Start growing your own food

In mid-March of 2020, as the news about coronavirus was turning into shelter in place orders, another strange thing happened. Two of my friends, who previously didn’t care about gardening, contacted me within 24 hours of each other asking me how to get started. It was bittersweet because obviously they were motivated because of the sad news about the growing pandemic, but I was also touched that they wanted my help. I had been meaning to start sharing my experiences growing fruits and vegetables, so I decided that the time was now. I intend this to be useful for beginning gardeners. Hopefully, experienced gardeners can take something away and/or share their own experience.

For beginning gardeners who are looking to start growing food, especially if motivated by emergency circumstances, I recommend breaking down your plan into the first 7, 30, and 60 days. I am calling this approach Fast to Vast. This approach allows you to start eating your harvest as soon as possible, which basically means eating plants at younger growth stages. Then, you’ll transition into harvesting larger crops that can provide more food per planted seed.

In support of beginning gardeners, I will recommend avoiding certain crops that take a long time to mature or that require a lot of nutrients or care. You can tackle these crops after a successful first year builds your confidence and fills your belly.

Fast Crops

The fastest crops are sprouts, then followed by microgreens. These tasty treats don’t really need a garden or much space. Crops like sprouted beans and grains could be ready in as little as 2 days. Larger sprouts, such as the well-known alfalfa and bean sprouts, are ready in about 6 days using only water. Microgreens can be ready in a week or two, using a very small amount of compost and water.

There are numerous plants that can be grown as sprouts or microgreens. You could eat a different plant for every meal for months, which is good because that’s what you’ll have available to eat from your harvest for the first 30 days while you wait for the next phase of crops to be harvest ready.

Sprouts and microgreens are a nutritious and delicious part of homegrown food. At the start of a gardening journey, we may grow more of them than we will later to get the harvest flowing. They are always a great addition to the harvest. However, they do require a lot of seeds and daily care to produce them. Once the larger crops become available, sprouts and microgreens production will likely decrease. However, they are a great supplement to have all along, so continuing to produce them can extend the amount of meals the larger crops can support.

Days 1-6+ Grain and Bean Sprouts

To start, you’ll make sprouted grains and beans. Sprouting increases their nutritional value.

“[The] germinating process breaks down some of the starch, which makes the percentage of nutrients higher. It also breaks down phytate, a form of phytic acid that normally decreases absorption of vitamins and minerals in the body. So, sprouted grains have more available nutrients than mature grains,” Secinaro says. Those nutrients include folate, iron, vitamin C, zinc, magnesium, and protein. Sprouted grains also may have less starch and be easier to digest than regular grains.

From Harvard Health Publishing

It’s important to note that the moist environment can promote bacterial growth, so it’s best to mash them into a paste for use in baked goods, or cook the raw sprouts before adding them to a meal. Also, cooked sprouts and baked goods should be refrigerated. The Sprout People have a great list of recipes using sprouted grains.

Sprouted grains and beans can be ready to eat in 2-3 days. The process I follow I learned from the Sprout People:

  • Soak 1/3 to 1 cup of grain in cool water for 6-12 hours.
  • Drain off soak water. Do not ever soak again.
  • Rinse thoroughly.
  • Drain Thoroughly.
  • Rinse and Drain with cool water every 8-12 hours.
  • Grain Sprouts don’t need light. Keep your Sprouter in a low light location.
  • Harvest on day 2 or 3, when most of the grains have short roots. Refrigerate your crop.

Properly stored, they should last in the refrigerator for weeks.

Harvesting Days 7-30+ Leafy Sprouts

What most people think of as sprouts are the leafy sprouts, like alfalfa. Growing leafy sprouts significantly increases their nutritional value and volume: which means you’re truly growing at food at this stage. Part of the reason for this is that you’ll actually use sunlight to green the leaves, which increases their nutritional value. Leafy sprouts can be ready to eat in about 6 days. Again, I follow the process from the Sprout People:

  • Soak 2 Tbs. of seed in cool water for 8-12 hours.
  • Drain off soak water. Do not ever soak again.
  • Rinse thoroughly.
  • Drain Thoroughly.
  • Rinse and Drain with cool water every 8-12 hours.
  • On day 3, move your Sprouter to a well lit location. Use direct sun only if you’re growing in a tray.
  • Continue to Rinse and Drain every 8-12 hours.
  • Harvest on Day 6, when the leaves are open and most of them are green.
  • De-Hull your crop if you like before Refrigerating.

