If you're a gardener, you know that the act of gardening is just as rewarding as the literal fruits of your labor. Monty Don, a TV presenter and garden writer, attributes the well-being of gardeners to the "recharging" you get from sticking your hands in the soil and spending time outdoors in nature.1
Still, interest in gardening is skyrocketing, not only because of its therapeutic nature but also because people are growing increasingly concerned about the quality of their food and where it comes from. Alas, many are turning back toward the traditional practice of growing their own food right in their own backyards (or in some cases on rooftops, patios, and any other nook and cranny one might find).
In the latter case, when food is your motivating factor for planting a garden, it sure would be nice to be able to plant your seeds one day and harvest ripe vegetables the next. Nature doesn't work that way, of course, but there are some tricks to growing vegetables faster…
Horticulturists Ryan Schmitt and Weston Miller recently shared their top strategies for "speedier" vegetables with NPR,2 and these are well worth trying, especially if you live in an area with a short growing season (or if you're just feeling inpatient after a long winter).
• Try Microgreens — Microgreens are greens that are harvested at less than 14 days old, giving them a tender texture and a more powerful nutritional punch (I also recommend sprouts, as I'll explain below).
You can grow the seeds (try beet greens, pea shoots, or sunflowers) outdoors (soil temperatures should be 50-65 degrees Fahrenheit) or indoors in a tray filled with potting soil. After about a week or so, you'll have small microgreens that can be harvested with scissors.
• Plant Fast-Growing Salad Fixings — Arugula takes just three weeks from seed to harvest, while radishes are ready in about 25 days. Mustard greens are another quick one, taking only about 30 days to mature. The Yaya carrot (a hybrid) is another option, which cuts the typical time to mature from about 75 days to 56.
• Try a Faster-Growing Tomato — You'll typically have to wait 70 to 90 days before tomatoes are ready to harvest, but the cold-tolerant Glacier tomato variety will have fruit ready to pick in about 55 days. Sun Gold tomatoes are also fast – about 57 days from seedling to harvest.
While you can certainly wait until the danger of spring frost has passed, and then plant your seeds directly in the soil outdoors, you can get a head start by growing seedlings indoors and then transplanting them into your garden. This can be particularly useful in areas where the growing season is short.
Growing seedlings, which can take between four and 12 weeks to sprout, will allow you to harvest your vegetables four to six weeks earlier than had you planted the seeds directly outdoors. The University of Maine has an excellent website describing how to grow your seedlings, and which ones are best left for direct-seeding due to their rapid maturation:3
"Using transplants instead of direct-seeding is especially important for plants that take a long time to mature or are sensitive to frost, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and melons.
Some plants (mostly root crops) do not transplant well, or they mature quickly enough that starting seedlings indoors is not necessary. Vegetables that are typically direct-seeded in the garden include beans, beets, carrots, corn, peas, spinach, turnips, and zucchini."
To get started on your seedlings, you need just a few supplies:
• Fresh seed, ideally heirloom
• Containers, about 2 to 3 1/2-inch deep with adequate drainage holes
• Growing medium. Use fine-textured soilless mix of equal parts of peat moss and vermiculite or perlite. Do not use conventional fertilizers
Now, once your seedlings are grown and the outdoor temperature is 45 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer, the plant will require one to two weeks of "hardening off" before they can be transplanted into the ground, to prevent them from going into shock. This is done by placing them outdoors for just a few hours at a time in a semi-shaded location.
Gradually, over several days, increase the time you leave them outdoors, and gradually increase the amount of direct sunlight they're exposed to. Transplant your seedlings into your garden in the late afternoon, as the weather starts to cool down (or choose a cloudy day), and water the plants thoroughly.
Sprouts are a true superfood that many overlook, and they're also incredibly easy, and fast, to grow. You can have homegrown sprouts ready to harvest in a matter of days, offering you a concentrated source of enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and other phytochemicals.
I am in the process of compiling more detailed instructional videos, but for now you can get instructions on how to grow them by viewing a step-by-step guide at rawfoods-livingfoods.com.4 Growing sprouts is rapidly rewarding as, unlike gardens, in about one week you will have food that you can harvest and eat!
About to plant wheatgrass and sunflower seeds - 2 days after soaking
Wheatgrass and sunflower seeds – 3 ½ days post germination.
Sunflower seeds and pea sprouts – 3 days until ready for harvest.
Sunflower seed sprouts and Wheat Grass - ready to harvest.
Biological gardening is one of my new passions. I have been in the process of converting a large amount of my ornamental landscape to edible. Allow me to share a few of the most useful tips I've come across so far. What many don't fully appreciate is that your health ultimately depends on the health and quality of the soil microbes, as they are ultimately responsible for transferring nutrients to the plants you are seeking to grow.
The answer to correcting nutrient-depleted soils is NOT to add chemical fertilizers, as these salts typically decimate soil microbes like bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and microscopic roundworms called nematodes. When plants are naturally stressed through weather, low nutrient availability and pathogens they can produce far higher levels of natural beneficial compounds, e.g. grapes produce more resveratrol, indicating that when we "pamper" our foods, they actually have lower nutritional quality.
Last year, I experimented in my own garden by spreading 15 gallons of vortexed compost tea (basically compost tea that has been aerated and vortexed) nearly every day for six months. Each ounce of the tea had hundreds of trillions of beneficial microbes. Since I was applying 2,000 ounces to my garden, that's a lot of microbes! While that provided some benefit, I was still disappointed with the results.
What I learned from that experience is that these microbes need a home to hang out in, live, and multiply. Without a proper home they simply die, soon after being applied. As it turns out, Biochar fits the bill perfectly. Biochar is created by slowly burning biomass like wood chips, corn stalks, coconut shells, or any similar organic material, in a low-oxygen environment, such as a kiln.
I applied about eight tons on my property earlier this year and am noticing major improvements. Adding Biochar to the soil allows microorganisms to thrive and multiply, and can double a plant's yield. By imitating nature and simply covering your garden with wood chips, you can also dramatically increase yields and cut watering down to the bare minimum. You needn't apply tons -- even 50 pounds added to a small garden will provide phenomenal results.
Virtually everyone can bring out their own inner farmer by starting a garden, reaping rewards of fresh, nutritious food, and even better mental health. You don't need vast amounts of space either. Even apartment dwellers can create a well-stocked edible garden, as you can use virtually every square foot of your space to grow food, including your lateral space.
Hanging baskets are ideal for a wide variety of crops, such as strawberries, leafy greens, runner beans, pea shoots, tomatoes, and a variety of herbs. And instead of flowers, window boxes can hold herbs, greens, radishes, scallions, bush beans, strawberries, chard, and chiles, for example.
Just start small, and as you get the hang of it, add another container of something else. To learn more, please see my previous article on creating edible gardens in small spaces. Before you know it, large portions of your meals could come straight from your own edible garden. I strongly recommend getting your feet wet by growing sprouts.
If you want to jump right in outdoors, Better Homes & Gardens has a free All-American Vegetable Garden Plan that can be put into a 6x6 area. It's a great starting point for beginners. You can also visit a few local plant nurseries around your home, especially those that specialize in organic gardening. The employees are likely to be a great resource for natural planting tips that will help your garden thrive.