If you're just getting started on your vegetable garden - congrats! Once you've decided you want to turn your backyard into a kitchen garden, you might be overwhelmed. I certainly was, and wished for a "vegetable gardening for dummies" (though I have a degree in food systems!) So, I wrote this Vegetable Gardening 101 post to answer five key questions.
Where to place your garden, and how big should it be?
Choosing your garden placement
Most people have a rough idea of where they want your garden to be, whether that's the backyard, patio, balcony, or somewhere else. Here are my top considerations for choosing where to put your vegetable garden.
- Space limitations: If you live in an apartment or don't have a ton of yard space, consider starting with a container garden. But if you have tons of space, make sure you consider the amount of time you'll have to spend wedding, cleaning, planting and harvesting before you plant.
- Permanent versus temporary planting: Raised beds and container gardens are easy (or rather, easier) to empty and move. If you rent your property, this might be an important consideration.
- Sunshine, sunshine, sunshine. You're probably bored of hearing this all the time, but choosing a spot with ample sunshine is CRITICAL for most vegetables, fruits and herbs (think 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight). You can probably make do with 4 to 6, but anything under that won't work super well for most of the veggies you have in mind. I'm working on a sunlight tracking post that can help you easily figure out what you can plant in the area you've picked based on sun exposure. Stay tuned.
- Protected from pests. Pests can range from simple insects to large animals. For instance, I have a huge issue with raccoons in my backyard. So, in addition to the investment in the garden, I also had to figure out how to keep the raccoon out!
- Good soil with ample drainage. Soil is the plant's primary nutrient source, so finding a good spot that already has or can be amended with nutrient-rich soil is super important. Further, you want soil that drains well and doesn't stay wet. Wet roots lead to rotted roots!
Determining the size of your garden
Okay, I know we all want to dive right in and dedicate as much space as we have to our vegetable gardening efforts. But, word of caution: this can quickly get overwhelming unless you truly have several hours each week to tend to it. So depending on your availability, always better to start small and then expand!
- Planting in the ground. Most experts recommend a 10' x 10' plot if you're planting directly in the ground. You'll be able to grow 4 to 5 of your favorite vegetables in a plot this size.
- Raised beds. If you're using a raised bed like me, I suggest starting with a 4' x 8' (or two 4' x 4' beds) depending on how much space you have. The thing to consider is that potting soil can add up super quickly!
- Container gardens. If you're going the route of container gardening, make sure to get sufficient depth based on the plants (for instance, herbs need a lot less "root space" than a tomato!)
Oh, and most importantly: make sure you have space for pathways! If you have a 4' x 8' bed, budget at least 1.5' to 2' around the bed to make sure you can access all sides of it!
What are the best fruits, vegetables and herbs for beginners?
The best fruits, vegetables, and herbs for you are the ones that meet two conditions: it's something you love eating, and will grow well in your gardening zone and the specific spot you've picked for your garden.
- Your gardening zones are basically a USDA hardiness scale based on your average winter minimum temperatures. Depending on the zone you're in, certain plants might grow better than others. For instance, I live in Seattle (8B) - a maritime climate - so I can grow most plants. Your gardening zone will tell you the length of your growing season, and the risks around frost.
- The specific garden plot you picked will tell you how much sunshine exposure the plants will get. So, for instance, if the sunniest part of the spot you picked just gets 4-5 hours of sunshine, that might not work for hot peppers, but would work quite well for kale, carrots, or radishes. Look for designations of "full sun", "shade tolerant" or "partial shade" on plants to get a sense of how much sun they'll need.
- Other considerations can include things that are harder to get or more expensive to get where you live (for instance, organic strawberries are more expensive than, say onions). Oh, and make sure you pick varieties that you can tend to based on your availability - for instance, tomatoes, squash, and peppers need the most love in the peak of summer. So if you're bidding adieu for vacation, you'll be really sad if you didn't figure out how to take care of them while you're away. Mint, however, seems to thrive on neglect. So pick wisely!
