cut-and-Come Again Lettuce

Lettuces are pretty easy to grow anyway, but the kind that will re-grow after it’s been snipped is ideal for newbie gardeners. Most lettuces’ leaves will happily spring back after you’ve snipped them for salad, so you won’t have to fuss over re-sowing over the course of the growing season: just trim off a few leaves now and then (sparsely, so you don’t take more than 30 percent of the plant at a time), and your salad bar will re-stock itself in no time.

Iceberg, arugula, mizuna, tender mustard greens, and most loose-leaf varieties are ideal for this method, and since lettuce grows really well in the shade, you can grow it on a small balcony or patio, or even indoors.

cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, currant tomatoes, yellow cherry tomatoes, orange cherry tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, heirloom cherry tomatoes

Cherry Tomatoes

Tomatoes are considered the gateway to gardening, as just about every gardener out there started with a tomato plant, even if it was just a teensy potted one on a balcony. Cherry (or grape, or currant) varieties ripen much earlier than full-size ones, so you have earlier gratification for your gardening efforts.

If you have the space, get yourself a few different plants to see which ones you like best. Maybe an orange or black cherry, grape, or currant, etc. Each one has a unique flavour, and since they’re so easy to grow, you can expand your palate while revelling in the joy of being a new gardener. (And honestly, who doesn’t love tomatoes?)

potted herbs, culinary herbs, basil, thyme, parsley, cilantro, savory, cooking herbs, pot herbs, potted herbs, kitchen herbs

Herbs

Culinary herbs are wonderful for small spaces, as you can grow them on a sunny windowsill or patio and just trim off bits here and there when you’d like to cook with them. Hardy aromatics like thyme, sage, and savory thrive on neglect, and will survive if you forget to water them as regularly as you should. Leafy herbs like parsley and basil are a bit more high maintenance, and both chives and oregano are stubborn survivors, and perennials to boot: they’ll come back year after year.

If you’re more interested in medicinal plants, calendula is really hardy, as is chamomile. Lavender thrives in sunny spots, yarrow can do quite well with neglect, and if you really are terrified of killing your plants, get a pot of mint. That stuff is damn near indestructible.

You can do this! If you need any help or advice about which plants would do best for your space and your skill level, don’t hesitate to contact us for help: just leave a note in the comments section below, or drop us an email at farmtheworldorg AT gmail.com

Photos by Dan Gold, Dwight Sipler, and Patty Mitchell via Unsplash and Foter creative commons.

corn salad, mache, lamb's lettuce, rapunzel

Winter Greens: Grow Mache in Zone 9b

by Angelina Williamson

Many years ago I got a free packet of mache with a seed order and meant to try it out, so I kept the packet forever in less-than-ideal conditions, and never planted it. Then, late last fall, I mixed the old seeds in with lettuce I was planting. I figured it was better to throw them in the soil instead of the garbage, but I honestly didn’t think any of them would germinate. Most of them did, however, and I had a lush bed of winter lettuce and mache. Looking back, I can’t believe I waited so long to discover how wonderful mache is! I hope if you’ve never tried it you’ll give it a chance too.

mache, corn salad, lamb's lettuce, winter greens, winter lettuce, winter salad

Mache grows in loose, low rosettes and is also known as: lamb’s lettuce, corn salad, field salad, nut salad, and Rapunzel. It’s a cool-weather crop and in zone 9b doesn’t need winter protection. We’ve just had a long stretch of nights with temps below 36℉  and my mache is undamaged, unlike many other plants in my garden that were damaged by the frost. I will give the suggested planting instructions below, but first I will tell you that you can completely ignore them as I did and be reasonably sure of a good outcome. Sprinkle the seed over whatever area you want them to grow and scratch them into the soil. You can sprinkle them mixed with lettuce seed as I did and have a bed of beautiful mixed greens.

mache-illustration

The more seed you broadcast in one space, the more thinning you’ll need to do which is perfect for a bed that gives you food continuously for a couple of months. I let a couple of my plants go to seed when the bed was nearly done so this year I didn’t have to plant any mache at all, I’ve got tons of it from volunteers. I’m going to share a picture of the bed they popped back up in, but don’t be scared: it’s not a tidy bed. I want you to see that you can cram mache in almost anywhere. The roots are delicate and small so they don’t interfere too much with the growth of other plants.

mache-bed

This bed is just 4’ x 3’. I have already harvested a big colander full of mache and there’s a ton more to harvest. This bed has also got kale, chard, and beets growing with the mache volunteers. (There are also some California poppies, false dandelions, unidentified other weeds, and two surprise shallots). This size bed will yield several good harvests of mache and as I harvest it, the other winter greens will get bigger as they get more room. I also grew radishes in this same bed but already harvested them. The main thing I want to illustrate here is that mache is small, but you can get a lot of it out of a small space.

