“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” That Marcus Tullius Cicero was onto something. Who wouldn’t want access to unlimited food and knowledge?
But if gardening gives you the uh-oh feeling, you’re not alone. Many organic vegetable enthusiasts and flower admirers are intimidated by the prospect of growing their own because they’ve never tried it.
”What do you do,” we non-gardeners wonder, “Just dig a hole in the ground and throw some seeds in?
While it’s not quite that simple, it’s not that difficult. Really! Check out our guide, below.
PRODUCE YOUR OWN
If you want to truly eat local, reduce carbon emissions from food travel and know where your food comes from, nothing is better than growing your own.
Inside: First thing you should know: you don’t necessarily have to have a backyard to grow some of your own food. A window will do!
Kelly Smith Trimble, in her books Vegetable Gardening Wisdom, suggests growing herbs for starters: “You can grow herbs year round indoors near a sunny window. Use containers with drainage holes placed on saucers so you don’t damage a sill or table. Rosemary, oregano, basil, and sage thrive in the sunniest spots (six hours of exposure a day is ideal), but you can get away with mint, parsley, cilantro, and chives in lower-light conditions.”
Start with The Floral Society’s Herb Kit (click link to buy), a kit of Parsley, Rosemary, Basil, Mint, Sage, Oregano, Thyme, and Dill seeds and planting instructions. The Floral Society also has an Edible Flowers Kit (click link to buy) with Nasturtium, Bachelor's Button, Calendula, and Marigold seeds and instructions. Edible flowers are fabulous on farm salads and in cocktails as garnish.
From a recent lunch in Hudson, NY, at Moto Coffee Machine
Sprouts also grow well indoors. Smith Trimble writes, “You can have a steady supply of homegrown greens even in the depths of winter by growing sprouts indoors. Use a jar with a mesh or perforated lid for draining. 1) Drop a spoonful of sprouting seeds, like alfalfa, radish, chickpea, or lentil, into the jar and cover with water. 2) Soak overnight, then drain. 3) Rinse and drain daily until sprouts fill the jar (approximately 3 to 7 days). 4) Give the sprouts a final rinse; then remove and dry them. Eat within a few days.”
Smith Trimble, and other gardeners we spoke with, encourage newbies to be experimental, but to think carefully about the containers and medium in which anything to be eaten is grown. Treated wood, for example, or anything that has been sealed or painted with chemicals should be avoided.
Not ready to be gardening completely on your own? Some local places like The Stony Kill Foundation in Wappingers Fall, NY, will rent community garden plots for a small fee.
Outside: For an outside garden, long-term, cedarwood is ideal because it repels pests and is a better bet for long-term soil health, Smith Trimble says. She advises starting small with raised beds that are “no wider than twice your arm’s length.” A 4 x 4-foot block is ideal. And you can’t use just any dirt to grow food. Soil is full of microbes and garden-friendly bugs that need food and water. Compost provides the food, and rain (or your hose in dry places) provides the water. Here is a great, approachable DIY composting guide; many farmers also sell compost.
Smith Trimble recommends about eight inches of loose healthy soil for optimal growth.
Before you try your hand at esoteric heirlooms, Smith Trimble recommends starting with the basics. Such as peas. “Peas are one of the first things you can plant outside in early spring,” she writes. “Soak pea seeds for about 24 hours before planting to soften the hard seed exterior and speed up germination.”
She recommends constructing a trellis out of chicken wire so peas can easily grow upwards. Carrots are an excellent garden companion for peas, and if planted at the basis of the pea trellis, they can often be harvested at the same time.
Tomatoes, the perennial garden classic, are a newbie must as well. Look for “early” tomatoes in the Northeast, because they mature in fewer than 60 days, which is ideal in cooler climates.
Smith Trimble also recommends planting onions among the other vegetables, because they deter common garden pests (and, seriously, there’s nothing like garden fresh onions...they are infinitely more complex than the grocery store versions we’re all used to).
To attract pollinators (including the swallowtail butterfly), Smith Trimble recommends planting dill, which grows easily and attracts garden-friendly pollinators and insects.
For more in-depth tips from Smith Trimble, dig into her book.
We also love the idea of growing flowers, so we reached out to Amy Fedele, who breaks it down for-dummies style on her blog Pretty Purple Door, without making readers feel like, well, dummies.
If you want flowers to come back year after year, she advises considering self-sowing annuals.
