Whether its the all-too-common outbreaks of salmonella in produce or the genetically modified foods infiltrating the supermarkets that have you questioning your food sources, know this: You’re not alone. In recent years, everyone from suburban moms to Manhattanites with no more gardening space than small balconies are taking food into their own hands and learning how to grow what they eat.
Ivette Soler, expert gardener and author of The Edible Front Yard observes, “People want to be in control of their food sources because Big Agra [the agricultural industry] seems to be making decisions that are not in our best interest. Genetically modified seeds, Roundup-resistant crops and the lack of clear data on how these things affect us make us want to take our food back.”
Spending time outdoors on a regular basis also helps ensure you receive adequate amounts of vitamin D from sunlight, and boosts your mood. Getting your hands in the dirt and creating something from scratch also boosts self-esteem and relieves stress.
“Gardening connects us to something very basic and alchemical about the universe—you plant a seed, you water it, the sun shines on it and a plant grows. You have changed something into something totally different—something that will nourish you in more ways than the obvious. Growing and eating your own food nourishes your spirit,” says Soler.
And children who learn where food comes from are more apt to take interest in their meals. Instead of snubbing their noses at every new food that appears on their plates, they’ll want to try what they grew from scratch. The more involved you can get them, the more likely they are to appreciate and open up to new foods. As any parent can attest, this is huge. It takes the battle away from mealtime.
The perfect exercise
Gardening burns calories, making it good for your body in more ways than one. In fact, the National Institutes of Health suggests that 30 to 45 minutes of gardening is equivalent to biking five miles or walking two. From raking and shoveling to weeding and hauling bags of mulch, gardening will work all of your major muscle groups, including your legs, buttocks, back, core and shoulders. Be sure to stretch afterward and build up slowly.
Easy on the wallet
If the health benefits don’t have you reaching for a shovel, maybe the money-saving potential will. “The first thing people who are limited on time and space should plant is herbs,” Soler advises. Herbs are cheap to plant and easy to grow. You could grow a summer’s worth of basil leaves for $2, compared to $4 for enough store-bought basil to make one dinner. Plus, herbs can double-duty as decoration. “You can tuck them between your other garden plants and they will add to the beauty,” adds Soler. “Chives, sorrel, sage, fennel—they are easy to care for, beautiful, and delicious.”
Five must-have plants
Soler recommends the following five plants for every kitchen garden:
- Artichokes. They are structurally beautiful and a complete wonder to grow. When you grow your own artichokes and eat them, you feel like you’ve accomplished something big, even though they’re actually easy to grow.
- Tomatoes. Tomatoes from a grocery store just don’t taste the same—and even tomatoes from farmer’s markets aren’t as fresh and tasty as the ones plucked from vines in your yard while still warm from the sun. Have fun choosing from the hundreds of varieties available. Soler’s current favorite is Zapotec, a Mexican heirloom that is large, heavily pleated and very meaty.
- Lettuces. In the spring, tender lettuces are the perfect way to emerge from the heaviness of winter cuisine. As with tomatoes, there are many varieties that provide different color, texture and taste experiences, so growing them becomes an adventure. Lollo Bianco, Speckeled Troutback, Black-Seeded Simpson and Fernleaf are the types in Soler’s salads right now.
- Hot peppers. The hotter your climate, the hotter your pepper. Soler is lucky to live in southern California, where she can grow some of the hottest of the hot. Some of her favorites are Shishito and Scotch bonnet. As a bonus, peppers can be beautiful. Habaneros resemble little orange lanterns dangling from stems.
- Eureka lemons. If you live where citrus isn’t hardy, try growing a lemon tree in a large pot. Place it against a sunny wall during summer, then in a warm indoor spot with bright indirect light during winter. You’ll be so happy when you have an unending supply of lemon zest, lemon juice and whole lemons for preserving.
Start small and go big
It’s always best to start small when beginning your kitchen garden. See what grows well, what you like and how much you really need. I’ll never forget the first summer I grew tomatoes. I planted 15 tomato plants, unaware that just a couple would yield enough tomatoes to feed my husband and myself.
But that’s another benefit of gardening: It builds community. When I had an abundance of tomatoes and grew tired of making salsa and tomato sauce, I shared the bounty. In return? I made new friends and swapped tomatoes for eggplant, peppers and cantaloupe.
I also know gardeners who utilize their talents for planned swaps. One friend who raises chickens trades eggs for the peppers her shady yard doesn’t favor.
“Growing food bonds neighbors together, because gardeners always have excess to share,” Soler adds. “Gardening makes people friends and can help us to repair the social connections that modern life seems to have broken. Everybody needs a little garden magic in their world!”