If you want to plant it in your own garden, follow these growing directions:

  • Plant mache any time between October and March in zone 9b
  • It takes 10-20 days to emerge
  • Plant seeds ¼” to ½” deep
  • Space the seeds ½” apart
  • Space rows 12” apart
  • Begin thinning when there are 3-4 leaves
  • Thin to 4” apart
  • 60 days to maturity

Mache is tender, even when mature, and has a delicate nutty flavor. It’s wonderful on sandwiches and in salads. When you first start thinning your plants, they will be very small so you’ll probably start by adding them to other greens in a salad, but once they get bigger you’ll want to make a salad where mache is the star because it truly stands out on its own merits. Behold one of the three salads I got from that one colander harvest:

mache-salad

This salad is comprised of: mache, mandarins (also from my garden!), thinly sliced red onion, toasted walnuts, and kalamata olives dressed with a mustard vinaigrette. A simple refreshing zone 9b winter salad. Mache has three times the vitamin C that lettuce has and is packed with other nutrients including iron and potassium.

If you haven’t grown mache and are inspired to do so, here are two great sources for seeds that I know of:

Botanical Interests (this is where I got the seed for the mache in the pics above)

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

 

Photos via the author and Wikimedia commons

seed-sharing, seeds, seed bank, community seed bank, sharing seeds

New Year, New Opportunity to Create a Community Seed Bank

By Catherine Winter

The holidays are coming to an end soon, and those of us in the northern hemisphere now have a solid chunk of winter to slog through. This is the most frustrating time of year for most gardeners, as unless one lives in one of the warmer patches of North America or Europe (I’m looking at you, Texans and Spaniards), winter consists of snow, sleet, biting winds, and grey skies.

One saving grace about the winter months is that being forced to cocoon indoors allows us the opportunity to make plans for the coming growing season. It’s also a perfect opportunity to reconnect with friends… and if you put those two together, the conditions are ideal for creating a truly spectacular community seed bank.

A benefit to creating a seed bank in your own neighbourhood is that it’s more than likely that conditions will be quite constant in  your area: those who live near you will be contending with the same growing zone, rainfall, and similar soil conditions, as opposed to trading seeds with friends who live across the continent. This makes comparing growing notes much easier, and gives everyone a solid idea about what will or will not thrive in your area.

organic-seeds

How to Build Your Seed Bank

If you haven’t done so yet, request seed catalogues from a few organic/heirloom seed companies. Few things can brighten up a dismal winter day like flipping through a colourful booklet full of photos of all the vegetables and herbs that you can grow in a few short months. It’s important to use only organic seeds, as the plants that grow from them will be much more nourishing than those that are conventionally grown (i.e. genetically modified and pumped full of insecticides.) Your plants will be healthier, you’ll be healthier, and you’ll be able to save viable seeds from them for next year’s garden… and to share with your friends.

A few great companies to order from are the following:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Heritage Harvest Seeds

High Mowing Seeds

Salt Spring Seeds

Sustainable Seed Company

Then, you just need to gather some friends together for coffee or dinner, and discuss options.

One of the goals of community seed bank creation is that people can split the cost of organic packets and share the seeds around, instead of each individual making a huge investment. A typical seed packet contains between 30 and 300 seeds, depending on the plant to be cultivated, so a small group of people can grow a huge variety of different foods at very low cost. Let’s take a look at this breakdown as an example:

  • Friend 1: Three types of lettuce, and cucumbers ($10)
  • Friend 2: Kale, cabbage, carrots, and beets ($10)
  • Friend 3: Three varieties of tomatoes, and basil ($10)
  • Friend 4: Squash, pole beans, bush beans, thyme ($10)
  • Friend 5: Carrots, beets, oregano, leeks ($10)
  • Friend 6: Chard, onions, spinach, dill ($10)
  • Friend 7: Mesclun greens, assorted sweet peppers, peas, radishes ($10)
  • Friend 8: Melon, broccoli rabe, jalapeños, celeriac ($10)

That’s just a $10 investment per person, and if all the orders go in together, there will be just one small shipping fee. In turn, every person gets 32 edible plant varieties to cultivate. Isn’t that a much better investment than for each friend to pay $80 for the same number of plants, especially if they’d only use a fraction of the seeds in each packet that season?

Even if your group decides that they really only like the types of vegetables that can easily be turned into salads, there are dozens of tomato, lettuce, cucumber, and leafy green species to explore. If your group consists of tomato lovers, each of you could have over 20 different varieties growing in your yard for just a few dollars!

Sharing resources like this just makes sense on so many levels.

