A Gardening Guide for Budding Plant Babes

by Ifrah Ahmed

I randomly decided that I wanted to start gardening about five years ago. It was the middle of winter, and I was bored with all of my typical winter activities. I decided that I needed a new hobby to look forward to. I had no previous experience with gardening and I didn't really know anyone my age who gardened. So as all good hobbies start, I got on the internet. All winter, I read through books and internet articles about how to start your own garden. I even read kids’ books about gardening because I felt that they would probably have the simplest information. 

Now that it's been a few years, I've enjoyed several successful harvests throughout the years. I have grown tomatoes, eggplant, corn, spinach, lettuce, onions, cilantro, pumpkin, zucchini, cucumber, broccoli, collard greens, kale, bell peppers, strawberries, jalapenos, and so many more delicious veggies. Growing your own food changes your relationship with your food. When you grow your own food, it offers you a direct connection with what you consume. I found that I was more likely to eat vegetables and was more likely to research recipes on how to enjoy them when I grew the food myself. Also, there is a sense of accomplishment that comes with growing your own food. It's resourceful and you save some money. You also get to share the literal fruits of your labor with those that you care about. 

Gardening improved my connection with nature and it improved my diet. I also found it to be a peaceful and soothing hobby that helped with my depression, anxiety, and overall mental and emotional health. Plus, I also thought of it as a political act. So many black people in the United States have complicated relationships with the food industry. Many of us don't have access to fresh fruits and vegetables because of economic injustice and environmental racism. The relationship gets even more complicated when you reflect on the legacies of slavery and colonialism. For so long black people in the U.S. and in Africa were forced to cultivate food but never reaped its financial benefits.

I am a young black woman and I grow what I want to save myself money, nourish my body, and to feed those around me. Most importantly, every time I am in my garden I am reminded of how much we need this earth to survive and how quickly we are ruining it. 

Tips for starting your own vegetable garden:

1. Plan: First, ask yourself what sort of space you're working with. Do you live in an apartment? A condo? A house? Is there outdoor space to garden in? If you don't have space to start a garden in the ground, think about whether you're interested in gardening in pots. If you don't have space for an outdoor garden or space for gardening in pots, is there some sort of community garden you can join? My first few years, I had space to garden outdoors in our front yard. Then, we moved across the country to a bigger city and there was no gardening space in our apartment. So, I got a lot in a community garden. Determining what sort of space you have access to is the first step in becoming a gardener babe.

2. Research: Now that you know what sort of space you're working with, the next step is to decide what you're going to grow and what tools you will need. You can determine what you will grow by reflecting on your needs. Are you gardening to save money on groceries? Are you gardening in order to have access to fresh fruits and veggies? Or are you gardening in order to be able to use fresh herbs in your cooking? Once you figure out your needs, you can plan what you will grow. For me, I wanted to save money and to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Once I decided that I was growing vegetables, I then had to do research on which vegetables I could start growing.

3. Tools/Spacing: After you decide what your needs are, you need to then figure out how much growing space you need. Are you wanting to grow vegetables that you can eat every day or are you growing enough to eat every other week? Is your garden complimenting what you already buy at the grocery store or is it going to replace what you buy at the grocery store? Once you decide how much you'll be growing, then you need to find the right tools to begin your gardening journey. If you visit any hardware store or gardening center, you should be able to find gardening tools. Sometimes some grocery stores such as Fred Meyer's also carry gardening supplies. When I started my garden I needed to buy organic compost, a shovel, a hand shovel, gardening gloves, a watering can, a watering hose, and a hand rake. Also make sure that you have a water source nearby whether it’s a hose connected to your house or to a fire hydrant. 

4. Choosing your plants: Before choosing your plants, you need to figure out which plants are appropriate for which season and which region. In my region, November through March is winter. During winter, you will not really want to plant anything in the ground. Towards the end of winter, its best to start what you'll plant in the spring from seeds that you keep indoors. Once the weather is warm enough, you can transfer these baby plants into the ground. Or, if you're not feeling like starting on your garden that early in the year, you can buy starter plants already grown for you in the spring. I tend to buy starter plants for vegetables that I find don't grow successfully indoors from seed. You can buy starter plants such as tomatoes, jalapenos, squash, eggplant, etc from your local gardening store. While I am there, I also buy seeds that I know that I will be able to grow and enjoy before the end of the warm season. I buy seeds such as lettuce, spinach, kale, and cilantro. There are many others as well. In the early spring, I grow fruits and vegetables that need a lot of summer sun such as tomatoes, eggplant, and strawberries. Once the warm weather starts slowing down or about halfway through summer, I plant cool weather autumn crops such as hearty greens, garlic, and pumpkin. It's great to plant through the warm season so that you have harvests all the way through the end of fall. Also, make sure you plant things according to how much sun they need. Some plants like partial sun, so you put them somewhere where they can get sun and shade. Some plants need sun all of the time, so you put them in the spot that stays sunniest the longest.

5. Nourishing your garden: Good soil is important for your garden. There is a reason that great soil is called black gold. Good soil is a major indicator of how well your garden will do. Before I start a new garden, I always test the soil. Especially if there wasn't a garden in that spot before. You can test the pH of your soil with a test from your local garden store. By doing this test you can figure out what sort of soil you're working with and what it might be missing. Another way that I take care of my soil is by composting. Some folks like to make their own compost. I haven't gotten to that level yet, so I just buy organic compost from the store. Compost isn't something that you have to do super often like say watering your plants, but it is something that I have found that improves my vegetable garden. Other ways to nourish your garden is giving each plant enough water and also weeding your garden. The first summer I gardened I didn't know anything about weeding and my garden transformed into a gigantic bush of mint in just a few weeks. It's important to weed out unnecessary plants from your garden because they can steal nutrients and nourishment from the plants that you are actually looking forward to. They can also easily overtake your garden.

6. Time and Harvesting: As you water, compost, and weed your garden the most difficult thing you'll deal with is time. You'll be impatient to see if anything actually grows. The coolest thing is coming back to find a vegetable waiting for you. Different vegetables also grow under different time standards. Vegetables like Zucchini, squash, and cucumber seem to grow unrecognizably big in just a short time. One day you'll have nothing and the next day you'll have a huge vegetable. Other plants take a lot longer to grow. Figuring out what grows quickly and what grows slowly is always interesting. But eventually, if your garden is healthy and the elements are in your favor you will have something to consume after a few weeks. Which brings me to my next point. What is the point of growing food if you can't share it with others? Gardening isn't fun if you can't show others what you grew. Please do make sure to share your harvest. It builds community and I swear your vegetables taste better!