The following "Gardening for Life" column is presented as the second of two parts. Find the first part here.

Imagine having a beautiful vegetable harvest within steps of your kitchen. Growing your own food gives you access to the freshest possible produce. Alive with flavor and nutrients, it looks and tastes better than anything you could purchase at the supermarket.

What you’ll be doing with your garden is called “edible landscaping,” also known as foodscaping, which emphasizes creative gardening techniques. It is not a new concept, but has been rebranded many times. An edible landscape can include edible flowers, herbs, vegetables, fruit trees and berries.

As you move from visualization to action, remember that soil is the foundation of your garden. Get good organic soil and follow instructions to spread it evenly in your garden beds. To give it that extra punch, you can amend it with compost created from your own lawn clippings, leaves and vegetable trimmings; you don’t need a green thumb if you have good-quality soil! 

The addition of a thick layer of straw as mulch around emergent vegetables can help control weeds and conserve water — just make sure it doesn’t cover your newly planted seeds or seedlings.

In deciding what to grow, think of your favorite vegetables, keeping in mind both their tolerance of the North Jersey climate and their aesthetic value. Here is a partial list of plants that are edible, attractive and can thrive in Montclair:

  • • Fruits and berries: Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, apples, pears, peaches.
  • • Herbs: Rosemary, thyme, mint, sage, oregano, chives, basil, lavender. 
  • • Vegetables: Swiss chard, arugula, kale, collard greens, carrots, peas, bok choy, beans, lettuce (different colors and shapes). 

When creating your edible garden, keep in mind the planting cycle: planting, feeding, watering and harvesting. The best diet to feed your garden soil is organic materials such as traditional compost, vermicompost or compost tea.

Sequential planting is the best approach to make sure you have garden-fresh produce on your table every week throughout the season. This means planting your seeds or seedlings in sequence from early spring to fall according to the plant’s preference for cooler or warmer weather. Pay attention to the period the plant takes from planting to harvest; this can vary from 35 to 75 days. 

Combining different vegetables and fruit that grow in the same season can create a full meal at harvest time. For example, a spring harvest can present you with bok choy, cilantro, sugar snap peas, lettuce and strawberries. 

This combination allows you to cook sautéed bok choy seasoned with fresh cilantro and a lettuce salad with sugar snap peas, with fresh strawberries for dessert. If you plant these vegetables and strawberries now, by the end of May you could be enjoying this meal suggestion. 

Jose German-Gomez says that with a little planning, it’s easy to grow your own produce right in your backyard.
Jose German-Gomez says that with a little planning, it’s easy to grow your own produce right in your backyard.
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Build a productive garden

The trick to a productive growing season is continuity of planting. Do not wait until you have a harvest. Keep planting new generations of veggies. If you want lettuce on your table every week, plant a new batch every two weeks. Most importantly, plant in as much abundance as your garden space allows. When you are growing your own food, you are planning your meals a few weeks ahead of time. 

Until mid-May, focus on cool-weather crops. Many of these crops, including lettuce, arugula and radishes, will be ready for harvest in just a few weeks if you get the seeds in now — just be sure to keep them moist until they sprout. For others, such as kale, broccoli, collards and chard, you can plant the seeds now, but you’ll need to wait a little longer for the harvest. If you lack patience, you can jump-start the process by buying seedlings.

By mid-May, it’s time to plant warm-weather crops, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, zucchini and basil. At this point, it’s best to plant these as seedlings. Pole beans and bush beans can be started from seed as the soil warms. 

Protecting your little farm

Late spring arrives, the veggies are thriving, and suddenly, “Who ate my plants?”  

Protecting your garden is one the first things you need to do to avoid this unpleasant surprise. In our suburban environment, we coexist with a lot of critters that enjoy fresh produce as much as we do — deer, rabbits, racoons, squirrels and groundhogs, among others. Keeping them away from your garden can be challenging. Let’s look at some ways to protect your harvest.

Rabbits can be discouraged by a 2-foot fence around the beds. If your yard is fenced, you can reduce the risk of visits by voracious groundhogs, but be on guard around the perimeter; groundhogs are very diligent diggers. 

They may already be residing in your yard, and you don’t even know you have a tenant living rent-free. If you do find a telltale hole, an eviction process needs to be put in place. Disagreeable smells — such as from ammonia or human hair — in the burrow usually suffice to convince these tenants to seek lodging elsewhere. Deer can be excluded with a high fence (8 feet high).

Groundhogs, deer and other most other problem mammals detest the scent of mint and oregano, so these herbs planted around your garden beds can act as repellents while also flavoring your food. Both plants are aggressive spreaders, however, so it’s best to plant them in pots. 

Some other companion plants, such as marigolds and parsley, can help repel insect pests. 

Nothing is more rewarding than growing your own food. Happy growing season!

Jose German-Gomez is an environmental activist, Essex County certified master gardener and Montclair resident. He is the founder of the Northeast Earth Coalition.

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JOSE GERMAN-GOMEZ
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Jose German-Gomez is an environmental activist, Essex County certified master gardener and Montclair resident. He is the founder of the Northeast Earth Coalition.