When MercyMed farmer Keith Sims goes to bed at night, he thinks about what the food growing on the farm needs to succeed. It’s the mental cost and energy he puts into growing fresh produce.
But it’s good energy.
Buying tomato sauce from the grocery store is convenient, he says, but it doesn’t really give much back. It’s different when he makes his own tomato sauce with tomatoes that he’s grown. For one, there’s less sodium and it’s healthier.
“And it’s just the job well done of seeing that plant from the ground to fruit to preserve to eat during the winter,” Sims said. “And what that does for your mental health to know that your hands did good work that feeds your body, your soul and your mind.”
The Ledger-Enquirer spoke with Sims and Chris Jackson of Jenny Jack Farm about the benefits of residents growing their own food at home and what they need to know before getting started.
Why should people grow their own food?
There are a lot of reasons to grow one’s own food, Sims and Jackson said. Primarily, growing food provides the nurturer with hard work and the skill set it takes to turn seeds or small transplants into healthy, harvestable plants, Jackson said.
“Know how to grow ones food is unfortunately a lost art,” Jackson said. “But one that should be taught at every school in America.”
Growing food at home also means that there is less dependence on grocery stores and the “costly and unsustainable transportation industry,” Jackson said.
The food will taste better than what people can get at a grocery store and is convenient for last minute meal preparation, he said.
What types of vegetables are good to start off with?
The easiest type of vegetable to grow for beginners are cucumbers, Sims said. They’re easy and fast to grow. Squash is also a good option, Sims said, but can be susceptible to bugs.
Tomatoes are a little hard to start with, Sims said. He recommends people start trying to grow cherry tomato hybrids first, then work their way to hybrid large tomatoes before trying heirloom tomatoes.
The hybrid varieties are good to start with because they have some disease resistance, Jackson said, while the heirloom varieties are more challenging.
Although tomatoes need more care to grow, Sims said, they are very gratifying when they come in.
Another option for home gardeners who are just starting out is beans, he said.
“They’re simple,” Sims said. “Just pop the seed in the ground and they grow like wildfire.”
Choosing the right crops to plant depends on the season, Jackson said. In the summer, squash, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, okra and cucumbers fair best in the local climate.
Do you need a big yard to garden?
There is no need for a large yard or farm to garden at home, both Sims and Jackson said.
“You can grow vegetables in pots on a balcony,” Jackson said. “Now, you may not be able to grow all your veggie needs on a small balcony, but growing some food is better than not trying.”
Sims recommends people who want to grow food on their balconies or patios to observe the area and see if they have at least six hours of sunlight.
Make sure the plants have good soil, enough sunlight, space them out so they’re not competing for root space and water them almost daily — depending on when it rains, he said.
People shouldn’t worry about failing, Sims said, because everyone fails. Oftentimes when people fail they say they have a black thumb, he said, but this isn’t true.
“It just takes getting used to,” Sims said. “It’s not like you just go into a test the first time and ace it without studying or missing questions.”
What costs are associated with growing your own food?
Over time, Jackson said, people can save money by growing their own food.
“But like any endeavors, growing vegetables is not cheap nor easy,” he said. “And will require a lot of time and energy from the grower.”
Jackson recommends prospective gardeners do thorough research to learn as much as they can and to start small. The upfront costs might include compost, fertilizer, seeds, plants, an irrigation system and various tools, he said.
Another cost is for the grower to be available and consistent, Jackson said.
“Putting your plants in the soil, watering once and then walking away will more than likely end in a failed garden and you not wanting to participate again,” he said.
It’s important for people to know at the onset that a garden is work and growing food is a skill, Jackson said. Like any new skill, he said, it takes practice and dedication.
What resources are available to help people learn more?
Sims teaches a class for MercyMed patients where they can learn about growing food, he said. Jenny Jack Farm offers tours of their farm and consulting for those who are interested in setting up their own farm or garden.
Other resources include a multitude of books, podcasts and YouTube channels available to help first time growers, Jackson said. Someone growing food in their yard could take a local “intro to gardening” class, he said, and suggest looking into classes at Country Gardens Farm in Peachtree City.
Residents can find useful information at georgiaorganics.org and attra.ncat.org/.