Gardening Made Easy (for Reluctant Beginners)

Food tastes better when you grow it yourself. Get started with a homemade salsa garden and a little bit of history to boot.

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Growing your own food has brow. Like driving a Prius, giving up single-serve drinking straws or wearing Toms shoes, growing a patch of vegetables shows you’re a member of the educated class who cares about the planet and good food.

Your palette is evolved, so you know there are few things sadder than store-bought tomatoes. You’re eco-conscious, so you know the carbon footprint involved in trucking strawberries from Mexico in the middle of winter is gigantic. You want sustainable and tasty, so growing vegetables is a thing. It’s a cultural statement, a protest against the status quo of industrial food, an assertion of individuality.

This is an amazing development because a little more than a generation ago, the only people who grew vegetables in their yards were over 65 and went by names like Meemaw or Pawpaw. Or they lived off the grid and had names like Dahlia or Moonbeam. Normal people bought their produce at the grocery. Growing one’s own food was quaint.

Then the 1960s happened. The generation raised on factory food decided to grow their own. The back-to-the-land movement was born, one of the most unusual demographic shifts in U.S. history because it briefly reversed 200 years of urbanization. A wave of young people left the cities and moved out to the sticks, grew their hair long, lived in geodesic domes and straw-bale houses and planted gardens.

Only a fraction of the population went back to the land, but they had a massive impact. They developed organic farming practices and co-ops, and were the forefathers of the sustainability movement that’s gone mainstream in the 21st century. Whole Foods started as a co-op. And Bernie Sanders was a back-to-the-land guy, fleeing his native Brooklyn for 80 acres in Vermont.

The person who pulled the grow-your-own-food part of the movement toward mainstream culture was Alice Waters. She’s the founder of Chez Panisse, the famed California restaurant that turned farm-to-table dining, practiced by humans for several thousand years, into a status symbol. Waters opened her eatery in Berkeley, capital of counterculture, in 1971. She was one of the first chefs to champion cooking food grown nearby, preserving local food traditions, eating slowly and rebelling against industrialized food.

Forty years, many Michelin stars and James Beard awards later, Waters is legend and her food values are mainstream. Today, no chef worth his toque doesn’t have a garden behind the restaurant, or at least a seasonal menu full of locally sourced food, because only a fast-food-loving troglodyte would eat lima beans in January.

Michelle Obama took local food to schoolyards across the country, teaching kids who only ate food that came out of wrappers what it’s like to put a seed in the ground and watch it grow into dinner.

If you are ready to supplement (or even replace) your weekly CSA box and farmer’s market trip, grow a garden. When you work in one, watching edible plants grow, your relationship with food changes. You realize it’s precious and finite.

Here’s a list of easy-to-grow plants organized around a theme: Growing the ingredients for homemade salsa. Because most jarred salsa sucks. Plant your little garden in containers – this is a best bet for beginners, as it’ll make for simple care and monitoring.

Get four terra cotta flower pots, sizes below. Use starter plants from a nursery for all but the cilantro because that’s easiest. Grow cilantro from seeds, because cilantro has a short lifespan. Those nursery plants are near the end of their lives by the time you get them. It’s easy to grow from seed, too. Here’s what to put in each container:

24-inch pot:

  • 1 tomato plant, with a tomato cage to support it as it grows (Celebrity and Bush Early Girl are good varieties)
  •  10 sweet red onion starter plants

18-inch pot:

  • 1 jalapeno plant (mild or hot variety, depending on your tolerance)
  • 10 white onion starter plants

18-inch pot:

  • 1 bell pepper plant (yellow, green or red – California Wonder and Milena are good varieties)
  • Cilantro seeds (plant 3 to 6 – once they sprout, thin them by pulling out all but the two strongest seedlings)

14-inch pot:

  • Cilantro seeds (plant 6 to 9 – after they sprout, pull out all but the three strongest seedlings)
  1. Place the containers where they will get at least six hours of full sun. This is very important. No sun =  no tomatoes, onions or peppers = no salsa. If you can, place the pots near a hose to make it easier to water them.
  2. Fill the pots with potting mix. You can buy a bag at any outdoor center.  
  3. Dig holes two times the size of the roots of the starter plants and place the plants in them. Make sure the top of the plants’ rootballs are level with the surface of the soil. Fill the hole, pat the dirt and water the new plants. Use a watering can or a hose set on gentle stream and give the plants a long, slow, deep drink. You want to saturate the roots.
  4. You’ll need to water the plants daily for two weeks, until they’re established.
  5. Feed them once every two to three weeks with an organic fertilizer.

TIP: Putting mulch (like chopped leaves) atop the soil will keep the plants’ roots cool and slow evaporation from the soil, meaning you’ll have to water less.

TIP: Cilantro doesn’t do well when temps top 90 degrees F. It bolts (sets seed, stops making leaves and dies). If you live in a place with hot summers, grow it outdoors in the spring and  move it indoors by a window in the summer.

Remember, even the best gardener kills plants. Dead plants happen. The good thing is, when they die, you can always plant more. Cycle of life and all. You can do this.