I spent most of last summer sitting in the dirt, talking to baby pumpkin plants. Perhaps I sound nutso, but anyone who has ever grown their own food knows that it’s easy to get a little obsessed. In my case, I was gardening in a completely new-to-me space, which meant I had to adjust to the light, soil, and critters, all different than my old garden. It wasn’t easy at first, but I promise, to grow your own food isn’t actually as hard as it sounds if you have the right kind of expectations.
I’m happy to tell you that I did indeed end up with pumpkins, a little bit smaller than I expected, but pumpkins nonetheless. The experience took me down a deeper rabbit hole of gardening than I’d ever gone before, and so I thought I’d share some tips with you as we gently move into spring. I learned a lot last year but gardening can be all-consuming when you get started, so I’ve kept this post pretty simple. Think of it as your beginner’s guide.
I’ve been gardening in some capacity since childhood, but it was this past year that I took over my apartment complex’s garden plot. I started late in the growing season and still ended up with tons of herbs, pumpkins, tomatoes, kale, chard, collard greens, spring mix lettuces, arugula (that lasted forever), and summer squash. