Food always plays an integral role in life, but in college it becomes a whole new adventure. As freshmen we’re warned about the dreaded Freshman 15, told horror stories about “Mystery Meat” and greasy, bland dining hall food. While this may not be the case at every school (in fact, many dining halls are not half bad), going to college is, for many of us, the first lesson in developing a healthy diet on our own.
Fresh produce is key to healthy eating. While frozen and canned vegetables do provide essential vitamins, it is always better (and tastier) to eat fresh, in-season, and, if possible, local foods that have not gone through the packaging and mass production process. Most dining halls have salad bars and vegetable options to choose from, and grocery stores now offer extensive produce sections, but on the pressed-for-time-and-money days that inevitably present themselves to the college student, I find myself wishing I had my own vegetables right at my disposal. So what’s the solution? Well, grow your own produce, of course.
Growing your own produce does not necessarily have to be hard. There are many varieties of vegetables that can be grown on a small scale, at a low cost, without a great deal of maintenance, and even indoors. Besides, doesn’t everything taste better when you make it yourself?
** Tips and Tricks **
Be Resourceful! Starting a garden is best done in small containers. Everyday materials such as yogurt cups or egg cartons are the best for planting seeds. Be sure to read the planting instructions on the back of the seed packet for spacing and instructions on how deep in the soil the seeds should be placed. Once the seedlings reach a height of about three inches you can relocate them to a larger pot, either store bought or fashioned out of larger containers such as milk jugs, certain soup cans, peanut butter jars, etc.
Fill your pots! The first thing you should add to your container of choice is (that’s right!) soil. If your campus has a community garden, ask if it has any extra soil the gardeners wouldn’t mind donating for your plants. More likely than not they’ll be psyched someone else is interested in homegrown food and will share their dirt. If this isn’t an option, you will have to buy some potting soil – any type will do – which can be found at any nursery and is now available at many hardware and even some grocery stores.
What should you plant? Depending on how much space you have, your options vary. If you live on campus, however, the less space taken up by plants the better. Vegetables such as radishes can grow in as small as a pint-sized container (excuse to go out and buy some Ben & Jerry’s?), and many lettuces such as Bibb, Loose-leaf and Butterhead take up little space and can easily be grown indoors. Some varieties of tomato plants, such as Tiny Tim, only grow to be 12 to 15 inches, and can easily be grown on a windowsill in a container such as the bottom half of an empty, gallon milk jug. Small peppers such as chilies are easily maintained in small spaces. Other popular plants to grow inside are herbs, as varieties such as basil, parsley and rosemary are popular culinary staples but can be very expensive to buy at the store. For more ideas of what can be planted in small spaces, check out this guide.
Give your plants some TLC. Plants just may be the most low-maintenance roommates around. They will be perfectly happy as long as you place them in a spot that gets plenty of sunshine and remember to make sure they are well watered. The soil should be damp, so only add water if it feels dry. Too much water can be just as bad, if not worse, as not enough.
Fending off pests. If you keep your plants inside, your plants should be pretty well protected from the generic pests that plague gardeners. However, if you are lucky enough to be living in an apartment with a balcony or in an off-campus house where having a small outdoor garden is an option, your green thumb might be challenged by Mother Nature. A simple spray made with chopped-up hot peppers (such as jalapeño or habanero) or garlic soaked overnight; place the liquid in a spray bottle full of water and spray right on your plants. This is a great organic pest control: it will be too hot for most bugs to eat, but washes right off without any residual taste when you eat your produce or herbs.
Enjoy! The best thing about growing your own produce is eating it! Harvest your produce as it is ready, and most plants will continue to grow new fruit until their growing cycle is finished. Once the growing season ends, you can always plant a new, more seasonal plant and start all over again. The nice thing about planting an indoor garden is the ability to grow produce year round.
Sarah McAnaw is a junior at American University where she’s working towards getting a degree in International Studies and cooking for friends. She is studying in Florence, Italy this fall where she is immersing herself in art, culture and, of course, authentic Italian cooking.