05 June 2012

Six or 13 or 18 must haves for a vegan garden

Even the smallest terrace or patio can become a garden or urban farm once you learn a little of the basics of container gardening.  The trick is to choose a few veggies and fruits and do them really well rather than trying to grow everything.  So how do you choose?  Of course, this will depend on your tastes but a good place to start is the dirty dozen list.

The current Dirty Dozen are:
1.     Apples (98% contain pesticides)
2.     Celery (95% contain pesticides)
3.     Strawberries (13 different pesticides are used)
4.     Peaches (85% contain pesticides and up 57 pesticides are used)
5.     Spinach
6.     Nectarines (according to Environmental Working Group, all nectarines are contaminated with pesticides)
7.     Imported grapes (most grapes sold in the U.S. come from Chile and other South American countries and register 14 different pesticides.)
8.     Red and yellow bell peppers (70% show pesticide use)
9.     Potatoes (91% of all potatoes register pesticide use.)
10.   Blueberries
11.  Lettuce (most likely veg to retain the pesticides used on it and a favorite of slugs)
12.   Kale and collard greens tie for number twelve

When we talk about container gardening there are a few on the list that can’t be grown in such a small space.  So let’s take apples, peaches and nectarines off of our ‘must have’ list.  We can buy these in organic varieties. 

Grapes are another kind of problem. Although a single vine wouldn’t take too much space and would be beautiful on a balcony, they take an incredible amount of work to train and prune.  They also won’t fruit for a couple of years and, if you are growing them in containers, they might not fruit at all.  You will get some beautiful foliage, which is edible, but fruit isn’t a guarantee in a confined space.  If the vine does produce fruit, the first crop is usually bad tasting and inedible. Try to buy domestically grown organic instead.

Strawberries also have a set of problems that make them difficult for the small garden.  Strawberry plants are expensive to buy.  To get a decent set of plants that are mature enough to produce strawberries the same summer you buy them will cost at least $30.  And the yield will probably not be enough to offset the cost.  If you are planting in the backyard, the upside is that strawberry plants are self-perpetuating, meaning that the mature plants send out runners and establish new plants.  This is great if you have a lot of space, but balcony or patio gardens are too limited to make this worthwhile.

If you live in an apartment, and have one of those balconies that is 4’ x 10’ or something similar, I suggest the following 6 crops:

1.     Spinach – It’s pretty easy to grow but likes sandy soil.
2.     Lettuce – Salads are essential to the veg diet and lettuce is a snap.  Keep the slugs away with dishes of beer.
3.     Tomatoes – These aren’t a dirty dozen crop but homegrown heirloom tomatoes taste so much better than the mass-produced things you buy in the supermarket.  But they generally cost about $5 per pound from the farmer’s market.  Growing your own is a much better idea.  Plant marigolds to keep the aphids at bay.
4.     Potatoes – because potatoes grow underground and have thin skins, they are very susceptible to pesticide infiltration.  Most people don’t realize how easy they are to grow.  And the taste is beyond compare.  They are perfect for container gardens.
5.     Bell peppers – These require very little work and produce a lot of fruit. 
6.     Herbs – these can be planted in containers and put with everything else on the terrace or can be grown on windowsills.  Basil and mint are a must, but thyme, oregano and savory are great too. If you have enough room on your balcony, add rosemary, dill, sage and lavender.  These four are larger, bush-type plants and need more space than a windowsill.

If you have a larger patio that can accommodate more containers, or a small yard that has actual grass and earth, I suggest adding the following:

7.     Celery – This can be grown in containers but prefers a cooler climate.
8.     Blueberries – You can buy mature bushes from farmer’s market growers or nurseries.  If you need to keep it in a container, use a large one so it has room to grow.
9.     Cucumbers – these are a snap to grow but they are vining plants so you’ll need to keep the containers near a fence or get a tomato cage for them to climb up.
10.  Squash – Grow several types if you have the room and always include a pumpkin.  Even if you don’t like pumpkin, you can grow the jack-o-lantern variety for Halloween.  All are easy and fast growing.
11.  If the soil is good near your fence, plant corn.  It can’t really be grown in containers but will grow perfectly well in narrow plots of earth.
12.  Peas and Beans – nothing is more wonderful than going to your garden and pulling fresh peas from the vine.
13.  Eggplant – there are dozens of varieties that grow well in containers.

If you have a large yard, then you have a lot more leeway. Add any or all of the following:

14.  Watermelon – they are easy to grow but have long tap roots and are not great for containers
15.  Rhubarb – these will grow in containers and will produce for 15 years but get very large.
16.   Roots veggies – they can’t be grown well in containers and need to be put in the ground.  Plant beets, carrots and radishes in whatever soil is available.
17.  Fruit trees – once you have a large space you can start thinking about apple and peaches.
18. Ginger - you'll be amazed at how well this grows in containers.  But they work best in warm climates.

No matter what you plant in your kitchen garden, always plant marigolds to keep aphids away, sunflowers for the birds (and because they’re pretty), and some flowers to brighten things up.

It’s not too late, go put your hands in some dirt.

Fianna MacGregor | Blog | Blog | Twitter | Email
New York City Fianna has been vegan for 36 years. She is currently working on a second M.A. in Human Rights from NYU. When she isn’t veganizing every cookbook she can get her hands on, she’s working her urban farm in New York City. She also writes extensively on veganism, running and green living. Her newest project is to trace everything she buys to find out if it’s cruelty-free (both animal and human) and eco-friendly. Fianna and her fiancĂ© are animal rescuers of dogs, cats and birds.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/pikerslanefarm