Reader Challenge: Grow One Food-Producing Plant This Year

One of the best things about living on a farm is the freshness of the food. Nothing quite compares to the satisfaction of picking a head of lettuce, washing the leaves and eating a salad in under 10 minutes.

The fresher vegetables are the better they taste and, thus, the less that needs to be done to them in the kitchen. This is not the opening of a treatise on the importance of buying local, though I believe locally grown food is crucial for our taste buds, the environment and local communities (especially in economically depressed rural areas).

This is actually a challenge to you, dear Huffington Post reader, to become closer than ever to your food. To do something that nearly every American did only a few generations ago: grow at least one food-producing plant yourself this year.

Based on conversations I have had with non-farmer friends, there seem to be two main hesitations for growing their own food. Almost everyone worried about their lack of agricultural/gardening knowledge, and many were concerned they did not have enough space to grow food.

Simply reading this blog post proves that you have access to information resources of which our ancestors could never have dreamed. Growing a small segment of your own food will require doing some reading, but probably involve much less physical labor than you expect. Plus you can wow strangers at cocktail parties with your random green bean and potting soil knowledge.

Space is more of a concrete problem (especially if you live in a concrete jungle), but one I am confident you can solve. If you have a small yard, you may want to pull up some of your decorative plants and replace them with one or more food-bearing plants. If you have no outdoor space, you could buy window boxes or one of those silly-looking but useful upside-down planters. As long as the plant gets lots of sunlight and you can reach it to water it, any space can work. I once lived with someone who had a whole garden growing on a Manhattan fire escape, probably more than a dozen plants including lettuces and herbs. (If you do live in a city, you likely also have access to community garden plots; growing one plant will be rewarding enough to get you to grow a whole range of crops next year.)

Without further ado, some suggestions of (relatively) easy to grow plants that don't take up too much space:

Tomatoes - Easily the most money saving plant to grow yourself, as a successful tomato plant will yield an abundance of sweet fruit to eat raw or cooked. Choose the variety based on your own needs: cherry tomatoes are the sweetest; heirloom tomatoes like green zebra have the most complex flavors; but Roma are probably the most useful in the kitchen, as they are great for slicing raw or making sauce.

Unless you grow them upside down, tomatoes will need staking. Either way, plant them somewhere that gets lots of south facing light. Pick the tomatoes as soon as they ripen, and you will actually be encouraging more fruit to grow.

Green/string beans - Most beans grow upward, and therefore give you a high yield per space. Plant seeds directly into warm soil with direct sunlight and lots of water and give them some fencing to climb. Harvest the beans when they are young for the best flavor and higher yield.

Lettuce - Another great plant to grow to save money, as your first harvest would likely have cost more at a grocery store or farmers' market than the lettuce seeds did. Lettuce grows quickly, going from seed to edible leaves in only a few weeks. Pick the outside leaves, and the core will continue to generate food for you. Small varieties can even be grown in containers inside.

Plant the lettuce in spring or late summer and be sure to pick all your leaves before 80+ degree weather, as the heat will kill the plants. Water well.

Peppers - Hot and sweet varieties can also be grown in containers since they have a compact root system. (Talking to you, apartment dwellers.) Like their Solanaceae/nightshade relative, the tomato, peppers need lots of sun and warm weather. Pick the first few early to stimulate plant growth, but leave the rest on the plant until they ripen to red for more nutrient-dense fruit.

Additional factoid: Well after most Americans worked in agriculture, the U.S. government encouraged Americans to grow gardens in their backyards to supplement food production during World War II; almost 80 percent of the country participated, growing as much as 40 percent of the fresh produce consumed in 1943. (This, according to a really interesting food history book called Eating History: Thirty Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine.)

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