Whether it's a bite of melon or a hot, juicy pepper you're after - or maybe a tomato plant or two - the thought of growing your own food needn't be unappetizing.
Fresh vegetables from the garden can provide a fun family activity, incorporate healthy foods into the diet and serve as an introduction to sustainable living.
With several growing options - garden beds, trellises, hanging containers - your garden can accommodate your lifestyle and diet without any prerequisite. Dennis' Seven Dees Landscaping and Garden Center in Lake Oswego carries supplies to get the garden started and maintain what's growing. Assistant Manager Nicole Forbes offered advice for transforming an area of the yard to your own healthy take-out restaurant.
Get your hands dirty,
Like with any new routine, it's best to start small. Don't bite off more than you can chew, or tend to. See if you like watering a small patch of green vegetables before you transform you backyard into an edible Emerald City.
Raised beds - usually about a foot high by six feet or so in dimension - warm up the soil faster than planting at ground level.
'That enables you to put in a warmer season crop before those of us that are in the ground and waiting for the ground to warm up,' Forbes said.
Plant most vegetables in the sun; some vegetables, such as zucchini, roam outside the box. Lettuce can grow in the shade. Forbes said to always read the plant's label before planting it.
'Many of the crops that are known to be spreaders and take up a lot of space in the garden; zucchini will take up a 6-by-6 foot space in the garden if you leave it on the ground. Some of the smaller fruiting pumpkins that are really popular for decorations are great on a trellis. And cucumbers are great,' Forbes said.
'You don't need anything fancy. In fact, one of my best trellises is an old A frame ladder. I let zucchini climb up one side.'
When using a trellis, you're not only saving space because the vegetables grow vertically, but the vegetables also become less vulnerable to slugs and other crawling insects on the ground. Because of the better air circulation, the plants have less fungal problems or rotting, she said.
'With a trellis you are standing, you're not down on the ground. This is great for people that have physical disabilities,' Forbes said.
Hanging containers - similar in concept to a hanging basket of flowers - can grow tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini right off a patio or balcony.
'You need relatively no space at all. The vegetables grow down,' Forbes said.
When deciding what to plant and how to plant it, think about what you want to eat.
'Grow something that you love that potentially is hard for you to find. You can get a green pepper at the grocery store,' Forbes said. 'I would rather grow a red or yellow pepper, a more high-priced item. Or, Chocolate Beauty, which is a purple or deep mahogany, colored pepper. What a beautiful addition to a salad.'
How often do you want to plant?
'Perennial (items) last from year to year to year. Dedicate one box to perennials for crops that are going to live on from season to season. Then you don't have to disturb them when you're replanting the other ones,' Forbes said.
'An artichoke is a good example of a high-priced perennial crop that you buy once, put it in the ground and it only gets better year after year. Asparagus is another perfect example.'
Blueberries, raspberries and rhubarb also return each season.
Setting the soil's stage
Preparing the soil is key to vegetable gardening, Forbes said. A good soil mixture can make better crops.
'One of our favorite products is Bumper Crop; it has chicken manure added to it,' Forbes said. 'This is something that should be blended with the soil you already had, (such as in a raised bed). Use your dirt from last year. This is used to nourish and improve your soil from last year where a lot of the nutrients were used up.'
Forbes suggested using a starter fertilizer as a nutrient and food resource to compliment Bumper Crop - which improves drainage and water retention. New and baby plants need more attention.
'There's more work in the beginning. Then, you can kick back and relax for six weeks or so and then you start harvesting,' Forbes said.
Forbes recommends mixing Quench, a cornstarch-based product with compost, into the soil to keep the area hydrated. Looking a bit like Cream of Wheat, the granules, she said, puff up when they receive water.
'This stops gravity from taking all the water out and saves it in little pockets or bags and then gives it back to the plant like in capillary action when the plant is thirsty,' Forbes said. 'When a plant doesn't have to stress for moisture, you get a higher percentage of tomatoes - for example - and they have a better flavor content because they're full of moisture and you have less rot.'
Quench Singles - small tea bag samples of the product - requires, 'no scoops, no measuring and no mix and match,' Forbes said.
The bag is placed under the plant when putting it in the soil. That's it. And it contains an added organic fertilizer.
Preparing the soil is one task; some foods require a bit more attention. Tomatoes often grow within a tomato cage. And the taller the cage usually means more tomatoes.
'The larger the fruits, the heavier they are on their branches and need some form of support so that they don't break their own branches or droop down onto the ground, where there are vulnerable to slugs and garden pests,' Forbes said. 'The tomato will grow up through the center and then rest it's limbs on the sides.'
Let's eat already!
Staring at the foods for weeks can build the anticipation for harvest time.
'All of the plant tags are going to give you information on maturity, such as the number of days until harvest. There's 25-85 days on this particular variety of this particular bell pepper,' Forbes said, holding up a plant a few inches tall. 'You can probably subtract 10-14 days from that because you're not starting from seed.'
Know when foods are ready so you don't have items rotting on the vine.
'If you're planting an orange tomato, don't wait for it to be red. Usually color is going to be one of your best indicators. Most of us are at least familiar enough with the vegetable itself. We've seen it in the store, we've seen pictures and we chose to grow it,' Forbes said.
After you've made it through your first gardening cycle, the next year can have a whole new menu.
'It's important to move your plants around. Don't keep a tomato spot. Change that to your corn or bean area next year. Each plant uses a different combination of nutrients and micronutrients for its nutrition and food source. That's why farmers rotate their crops,' Forbes said.
'If you're constantly planting tomatoes in the same spot, you will need to put more of the soil amendments in every year and give it more fertilizer to make sure it has what it needs.'
Forbes said Seven Dees employees enjoy working with customers to create an area at their homes that they can be proud of.
'We want customers going away feeling like they're going to be the best gardener ever, or you already are. Even you can grow potatoes or tomatoes,' Forbes said. 'You just have to try.'
Dennis' Seven Dees Landscaping and Garden Center is located at 1090 McVey Avenue in Lake Oswego and can be reached at 503-636-4660. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. everyday.