There’s nothing like fresh vegetables grown in your own backyard and harvested at the peak of freshness. Not only do homegrown vegetables taste better, they’re also healthier for you and your family. Fruits and vegetables sold at the grocery store have often been harvested before ripening and are days, if not weeks, past being picked, which affects their nutritional value. Plus, as grocery store produce travels from all over the country and the world, carbon emissions accumulate, which contribute to global warming. By growing your own food, you’re helping to reduce your own carbon footprint, while enjoying delicious and nutritious homegrown food.
Not sure what’s worth the effort? Here are five foods to start your garden with.
Why: Tomatoes are one of the most popular vegetables grown by home gardeners and it’s no secret why. Nothing tastes better than the first homegrown tomato picked off the vine. When ripe, tomatoes provide an excellent source of vitamins C, K and B6, folic acid, fibre, carotenes and biotin.
Need to know: Tomatoes come in all shapes, sizes and colours, but the key to growing them successfully is to give them good soil, regular watering and lots of sunshine’at least six hours a day. Whether you plant them in the garden or in containers, make sure the soil is rich, well-drained and full of organic matter like compost.
When to plant: Tomatoes need a relatively long growing season to produce fruit. It’s best to start seeds indoors six to seven weeks before the last spring frost and then transplant them as seedlings in the spring (or buy seedlings from your local garden centre). Remove the lowest set of branches from each seedling and bury them up to the first leaves. Tomatoes don’t like cold nights, so check with your garden centre on when it’s safe to plant them outdoors in your region.
Tip: You’ll inevitably have a few green tomatoes hanging on the vine late in the season, but instead of tossing them into the compost pile, bring them inside to ripen before the first frost hits. Store your green tomatoes in a bin with an apple and cover loosely with newspaper. Apples emit ethylene gas, which will hasten the tomato’s ripening process.
Why: Whether you grow cucumbers to pickle or to enjoy fresh off the vine, you’re guaranteed to enjoy a bumper crop with little time or effort spent in the garden. Cucumbers are an excellent source of vitamins A, C and folic acid, and the skin is rich in fibre.
Need to know: Since the cucumber plant is a vine, they do well when trained to climb up a trellis or fence, but they can be grown on the ground. If left to sprawl in the garden, make sure the soil is well drained and water does not pool anywhere since cucumbers can quickly rot if left to sit in puddles.
When to plant: Cucumbers are a warm season vegetable, so plant seedlings when all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed up. Seeds planted in cold soil tend to rot before they germinate. To enjoy a second harvest, replant cucumbers in mid to late summer.
Tip: When eating your cucumbers, you may notice a slight bitter taste. This comes from a natural organic compound called cucurbitacin normally found in the plant’s leaves and stems, but sometimes it can accumulate in the cucumber itself. The bitter compound will be stronger in the stem end of the fruit, so discard this part of the cucumber. Stressed or diseased plants often produce bitter-tasting cucumbers, so keep your cucumber plant healthy during the growing season to avoid this unpleasant compound.
3. Culinary herbs
Why: A culinary herb is classified as a plant where some part of the roots, stem, leaves, flowers or fruits are used for food, medicine, flavouring or scent. Many fresh herbs are easy to grow and a bargain compared to buying them at the grocery store’plus, they’re a super healthy way to add flavour to meals.
Need to know: Herbs are generally sun-loving, drought-tolerant plants. Whether you grow them in the garden or in containers, make sure they have excellent drainage, since herbs don’t like to sit in wet soil. Aside from adding some organic compost to the soil, don’t worry about fertilizing. In fact, herbs tend to taste better if you starve them, rather than overfeeding and overwatering them.
When to plant: Generally, herbs can be planted outdoors after the last spring frost, but there are some exceptions. Basil is very sensitive to cold and in most of the country should be planted only in June. Wherever you decide to plant your herbs, make sure they’re close to the kitchen, so you don’t have to go far to harvest them when making dinner. For optimal flavour of leafy herbs like basil, dill and cilantro, remove all the flower buds on the plant before they open, so the plant’s energy is directed into the leaves.
Tip: Mint offers many culinary uses, but it can be very invasive. To keep it from overtaking your herb garden, keep it contained in a raised bed or in a plastic pot buried in the soil.
Why: Beans are one of the easiest vegetables to grow and you’ll be amazed at how prolifically they produce. The most common garden beans include green and yellow wax beans, snap beans and dry beans. Beans are a good source of essential B vitamins, protein, iron and fibre.
Need to know: Most beans are available in either pole or bush varieties. Pole beans need a trellis or support structure to climb, making them ideal for small gardens. Bush beans tend to produce more beans in a short period of time, but they do require a great deal of space.
When to plant: Plant seeds directly into soil when the danger of frost is past and the soil is warm. Beans do well in all soil types except wet soil with poor drainage.
Tip: Beans need to be watered regularly, especially when growing up a trellis because the soil is exposed to the elements. To help the stems and roots retain moisture on hot, sunny days, use organic mulches like straw or grass clippings mounded around the base of the plant.
5. Lettuce and salad greens
Why: Who wouldn’t love a fresh supply of lettuce and salad greens, especially when salads are a lunch and dinner staple during the summer? A good source of chlorophyll, some varieties of lettuce like romaine are also full of vitamins A, B1, B2, C, folic acid and manganese.
Need to know: There are hundreds of different kinds of lettuce and salad green, the most popular being iceberg, Boston, leaf, romaine and mesclun lettuce mix. Since lettuce prefers cool temperatures, water frequently on hot, sunny days. If you’re planting lettuce in the garden where you know it will be prone to drought, choose a variety that has greater water retention like iceberg or romaine. You can quickly lose your crop of leaf lettuce if it wilts under the sun.
When to plant: Salad greens thrive in cool weather, so plant seeds in early spring (usually mid April) when the ground begins to warm up. Continue planting seeds every few weeks during the summer to enjoy a continuous supply of salad greens. When harvesting, pull the leaves from the outside of the plant, so the inside leaves will keep growing, or you can cut off the entire plant at the stem.
Tip: Salad seeds can be tricky to handle because of their minute size. To avoid overseeding your lettuce patch, purchase seed tape instead of buying loose seeds. Seed tape has individual seeds pre-set between two pieces of tissue paper which you place directly into the ground. To make your own seed tape, cut strips of paper towel and evenly disperse seeds between two moistened sheets. Once planted in the soil, the paper towel will degrade, but your seeds will be perfectly spaced.
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