Cooking

Grow Your Own Way

Gardener and author Tara Austen Weaver on how to start your own edible garden
Homegrown Tomatoes
Photo: Dave Katz/Tasting Table

April is Homegrown Month at Tasting Table.

Warm cherry tomatoes off the vine.

That's the childhood memory that gave author and Edible Seattle editor Tara Austen Weaver the inspiration to turn an overgrown half acre in North Seattle into her own edible garden.

Trained as a master gardener, Weaver recounts her adventures growing blackberries, rhubarb, tomatoes, plums, persimmons, herbs and more, while overhauling both the garden and her personal relationships in her latest book, Orchard House: How a Neglected Garden Taught One Family to Grow (Ballantine Books, $26). Though her story involves some struggles ("Most people will never have a half-acre garden—and probably shouldn't"), she maintains that gardening is easier than you might think. Here are her tips for getting started.

Greens and artichokes in Weaver's home garden (Photos: Courtesy of Tara Austen Weaver) | Orchard House: How a Neglected Garden Taught One Family to Grow

Start Small
There's no need to invest in a whole plot to begin gardening—three pots on a balcony is a perfectly good place to start. In fact, Weaver thinks that gardening on a small scale "may be more rewarding, and perhaps more delightful, because the time commitment isn't so overwhelming."

Plant Wisely
Weaver suggests newbie gardeners start with herbs, especially since they can be so expensive at the grocery store (especially when you need one sprig and end up with an entire bundle turning to sludge in your fridge). But, really, she says, it's all about personal taste: "Think about what you like to eat and what's going to save you the most money to grow."

Berries in Weaver's garden | Sprouted greens (Photos: Courtesy of Tara Austen Weaver)

Weaver cites greens, tomatoes and berries as major cost savers. She also recommends thinking about what will be a continual harvest, rather than one-off. "Once you harvest a head of cauliflower, it's all over," Weaver says. "But kale or collards continue to produce leaves throughout the season." She recounts her onion-growing misadventure as a cautionary tale: "They take forever to grow, don't save you much money and don't taste much better than onions from the store." Pass.

Still wandering the nursery in search of the perfect first plant? Weaver suggests arugula: It has a better flavor than the store-bought version, saves you money and if you let it go to seed, it will return next season. "Also," she notes, "arugula pesto." Many people (understandably) want to start with tomatoes, but she advises beginning with cherry tomatoes: "They give the biggest payoff for investment and are easier to grow than full-size tomatoes."

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Don't Get Discouraged
If you're already rolling your eyes at the thought of basil dying on the balcony, Weaver has some advice. The problem with herbs, she says, is that people go buy a small plant at the store, bring the little pot home and set it on the windowsill. "And then it dies, and people think they're horrible gardeners." Instead, she suggests transplanting the herb—loosening up the roots as you do—into new potting soil and a pot twice the size of the original. She also points out the speed at which potted plants dry out. "If you're growing indoors, you're setting up for a lot more maintenance."

For the most part, Weaver describes growing your own food as "surprisingly joyous" but understands the challenges: "People think if they kill a plant, they're a bad gardener," she says. Don't let this stop stop you from trying again: "Gardeners kill plants," Weaver says. "It's part of the process. Hopefully, you don't kill them all."

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