How to pick plants: So, to figure out which plants you should start with, make a list of 5 to 10 fruits, vegetables, or herbs that you consume often and love. Then, look up whether they grow in your zone. If they do, check their sun exposure to figure out whether it'll work in the spot you've picked.
My recommendations: Best plants for beginner gardeners
My favorite starter list for beginner gardeners (and rationale) below:
- Tomatoes. Let's be real, it's every gardener's dream to have juicy tomatoes grown in their own backyard. As long as you have 5 to 6 hours of sunshine in a spot and at least 2 square feet of space, you can grow tomatoes. You can pick indeterminate varieties and train them tall if you're short on space, or varietals that tolerate cold better if your spot doesn't get nice and toasty. But there's almost a tomato for everyone.
- Salad greens. These are so fuss-free and low maintenance, and grow in a variety of shade environments. If you have nice, full sunshine, opt for a lettuce variety (loose leaf tends to be easier than head lettuces). If you have a shadier spot, opt for arugula, kale, or even spinach. You can space out how you plant (meaning, don't plant everything at once) so you can have a good harvest throughout the growing season!
- Root vegetables. Radishes, beets, carrots, and turnips are great starter vegetables. Plus, you can eat almost the entire plant (the roots of course, but also the greens as pesto). I didn't mention potatoes here (because they take up a lot of space, need extra attention, and can be found for cheap in the stores). These plants are also pretty shade tolerant!
- Cucurbits. Cucumbers, as well as summer and winter squashes are so fulfilling to grow! You'll need a nice trellis to train them to grow up (instead of growing in a bush) but you can harvest them late summer and cure them for eating all winter. Plus, who can resist frying up some zucchini flowers? Yum!
- Last but not the least, herbs. Herbs are so underrated and cost a fortune to buy in the supermarket sometimes. So, I love growing them. Plus, they're the most fuss-free! You can grow them in a container pretty much anywhere, and there are varieties adapted to every sun exposure. Have a mostly shady spot? Try mint or parsley. Super sunny? Basil it is. Cilantro, thyme, oregano, and dill all need something in between.
If you don't have a ton of pollinators, I'd also recommend getting some pollinator-friendly flowers or plants - calendula, marigold, African basil, are all excellent options!
Should you buy seeds or starts?
There's no wrong answer here. But here are a few considerations:
- Type of plant. Some plants are really better grown from seeds - carrots are an excellent example here - while others are fine either way.
- How much patience and space you have. If you're patient, and have the space to grow the seeds (with the right water and light) - you can nurture plants from seeds and transplant them when the time is right.
- How much you want to spend. Seeds are much more inexpensive than starts typically. For instance, you can get a packet of tomato seeds for $4 from really fantastic seed companies. Such a packet will typically have 30 - 40 seeds with an 80-90% germination rate. On the other hand, a single tomato start might cost you $10-12. But in this case, you're paying for the work that the nursery has put into nurturing the plant to a place where it'll survive the transplanting.
My quick rule of thumb? For your first round of gardening, get starts, especially for plants like tomatoes. It'll make you feel more fulfilled! But don't forget to pick a couple of seed packets for a few plants so you can learn the ropes along the way.
When and where should I plant?
Let's tackle the when first, since it's easy. There are three considerations for when you plant your crops.
- Plants are typically either "cool season" or "warm season" - the former will grow until you reach summer weather, and after the peaks have passed while the latter will love the hot summer weather when the soil and nighttime temperatures are high. Plant the warm season crops where you get the maximum sunshine!
- Plants are also annual or biennial or perennial - annual plants last just one growing season, biennials will last two, while perennials will "die" each winter but sprout back come springtime if taken care of well. For instance, tomatoes are annual, while asparagus is perennial. Plant perennial crops where you can have more permanent beds.
