In addition to the vitamins and minerals, not to mention the satisfaction that comes from eating homegrown produce, gardening offers a trove of other physical and mental health benefits. Whether your farm is a plot of ground, a raised bed or a deck with containers, gardening for at least 2.5 hours a week can help control weight, improve mental health and mood, strengthen bones and muscles and increase life span, as well as reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and some cancers, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). For older adults, it can also help reduce risk of falling.
Maybe more simply, as biologist and Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson believes, we uncover a sense of renewal by participating in the natural world because we are a part of it.
From the Ground Up
David Coveyou, owner of Coveyou Scenic Farm Market in Petoskey, shares the sage viewpoint that we can all be farmers. He encourages home gardens even though he and his wife, Kathy, make their living selling organic produce and local products, either at their historic barn and farm market overlooking Walloon Lake right along U.S. 131 or through weekly community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes.
As you might expect, David Coveyou recommends starting from the ground up when it comes to planning and maintaining a home garden.
“Growing in good soil is a key part to it,” he says, whether that means a ground plot or in a raised bed or container.
In Michigan, the Michigan State University Extension Service offers soil testing services and a self-test kit. Results include recommendations for a custom fertilization program.
Adding compost is always a good idea, Coveyou notes, and recommends the Dairy Doo brand from Morgan Composting in Sears, Mich., which he uses at his 1874 farm. A quarter-inch to half-inch layer of compost scratched into the soil should do it for most home gardens, he says.
For those really serious about their soil, Coveyou advises planting a cover crop in the fall, which can be turned over in the spring before planting. An easy cover crop is rye (not ryegrass, which is used in lawns).
“The goal of cover crops is to tie up the nutrients that are going to get washed away otherwise,” he explains.
More information about cover crops as well as other home gardening tips for those new to growing-their-own produce — from choosing a smart site and managing pests to watering and enhancing garden bounty — can be found through MSU Extension (msue.anr.msu.edu/topic/info/home_gardening).
Seeds of Inspiration
Wonder Wok Mix
Grown from multi-seed pellets, this mix of Asian greens including mustards, kale and bok choy is ideal for salads, stir-fries and braising.
Summer Squash, Cupcake Hybrid
Shaped like a cupcake, these part sweet, part savory oblate fruits make a great go-to squash for roasting, slicing, grilling, boiling and stuffing.
Uncover other new introductions for 2015 at Burpee.com.
Mardis Gras Radish Mix
Add a festive splash to salads and party trays with this blend of vibrant, spicy purple roots, mild yellow and white varieties and earthy-flavored black radishes. — Burpee.com
Once your soil is ready, the next step is to decide what to plant.
“I think a big mistake a lot of people make is they start big,” says Katie Elzer-Peters, author of “Midwest Fruit & Vegetable Gardening: Plant, Grow and Harvest the Best Edibles” (2014, Cool Springs Press). Beginners as well as seasoned gardeners like herself are prey to this mistake, she adds, noting all the kohlrabi she planted before discovering she doesn’t really like this cousin of cabbage.
Elzer-Peters advises planting what you like and what tastes best eaten fresh. Lettuce is one top crop that offers a quick payoff. The thrift-minded may even take into consideration what’s expensive to buy at the farmer’s market or grocery store, like herbs, and grow them at home.
And don’t forget fruit. Elzer-Peters suggest growing some of the smaller fruit shrubs such as blueberries and gooseberries.
“You might need to throw some netting over them when ripe, to keep away pests,” she says, “but other than that, they’re easy to grow.”
Serious gardeners intent on growing exactly what they want may start seeds indoors weeks before planting season, but starter plants are available at garden centers, nurseries, big box stores and some farm markets; Coveyou sells organic starter plants. Elzer-Peters extends a word of caution, though, to non-organic gardeners: Don’t add synthetic fertilizer when planting starters or you risk drying out the plants, which are already laden with nutrients.
Gardening in Northern Michigan, where the season is shorter and the soil takes longer to warm up enough for planting, may present particular challenges, but Elzer-Peters is up for those, too.
To warm the soil, she recommends plastic mulch, Wall O’ Water, rocks and bricks, and even gallon jugs of water that soak up the day’s heat and release it at night.
