Spring Gardening

Spring gardening can be healthy in a number of ways

By Kellie Matherly
March 1, 2023

There’s nothing quite like eating juicy tomatoes or crisp green beans from your very own garden. When the weather warms up and the days get a little longer, it’s time to think about planting those spring vegetables.

Home gardening is a rewarding, delicious hobby, but the benefits go far beyond a feeling of accomplishment and great-tasting food. Pulling weeds, planting and harvesting can burn up to 400 calories an hour. Add that to the fact that most gardening is done outside when the weather is nice, and it becomes a perfect activity to improve physical and mental health. Finally, a well-tended garden can produce food year-round, lowering your family’s grocery bills.

According to Jeffrey Roebuck, Project Technician at the Choctaw Nation’s Agriculture Demonstration Center in Lehigh, one of the greatest benefits of having your own garden is that the food tastes better. “A lot of times the store-bought vegetables have been treated with a gas to make them stay prettier longer,” he said. “With a garden, you know what you put into that vegetable, so you know what is going into your body.”

Getting kids involved is also a great way to teach healthy activity and eating habits. “It’s nice to watch them go out there and see that they can put a seed in the ground, and a month later, they can see what they grew and that it’s healthy for them, especially if it’s a cantaloupe or a watermelon that they can enjoy the sweet taste,” said Roebuck. It may even help picky eaters be more receptive to new fresh foods.

If you’re a beginner, planning and starting your own vegetable patch may seem daunting, but with plenty of resources, guides and farming techniques like raised beds and container gardening, it may be easier than you think.

The first step to having a successful garden is to find the right location. Most vegetables need six to eight hours of direct sunlight every day, although there are a few leafy varieties that can tolerate some shade. Your plot needs to have good drainage as well. Wet soil means wet roots, which will lead to root rot and no produce. In addition, rocky soil can inhibit the growth of roots, so it’s best to till the soil and remove any barriers to roots.

It is also critical to provide nutrient-rich soil for your young plants. Be sure to mix in plenty of organic matter like compost, manure or humus. The more established your roots are, the more stable your plants will be in the ground and the more they will produce. Avoid areas where there is a lot of foot traffic or high winds that may prevent your plants from taking root.

Roebuck recommends avoiding mass-produced potting mix when possible. “There’s a lot of potting mixes out there that have a lot of things in them that won’t be suitable for growing vegetables. There’s a lot of nasty stuff inside some of that,” he said. He prefers to buy from a nursery or a locally owned greenhouse store. They will know what to put in the mix because they are familiar with the soil in the region.

For gardening novices who will be planting a traditional in-ground garden, it’s a good idea to start with a small plot at first. Andrea Beck of Better Homes and Gardens magazine suggests a 6’x6′ plot, with the garden area divided into square foot sections. The Old Farmer’s Almanac suggests a 10’x10′ or even up to a 12’x24′ plot for beginners.

Raised beds and container gardens are becoming more popular, especially for home gardeners with very little space, physical disabilities or other limitations. With both raised beds and container gardens, those who rent houses or apartments also have the option to grow their own food without breaking their lease agreements.

Container gardens also need plenty of sunlight and access to water, as well as shelter from wind and cold temperatures, but you will reap some appealing benefits. For instance, you will cultivate the ideal soil with the right nutrients, rather than worrying about your native soil’s ability to support your plants. You will also have fewer weeds, if any, in a container garden. And perhaps best of all, harvesting is far cleaner and easier. There are even certain varieties of vegetables like tomatoes, strawberries and salad greens that have been specially bred to thrive in containers!

Once you’ve decided what kind of garden best suits your needs, it’s time to choose seeds or plants, and to ensure the most successful harvest, you need to know when to plant them. Seedlings are plants that have already sprouted and are ready for transfer. While some seeds can be sown directly into the soil, other varieties may need to be started indoors and transferred. It is certainly easier to plant a garden from seedlings, rather than seeds, but seeds are less expensive.

Tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, radishes, peas, beans, and herbs such as basil, rosemary and thyme are easy for beginners to grow and can yield a bountiful harvest. The Old Farmer’s Almanac has a handy interactive planting calendar that allows gardeners to enter their zip codes to find the best time to plant certain crops using average frost dates. For instance, at the Choctaw Nation Headquarters in Durant, Okla., the best time to plant tomato seedlings is between April 14 and May 5, according to the almanac. You can find this planting calendar at almanac.com/gardening/planting-calendar.

It’s best to get your plants from a locally owned shop that understands what will grow well in your area, according to Roebuck. Big box stores and chains tend to ship the same plants to all their stores regardless of whether the plant is suited to the climate there. Read the planting instructions on your seed packet or seedling tag to find out if the plant is disease resistant and whether the plant can survive in the climate where you live, also known as your hardiness zone. The USDA offers an interactive map at planthardiness.ars.usda.gov that can help you find your zone.

“To make it even easier, especially for a beginner, you want to try to find a vegetable that is disease resistant,” says Roebuck. “Being disease resistant means it’s been tested and studied, so hopefully, you won’t be fighting blossom end rot on tomatoes.”

Where you place plants in your newly established garden is also important. Certain plants, such as tomatoes and peppers, grow well together as companions, while others can actually damage their neighbors or affect the flavor of the plants around them. For instance, cucumbers are not friendly with potatoes. A perfect example of companion planting is the Three Sisters garden. Practiced by Choctaws and other Native American tribes for generations, this technique places corn, beans and squash in proximity to each other to create a perfectly balanced relationship. The corn stalk supports the climbing beans; the beans add extra nutrients to the soil, and the squash creates ground cover to protect the other plants’ roots from harsh temperatures. In many cases, planting flowers like marigolds and nasturtiums can help ward off pests in your garden.

The Choctaw Nation’s Agriculture Demonstration Centers provide hands-on workshops, trials and demonstrations to showcase gardening trends for tribal members and their communities. Visit choctawnation.com/services/ag-demo-centers/ to find out more about upcoming events.

In addition, the Backyard Initiative project offers instructional videos and step-by-step guides for building a traditional raised garden, a universally accessible raised garden, a compost bin and even a chicken tractor. These videos are also available at the Agriculture Demonstration Centers’ webpage.

Heirloom seeds for traditional Choctaw crops are also available through the Growing Hope program. This seed bank, curated by the Choctaw Nation’s Historical Preservation team, allows tribal members to participate in the revitalization of time-honored Choctaw foodways. Growing Hope also offers workshops for those who want to learn more about the history of these plants and preparing the food once harvested. Aside from the cultural benefits of growing traditional Choctaw crops, there are measurable health perks that come from eating these foods.

Emily Soreghan, a recent graduate of the University of Oklahoma, partnered with Growing Hope to learn more about seed heritage for her term project.

“Food is a keystone of culture. The type of food we eat, our way of preparing and sharing food—these daily rituals connect us to place and time and each other,” said Soreghan.

During her time working with the Growing Hope program, Soreghan had the opportunity to help in the revitalization of the Spotted Cane Basket Bean. Using her own raised beds, she successfully cultivated the bean sprouts, which helped mitigate damage to existing Choctaw crops by diversifying the location of the plants. According to Dr. Ian Thompson, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Choctaw Nation, Soreghan’s participation helped increase the seed bank for this threatened plant by 50%.

“Seeds differ from most material culture in one important sense: they are alive!” said Soreghan. “Each morning I go outside and stare at the baby bean sprouts rapturously: this living culture, this miracle, this resilient and unique bean.”

Right now, the Growing Hope program’s seed collection includes several varieties of corn, beans, squash and peas. Lambsquarter and tobacco are also available. From January to April, tribal members can request an application for seeds here: choctawnation.com/services/growing-hope/.