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How to Start a Family Food Garden

What is a Family Food Garden

Growing fresh, organic food for your family is good. Growing fresh, organic food with your family is even better! Gardening is a great way to get more exercise, improve your diet, and reduce your exposure to agricultural chemicals. Best of all, spending time outdoors on a shared activity will bring your family closer together. That's the idea behind the Family Food Garden.

What is a Family Food Garden? Well for starters, it's not like the big, labor-intensive garden your parents or grandparents had. Remember those? Huge dusty plots that seemed to go on forever; row upon row of crops destined for the canning jar; always located hundreds of yards from the house—or the nearest water supply.

These "mini-farms" made sense for thrifty people putting up as much produce as possible. But in a Family Food Garden, the emphasis is on learning and having fun, while getting the maximum reward for the minimum effort. Here's how to make it happen:

Start with Raised Beds.

Raised beds are the building blocks of your Family Food Garden. They can be placed on any soil (wet, stony or hard-packed) and you don't have to remove sod or till the lawn. Raised beds are tidy and contained. They can be planted intensely, which increases your yield per square foot and crowds out weeds, so you spend less time weeding. We offer raised bed corners for do-it-yourselfers, or complete kits with lumber; and we offer a full range of plant supports and covers sized to fit our raised beds.

Plant for Variety.

Instead of filling a bed with one crop, plant a variety in each one. Mixed plantings are more visually interesting than monocultures, and there's always something to harvest. You won't get as much of your favorite vegetable this way, but if weather or disease affects one crop (like late blight does tomatoes), you'll be glad you diversified. Within one crop you can plant for variety and visual interest; try bright red carrots, purple asparagus and orange beets—even the fussiest eaters can't resist them.

Select a Pre-Planned Garden.

If you aren't sure where to start, we have over a dozen pre-planned designs you can use for free. All are highly productive and proven in our own test gardens. Choose favorites like the Fun with Kids Garden, the All-American Garden, and the Plant it & Forget It Garden—or use them as the starting point for your own designs.

A Few Minutes a Day.

Rather than spending your whole Saturday weeding, watering and harvesting, do a little every day or every other day. You only need 30 minutes after school or after work, especially if you involve the whole family. Tending your garden this way is easier, and it helps you catch your crops at their peak—it's surprising how a few days can change the size of a zucchini or the flavor of tender greens. Tip: Take the family to the garden before dinner, not after. This encourages healthy, right-off-the-vine snacking. Plus, you'll be amazed how often your harvest goes directly from the garden into the pot!

Close to Home.

If you're going to visit your garden often, you don't want it way off in some corner of your property. Plant as close to the kitchen door as possible, and make sure a water supply is near at hand. You'll find that close proximity plus frequent tending practically guarantee a thriving garden and a satisfying harvest.

Enjoy it Now.

If you or your family are new to gardening, don't complicate matters by trying to learn preservation techniques right away. Canning, pickling and rendering sauces are wonderful activities, but you don't have to do them all the first year. Concentrate on crops you can enjoy now (greens), or put in the freezer (herbs), or which store without preparation (potatoes and onions). Remember, the goal isn't to put away enough food to get through the winter, pioneer style; it's to have some healthy fun with the family.

Grow as You Go.

You can start a Family Food Garden with a couple of raised beds, some crop covers, and some plant supports. You can add more beds next year as your skills improve. You'll want to add some fruit beds too. Fruit trees and shrubs are great because you plant them once and enjoy them for years—and nothing beats fresh-picked berries for dessert. Perennial crops, such as asparagus and rhubarb, also produce more as they get established. So the sooner you plant them, the better.

As your garden grows, you may want to lay decorative walkways between the beds, add an archway at the entrance, even a garden bench to relax in. You'll need a compost bin or two to contain yard waste, and a place to store tools. You can even decorate with some colorful pots (filled with culinary herbs, of course) or solar lighting. There are so many possibilities. It's a good idea to sketch out your "dream garden" to scale so you'll always be building toward a plan.

Don't fret.

The most important thing to remember is that you don't have to be perfect, and neither does your garden. It isn't important that every leaf and fruit be smooth and unblemished. What is important is to spend time with living and learning with your family, enjoying the fruits of your labor, and reconnecting with nature. So do a little planning, take it slow, and have fun in your Family Food Garden!

Last updated: 10/24/15