Dreaming of growing your produce? It's easier than you think

Keep these eight simple tips in mind when planning your garden-to-table year ahead

Published February 16, 2021 6:01PM (EST)

Indoor herb plant garden in flower pots by window sill. (Getty Images)
Indoor herb plant garden in flower pots by window sill. (Getty Images)

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Food definitely tastes better when it's made with fresh ingredients, and if you don't have a farmers market nearby (or even if you do!), why not try growing your own produce this year? A lot of people are intimidated by the idea of cultivating a vegetable garden — I know I was! — but with the right tools and intel, it's easier than you might think.

Where there's a will to grow a vegetable garden, there's definitely a way, no matter how much space or experience you have. Sure, gardening often takes some trial and error, but the worst thing that can happen is your plants don't make it, in which case you can simply try again next year! (I know, I know. It feels bad when plants die, but part of gardening is learning not to take it so personally.)

If you're ready to get your hands dirty and sow your very own plot of veggies, here are some expert tips to get you going in the right direction.

1. Pick the right spot

Even if you don't have a large yard, you'll want to consider the lighting and conditions of the spot where you're going to plant. The Old Farmer's Almanac explains that vegetables need around six hours of direct sunlight each day, so you'll want to pick an area away from trees or the shade of your house.

Further, you'll want to choose a space that doesn't get overly wet or dry during the summer, as either of these conditions can hurt your plants.

If your yard has less-than-ideal conditions, don't fret. Certain plants are more tolerant than others! For instance, veggies like kale, swiss chard, and carrots can all grow in partially shaded areas.

2. Start small and pick easy plants

Just like with houseplants, some vegetables are more forgiving and easier to grow than others. The Old Farmer's Almanac lists squash, beans, kale, cucumbers, and carrots among some of the easiest plants to grow from seed. Tomatoes are also rather easy to care for, but you'll have better luck if you purchase young plants from a local nursery and transplant them into your garden. I've even been able to grow cherry tomatoes from the patio of my apartment using a large nursery pot and a plant cage!

It's also a good idea to keep things small for your first few years. Many beginners overestimate how many plants they need, and not only will this make your garden time-consuming to care for, but you'll probably end up with more produce than you know what to do with. In particular, vegetables like tomatoes and eggplants have a short shelf life, so if you grow too many, you'll be forced to give them away quickly or end up tossing them in the compost. How many plants do you need? For a family of four, Garden Gate recommends four zucchini plants, four to six tomato plants, and three squash plants.

3. Use raised beds

If possible, you should plant your garden in raised beds. Why? You'll be able to fit more plants, since you don't need rows, and you can also fill the beds with rich, organic soil that will help your plants thrive. Plus, when your plants are closer together, there's less room for weeds, which means less work for you.

4. Grow vertically to save space

If you're pressed for space, you can fit more plants into your garden by encouraging them to grow up, not out. Most vining crops, such as tomatoes, beans, peas, squash, and cucumbers, will happily grow up trellises or cages, allowing you to maximize your planting area.

5. Give plants space

Raised beds allow you to plant closer together, but your vegetables still need space to grow — otherwise, they'll end up competing for water, nutrients, and sunlight. Most vegetable and herb seeds come with spacing guidelines on the packet, so take these into account as you plan your garden. Also, be sure not to plant tall crops where they might block the sunlight for shorter plants.

6. Keep weeds and pests under control

Weeds aren't just unsightly to look at. They can hinder the growth of your precious vegetables, which is why weeding is an essential task for any gardener. A set of high-quality garden tools will help you keep them at bay — take caution with weed killer or pesticides in your vegetable garden, or else you might contaminate your produce.

Debris such as fallen leaves can also be harmful to your plants, as it can spread diseases. For this reason, you'll want to remove anything that's covering the ground around your plants, especially during the fall.

Of course, there's also the issue of bugs that can invade your garden, hindering the growth of your precious plants. There are some vegetable-safe insecticides you can use in vegetable gardens to control common pests like aphids and whiteflies, but you'll want to use these products sparingly and be sure to wash produce thoroughly. On the other hand, if birds, deer, and other woodland critters have decided your garden is a good place to snack, garden netting is an inexpensive way to keep your plants safe.

7. Be careful when watering

Most people who claim to have a "brown (or black) thumb" simply haven't figured out how much to water their plants. If you water them too much, the roots may rot, but if you don't water them enough, they'll wilt and die.

To remedy your plant-killing ways, stop guessing at when plants need water. The Old Farmer's Almanac explains you'll want to feel the soil before you water — if it sticks to your hand and holds together when pressed into a ball, it's still moist enough and doesn't need more water.

In general, you'll also want to water earlier in the day so excess moisture has time to evaporate off leaves. Further, if you invest in equipment to help water your garden, a soaker hose is generally preferable to a sprinkler, as these deliver water closer to the root of the plant.

8. Create an indoor garden, instead

If a full-size garden isn't going to work in your yard, you can always create an abridged indoor garden instead. For instance, there are lots of herb kits that you can easily grow in a windowsill, and they'll provide you with fresh garnishes for all of your meals.

There are also a number of cool indoor gardening systems that are ideal for anyone who lacks outdoor space. AeroGarden and Click and Grow both offer countertop hydroponic systems that automatically regulate water and light using built-in LED grow lights, and you can use them to sprout herbs, small vegetable plants, and even flowers. Plus, these systems can often connect to your smartphone, providing gentle reminders when you need to add plant food or otherwise tend to your sprouts.

This post contains products independently chosen (and loved) by Food52 editors and writers. As an Amazon Associate and Skimlinks affiliate, Food52 earns a commission on qualifying purchases of the products they link to.

By Camryn Rabideau

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