To overcome a shorter growing season, the author encourages looking for varieties that take less time to mature. For example, she points to a tipsheet on the MSU Extension website that touts a tomato variety ready for harvest in 49 days.
When it comes to tomato plants, Bob Guerrini plants in multiples of 10 in his Clinton Township garden. Last summer, he planted 30.
“It’s kind of an Italian thing,” he says.
Nona Maria’s Pomedori Imbutiti
Stuffed Tomato Recipe
Courtesy of Bob Guerrini
This is a “to-taste” recipe, with loosely defined quantities, reminiscent of how cooks in Nona Maria Fabbri’s hometown of Bologna, Italy passed on instructions.
Finely chopped parsley
Plain bread crumbs
Grated parmesan or Romano cheese
Mix two parts chopped parsley to one part each plain bread crumbs and grated cheese. Add in pepper and nutmeg to taste. Mix well.
Cut tomatoes in half crosswise. Gently squeeze out juice and seeds and hollow out slightly. Place tomatoes upside down on paper towel for an hour to drain. Fill with stuffing and drizzle each tomato with one teaspoon of olive oil. Bake at 325 degrees for 30 minutes.
Guerrini usually includes up to eight varieties, such as Early Girl, Bonnie Best and Big Boy, but no Romas, beefsteaks or cherry tomatoes. He buys starter plants and drops a half dozen into the ground as early as mid-May (Memorial Day weekend is traditionally planting time in Southeast Michigan).
“The goal is to get the first red, edible tomato by July 15,” which, he says, his wife is always the first to eat.
In addition to savoring his bounty fresh and au naturel, Guerrini makes a classic tomato pasta sauce with skinned tomatoes, onions and basil, which he may freeze in one-gallon batches. He also makes his grandmother’s stuffed tomatoes, Nona Maria’s Pomedori Imbutiti.
Guerrini notes that his tomato yield in 2014 wasn’t his best, largely due to pests, outside of weather.
His plants are particularly plagued by squirrels, which he’s resigned to losing part of his harvest to every year.
“I’ve seen squirrels running up the tree with a big tomato in their mouth,” he says.
Last summer’s cooler weather wasn’t ideal for heat-loving plants like tomatoes and peppers, either, Guerrini adds. “I’ll bet there weren’t more than a dozen hot nights.”
Of course, that just made savoring the flavorful, home-grown freshness of what was harvested even more special.
Walls and buildings absorb and hold the sun’s warmth during the day. At night, they are warmer than the surrounding garden, keeping plants protected from chilly spring temperatures. You can employ this technique in your garden by encircling seedlings or transplant beds with ordinary rocks, avoiding contact with stems and leaves. The rocks will not only absorb the sun’s warmth to protect plants at night, but warm up the soil and encourage root growth. — Burpee.com
Get the Dirt on Your Soil
The Michigan State University Oil and Plant Nutrient Laboratory in East Lansing tests soil samples (for a small fee) to help homeowners as well as farmers and other growers of special crops, lawns and landscapes achieve the results they are after. Factors including whether the area borders a pond, stream or lake and if fertilizer will be tilled into the soil prior to planting play a role in your soil’s readiness to meet your gardening goals.
To help home growers get grounded, MSU’s lab offers the following insights:
Soil is composed of 1) mineral solids; 2) organic solids (remains of once-living organisms); and 3) pore spaces filled with a combination of water and air. The “ideal” soil for growing plants would be composed of (by volume) 45 percent minerals, 25 percent water, 25 percent air, and 5 percent organic matter.
Over time, the rock is broken into a mixture of large, small and even microscopic mineral particles. In Michigan, glaciers were responsible for pulverizing rock into various particle sizes and mixing them together.
Organic soils. These are very dark brown or nearly black soils formed in naturally wet, lowland areas. They contain at least 20 percent organic matter, which provides the special chemical and physical characteristics of this soil type. Examples of organic soils include peat, muck, and Sphagnum peat.
Mineral Soils. These originate from rock that has undergone the process of weathering, the physical and chemical breakdown from exposure to water, wind, sun, glaciers, freezing/thawing, plant roots and the activities of many living creatures.
Over time, the rock is broken into a mixture of large, small and even microscopic mineral particles. In Michigan, glaciers were responsible for pulverizing rock into various particle sizes and mixing them together. The larger particles are termed sand and gravel, intermediate-sized particles are called silt, and the very small microscopic particles are clay minerals.
