Wouldn’t It Be Awesome If … You Grew Your Own Food?

My friend Meg does! She lives in an apartment but manages to take care of a huge garden  (she rents a plot at a local community garden) and a little indoor apartment-friendly garden.

A garden allows you to eat fresh, eat local, and eat healthy. Just ask Michelle Obama who recently planted a vegetable garden at the White House — this first since Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Garden during World War II.  Read on for a ton of amazingly helpful information about starting your own garden.

Name: Megan Costello
Age: 24
Occupation: Outreach Specialist, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Location: Madison, WI

Why did you want to start a garden?
Wisconsin is a land of “four seasons” so you take what get. Winter is depressing so spring, summer, and fall are our chances to make up for lost time. A garden is a great way to do that. I always had a garden growing up — an 8 by 8 foot raised bed, courtesy of my pops! — so I’m somewhat familiar with our weather, soil, vegetables, etc.

What are the benefits of growing a garden?
Last year was the first year of my real outdoor gardening life. I do it because it’s a ton of fun — it makes me get up on Saturday and Sunday and go outside and appreciate the weather. The benefits are also personally rewarding. Is there nothing greater than working hard and getting something in return? I put a seed in the ground, water it, watch it, pick bugs off of it, and then it gives me ripe tomatoes.

Before gardening, I never really believed in this whole local/organic-food-tastes-better mantra. Until last year. I’ve never had tomatoes that tasted like the ones I grew. Was this what sunlight tasted like? I could eat 20 grape tomatoes in one weeding session. I ate green beans right off the plant — I’d just sit in the dirt and eat them raw and unwashed. And the broccoli — I’d eat half of it before I got home. It was the most vibrant green ever! I thought something was wrong with many of my plants until I realized that, “Oh, so this is really what food is supposed to taste and look like.

A garden is also great exercise. Getting the soil prepped in April is insanely good on the arms and shoulders. Last year I hauled about 30 wheelbarrows of mulch and spread it out myself. Watch the back! Not to mention the hours spent hunched over picking beans and weeding. I think I had stiff legs for 10 weeks straight.

As an apartment dweller, how did you manage to start both an indoor and outdoor garden? What were the first steps?
Google, google, google. I started scouring the internet. I read about friends on Facebook that had gardens. I started following fellow garden nerds on Twitter. I searched for garden blogs. I read the monthly news updates and garden manuals courtesy of my community garden — probably one of the best ‘field guides’ available for outdoor gardening.

You have to read and learn. A garden is easy: seed, dirt, water, sun. But there are timeless tricks of the trade that are important to understand. For example, I can just plant asparagus and eat some green yummies this spring, right? Wrong. Asparagus takes 2-3 years to mature. And rhubarb. And raspberries. And strawberries. Burn.

And those delicious local watermelons I see at the farmers’ market? Talk about FAIL CITY in Wisconsin’s Zone 5 region. Live and learn.

For those who don’t have access to an outdoor garden or even a porch or a stoop, I highly recommend checking out the Window Farms movement — a hydroponic, DIY indoor garden grow station.

I’m in the process of building a 3-plant air lift system indoors for herbs and greens. This will be a great supplement during long Wisconsin winters.  Check out the “How Tos” on the Window Farms website — you will not be disappointed!

And for even more ridiculously nerdy and interesting information, check out Will Allen’s Growing Power craze in Milwaukee, WI. This is DIY urban gardening like you’ve never seen before.  Fish + poop + water + plants = food.

What were the costs, time, and tools associated with your gardens?
Costs for me are very minimal.  My outdoor plot is $35 a year to rent. I pay $15 to have it rototilled in the spring. I buy about $10 worth of seeds and the rest I am able to get for free from my community garden thanks to the support of local gardens and greenhouses.  Thank you, Madison!

Time is a biggie and time is money. Initially, prepping your garden is a ton of time.  Estimate 30+ hours for a plot of my size (20×25’) to prepare the soil and get things ready for planting. I have to haul about 20+ wheelbarrows of mulch onto my plot, weed, and clear away debris. Once the plot is rototilled, the rich mulch is mixed into the nutrient-sapped soil. This process is extremely helpful and will preserver your soil in the long run. If you don’t have a rototiller? Guess what? Get digging.

