Gardening by the Numbers

5 years ago

I'll never forget my first garden.  It was a behemoth thing; seventy-five-hundred square feet of hard clay and encroaching weeds.  I watched with much trepedation as my husband tilled the ground that spring.  I was convinced it was going to be an epic undertaking.  And it was.  I learned an important lesson that year: start small and work your way up.  

infoThat's why, when I came across a Home Gardening Infographic on Mother Nature Network, I was surprised to find the average size of an American home garden is a whopping six-hundred square feet.  It's no seventy-five-hundred, but as I learned my second year of gardening with what I thought was a greatly reduced size garden, it's nothing to turn your nose up at either.  

In fact, as much as I consider myself a gardening connoisseur of sorts, I found a lot of interesting -- and some rather surprising -- information in that inforgraphic.  For one, the Southeast out paces the Midwest in the percentage of homes with gardens 29% to 26%.  And even the West, with 23% of homes having a garden, out paces the Northeast with their 22%.

I tend to fit in with the more than half of home gardeners in the U.S. that are female, but more notable is that 79% of gardeners have at least some college education.  Despite being a college-educated gardener myself and knowing many personally, the stereotype that only those who have to would choose to grow their own seems to persist.  Maybe getting dirt under the fingernails isn't just for the blue collared masses, after all?

As food prices rise, American families continue to struggle with a contracted economy and speculation about a double-dip recession not many are prepared to weather looms I can't help but wonder if the statistics tucked at the bottom of the inforgraphic don't tell a story all their own.  Gardening has become trendy again; between 2008 and 2009 alone the number of households with home gardens grew by seven million.  And the average yearly savings from one of these gardens is estimated to be more than $500.  MNN estimates the return on investment for home gardens in the U.S. in 2008 to have topped 21 billion dollars.  That's a big chunk of change regardless of the color of your collar. It makes sense that some families have turned to growing their own as a way not only to provide wholesome food for their table, but a bit of relief for their pocket book.

Of course, with new gardeners come a lot of new questions and challenges.  Who can forget the infamous late blight epidemic of 2001, credited in part to a surge in home gardens back then.  At times it seems there is so much to learn that a lifetime of gardening isn't enough time to teach, but we can all get off on the right foot with a few basics. 

Whether you've already joined the grow-your-own bandwagon and are looking to maintain or expand this year or you're just taking the plunge for the first time now is the time to start thinking about a garden in 2012.  The snow may be flying outside, but the seed companies are filling orders daily now and many sell out before spring ever peeks over the horizon.

Now is the time to plot, plan and place seed orders.  But, as much as it can be one of the most enjoyable parts of having a home garden -- what with the possibilities and the pretty pictures of vegetables to entice you -- it can also be the most daunting.  What goes into planning a garden to begin with?  There are probably as many answers to that question as there are gardeners, but all good plans have a few components in common: space, timing and growth requirements.

First things first, take it from me and don't try to start with seventy-five-hundred square feet. In fact, space is a double-edge sword.  You want to choose a size that isn't going to overwhelm you in the midst of the spring onslaught of weeds or during the height of the summer harvest season, but you also want to provide whatever plants you decide to grow plenty of room.  Over-crowded plants are more likely to suffer from disease and harbor pests that will negatively affect your yields.  This is where seed catalogs and online seed retailers will come in handy.  

Get a cup of your favorite beverage and give yourself an hour or three to browse and dream.  When you're done you'll have a good idea what you want to grow and how much space you'll need to do that.  Some popular online and catalog retailers include:  

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

R.H. Shumway's

Jung Seed Co. 

Territorial Seeds

Henry Field's 

Harris Seed 

Dixondale Farms - Onion and leek plants only. 

and Totally Tomatoes

Next, you'll want to research your area's date of last frost.  Many people confuse this with their hardiness zone.  Both are important for an avid gardener, but for an annual vegetable garden your dates of last and first frost will dictate more of what you can and can't grow and when you should grow it.  While you're looking up your frost dates pay special attention to the number of frost free days in your area.  These days make up the bulk of your growing season and if they're fewer than the requirements for any of the varieties you want to grow you may need to change your plans.  Some melons take well over one-hundred days to reach maturity, for instance, and some northern locales may only have eighty frost free days or less.  

Your dates of frost also tell you when you should be starting your seeds. Some vegetables, like green beans and corn, can be direct seeded in the garden, but others need to be started early indoors.  A chart like the one included in Mother Earth News' seed starting guide is a great place to start.  With your last date of frost in mind find the type of vegetable you want to grow and count back from your date of last frost to find when you should start your seeds.  Tomatoes, for instance, one of the most commonly grown home garden fruits, can be started up to eight weeks before your last frost and grown out indoor in pots for a head start.  

Once you've narrowed your list down by what grows well in your area. It's time to make plans for providing appropriate growing conditions for the vegetables you've decided to grow.  Corn requires rich soil, lettuce likes cool temperatures, peas like to climb on trellises or strings.  A little research can go a long way towards a successful harvest.

And last, but certainly not least, when you've plotted and planned to your heart's content, don't forget to place that seed order. Or, if you're like me, orders because you just can't narrow it down.

Do you plan to start a garden this year?  Have you taken up gardening as a way to stretch your food budget and have tips and tricks to share that you've learned along the way? I'd love to hear your thoughts as the gardening season approaches once again.      

Diana Prichard authors Cultivating the Art of Sustenance and is the owner of the small farm Olive Hill.

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