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Living Green: Gardening at home with basic set-up

An African violet, right, and an aloe plant are pictured. Gardening at home is a way to be self-reliant and getting started only requires good soil, water, solar access and seeds. (Journal photo by Jackie Jahfetson)

MARQUETTE — Soil, water, nutrients, sunlight and seeds are the basic items one person needs to grow food from scratch in the comfort of their own home.

Gardening begins with good soil, NMU Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Sustainability Sarah Mittlefehldt said.

Most of the supplies can be ordered online or found at any big box store, Mittlefehldt said, adding that reusing things such as old yogurt containers is a way to stay indoors and utilize what’s inside one’s home.

January, February and March are the dark winter months and it’s a great starting point to begin determining what plants to grow, she said.

Due to the shelter-in-place order of staying inside for the next three weeks with limited excursions, gardening is an activity that only requires oneself, Mittlefehldt said.

“The current global pandemic has revealed how vulnerable our food system is in the U.S. in general, and in the (Upper Peninsula) in particular,” she said. “We are extremely dependent on food grown thousands of miles away. When supply and distribution systems are disrupted, Yoopers become vulnerable to food insecurity. Even if it’s just a basil plant, by planting seeds, you are helping to strengthen our local food system, one small plant at a time.”

For NMU student Niikah Hatfield, gardening is a way to be self-reliant and it’s fairly easy to get started, she said.

Any naturally lit space to set up pots or window planters, such as on the front steps of a home, will do for garden space, Hatfield said. Finding pots with good drainage systems is another key thing to keep in mind. To save on space, co-planting some vegetables has proven effective, Hatfield said.

Growing up on Seeds and Spores, a family farm located in Chocolay Township that sells food to the Marquette area, Hatfield has helped out most of her life and has taken on more responsibility over the past six years. The eight acres of vegetables, hogs, beef cattle, hens, medicinal herbs, mushrooms and more helps maintain a sustainable ecosystem where the farm supports itself and leaves the land in better condition than it was 20 years ago when the farm was first founded, Hatfield noted.

Though gardening — especially organic gardening — has its obstacles such as weeds and pests, there’s something about homegrown fruits and veggies that makes it all worthwhile, Hatfield said.

“To eat something you have been watching grow from a seedling or transplant is one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had: There is a special cycle of self-sufficiency and completeness that comes with it,” Hatfield said. “Knowing where your food comes from and all the work that it takes to produce it brings a lot of appreciation.”

As a mother of a 6-year-old child, Mittlefehldt said she and her daughter have enjoyed several science lessons together on the topic of gardening during this “extended spring break.”

“Our daughter wanted to see if the seeds from her store-bought grapes would grow, so we turned it into a gardening experiment. She made a hypothesis about what she expected the seeds to do based on prior observation. Then she came up with the things she understood to be necessary for plant life: good soil, water, sunlight,” Mittlefehldt said. “Whether it’s preparing other seeds or harvesting the final goods, we try to involve our daughter at all stages of the food production process. It seems more important than ever that we all know how to grow food.”

Due to the northern climate of the U.P., plants such as tomatoes, peppers and melons need more time indoors before they can be transplanted into the ground, Mittlefehldt explained.

However, plants that can be directly planted are kale, spinach and carrots. Consulting the seed packet for proper instructions will support successful results and determine when plants can be transplanted outside, she said.

“It is incredibly satisfying to produce the things that your family and community needs. Growing food is a great way to become more self-reliant as an individual, and more resilient as a community. It’s also a pleasant way to spend time outdoors with loved ones,” Mittlefehldt said.

Grow spaces by windows and other well-lit, warm areas offer perfect growing conditions to start seedlings so they can be transplanted outside into a garden, pots or raised beds after the last frost, Hatfield noted.

Some vegetables are short-season varieties that are durable for this climate, but gardening in the U.P. is possible for several items, including potatoes, lettuce and cucumbers, and most of the plants are fairly easy to maintain, she said.

Vegetables such as radishes, lettuce, kale and peas are examples of fairly easy crops to grow, she added.

“There are tons of books and literature on farming, especially urban farming, that are valuable for learning the basics. But plants need good soil, water and sunlight. If you’re intimidated by growing from seed, a lot of farms sell transplants in the spring. Give some things a try — it never hurts,” Hatfield said. “Be patient. And a lot of crops, like spinach or lettuce or beets and carrots can be planted multiple times throughout the season to make sure you have fresh veg all year long. If you grow a lot of something, you can learn how to preserve it for the winter months as well. And… have fun.”

Jackie Jahfetson can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248.

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