Gardening at home can be fruitful in more ways than one
Written and photography by Rachel Courtney
In even the smallest American cities, it’s not uncommon for children to have no idea about the origin of the meals they eat. That’s where La Semilla Food Center comes in. The nonprofit organization based out of Anthony, New Mexico maintains gardens in 20 schools in the Las Cruces, Gadsden, and El Paso Independent School Districts. In these schools, the teachers have discovered the best way to get kids to eat their veggies (or fruits) is to have them grow it themselves.
“We’ve had so much success with students who are just now learning that fruits and vegetables can be delicious and not come from a can or jar,” La Semilla Food Planning and Policy Specialist Krysten Aguilar says.
La Semilla also hosts classes for Doña Ana residents on how to grow and prepare healthy foods. These students then return to their communities and become teachers to others. La Semilla’s Edible Education Program Manager Liz Anichini says these basic steps for families that want to start growing their own food will help any level of gardener be successful.
Plan Before You Plant
Keep an eye on where the sun and shade fall in your backyard. Think about what types of fruits and vegetables your family will enjoy. Don’t plant right before you leave town for a week. Thinking about your garden for a few weeks before planting will increase its chances of success.
Starting a garden can be a lot of work and somewhat costly. One of the best ways to not get overwhelmed is to start small. Create an area in your yard that gets early sun and is shaded from afternoon heat. It should be an area which has sprinklers or easy access to water. Plant just a few items in the first year, such as sunflowers, cherry tomatoes and squash. If your family has time and the desire to grow the garden, it’s easy to add more in following years. However, if you have trouble spending time on maintenance, Fido likes to dig, or the yard doesn’t get enough sun (or shade), you may discover that gardening isn’t a good hobby for your family.
Not everything you plant will grow and thrive, but if you don’t try, you’ll never find out. Kids may put plants in the ground sideways and they will get dirty, but this is a great way to get them excited about fruits and vegetables. Feel free to experiment and have fun.
Whether you start with seeds or small transplants, read the label. It has all the information you need, including when to plant, how deep to plant, and how much water is needed. But keep in mind that “full sun” isn’t New Mexico sun, more like Wisconsin sun. In New Mexico a “full sun” plant should only get about six hours of sunlight a day.
Be prepared to water plants once—if not twice—a day. Check to see if a plant needs water by putting your finger about an inch into the soil. If the soil is dry, water it. If it is still wet from the last watering, you should be able to leave it for a day. Once the temperature is above 85 degrees, it is important to check every day.
Initially, this can be hard to remember. Set an alarm in your phone, have your kids take turns, and find a way to make it a habit. “You can do everything right in preparing your garden, but if you forget to water, it will all be wasted,” Anichini says.
Plant all year
The summer isn’t a great time to grow edibles in Southern New Mexico. Gardeners will have more success in the spring and fall—and sometimes even in the winter. For success in the summer, try planting succulents. You can’t eat them, but they grow well and keep your yard looking green and feeling cooler. Another option is to plant flowers that attract beneficial insects. Bee balm, sunflowers, wildflowers and sage attract butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators.
Left: Bell peppers, chiles, tomatoes, cilantro, onions, zucchini, basil and okra harvested from the garden at Sierra Middle School in Las Cruces
Bottom, left: Volunteers water and tend to the garden at Sierra Middle School during the summer when students aren’t in classes. The gardens were planted by students and during the school year, they enjoyed the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor.
Bottom, right: Krysten Aguilar from La Semilla harvests chiles from the Sierra Middle School garden.
Take It Indoors Too!
Starting seeds indoors can be a very exciting experiment for the family. Seed kits are inexpensive and worth the counter space they may take up for a few weeks. Once your family has decided what to plant, buy the seeds, figure out when the last freeze will be, read the back of the seed packet to find out how many weeks old the plant needs to be in to transplant, then count back on your calendar.
Some seeds need to be started for a day on a wet paper towel. Some go right into the soil. They can be planted ¼ inch or an inch underground. Make sure to label the seeds when they are planted to really help you succeed. This can be a great art project for the kids – grab some popsicle sticks and markers and you have an afternoon of fun—or at least a good 10 minutes away from the iPad.