If you’re looking for fresh, local food, you could head to your nearest farmer’s market — or you could step into your own backyard. The cost savings that come from growing your own food are attractive to some people, but the biggest benefits come from having the freshest, most flavorful produce right at your doorstep.
Starting a vegetable (and fruit) garden can seem intimidating, but beginning with a small plot and choosing easy-to-grow plants will help ease you into it. Here’s a short guide to get you started.
Backyard Garden Basics
The ideal size for a starter garden is about 10×10 feet, which allows you sufficient space to plant a few each of five or so different vegetables (or fruits). It also means that there is less space for weeds and disease to thrive.
You’ll want to select your space carefully, as most vegetables need a fair amount of sun. If you’re having trouble finding a spot that gets sufficient sun on a regular basis, consider opting for container gardening instead. This allows you the flexibility to move the containers around as needed, and it can even be done on a sunny condo balcony!
It’s also important to consider the soil. Growing healthy produce requires healthy soil that nourishes the plants and drains well. Look for soil that is dark, crumbly, and literally full of life. If your garden is full of sandy dirt, incorporate lots of organic matter (like compost) to deliver more nutrients.
Finally, consider your climate to determine when you need to start your seeds and transplant your seedlings. All seed packages have information on the back to help you determine when to start them indoors (often about 6 weeks before the last frost).
The Best Plants to Start With
Some plants are easier to grow than others. So, when you’re first starting out growing your own food, it’s best (and less frustrating) to begin with these.
You can buy salad mix seeds, or you can plant a variety of types of lettuce. They grow quickly when kept watered and produce a continuous harvest throughout the growing season. Be sure to cut the leaves once they’ve matured so that new ones can grow.
As long as you provide some support for the stems, peas are fairly trouble-free and are delicious fresh. To do so, you can erect a couple of support and then use chicken wire in between. You don’t need to start them indoors early, so plant them directly outside once the threat of frost has passed.
As long as you have a nice sunny area, tomatoes are easy to grow — and they do just as well in containers as in a garden bed. There are lots of different varieties, so choose based on what you want the tomatoes for. Cherry tomatoes are great for snacking and in salads, beefsteak varieties are good for slicing, and plum varieties are best for sauces and preserves.
Cucumbers need sun and support for climbing (tomato cages work well), and as long as they have these things, they grow like weeds! Keep in mind that cucumber plants produce a lot of the vegetable, so you don’t need many of them. In fact, just one plant will likely produce more than you and your family can use throughout the season, so you’ll probably end up giving some away or pickling them for future use.
Like cucumbers, zucchini plants grow fairly easily and produce a good amount of blooms. Zucchini does best in mounded soil with sun and good moisture. You can start zucchini seeds indoors before the last frost, but the plants also do well when sown straight into the garden later in the warm season. You can eat both the blossoms and the zucchini, too!
Strawberries grow easily and produce lots of fruit throughout the summer. The plants need plenty of bright sunshine, and it’s good practice to clip the offshoots to promote more fruit growth on the main plant. One of the most difficult parts of growing strawberries is keeping small animals from eating them just before they’re ripe, so it’s a good idea to use hanging baskets or surround the garden with fencing to keep rabbits and squirrels out.
Herbs are simple to grow — and they grow fast! Try mixing a few different herbs in one larger container and keeping it in a sunny spot near the house for easy access when you’re cooking. Alternatively, you can try companion planting so that the herbs help your other plants. Chives pair nicely with cucumber to deter cucumber beetles, dill works well with lettuce, rosemary is a good companion for beans, and basil should be planted with tomatoes (and a host of other veggies).