How To Start A Garden & Easily Grow Your Own Fresh Produce
So, you want to start a garden.
To most people, learning how to start a garden from scratch sounds like an exhausting ordeal.
And while it does take a bit of planning, gardening rewards you with much more than delicious, fresh produce.
Not only can you easily grow a steady supply of fresh fruit and veggies, you’ll also be contributing positively to the environment everyday.
First off, how can a garden benefit an aspiring green thumb?
What are the benefits of gardening?
You can start a garden without any specific reason in mind, but there are plenty of benefits that come with growing your own plants.
Honestly, you’d be surprised just how much the simple act of growing and tending to some of your favorite vegetables can be.
Gardening makes you feel good
We all know being outside makes you feel better, but tending to plants is a whole different experience – and it’s backed up by research, if that matters to you.
Reduced costs and the act of gardening itself is associated with reduced anxiety, attention deficit recovery, decreased depression, greater happiness and life satisfaction, and improved self-esteem.
And while that sounds like an exaggeration, making a positive connection with your source of food is a feeling that’s hard to put into words. Tending to a small plot of your favorite vegetables in the sunshine is really quite special.
And it goes beyond that too, biophilic design is an important growing field combining natural spaces with classic design elements – and your simple backyard garden can be your own version of this.
Gardening helps the planet
Food doesn’t get more local than your backyard, and reducing the need to transport it almost entirely removes your diet’s carbon footprint.
Home gardens attract pollinators as well, and in general will contribute positively to your local area’s biodiversity (especially if you grow native plants).
The great thing about a home garden is it’s the perfect place to implement sustainable farming practices, compared to large scale operations.
And a garden can be as large or as small as you need it to be. It can be a window garden full of herbs or a compact, fully-functioning farm.
The learning curve is very comfortable, and the process is rewarding. And even if you’re short of space, you might be surprised by how little you actually need.
Gardening is practical
You can feed a family with delicious, healthy fruits and veggies on a budget and with little space if you manage it well. For most people, the reduced food costs and fresh ingredients are major perks that come with growing your own produce.
Gardens don’t require much space
Not everyone is going to be able to grow all the food they need for their family, but even with as little as around 20ft x 20ft (6m x 6m), it’s possible to feed up to four people during the year.
This relatively small area, if well-managed, will take somewhere around an hour or two a week at most to maintain, including the harvesting and processing.
For spaces smaller than this, there’s still plenty of food you can grow. A beginner or compact garden can be as small as one or two 6ft x 3ft (2m x 1m) boxes and still provide a ton of fresh vegetables.
Even if you live in an apartment you can still have a garden. As long as there’s some light coming through your window, you should be able to grow herbs and spices without too much trouble and even make use of indoor composting to recycle your kitchen scraps.
Vegetables really don’t take much room to grow. To put this into perspective, around 2lbs (1kg) of root vegetables like sweet potatoes can be grown in a space the size of a shoebox.
Foods like beef, on the other hand, require massive amounts of land, energy, and water to produce before being shipped to your local shops.
How to start a garden step-by-step
Because of how unique each garden can be, let’s just go over a few of the most important steps that work for me everytime, no matter the size or type of veggie garden.
Pick the size and location
The first step is to decide on the amount of space you’re comfortable with, as the size is what determines which crops you should grow. And you’ll also need to decide if you want to grow them outdoors, in a greenhouse, or indoors.
Choose your vegetables
What you grow depends on your garden size, climate zone, and the length of your seasons.
You can find maps of US hardiness zones and European hardiness zones as well as other areas, but you may have to search around a bit for the most up-to-date maps. These will give you a better idea of the most suitable plants for your particular location.
If you’re short on space consider high-calorie crops, or smaller vegetable varieties like root crops and pole beans.
Only have space for a tiny garden? You might want to just stick to the gardening basics and grow your favorites, or consider focusing on more expensive herbs and unusual varieties to save money.
Some crops will even do well in pots or buckets. Potatoes, for example, can be grown in almost anything bigger than the plant itself as long as it’s deep enough, reducing the amount of soil and water you need.
If you want a list of my recommended starter crops, keep reading!
Plan your calendar
Gardening requires a bit of planning, but it doesn’t have to be very complicated.
If your growing season allows for multiple harvests throughout the year, you can rotate out different crops after you harvest them. This might involve a rolling grow, which is when you plant a new wave of seeds every three or four weeks.
For example, a rolling grow of potatoes over the course of the April-September season may look something like this:
- Day 1: plant six potatoes
- Week 4: plant six more
- Week 7: harvest the first crop and plant six more in their place
- Week 10: harvest the second crop and plant six more in their place
Planting crops like this means you’ll have a continuous supply of fresh food throughout the season, and it can be done with most crops you may want to grow.
The trick is figuring out how long they take from planting until harvest, and leaving enough space in the garden for the whole sequence.
Some plants can even benefit from being seeded indoors in trays and then transplanted later; allowing you to extend your growing season by planting earlier in the year while it’s still too cold outside for super young plants to survive.
Build your garden
Once you’ve got the plan down, you’ll need to prepare the actual space your garden will take up. Build beds, nursery areas, gather pots, and put up greenhouses and trellises for climbing plants if you’ll be using them.
Consider where the sun will be at different parts of the day and design your layout to keep your taller plants behind your shorter ones. Don’t place your peas in front of your lettuces, for example, as they’ll block the sun.
