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What I’ve Learned after 3 Years of Growing Our Own Food

What I’ve Learned after 3 Years of Growing Our Own Food

Since our move back to Colorado in 2019, I've been cultivating a garden. However, only when we settled on our homestead in 2021 did I embark on the ambitious goal of growing enough food to sustain our family for a year. Admittedly, I haven’t yet achieved the feat of growing, harvesting, processing, and storing a year's worth of food from my garden. But with each passing year, I inch closer to this self-sustaining dream, a testament to the power of perseverance in gardening. 

My garden started with about ten beds of varying sizes. In the first year, I added two beds and two cold-frame beds. We had a huge harvest, but sometimes life gets in the way. We lost several close family members within months of each other, which left me overwhelmed with grief, and I didn’t manage to process and preserve as much as I should or could have. 

In the second year, I knew we needed way more garden space if it was going to sustain us fully, so I added a whopping 18 new beds to the garden space. I was all set for a huge and bountiful garden season. But the weather had other ideas. We had freezing temperatures all spring. Then we hit 100 degrees and stayed hot and dry with no rain in sight. Out of all those new beds, I harvested about thirty tomatoes, four beans, and a cabbage. 

This year, true to my nature, I added two more beds, indulged in some delightful landscaping, and began planting. The weather, as if to test my resolve, has been hot and dry once again. However, I've learned to manage it better this time around. Gardening, I've come to realize, is a perpetual learning curve. So, let me share some of the most impactful lessons I’ve gleaned after three years of growing our own food, a journey that's as much about learning as it is about reaping.

Good Gardens Start With Good Soil

One of the first things you need to learn about gardening is how to manage your soil. Soil is not inert—healthy soil teams with life. From worms and mycelium to nematodes and other microorganisms, your soil should be an eco-system all its own. The healthier your soil, the less need you will have for fertilizers. Aside from sunlight and water, soil is the most important aspect of gardening. It is the literal foundation on which plants grow, so don’t ignore it. If you struggle to get plants to grow, there is a big chance it’s your soil, not your gardening skills, that is to blame. 

Guide to Soil Amendments

Not Everything Will Grow in Your Area

It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole with new plant varieties. There are so many exotic varieties to choose from— but depending on your climate, some of them just aren’t going to grow. Before planting, make sure to find out your USDA Planting zone and always refer to your seed packet to determine if a plant will grow in your region. When it comes to buying plants and seeds, your local greenhouses are the best choice as they will be well stocked with plants and varieties suited to not just your zone but your neighborhood. 

Pay Attention to Your Seed Packet

Remember to refer to your seed packet for information on planting zones, spacing, maturity, size, and harvesting times.

Spoon Tomatoes

In our first year, I made a huge mistake with Spoon Tomatoes! The package photo showed dozens of tiny, pea-sized, colorful orbs piled up in a spoon. I assumed that since the fruit was small, the plant would be small. As it began to outgrow its home, I looked at the packet and realized that what I thought could be grown in a pot was actually an indeterminate plant that could reach up to 6 feet tall and would decidedly not be living on my windowsill. 

A Lot of Labor Goes Into Even the Smallest Yield 

Nothing will make you respect your grandma like spending the day harvesting, cleaning, preparing, and boiling 6 cups of tomatoes down to half a cup of ketchup. Don’t get me wrong, I love spending my days like this. But it’s important to know upfront that the “simple life” is not all that simple, and if you want to feed your family from your own garden, it’s going to take work. 

You’re Going to Have to Learn to Live With Bugs 

From garden pests to garden helpers, there are a lot of creepy crawlies out there and you will need to make your peace with them. As someone who has already suffered through six black widow bites, I hate spiders. But they feed on all the things we don’t want in the garden, so I’ve had to learn to live with them. In this day and age, a lot of people shy away from eating foods that have bug bites. They prefer ‘perfect looking’ food from the grocery store. Here’s the thing, though: if the bugs won’t eat it, you probably shouldn’t either. 

Weeds Are A Choice 

Many gardeners wage war on any native plant that pops up in their garden each season.

Botanical Anthology Summer 2024

But I’ve taken a different view.

The definition of a ‘weed’ is a plant that is not valued where it is growing. Most of the plants that people call weeds are actually medicinal or edible, and sometimes both. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t let them choke out my prized tomatoes, but there is a huge patch of Lambs Quarters next to my radishes that are destined for the dinner plate. Dandelions are a favorite food and medicine in our house, and I love Common Mallow seed capers

I’m so passionate about embracing weeds that I published an article about them last month in Botanical Anthology’s summer 2024 edition

Garbage Can Become Gold 

No one prepares you for how quickly gardening leads to composting. The first time you have to spend money on compost to amend your garden soil, a little light goes off in your brain that says, “Hey, I can compost myself and never have to repurchase this.” Before long, you’re collecting everything compostable, from kitchen scraps to yard waste, and possibly even gathering your neighbor's scraps as well. We can’t safely compost outdoors because of our bear population, but we do vermicompost (worm composting)  with a bucket system that lives quietly in the corner of the kitchen. It's a simple process of feeding the worms our kitchen scraps and they turn it into nutrient-rich compost that we use in our garden. 

How to start a worm farm

I Pay A Lot More Attention to The Weather

Here’s another thing no one prepares you for: you’re going to spend more time watching, thinking about, and talking about the weather than nightly Weather Man does. When those first seedlings go in in the spring, you will be compulsively checking for sudden frosts. As summer heats up, you will check for heat waves and pray for rain. In the fall, you’ll be on the lookout for early frost warnings. And in the winter, you’ll say how much we need the moisture with every snowstorm. 

Dinner Portions Will Get Smaller

I don’t think this topic is discussed enough. Many of the practices and processes involved in commercial food production strip away a large percentage of the nutrients that should be in our food. Recent studies have shown that modern commercially grown vegetables, fruits, and grains have a significantly lower nutritional content than they did even just 30 years ago. When you switch your family over to home-grown, nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, serving portions get smaller because you need less food to reach the level of nutrition your body is craving. 

Let’s Get Growing!

In the garden, there are often as many wins as losses. In some years, the harvest will be bountiful. Some years, it will feel almost nonexistent. But every year, it will be worth it. If you grow your own food, tell us what lessons you’ve learned over the years in the comments below. Until next time, 

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Growing Your Own Food

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