- Plants have different times to maturity - some plants mature super quickly (e.g., radishes) while others take much longer (e.g., peppers). So make sure you plant based on the "days to maturity" mentioned in the seed packets (which usually counts from when the seedlings sprout, or when the transplants are planted in soil). Oh, and make sure to not plant all the crops of the same type at once - otherwise, you'll end up with a crazy harvest one day and nothing for weeks otherwise. Practice what is called "succession" planting (i.e., sow a few seeds this week, some more next week, etc. so your plants are spaced out in maturity).
Check out the Farmers' Almanac planting timetable for your zip code to get a good sense of when you should aim to plant seeds or starts!
To identify where to plant your fruits, vegetables and herbs, consider the following tips and tricks.
- Plant tall plants on the north side of your garden or bed. This could be stuff like pole beans, peas, or even cucumbers and tomatoes. Some of these plants grow super tall and can shade your other crops if you don't plant them in the right spot. Plus, by planting the tall crops on the north side, you can then plant shorter crops like basil, or peppers in front.
- Know what plants to pair together. There are lengthy discussions and debates about what's known as "companion" planting - but much of that is anecdotal and based on experience. In general, remembering not to plant heavy feeders next to each other (e.g., tomatoes and squashes) and trying to pair some pollinator plants or herbs with heavy feeders (e.g., basil or marigolds and tomatoes) can help ensure the nutrient content stays optimal and keep away pests!
What tools do I need to start gardening?
I tried my best to stay super minimalist with my garden tools (operative word being "tried"). That said, in the process of buying a bunch of stuff, I realized that I keep reaching for the same four or five tools all the time. Of course, this will depend a bit on both the size of our garden as well as the part of the gardening cycle you're in.
For instance, if you have a large plot, you'll need a rake, hoe, and spade but if you're using raised beds like I am, a good hand trowel is sufficient. Likewise, if you are just starting out, you'll need more preparation tools, versus more pruning tools if you're in the middle of a growing season.
So, here are my top four gardening tools that I use almost everyday.
- Gloves. Hot debate on this among some gardeners I know, but I really love having gardening gloves when I'm doing heavy preparation work. I picked up a pair from my local nursery (it's nitrile coated) and it's great to keep dirt from getting into your nails.
- Watering hose and nozzle and/or watering can. You'll need a good watering hose that's at least 25 to 50 feet long, depending on how big your garden is and how far your outlet is from the plots. Make sure to et one that's drinking water safe. Then, get an adjustable nozzle. Further, if you planted stuff in balconies and patios like I do, you'll also need a nice watering can. Get something that's at least 1 gallon and outdoor proof.
- Pruning shears. These are super important for maintenance (and you can also get micro-pruners) if you like. I use a bypass pruner since anvil pruners tend to crush plant materials. Corona and Felco are both great.
- Hori Hori hand trowel. Okay, if I had to pick a tool that's my favorite? It's this trowel. It's got a Japanese design and has two features that are super helpful - serrated edges to dig up dirt easily, and markings to let you know exactly how deep you've dug up so far. This is really helpful when plants or seeds will tell you to plant x" deep!
How do you take care of plants?
This can be a whole book to be honest, and will depend a lot on the type of plant, where you plant, and so many other things. But at a basic level, there are three things you should be aware of:
- Water. Make sure to water your plants appropriately based on the type of plant. I like doing this first thing in the morning or around dusk, because then the water doesn't evaporate quickly. Some plants are heavy feeders (like tomatoes) but most don't like wet roots. So, stick a finger half an inch into the soil. If it's wet, you're fine. If not, water.
- Nutrition. Make sure to use a good potting soil, raised bed soil, or soil amendment as the base and also add organic, balanced, slow-release fertilizers especially for heavy feeders (e.g., tomatoes, berries). More on this on future posts or your local nursery can guide you.
- Pests and diseases. The biggest lesson I've learned from gardening is that the vegetable garden is an ecosystem. So, you will get pests (whether they're tiny insects or crazy raccoons). You can use natural, humane, and organic ways to identify and get rid of most pests and diseases. I strongly suggest joining a local gardening Facebook group, or investing in a plant / plant disease identification mobile app where you can upload pictures to diagnose issues.