By LORELEI GOFF

In the last column we covered some of the many ways gardening benefits us and the environment. Since then, I’ve heard a lecture that brought out a few more. Growing our own food is autonomy. In other words, being a producer instead of a consumer gives us a degree of freedom. Sharing the bounty from our gardens improves the lives of others and creates powerful social links. Lastly, cooking what you have grown yourself feels great. Read on to learn more about enjoying the benefits of gardening.

The 17 degree temperature I woke up to this morning doesn’t feel like gardening weather, but there’s still plenty to do. I’m actually a bit behind. January would have been the perfect time to make a garden plan and buy seeds to start indoors last month.

A garden plan should take into consideration how much food you want to grow for the number of people in your household and include a diagram of which plants will go where. Information for starting a garden from start to finish, including calculating how much to plant and how to preserve your harvest, can be found on the internet or in a large number of books. One of my favorite books is “Back to Basics” by Reader’s Digest.

I like to get some cool weather crops like kale, spinach and lettuce in the ground early. They do well under row covers when spring frosts nip at the garden in April and it yields a longer harvest before the lettuce and spinach bolt in our southern summer heat.

Today I started some seeds left over from last year and began building hugel mounds to expand my garden space. Hugel mounds are popular with permaculture gardeners because they mimic the natural soil building process of forests and reduce the need for irrigation while using up yard debris. See www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/many-benefits-hugelkultur to learn more.

I’m slowly learning to incorporate permaculture principles into my garden and registered for a free online course. It’s the smartest, most sustainable type of gardening I’ve ever seen and can be adapted to any size space. Based on cooperation with the environment, rather than competition, it’s less labor intensive and costly than conventional gardening over time. Visit open.oregonstate.edu/courses/permaculture for more information about the class.

Permaculture is also one of the best ways to secure a personal food supply in a sometimes insecure world. Check out the Youtube video “Surviving Collapse” with Geoff Lawton to learn more about that.

It certainly isn’t the only way to garden though. When I started out gardening years ago, a neighbor plowed up a plot of ground and I planted vegetables in rows. It worked but it took a lot of weeding and watering to maintain it. The workload lightened as I learned about landscaping cloth and mulch.

Eventually I graduated to raised beds. I found they’re better for the soil, save water and produce higher yields. Raised beds sit above the level of the ground at any height and in many configuration including steps, tiers and keyhole designs. They can be mounds of dirt or boxes placed on the ground, on decks or a cement pad to accommodate variations in personal mobility or the use of adaptive gear like wheelchairs or walkers. Many types of raised beds can be purchased already made and ready to set up.

Whichever type of garden you choose, a soil test provides valuable information about a garden’s pH and which nutrients can be added to help it thrive. Your county Agricultural Extension Office can help you get that done for around $20. They can also put you in touch with a master gardener or horticulturist to help answer questions about gardening.

For those who don’t have yard space for other types of gardening, container gardens or variations on vertical gardening can turn a deck, balcony or even a window sill into a productive garden space. Almost anything that holds dirt can be used for a container garden and pallets are an easy, inexpensive way to grow vertically. I found some great pallet ideas at  morningchores.com/pallet-garden/.

If gardening of any kind won’t work for you, The Appalachian Resource Conservation and Development Council website has information about CSA buying options and farmers markets. They also offer a program called Build It Up East Tennessee for home gardeners and a field school for beginning farmers.

We’ve barely scratched the surface so I encourage you to search the internet, visit your local library or contact one of the resources mentioned above to help you get started. I also suggest you incorporate a shovel full or two of humor into your gardening venture. Gardening, above all, should be fun and enjoyable. Happy gardening!