Use quality soil
Depending on your location and the history of the soil that’s in the garden, you could have anything from highly fertile to downright toxic soil.
A few things you might want to do:
- Get your soil tested for things like pH and and make needed adjustments
- Make your own soil in advance by composting your organic waste
- Buy topsoil or compost, which are pretty cheap even in large amounts
It’s worth learning about the basics of soil composition and how they relate to drainage and nutrient retention, among other things. But that’s also literally an entire science of its own – so don’t worry if it’s overwhelming; you can get into it as much or as little as you like.
The main things to focus on are the differences between sand, silt, and clay:
- Sand: large particles of broken down rock and silica that don’t hold onto water, drain well, and shed heat
- Silt: medium-sized particles that hold onto more water than sand and usually come with a better nutrient supply
- Clay: very small nutrient dense particles that tend to pack together and form a waterproof barrier, which can suffocate plant roots
Plants will all thrive best in different soils. But as long as you have a well-rounded, loamy soil base (roughly equal parts sand, silt, and clay), you’ll cater to the needs of nearly every common vegetable variety.
Protect your space
You should also make sure your garden is protected. This is particularly important if you’re sharing the space with children, chickens, rabbits, cats, dogs, or any other kind of animal.
Tall wire fences are usually enough, but if you have a problem with birds you might want to get some net coverings, too. As for other pests, this will depend entirely on your location and your crops.
In general the best way to handle pests, however, is without the use of pesticides. If you want to garden responsibly, tackle the issue on a case-by-case basis with a bit of research that doesn’t involve poison.
What are the best crops to start with?
The list of different veggies you can grow is massive, and it can be overwhelming if it’s your first time growing a garden. You can even get GMO varieties nowadays, so it’s tough to pick out your first crops.
To get you started, here are my five must-have crops for a starter garden:
I’m really fond of potatoes for a few reasons. They’re easy to grow, packed with micronutrients and calories, require barely any space, and store well for months.
Potatoes also come in multiple varieties, so you can experiment with any number of them to find the ones you like.
Onions are great because almost no pest will eat them, and like potatoes they’re one of the lowest-maintenance crops. This is another great crop to experiment with in terms of trying different varieties.
Most decent meals are only improved by adding onion (unless you hate them), and even the leaves can be used in salads!
Peas grow fast and can be prolific fruiters – there’s a good chance you’ll end up giving away half of them to your friends and family. Of all the crops listed here, they’ll likely be the first to harvest.
Sugar snap peas can be ready in as little as six weeks and can give you a daily harvest for months, especially if you have a rolling grow of them.
As legumes, they’re also nitrogen fixers – so they can be grown in poor quality soils while still providing a much needed protein source in your garden.
Tomatoes bring a splash of vivid color to the garden, and as far as farm crops go, they’re highly communicative.
They’ll let you know through physical changes if the soil has too much or not enough nitrogen, if they’re too hot or thirsty, etc. This makes them a great entry-level plant for learning to manage different conditions.
Having said that, they’re not super fussy and can supply huge, regular harvests of delicious, home-grown tomatoes that can be eaten fresh or sun-dried for later.
If you’ve never had a fresh garden tomato, you’re seriously missing out – and you can grow any size variety you want, even cherry tomatoes for topping your salads.
5. Winter squashes
As for food that comes later in the season, there’s nothing better than a winter squash.
This can be anything from a pumpkin to a butternut squash, which can be cooked up into any number of warm, comforting winter soups to keep you going until spring.
Keep the seeds and toast them to eat as a snack, but save some for the next season’s crop!
Should you keep animals in your garden?
Even if the mass production of meat is bad for the environment, animals can still be a great contribution to your garden.
Chickens are excellent waste-disposal animals, and provide compostable poop high in nitrogen, unlike other pets like dogs and cats who’s waste should’nt be composted. They’re also very low-maintenance and independent, as long as they have enough food and space.
Rescued battery hens can even supply eggs as a supplement to your garden vegetables, if you haven’t figured out how to go vegan yet.
Rabbit droppings are not nearly as tasty (please don’t eat them), but they’re packed with nutrients and can be added directly into your soil without the need to compost. And rabbits will gladly help dispose of your kitchen waste, too.
If you decide to team up with either of these animals, make sure they’re separated from the crops. This is the most important thing to keep in mind when it comes to these kinds of garden-helpers.
Chickens will scratch your seeding area to pieces and eat all your greens, and rabbits will dig up and eat even more if given the chance.
But, a well-balanced vegetable garden with animals around can reduce or totally eliminate the need for fertilizers, and improve the psychological perks of gardening. It’s just nice being around some happy feathery or furry friends, especially when you don’t plan on eating them.
Can you collect rainwater for your garden?
Using rainwater is the obvious environmentally-friendly choice, if your area allows it. So if you have the room and the ability, it seems only sensible to collect your own water for your garden.
A large rainwater tank attached to your gutter can potentially supply all the clean water you need throughout the season and adds another layer of self-sufficiency to what is already somewhat of a declaration of independence.
Mature plants won’t need watering every day – but seedlings must not dry out, so make sure to keep them moist.
This is another good reason to plant in small, transferrable pots for those plants that suit it, as they will require less water to keep moist.
Starting a garden can be as fun as it is rewarding, as it’s both practical and an excellent way to relax and connect with nature.
It’s a project that can appeal to people at any skill level, and can be approached with as much or as little investment as you like.
So, what are you going to grow first?