Grow an Organic Mini-garden
by Barb Harris  
UPdate Summer 2001

     One of the best and cheapest ways to eat organic is to grow your own.  Gardening doesn't have to be a major undertaking, and you don't need lots of land.
     You can grow a mini-garden in a few large containers or on a small piece of ground, say 3 feet square. There are lots of options for a mini-garden, but here are my recommendations.
     Forget those heads of lettuce you get at the store. Go for leaf lettuce mixes, also called mesclun. They include a variety of different types of greens and you can pick just the amount you need for a salad or sandwich filling.  Lettuce can be planted early. Plant a few short rows. Then plant again every 2-3 weeks into the fall.
     A couple of your own cherry tomato plants will make you wonder what those round red things were you ate this winter. Plant into warm soil after the last frost. Plant so that 2 inches of stem is underground. This will make for stronger roots. Throw a few handfuls of rotted manure or compost into the hole when you 
transplant. Tomatoes need lots of sun and need to be staked for support.  They should be at the north end of your garden so they don't block sun to other plants.  If you're energetic, give them a watering with manure tea or compost tea mid-summer.
     Add one cucumber plant after the last frost.  Cucumbers now come in bush varieties.  This means they don't sprawl as much as traditional cukes. Cukes are mostly water so they need more water than other plants to do well.  Don't let them dry out.
     Cilantro (coriander), parsley, chives and basil are versatile ingredients which can spiff up salads and summer soups. Cut some up over your cherry tomatoes -- if they make it as far as your kitchen.  Basil needs lots of sun and well drained soil.  Chives give you a bonus of beautiful pink flowers which are edible. Chives are perennial and will come up again next year.
     Herbs for tea -- mint and lemon balm -- round out the mini-garden.  But plant these away from your other plants or keep them under control as they spread wildly. They don't grow well in containers. 
     If you still have room, try some chard.  It's very productive and grows well into the fall. Pick some leaves and the plant will grow more. Or plant some green or yellow beans when there's no danger of frost.
     Here are some basic gardening rules.  Prepare your soil well. Loosen your soil with a garden fork about a foot deep.  Add well rotted compost or manure (it doesn't smell -- really).  Then turn it all in with the fork.  Water when needed -- no more, no less.  Plants in the ground need about 1 inch of water a week.  If there's not enough rain, it is better to water once a week deeply than in small daily doses.  Remember, it's the roots you want to water, not the top of the ground.  To check if plants need water put your index finger down into the soil. If the soil is dry at your finger tip, it's time to water.
     Container plants need more watering because they dry out sooner. In either case, water in the evening.  The water evaporates more slowly and plants absorb it better.
 Mulching (covering the ground between plants with grass clippings - pesticide free, of course - or dead leaves or even weeds as long as they haven't gone to seed) helps to keep weeds down and moisture in.  But mulch can become mouldy so it is your choice.

     Tomatoes, basil and cukes need lots of sun.  Lettuce can tolerate shade.  It actually prefers it in the heat of the summer.  If you start plants from seed, use untreated seed.  Don't use pressure treated wood or creosoted railway ties in your garden as they can leach toxic chemicals into the soil. (See Update Spring 2000)
     And beware!  Gardening can be addictive.  You may be digging a bigger plot next year.

(See Books and Stuff for more gardening information.)