A soil’s “texture,” how it looks and feels, refers to the percentages of sand, silt and clay particles that make up its mineral fraction. The relative proportions of sand, silt and clay particles have a major influence on a soil’s characteristics and usefulness for a multitude of purposes. Soils are grouped into textural classes according to the percent of sand, silt and clay.
A loam has approximately 40 percent sand, 40 percent silt and 20 percent clay. If the percent sand increases at the expense of silt and/clay, it may be termed a sandy loam, or a loamy sand or sand. If more silt is present, it may be a silt loam. When clay particles become more numerous, it becomes a clay loam and ultimately, clay.
A soil’s texture, with its inherent particle and pore sizes, affects many characteristics of that soil and, consequently, the fruits of your home garden-growing efforts.
To learn more, visit msusoiltest.com.
— Lisa M. Jensen
When thoughts turn to salad making this time of year, Chef Cindy Krzykwa thinks first of texture. “Spring greens are delicate and tender,” muses the owner of Live to Eat, a Grand Rapids area catering company.
Krzykwa shares her fondness for peppery arugula, the buttery feel of Boston (“Bibb”) lettuce and the chewy stems of slightly heartier dandelion greens.
The chef sources her greens from Vertical Paradise Farms, a Caledonia produce wholesaler supplying area markets, gastro pubs and restaurants. In a winter weekend pinch, she bought large containers of lettuce blends and greens — formerly sold only in small bunches — at Meijer. She notes the availability of baby and micro greens she says are “picked prematurely” and how simple it is to incorporate collard, mustard or turnip greens, easily sautéed but traditionally thought of as slow-cooked, southern sides.
To her spring salad, she might add green onions or chives, a first harvest of baby or traditional carrots, thinly-chopped cabbage (red or green), roasted beets, (“they get a little sweeter”), local eggs and white radishes she describes as peppery, but softer and easier to clean and chop.
Krzykwa knows salad. So does the city of Hudsonville, called “Michigan’s Salad Bowl” for its rich, nutrient-laden soils. In 2013, during the city’s annual Salad Bowl Bash, Chef led a team of 40, who spent 8-10 hours cleaning and chopping their way through 2,376 pounds of produce harvested within 24 hours to win the Guinness World Records’ Longest Salad Bar: 688 feet, 1.56 inches.
“I’ve literally never had a salad that tasted that good,” declares Michelle Fare, executive director of the Hudsonville Chamber of Commerce.
At local eatery Hudsonville Grille, co-owner Amy Westendorp says salads made with seasonally local lettuce and spring mix are served in bowls chilled to 36 degrees, because they “keep salad greens crisp all the way to the table.”
The freshest salad, of course, is harvested at home. Dave Brouwer, of W.W. Greenhouses, Inc., in Hudsonville, says cool-loving lettuces, spinach and Swiss chards can be sown earlier. Newer tomato varieties Independence Day and Fourth of July can be harvested within 45 to 50 days. Brouwer advises those planting container gardens to avoid overcrowding, especially with tomatoes or peppers, to use a soil mix that isn’t too heavy on potting soil and to water consistently.
Looking for a fresh, sweet garden addition? A newer ornamental/edible strawberry, called “Tristan,” has a compact root system that lends itself well to containers, producing what Brouwer calls “numerous” small but “tasty” fruit — a perfect ingredient for that spinach salad.
— Pat Stinson
Many vegetables need to be started from seed several weeks before it’s safe to plant them outside, after risk of frost. You can find and buy small plants or “transplants” grown by commercial greenhouses in an array of places, from area nurseries and farm markets to nature centers and big box stores. May 16 marks MSU’s Spring Plant Sale; visit hrt.msu.edu/vegetable-inventory for the kinds of starters you may find.
Based in Southeast Michigan and compiled by people who love to grow their own “tasty, healthy, satisfying and safe food,” this is one top spot for beginning growers to get grounded. Tap into forums for Vegetables and Herbs, a Gardening Events Calendar, Photo Gallery, Blogs, free e-newsletter and USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, among other tips and inspirations.
Visit the Vegtables Forum for more grow-your-own support.
Freelance writer Ilene Wolff resides in Royal Oak.