Once the soil is ready and you’ve planted (minimal time), I spend about 10+ hours/week at the garden — a few times during the week and at least 4 hours during the weekend for weeding. Weeding is like traffic — no matter what route you go, at some point, you will get stuck in traffic. You will have to wait. And wait. You will have to weed. And weed.

Necessary big tools are spades (shovels), pitchforks, a hoe, and potentially a rake. Small tools: garden shears, gloves (a good pair!), hand shovel, and string.

For indoor gardening and a project like a Window Farm, the game changes drastically.  My system will be built using recycled bottles, tubing, a fish tank pump, and clay pellets.  I’m leaving the fish and poop out.

What did you plant? How much of it are you actually eating?
Well, I had a 20×25′ outdoor plot last year.  That’s 500 sqare feet or more than half the size of my apartment. YIKES.  I planted:

  • 4 sugar snap peas — yum.
  • half row of yellow beans (approximately 10 feet) — I froze a lot of these.
  • half row of green beans — amazing.
  • half row of cranberry beans — for soups!  Perfection!
  • half row of spinach — amazing.  I would say 6-8 garbage bags of spinach (14 gal size bags).
  • half row of lettuce — so much!
  • 8 tomato plants (all heirlooms – cherry, grape, zebra, black, roma, oh my!) — alas, many died due to the tomato blight, but I still had tons of tomatoes.
  • a big patch of arugula — spicy deliciousness.
  • 2 summer zucchinis — the size of toddlers.
  • 2 cucumbers (fail)
  • 16 watermelons (fail)
  • 3 yellow bell peppers (half-fail)
  • one jalapeno — salsa success!
  • 2 chives — mysteriously appeared.
  • 3 swiss chards — stalks as thick as your arms.
  • 3 siberian kales (4 feet tall)
  • 3 cauliflowers — giant heads!
  • 3 broccolis — so much!
  • 6 leeks — the size of baseball bats.
  • 15-20 golden delicious beets — beets coming out of my ears.
  • Herbs:  parsley, thyme, cilantro (2), basil (4), dill — much success!
  • Flowers:  mums, zinnias, marigolds (many kinds) — great flowers all summer!

I ate everything. I also had to give a lot away. I had grocery bags full of greens. Turns out that my friends and coworkers actually like getting free food! What I didn’t give away and I didn’t eat, I blanched and froze. I still have a few beets and beans left over — they’re great for soup and stir fry in winter.

My Window Farm adventure won’t have as big of yields. I will be growing mostly fresh herbs and greens and hope to have my hydroponic system up and running at the end of this month.

What is the best part?
Sunlight, summer weather, being outside, free food (essentially “free”), flowers on my kitchen table all summer, butterflies, fresh herbs, bringing in free food for my coworkers — office bonus points!

Last year, this bird would always come watch me when I was weeding.  This is not a joke.  It was a brown bird and she would wait for me. After I weeded, she would fly down to the ground and pick out the bugs I had uncovered from pulling weeds. This happened about eight times, but only when I was by myself. (So basically I could be making this up. But it really happened. I was like Snow White.)

What is the worst part?
Perpetual dirt under my nails. Broken nails. Calluses on my hands. Finding dirt all over my house and in the weirdest places (fridge door?  toilet?).  Destroying many pairs of shoes. Plants dying (tomato blight, bottom-rot, flooding, drought, pests). But the worst:  the first fall frost and the signal that winter was coming.

Any words of encouragement or advice for someone who’d like to start a garden?
Just start! Start small. Go get a five gallon pot and put a patio tomato in it. Start an herb box and start with the easies: basil, parsley, thyme.

Read Robin Mittenthal’s Garden Manual and How Tos — it’s comprehensive but you won’t be disappointed.

Humans have been raising crops and plants for a thousands and thousands of years so don’t think you’re incompetent.  You can do this.  I think you’ll like it.

Thank you for sharing all of this information, Meg! Follow Meg’s gardening adventures by clicking here.

Photos by Meg Costello.