Hey y’all! I’ve been gardening for several years now, and I thought it might be helpful to share some of the knowledge I’ve picked up over the last couple of years with others. Or maybe you’re like me, and wishing it wasn’t February so you could grow something. At any rate, here’s a bit about me, in Q&A format.
Who are you exactly? I’m a graduate student at Penn State. I’m working on a Ph.D. in atmospheric science, and I research atmospheric turbulence. I’m almost a mechanical engineer in terms of education and the research I do, but I’m mostly interested in environmental problems. Here’s the link to my professional website, in case you’re interested in that sort of thing.
How did you get started gardening? I was planning to grow some tomatoes on my patio the summer after I started grad school. (I live on the first floor of an apartment complex at the bottom of a north-facing hill. Not exactly prime growing conditions). In the winter of 2009, I heard about a community garden that was starting on campus. Even though the only thing I had experience growing up to that point was houseplants, I signed up for a plot. Despite some frustrations the first year, I actually managed to grow some of my own food. Things just grew from there…
What are your qualifications? None! Well, at least not from an academic standpoint. But I am trained as a scientist, and I’ve learned a lot from my mistakes, from talking to other gardeners, and from reading online.
What USDA Zone are you in? Officially, zone 6a. But there are many microclimates in this area because of the topography (interesting example: the Scotia Barrens), so it’s difficult to say for certain. We certainly have a longer growing season than in Michigan, where I grew up.
Where do you garden? As mentioned above, I have a plot at the Penn State community garden. And, as you may have guessed from the title of my blog, it’s 150 square feet. It may not seem like a lot, but even in a bad year, I grow far more that I can eat myself.
Why garden? I garden for several reasons. First, I’ve always loved the outdoors, ever since I was a little kid. I like to spend as much time outside as possible, and in addition to other activities (running, hiking, cycling) that I enjoy, gardening is a great way to do that. Secondly, when I garden I have control over what is and what is not going into my food. The community garden requires members to use only organic growing methods, so I don’t have to worry about the safety or health risks of what comes out of my garden. The final, and perhaps the biggest reason is variety, freshness, and quality. I can grow the exact varieties of crops that I want to, the majority of which aren’t found in stores, and many of which never turn up at my local farmer’s market (e.g. Lacinato kale, Chioggia beets, Kabocha squash, just to name a few of my favorites). Freshness is also a huge factor. I can stop by the garden on my way home from work and pick my salad for my dinner. It doesn’t get much fresher than that! Finally, there is a huge difference in quality. I guarantee if you eat homegrown carrots, you’ll never look at (or maybe even eat) a store-bought bag of carrot sticks again. And ultimately, there is an immense sense of pride of eating something that you grew yourself.
Describe your gardening methods. The community garden is actually part of the Center for Sustainability at Penn State, and it was developed with sustainability in mind. We’re completely organic, so no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers are allowed. When I first got the plot in 2009, it was full of Pennsylvania clay, and it took me several (not very fun) hours to turn over the soil. I’ve added a healthy dose of compost each year, and over time the soil tilth has improved drastically. I occasionally use organic supplements like blood and bone meal, especially when I’m transplanting.I planted a cover crop mix for the first time this fall (mostly triticale and clover), and I’m hoping this also have benefits for the health of the soil. I try to use as few sprays as possible (even the organic ones), but sometimes it’s unavoidable if I want to be able to control insect pests. If I need to spray, it’s usually an insecticidal soap, or Neem oil. We also planned a perennial border around the garden last year, so hopefully in time it will attract beneficial insects that will help curb some of the pest problems.
Why a community garden? As an apartment dweller, it’s the only place I have available to garden. But even if you are a property owner, I would encourage you to consider seeking out a community garden near you. Community gardens are just as valuable for the community aspects as they are for the gardening aspects. The garden here at Penn State is as diverse as the University community, and we have gardeners from many different cultures. It’s a fantastic opportunity to learn from gardeners with different styles, techniques, and philosophies toward gardening, and it’s a great way to meet people.