A newbie-friendly guide to starting a vegetable garden

For when you're interested in growing your own food, but are feeling overwhelmed

Published April 29, 2021 4:59PM (EDT)

 (Jeni Afuso / Food52)
(Jeni Afuso / Food52)

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Jeni Afuso used to kill her houseplants. "For years, I thought I had a black thumb," the Los Angeles-based food photographer told me over the phone. Turns out, she was wrong. Frustrated by the lack of regularity of certain kitchen staples at her market, the abundance of plastic used to wrap the ingredients she did buy on a regular basis, and the money she was spending on them, Afuso decided to start her own outdoor edible garden — previous failures be damned.

In a certain way, it's no surprise things went better than expected. Gardening is in her blood. Her great-grandfather emigrated from Okinawa to Maui and ended up, as many Japanese immigrants did, working in the sugarcane fields. Her grandfather, who moved the whole family from Hawaii to Los Angeles in the mid-'50s, had his own gardening and landscaping business in the Valley. Her parents, though not professionals, grew food in their backyard. "I don't remember my mom or dad ever buying green onions," she says.

Photo by Jeni Afuso.

I first noticed Afuso's own impressive exploits last spring, just as we began what would turn into a year-long quarantine, a time when many people stuck at home decided to try their hand at windowsill scallion-sprouting and beyond. Afuso leaned towards the "and beyond," filling pots with fruits, vegetables, and herbs, all the while documenting what she was doing on Instagram. She inspired me to create a produce container garden in my own smaller concrete patio across the country in Brooklyn, instead of using raised beds as I'd originally planned. She also led me to buy seeds from Kitazawa, an Oakland-based company that has been selling heirloom Asian plant varieties for more than a century. Both ideas turned out to be incredibly successful.

So I turned to Afuso — not a professional, but a home gardener with a decidedly green thumb — to ask for her best edible gardening tips. These aren't step-by-step instructions, but simply a list of things that are good to know if you're interested in starting to grow your own food, but are feeling overwhelmed.

Don't freak out if you haven't started yet 

If you Google "when to start a food garden," you'll likely get a very specific answer based on the climate of your location. While this information is good to know, Afuso is here to tell you that "you'll be okay if you don't follow the calendar exactly." While you can't begin months after you're supposed to, falling some weeks behind shouldn't mean you give up. Your growing season might not be as long, especially if you're in a colder part of the country, but a month or two of tomatoes is better than no tomatoes at all.

A container garden gives you flexibility 

While big raised beds are certainly impressive to look at, there are advantages to planting in containers. Or course, smaller pots will fit on a slim balcony or fire escape. But even if you're lucky enough to have a lot of space, individual vessels allow you to move plants around to where they're happiest (cucumbers and basil have different needs, you know?). This is especially helpful when you're learning the patterns of the sun through the seasons.

Photo by Jeni Afuso.

Make sure you understand your space 

Speaking of learning the patterns of the sun, that's something you should certainly do. "I actually took photos of my yard every two hours leading up to my first garden," Afuso says. Whether you do that or prefer written notes, your recorded findings will come in handy at your local nursery, where professionals can recommend plants accordingly.

Start small 

"It takes time to learn," Afuso says. Plus, setting yourself up from scratch can be expensive. Dive in with a few favorites and you'll be more likely to succeed — and not waste money. If you end up loving the process, go bigger next year.

Buy good soil . . . 

Soil options are endless, but Afuso's advice is simple: Buy "good" soil — aka, not the mass-produced brands from big-box hardware and gardening stores that have sticks, rocks, and other fillers in them. Yes, good soil is more expensive, but worth it. Whatever your local nursery has in stock will likely be perfectly sufficient.

Other than that, all you need is fertilizer. The type will vary depending on what you're growing. (For example, dark leafy greens like kale and spinach want nitrogen-heavy fertilizer, whereas tomatoes prefer potassium.) A quick Google search or, again, a conversation with someone at your local nursery (are you sensing a theme here?) will lead you to the right product.

Finally, if you're in your second year of gardening, there's no need to purchase completely fresh soil. Use what you've got, but just mix in compost to revitalize it for the new season.

. . . But you don't have to own fancy tools 

"I have a couple of shovels from Daiso," Afuso says. "Other than that I use my ice cream spoon to scoop out seedlings, washi tape and a Sharpie to label, super cheap gardening gloves, and regular kitchen scissors."

Support small seed companies

There are tons of fruits and vegetables to choose from when planting from seed. Afuso is partial to the aforementioned Kitazawa, but also likes Sustainable Seed Company. You can even find several options right here on Food52, including from Potting Shed Creations and The Floral Society.

Photo by Jeni Afuso.

Plant what you actually want to eat 

It may seem obvious, but the excitement of growing so! many! different! fruits! and! veggies! can obscure any instinct towards practicality. The truth is, if you never buy sweet peppers at the grocery store, you probably shouldn't grow them. "Think about the way you cook on a regular basis," Afuso says. "That should be your starting point."

YouTube is your friend

When questions arise along the way, YouTube is a rabbit hole of good advice. Watching someone demonstrate a particular technique can be extremely helpful. Whether you're wondering how to prune oregano so that it regrows, or you've noticed white dots on the leaves of your cucumbers, there is absolutely someone out there who will guide you.


By Emma Wartzman

MORE FROM Emma Wartzman

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Food Food52 Gardening How-to Vegetables