Get Your Gardening On

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Tompkins Weekly 03/11/2013

By Josh Dolan

Late winter and early spring often bring on primal urges for many of us.  The call of nature and our ancestral roots call on us to put our hands in the soil, sow seeds and begin the age old process of growing our own food.  However, following that call—as I learned early on—isn’t always easy. One of the main mistakes I made was going too big, too fast.  I started my first garden by digging up a huge area, but didn’t realize that roots and weed seeds left behind would eventually overwhelm the few seedlings that did manage to sprout.  I had to spend more money on mulch, seeds and other supplies.  This was demoralizing, but luckily an early success growing tomatoes in a smaller bed kept me going.

This kind of disaster can be avoided by a more humble approach.  Start small.  Try your hand at planting lettuce or a few herbs in a container–old nursery pots or 5 gallon buckets–before jumping in with both feet.  Or build yourself a modest sized raised bed in a sunny spot if you’re more adventurous.

Finding a sunny spot can be an obstacle in itself, especially in tree-friendly Ithaca.  This should not be discouraging, though.  If you don’t have enough sun for peppers and tomatoes, you may have the perfect spot for growing lettuce and other greens.   Margo Hittleman, an associate of mine at Cornell Cooperative Extension, loves gardening in the shade. She’s found she can grow some interesting, edible plants in open spaces that don’t receive much direct sun. Many of these plants are perennials — you only plant once, and they come up every year. Her favorites include: Good King Henry (a perennial spinach), Sweet Cicely (a licorice-flavored leaf and seed pod), Violets (edible leaves and flowers), woodland strawberries (“tiny, but tasty”), and wild onions. Other edible greens like mustard greens and arugula also need fewer hours of sunlight and prefer cooler, spring and fall temperatures. In mid-summer, you can grow lettuce in partial shade and it will appreciate the cooler temperatures. These crops are some of the easiest to grow and taste better straight out of the garden.

Are you a renter, or don’t have any yard at all?  Not to worry, many landlords in Ithaca are more than happy to allow gardening on their property.  If not, why not ask around the neighborhood and find out who is gardening already and might appreciate a helping hand? Teaming up with an experienced gardener is an excellent to get your feet wet and helps them out.  Neighbors including myself have been growing food at Lucy Brown’s house for several years.  We get more gardening space, and she gets some extra produce.  There are also many community gardening options in our community. The Ithaca Community Gardens are celebrating their 30th anniversary this year!  These gardens offer modestly sized plots at a nominal fee, a rich and diverse gardening community supportive of newbies, and a leisurely and sociable environment.

Growing food can help increase variety in what we eat. Margo said that before she started seriously growing food, her cooking was limited to boiling rice or pasta, and hardly anything else. But that “having beautiful, amazingly tasty vegetables that I had cared for from the time they were seedlings made me want to learn how to prepare them well”. She found some cookbooks with simple recipes that were organized vegetable by vegetable, and could look up whatever she had just harvested and get an idea what to do with it. “When I sat down to eat, I felt a deep connection to my food – from planting through preparation.”  The Internet and the library are full of recipes and cookbooks anyone can use to experiment with. When in doubt, I steam some rice and whip up a simple stir fry with whatever vegetables I have at hand, often with garlic, salt and pepper.  Many fresh vegetables can also be prepared and eaten raw, cutting out the need for cooking altogether.  Nothing beats a fresh salad!

Tompkins County Cooperative Extension has classes and resources for every stage of growing, cooking and preserving food.  Check out for information on an array of classes and workshops for gardeners of all levels and relevant information on growing, preparing and preserving your own food.  It’s an exciting time to be a gardener in Ithaca and gardening is one of the best ways to Get Your Green Back!

Josh Dolan, Community Food Gardens Educator forGardens 4 Humanity, gets his greenback by tapping  maple trees at Sapsquatch Sugarbush!

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