I’m taking a sustainability class. We’re talking about food sheds, or the perimeter around Albuquerque in which getting food from is considered local and sustainable. Albuquerque has a food shed of about 300 miles.

I eat within my food shed year round for the most part, with an occasional dip into the seafood section. On occasion I slip and get some tomatoes during winter — sometimes a man just needs his red vegetable.

Having to exist within the food shed can be difficult. New Mexico is limited in its food shed. We don’t produce much variety and the things that there are a lot of are typically hard to make an entire meal out of. I find myself feeling like an Irish peasant when the contents of my dinner is limited to a meager cabbage, butter and un-cracked peppercorn goulash.

I buy big burlap sacks of pinto beans to supplement the lack of protein in our food shed. New Mexico is not somewhere that produces a lot of sustainable meat. Besides the pastoral chicken, your options are limited.

Growing up a vegetarian, I’ve never been able to fully accept meat into my life. When I have done so, I usually walk away with discomfort in my bowels.
The lack of variety in a food shed can cause even the most committed people to throw off the shackles and go grab crab cakes covered in Icelandic parsley – the furthest food possible.

To battle the feeling of lack of control, I suggest taking things into your own hands. Grow a garden.

“How might I do this?” you ask. Well, let’s go over some of the basics. The difference between farm-raised food and garden-bred food is simple: On a farm, you’re trying to put as much resources as possible into a decent amount of land. In a garden, you are putting a large amount of resources into a small piece of land or even a set of containers.

This means you can get much higher yields from very small land sizes.
The limit of space in gardens has made people have to plant all their varieties closer together, which in turn has taught people how to use a mixture of plants to help them do the work.

Plants should never serve just one purpose. If you think your plant is serving one purpose, you are either ill informed or thankless. Just the process of photosynthesis alone provides all food and oxygen that we consume.

The seasons are changing, so let’s talk about what you can do right now. There is limited planting during the winter months in New Mexico. Most farms usually have a few winter crops. Garlic, onions, spinach, radish, turnip, carrot and most lettuces will grow throughout the winter months. But the flavor of all plants, especially root plants, will be much milder than in the summer months. Some plants, like the radish, are favored in the colder months because of their subtle spiciness. I know as a kid they were too much for my taste buds throughout the year.

Summer’s selection is much bigger. But in our climate the heat and lack of water can take it’s toll on crops. Chiles, bell peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, basil, strawberries, raspberries, nut trees and other herbs can all flourish in the summer time.

There are some things to consider when you start planting. The natural soil in most areas around the city lacks biomass and moisture. Bacteria and fungi are not present like they are in other places. Just throwing some seeds into the soil and waiting for results can leave you doubtful that anything could grow in a desert like ours. But with some techniques that satisfy space problems at the same time, you can produce delicious and high-yielding plants.

To bypass the natural soil problem, go above it all. Plant in raised beds or containers. You can completely control every aspect of your soil and get it perfect. There are a multitude of planting mediums ranging everywhere from soil to soilless, all having distinct benefits and disadvantages.

I like an almost soilless mix with 25 percent compost, 25 percent perlite, 25 percent vermiculite and 25 percent coco fiber. The compost introduces natural bacteria and fungus along with trace nutrients that are important for plant growth. The perlite and vermiculite are both inorganic materials that hold moisture while still providing oxygen to the root system. The coco fibers are strands of coconut shell that have been broken down, pressure washed and sterilized. The fiber holds water and nutrients really well with a benefit of helping overall soil structure. I like to soak the coco fiber in a natural insecticide called Neem oil before mixing it in with everything else. The best way to get rid of bugs is to start with only the beneficial ones — Neem oil can help.

The second tip for starting any garden is compost. You should be doing it anyways, if for nothing else, to reduce the amount of trash in landfills. But it’s the cheapest fertilizer you can get. There are a few things to know when starting to compost. There is no wrong way to do it, but there are things that help it go faster.
No meat or dairy, it takes too long and it attracts animals. Add enough water so that when you turn the soil it feels like a wrung-out sponge. No citrus, as the peels can take years to break down. And remember that to have compost you don’t need to turn it, but the more air you provide the bacteria and fungus the faster they do your work. Along those lines, you should try to get everything into your compost in the most broken-up physical form.

Hopefully with this advice you can feel more secure in starting your garden today.