Forget eating local

Food independence is an important thing. The more control you have over where your food comes from, the more you can depend on its wholesomeness and its reliability.

There are steps you can take, such as community supported agriculture or developing relationships with suppliers . . . but one of the most important things you can do, in my opinion, is start growing your own food.

Besides, in this day and age, where we are concerned with the amount of distance our food travels to get to us and local food is chic, it doesn’t get much more local than your backyard.

Community gardens

For years I lived in apartment buildings — and no, not the cool ones that have rooftop gardens.

I would look longingly at people with big back yards and dream of the day I could do more than grow some herbs in a window box. Then I discovered community gardens.

These are places where land has been set aside for people to rent and use to grow herbs, vegetables and fruit. They are normally located in communities (hence the name) and are great if you lack the space to have a large garden. There are down sides though.

Cost: Plots do cost some money, both in rent and upkeep; if you can afford one, you might also be able to afford to upgrade from an apartment to a house with a yard.

Availability: Space is always at a premium in community gardens, and well-established ones are often full and waitlists long. One possible solution to this is to put a post on the bulletin board (many have cork boards for notices) saying that you are willing to help someone with upkeep if they are willing to give you part of their plot. This is a great mutual relationship because often times there are high expectations when it comes to upkeep.

Upkeep: As a member of the community, you are often expected to keep your garden very well kept. This can seem like a community imposing their will on you, but with so many gardens in such close proximity, the old adage “one bad apple spoils the bunch” is very apt. If your garden is full of weeds and detritus, weeds and pests from your garden will spread to others.

DIY gardens

If you’re fortunate enough to live in a house with a nice yard, you’re in a prime position to build your own garden.

My first garden was built by painstakingly removing the grass from a 12-square-metre part of my yard, turning the soil with an old pitch fork and edging the garden with bricks I stole from a pile my parents had behind their house for the better part of the 2000s.

If you plan to go this route, I highly recommend a 12-pack of beer (something good, not some mass-produced lager) and a sunny spring afternoon. I also recommend having a good place to put the sod you pull up from the yard. Landlords are a touchy bunch, and a pile of rotting sod seems to make them angry — especially if you forgot to ask before you made your garden in their yard.

During my first year growing in my new garden grass would constantly poke up, and I was forever pulling it out. Expressing my frustration to an Italian relative one summer’s afternoon, I was told that the first crop you should grow in any new garden are potatoes.

The logic behind this is that potatoes are slightly poisonous and will kill off any of the seeds and roots that are still lurking in the turned soil.

The second year, according to my green-thumbed relation, you should grow beans, as they fix nitrogen into the soil and act as a natural fertilizer.

After that you can grow what ever you like, but you should keep in mind that if you grow too many plants that take nitrogen (tomatoes), and not enough that return it (beans), your garden will eventually lack enough nutrients to grow much of anything.

You can use artificial fertilizers to bolster your soil, but that’s a nasty business.

Growing stuff

From my experience, I have found that the easiest — and most rewarding — things to grow are herbs. There isn’t a meal on this planet that can’t be improved with some rosemary and basil. Plus, they are dead easy.
To grow herbs:

Turn up your soil so it is nice and loose

Dig one centimetre holes with your fingertip and put 2-3 seeds in the hole

Cover with dirt and water

Keep watering a bit each day (unless it rains) until plants poke through
If more than one seed grows, pick the strongest looking plant and pull the other one(s)

When a meal calls for fresh herbs, go to your garden and pick some of the leaves. From my experience, the more you harvest your herbs the faster they grow, so don’t worry about taking too often.

Once you have herbs mastered, you can move onto more intensive things, like potatoes and tomatoes.

For potatoes, you should buy small starter potatoes.

Dig a trench about four to five centimetres deep and place a baby potato every 10 or so centimetres

Cover the bay potatoes with soil and water them

When the plant pokes through the soil, cover it with more earth, leaving just the top exposed

In the fall you will have a ready supply of potatoes for the winter; just store them in a cool dark place

Tomatoes require a longer growing season than we have in Winnipeg, so I always buy plants that have had their start in a greenhouse, long before our Manitoba climate has warmed up enough to support them, giving me a head start.

Dig a hole big enough for the roots to go in and able to be fully covered by the soil

Water the plant

Before too long, place a tomato frame over your plant; otherwise when the fruit grows — yes, tomatoes are a kind of berry — the weight will pull the branches of the plant to the ground, and your tomatoes will rot

Harvest when the tomatoes are good and ripe

Once you eat home-grown food, you’ll wonder how you ever ate flavorless potatoes, under-ripe ethylene-gassed tomatoes and dried herbs.

Plus you get the satisfaction of telling people who come over for dinner that everything they are eating came from your garden.