Learn how one Irvington family is deepening their connection to the earth and each other (and having fun) by growing their own food — using some very interesting, rewarding, and easy-to-emulate methodologies.
by Gwen Merkin
Irvington resident Gwen Merkin, Program Manager for Corporate Sustainability at UL, has more than ten years experience in the fields of energy efficiency, corporate sustainability, green building, waste auditing, and city planning. She lives in a pondside house near Sunnyside Lane with her husband, Ryan Merkin, also a leader in building science and energy consulting, and their two young daughters. She spends her limited free time fostering connections between people and the Earth, and loves the magic of plants.
Throughout the quarantine, our family has found growing our own food to be incredibly soothing — from the bonding it brings as a family activity, to the wonders of nature and science, to the confidence of increasing self-sufficiency. We are feeling grateful for our deepening connection to nature.
Last year, after years of tinkering with vegetable gardening that resulted in very small yields, we bought three City Pickers, which are mobile, self-watering, raised-bed grow boxes. The plants live above an aeration screen that enhances the oxygen flow to roots and encourages faster growth. They worked really well for snap peas, cucumbers, arugula and kale.
This year, we bought two more City Pickers and seven Earth Boxes (a similar solution, made from recycled-content plastic), and decided to test a few more strategies to see if — on our 200-square foot deck and a plot in the back yard below — we can produce enough veggies to feed four adults and two children throughout the summer and early fall.
We started from seeds we’d been collecting over the last few years, plus a few purchased online from Seed Savers Exchange. We planted them in a combination of trays designed for growing seedlings, hydroponics (for lettuce), recyclable plastic salad containers (which are maddening as a single-use product), plus direct sowing into the 12 City Pickers and Earth Boxes. We borrowed a grow light to help expedite the process of turning the seedlings into viable plants.
We like this Parks’ domed seed-starting tray with 60 cells.
We use bagged potting mix — which is soil-less and designed to maximize growth in pots. The raised-bed systems require it — plus a blend of dolomite (crushed limestone) and organic fertilizer. We’re growing cucumbers, kale, mustard greens, arugula, lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, cilantro, and basil. The ‘garden’ is up on our deck so we don’t create a tasty buffet for the abundant deer and geese.
The black plastic ‘mulch’ comes with the Earth Boxes. It helps retain moisture and keeps the weeds and critters out. In this box, we’re growing arugula and snap peas. You water the Earth Box through the pipe in the corner. The water is stored in the bottom of the container and the plants suck it in; you can’t overwater because the excess drains out through the bottom.
This is our electric hydroponic grow station, in which we’re growing butterhead lettuce. The dials on the bottom let us know if we need to add water or food. It took approximately three weeks from planting until we were able to enjoy the first crop (it was good)! The next round should be ready in half the time; the leaves are getting big again.
We put all our food scraps (except for meat, cheese, fish) in this FCMP Outdoor Tumbling Composter, and it makes amazing compost fertilizer. We start with an equal volume of leaves and vegetable peels and scraps. In spring temperatures it takes three to four weeks to make compost; it’s a lot slower in the colder months and faster in the summer. I also bury unfinished compost right in the backyard, and have seen it transform our clay soil into beautiful, worm-filled garden beds.
We are obsessed with watching the magical process unfold.
While our six- and eight-year-olds have not yet taken to eating salads (in a bowl, anyway), they love to pick leaves straight from the plants and pop them into their mouths!