A Farmer’s Advice on Gardening

If you want to grow food you can eat, this is how you do it

Paul Greenberg

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Beginning this spring Eliza Milio became this page’s junior staff writer. Funded through a fellowship from The Safina Center, Milio worked as an organic farmer in California through some of the toughest conditions the planet could throw at a young grower. She’ll be writing here about the intersection of climate and agriculture on a regular basis. Here is her second post.

When you’re a farmer you get really comfortable learning from your mistakes. Focused planning, applied science, and reactive, environment-informed decision-making are just some of the tenets necessary to bring crops to market. But what if you, dear gardener, just want to bring food to the table? Are there lessons that I learned from my decade of commercially farming many acres that can be applied to a few square feet?

It’s normal to worry about not watering plants enough. But worrying doesn’t grow food.

Actually, yes. And a lot of it is psychological. For many, gardening is an inherently intimidating concept. We struggle to keep even indoor plants alive and are convinced we don’t have “green thumbs.” Some of us were raised surrounded by concrete and have a fear of failing at something so unfamiliar. Others just don’t know where to start. As a city-girl-turned-farmer-turned-urban gardener, I can attest that I’ve suffered from all of the above. But if there’s one lesson I can impart to you it’s this:

Plants want to grow.

With that essential rule in mind, here are six key steps that will get you on your way to eating something you grew with your own hands:

1. Start with a start. While seeds may seem like a cheaper, or more “zero-to-sixty” approach, I can’t emphasize enough the (nearly) guaranteed success of planting pre-grown vegetable starts. Leave the greenhouse science of germinating and propagating plants to the professionals. I recommend checking out local farmers’ markets, searching online for seasonal plant sales, or swinging by your local hardware or plant nursery to find healthy, affordable options.

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Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org