Like the sprouted grains and beans: properly stored, they should last in the refrigerator for weeks.

There are many kinds of plants that work for making leafy sprouts with a wide array of flavors and recipes.

Types of leafy sprouts:

  • Alfalfa
  • Clover
  • Corn
  • Radish
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Basil
  • Flax
  • Sunflower
  • Kholrabi
  • Cilantro
  • Beets
  • Kale
  • Swiss Chard
  • Cress
  • Garlic
  • Chives
  • Dill
  • Fenugreek
  • Mizuna
  • Tatsoi

Harvesting Days 14-30+ Microgreens

Everything that can be grown as a leafy sprout, can also be grown as a microgreen. Essentially microgreens look similar to sprouts, but they are grown in soil and we only eat the leaves and stems. Sprouts are only grown in water and in addition to the leaves and stems we also eat the roots (and sometimes seeds, aka hulls).

Microgreens can also be grown a bit larger than sprouts, which means from the same amount of seeds we get a larger volume of harvest. Since we are growing them in soil, they don’t require as much hands on work as the sprouts. No need to rinse them multiple times a day. But, it also means we wait longer for the harvest, which is still not much time.

You can harvest and store microgreens in the refrigerator, but frankly, it’s much better to just cut some when we need it and leave them to grow until you’re ready for them.

Sprouts and Microgreens Recipes

Short Crops

At the same time that you make your first batches of sprouts and microgreens, it’s time to start the short crops.

  • Radishes
  • Lettuces (Baby)
  • Green Onions
  • Arugula
  • Bok Choy
  • Mustard Greens

Half Season Crops

  • Zucchini
  • Peas
  • Green Beans

Long Season Crops

The long season crops are the ones I recommend that beginners wait until their second year of growing to tackle. The reason for this

Crops You May Not Want To Start With

Warm Nights or Greenhouse

If you live in a place where the evenings are cool, like they are here in the Pacific Northwest, then heat loving plants won’t produce much fruit or may not at all. I have a greenhouse to compensate for the warm nights, but that also limits how much I can grow to the size of my greenhouse. If you live in an area with warm nights, then this warning doesn’t apply to you.

  • Tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Basil
  • Eggplants
  • Peppers
  • Melons

Space Hogs

Some plants produce a low amount of yield for how much space they take up. If you don’t have a lot of garden space, then you may want to avoid these plants altogether:

  • Artichokes
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Pumpkins/Winter Squash
  • Melons

Heavy Feeders

Some plants need lots of nutrients to produce their fruits. Two of the most notorious are corn and tomatoes. Many beginning gardeners run into challenges from nutrient deficiencies when growing these plants. And, while there are good resources for how to overcome them, you may want to hold off on growing them your first year.

  • Corn
  • Tomatoes

Long Time to Mature

It can be surprising to learn that some plants take a very long time to grow. Asparagus, for example, can take 2-3 years if you plants crowns—and up to 6 years from seed! Other plants need 6 or 9 months to reach maturity, which can be challenging to time right and keep the plants healthy for the whole growing time. Here are some you may want to hold off on growing in your first year.

  • Asparagus
  • Brussel Sprouts
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Potatoes

Requires a Field

Unless you have plantable land that is a half acre or more, you’ll struggle to get any kind of meaningful volume of harvest from growing things like grains, corn, and beans (excluding green beans). Besides, these items are low cost and can generally be stored for a very long time, which makes them less critical to produce at home.

  • Grains
  • Corn
  • Beans (for drying)

Will Spread Like Wildfire

Not all plants stay where they are planted. Some plants send out “suckers” underground that sprout up as new plants. If this is what you want, then it’s a great way to increase your yield year after year with low effort. But, if you didn’t mean for your whole garden bed to be taken over, then these are the plants to be careful with:

  • Blackberries
  • Raspberries
  • Mint
  • Tarragon
  • Sunchokes

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