What are your favorite flowers to plant in gardens in the Northeast? There are some annuals that are “self-sowing.” This means that the plant’s seeds fall to the ground and grow into new flowers. While the plant really only lasts for one year (annual), because it self-sows, new plants will bloom each year. Some self-sowing annuals to look for are:
- Mexican poppy (Argemone mexicana)
- Snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata)
- Cuphea (Cuphea llavea)
- Button flower (Gomphrena globose)
- Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima)
- Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena)
For a more appealing aesthetic, she also advises planting in groups of 3, 5, or 7 instead of just plopping one plant into the ground. You will get so much more impact when you create these drifts of color.
One of New York Maker’s favorite gardening innovations is Love By Bean Organic Earth Seed Bombs (click link to buy) because they’re super easy to use. You put the ball of seeds and degradable paper on top of soil, no digging required, and watch the seeds germinate and roots dig down into the soil. It’s the best way for scaredy cats (me!) and kids (I have those, too) to get their hands in the dirt without a huge financial and time commitment.
For those of us without a backyard, it couldn’t be easier, she says: For planters and hanging baskets you can use an empty 20-oz bottle to make it "self watering". Just cut the bottom of the bottle off. Leave the top of the bottle screwed on and poke 10-20 small holes into the bottle. Place it into the center of the planter with the cap at the bottom. Fill up the potting soil making sure that the bottom of the bottle is still above the soil line just an inch or so. Fill the bottle with water and it will slow-drip water to your flowers and plants. Works great for hanging baskets since they dry out so quickly.
Photo: Pretty Purple Door
What kinds of flowers are good for hanging baskets? I used coral-colored petunias, lobelia (purple), and creeping jenny as the green trailing plant. Creeping jenny, the green trailing plant, is actually a perennial groundcover that spreads really nicely. I like having it in the garden because it keeps the weeds out. One added bonus is that it also makes a great spiller plant for hanging baskets or planters. Because it’s a quick spreader, when you dig some up from your garden, it fills back in quickly. Another plant combination you could try is pansies or impatiens (or really any flower), sedum (I like autumn joy) and vinca minor which is a purple groundcover that looks similar to the lobelia.
For a full tutorial, head here.
IT’S OK TO STAY IN YOUR LANE
But...we also like the idea of making use of the glorious fresh flowers grown by local farmers. So we tapped celeb flower wrangler Bronwen Smith, founder and lead designer of B Floral, based in Manhattan.
New York-grown varieties that are in season now, Smith notes: “Hyacinth, tulips, and daffodils. A fan favorite, the peony, will make a stronger presence as we head further into spring. Spirea, lilac, and flowering branches are other types that will make a statement. Often these seasonal flowers can be purchased at farmer’s markets, right along with your vegetables.”
Most beloved flowers (by her star-studded list of clients, including Kelly Ripa, Kelly Rutherford, Jaime King, Sutton Foster, RHONY's Carole Radziwill, Bethenny Frankel, and Martha Stewart): “Everyone loves a peony, we get requests for these all year round, even when not in season! Something we like to use in arrangements when these aren’t available are clooney ranunculus or garden roses. They mimic the shape of peonies and can add a really pretty fullness to arrangements.”
She also shared a step-by-step guide to cutting and arranging flowers:
- Gather your materials. You will need a vase or vessel to hold your arrangement, and a sharp knife or floral clippers, and most importantly, gorgeous flowers! (Try The Floral Society's Arrangement Workshop Kit.)
- Use your non-dominant hand to hold the flowers so that you can use your dominant hand to cut the stems of your flowers and place them in your vessel.
- Always remove any leaves that would sit below the water line. Leaves contain pesticides that will transfer to the water and poison the flowers.
- Cut the stems of your flowers at a 45 degree angle with floral clippers or sharp scissors. This angle provides more surface area for your flower to absorb water.
Photo: B Floral
- Always make sure to place your flowers in water within 30 seconds of cutting them so the follicles don’t begin to close. Also, make sure that the bottom of your stems are covered with water when you place them in your vase or vessel.
- When arranging, we always like to start with the biggest heads of the flowers in the center, to create a full and lively base for the arrangement.
Photo: B Floral
- Then, fill in your arrangement with your smaller flowers, and lastly greens.
- Turn your arrangement as you create it to make sure you can see it from all angles.
Photo: B Floral
- Be sure to change the water in your arrangement every 2-3 days to keep your flowers fresh and lively!