So you decided to grow plants. This is a great idea. There are many reasons why you should start growing your own plants like self-reliance, resilience, food justice, your carbon footprint, your health, and your environments health. This article will help you get going from zero to food in your mouth while helping you understand how to give something back to the environment around you.
One thing to consider before starting
There are many things to consider and I will write a bit about the most important topics below but if there is one thing for you to keep in mind it is that the system you create should not only benefit yourself but many other things around you: your environment, the humans and animals living in your area and the future health of your land and the planet.
To achieve that you need to come up with a plan and strategy which is multi-purpose. That means, that you need to think about how to integrate existing plants and animals, improve your soil, produce yield for humans and animals alike. You also need to think about how to improve your environment to make it sustainable in the long term. While it is possible to get a good first yield with artificial fertiliser, it will deplete your soil and wallet pretty quickly. Better is to think about how to get the maximum output while minimising the inputs. Think of outputs as Human use, animal use, soil health, animal shelter, happiness, health, time saved, money saved. Think of inputs as everything you need to buy, things you need to get into the garden like bought soil and compost, containers, garden tools and water.
A resilient and well-designed system creates outputs, even if you do not constantly provide inputs.
May it be that there is no rain for a few weeks or you cannot work on your project because other things get in the way, your system should survive that.
There are many different approaches to create such system of regenerative agriculture, the most well-known is Permaculture. It’s a good start to dig into the topic but be advised there is not the one way of doing it. See what makes sense to you and mix and match whatever works. Keep your goals in mind and keep asking yourself the following questions.
What do you want to do?
The best way to start a system is to sit down and write down what you actually want to achieve with it. It might be supplementing your diet to save money on groceries, it might be regenerating your backyard lawn into a green hideout for you to relax in, it might be to help others in your community living a better and more healthy life. If you want to grow plants for food, it might be as simple as the question on what do you like to eat. I suggest you start looking at the following goals. This is not a complete list, but shows you what direction you should think in.
Possible goals for your project:
- Staples - Something that is substantial, and worthy of being a main course. At least 2 crops in case of failure, most often annuals. For example Squash, potatoes, Corn.
- Medicine - Teas, herbs, healthful foods. Can easily grow 3+, often perennials. For example: Mint, Lemonbalm, Lavender.
- Fertilizer/Mulching - Beneficial to growth or maintenance of the entire system (preferably edible). For example: Comfrey, Clover, Alfalfa.
- Edible Greens - Important for health, and fulfilling an important niche in western diets. For example Arugula, Kale, Giant red mustard.
- Supplementary - Snacking foods, processable foods for jams or sauces. For example all possible berries, tomatoes, currants, cucumbers.
- Animal Protein - Most likely and accessible item is egg production, but not legal everywhere. Either have ducks, hens or quails or look into growing more beans and peas.
- Surplus - For use in feeding animals, wildlife, crafting, or trading. Double down on the choices you made above and grow more than you can eat yourself.
Where do you live?
The next question to consider is about the area you live in and how your system can effect it and it affects your system. You want to come up with something which is compatible with your surroundings and circumstances so you are much more likely to succeed. Think about the following questions:
- How much sun does your area get? Are there areas in your space with more or less sun? Can existing plants help shading new plants which need less sun? Can you find plants which tolerate a lot of shade so you can fill a gap behind the house?
- How much rain do you have a year? Can you store water or obtain water in any other way?
- When is first and last frost coming (if any)? How long is your actual growing period? Do you need to start indoors and then transplant?
- How is your soil? Are there areas where plants are thriving and areas which need help? Do you have access to a lot of compost or any other organic matter? Can you produce by yourself or obtain from somewhere else to improve the quality of your soil?
- What plants are native to my area? These plants have the highest chance to thrive in your garden without much intervention from your side. Try avoid planting invasive plants, which can disturb other ecological systems beside yours.
The point here is to be aware of the ecological system you are already in and make sure to add something to it instead of creating another artificial ecosystem designed only for a single purpose.
What can you do?
Now that you know what you want and what are the specifics to your environment, think what you personally can do to make it work. Make sure you set yourself up with possible goals. Better start small with a fewer plants and a smaller area and succeed than getting overwhelmed with too much work. In Permaculture your time is another input you should work on reducing. By designing your garden in a smart way and choosing the right plants (look for the term “guilds”!) nature can do most of the work while you can enjoy watching it grow.
Being lazy is part of the strategy.
In general it is a good advice to avoid buying plants, raw material and tools. Use what you have, borrow from your community and try to recycle things. Barter things with neighbours.
Also think about your future self and make it easy for them: Try to invest in the future by growing cover crops which might not give you a direct yield to eat this season but produce organic material you can use to sheet mulch other plants or create compost by yourself.
What do you see?
At any time in your project, learn to observe nature and its magical workings. See what works, where plants thrive and what does not work. Take notes and iterate on your design. Ask yourself questions like are these plants really weeds or can they maybe be eaten, help bees and other insects or are perfect animal fodder for your neighbours pigs?
Start watching your environment, garden, the plants and animals in it, and your own habits and learn from it. Share your knowledge with others and help them see what you see.
Crash course recipe
- Pick 2-3 of goals from above which fit your situation and ideas the best.
- Start researching plants which are compatible to you and your current situation and environment you are in. Keep it simple 10, maximum 20 plants is a good start. Pick less if you are unsure.
- Start getting seeds or seedlings. Reach out to your local community, neighbours or search online to find items in your area. Obtain them in a sustainable way. Biking to your neighbour is better than ordering from somewhere is better than driving a few hours.
- Make yourself a plan to when to do what. Get the knowledge on how to to beforehand. Just search on youtube “How to grow
" and you fill find a lot of videos explaining in detail what to do. Ask for help in your local community or online platforms.
- Watch your project grow in the most literal sense. Keep observing (see above).
- Don’t get too stressed if some things do not work out and focus on the successes. Learn from the failures.
- Harvest. This is the magical moment where you eat something you’ve grown by yourself for the first time and you will finally find the enlightenment you were looking for. Don’t forget to bring some produce to your family and neighbours and anyone else who helped along the way. Make a big party serving food from your garden. Save seeds and give them away.
Running this once will give you a good head start on understanding and maintaining a regenerative system. See it as an experiment and use your knowledge to help others and explore more techniques and ideas in all directions.
Let me know what you think and reach out to hello at permapeople org or sign up for the newsletter.