Related Post: Greens to Grow Indoors This Winter

friends-talking

Gathering the Community

This is also a great chance to branch out from your immediate friend/family circle and engage others in your community. The average person doesn’t know too many people in their neighbourhood aside from their immediate next-door neighbours, so putting up a notice on public boards (like in local shops or religious institutions) or even popping printed flyers into mailboxes is a good way to connect. You can create a Facebook group page, arrange meetings at your community centre, and cultivate great new relationships alongside flourishing gardens.

Multicultural neighbourhoods are also ideal for branching outside of regular comfort zones in terms of the vegetables and herbs that you might not be familiar with. When I was still living in Toronto, the neighbours around me were Chinese, Tibetan, Jamaican, Nigerian, Ukrainian, Portuguese, and Bolivian. By chatting with them and sharing items from one another’s gardens, I had the opportunity to try callaloo (amaranth leaves), bitter melon, tatsoi, and a huge variety of herbs that I had never tried before.

Community seed banks really are ideal ways to cultivate biodiversity, and help groups of people get a head start on food security for a very small investment. You might also find that you develop some wonderful friendships along the way too.

Photos via World Bank Photo Collection and Wikimedia commons.

Greens to Grow Indoors This Winter

By Catherine Winter

If you’re in the northern hemisphere, chances are things are already getting a bit chilly where you are. Out here in Quebec, we’ve already had about five inches of snowfall, and that’s likely to increase exponentially over the next few months. As an avid gardener, I used to spend months pacing and champing at the bit to get my hands back into the soil so I could grow my favourite vegetables, but since the snow often doesn’t melt out here until mid May, that’s a lot of pacing and frothing.

Fortunately I’ve discovered that there are plenty of food plants that can be grown indoors during the cold half of the year, and few require any kind of special equipment. I’ve had a hell of a lot of luck growing vegetables and herbs beneath standard LED lights in my basement, as well as on windowsills. South-facing windows are ideal, as they get the most light and warmth over the course of the day, but any window that allows in a fair bit of sunshine will do the trick. Just don’t place your plants too close to the glass if it’s seriously below freezing outside, as the chill can kill tender greens.

These are a few varieties that I’ve managed to cultivate quite easily. If they can grow in my chilly, rural Quebec basement, chances are they’ll thrive in your space as well. I’ll link to a few of my favourites from the organic/heirloom companies I order from in case you’re interested in cultivating them yourself.

sprouts

Microgreens

These don’t take up much space, and you harvest them shortly after their leaves appear, so you don’t have to worry about them surviving for months. I like mizuna, but you can also get a great microgreen mix that has several varieties mixed in.

Mache

Small and really quite adorable, these buttery little leaves are great in salads or sandwiches, and grow best in cool conditions.

Lettuce

You can either grow your winter lettuce in pots, or get creative and hang it in a mesh basket. Just cram it full of seedlings and hang in a sunny window. You can snip off leaves for salads and let them re-grow over the course of the season.

Purslane

Its leaves may be teensy, but purslane is packed with flavour and thrives in cool, shady conditions. Those little leaves have a wonderful, meaty texture and slightly lemony-green bean flavour, and are wonderful in salads, soups, and tabbouleh.

peas

Climbing Peas

These hardy plants are ideal for growing on a wall or lattice indoors. They’re sweet, juicy little pearls that brighten up dark winter days with bursts of flavour.

Kale

All brassicas grow well in cooler conditions, but kale can even grow in the snow. Seriously. I’ve brushed knee-deep snow out of my garden beds and found kale still thriving beneath, so it’ll do just fine in a cool room with just a bit of winter sunshine.

Sprouted Legumes

These are probably the easiest of the lot, as beans and peas will sprout if you so much as wave a glass of water in their general direction. As far as equipment goes, you just need a jar, wire netting or cheesecloth, a bean/pea mix, and some water, and you can cultivate a crop of sprouts on your kitchen countertop.

Winter Savory

A bit hardier and more aromatic than summer savory, this herb can take a beating and still keep growing strong.

Sorrel

Alongside chervil, sorrel is the first green to make an appearance in my garden every spring, stubbornly pushing its way up through cracks in the ice and snow. It’s known as Sauerampfer in German, and is a key ingredient in one of my favourite soups.

There are, of course, just a few varieties that I’ve been able to cultivate with ease indoors. Right now I have rainbow chard sprouts arching enthusiastically beneath the living room table lamp, and potted chives that are doing surprisingly well. I’ve never been able to keep basil alive indoors, nor dill, but savoury, thyme, rosemary, and parsley have all thrived on my kitchen windowsill. Ultimately, it’s really a question of trial and error to discover what will grow well in the space you have available, and what you like to eat.

Don’t waste time, space, or resources growing anything that you don’t actually want to eat, just because you think it’ll grow well in your space. Is there a particular vegetable or herb that you’d like to grow indoors this winter, but don’t know whether it’ll thrive or not? Let us know in the comments section!

 

Photos via Wikimedia and Flickr Creative Commons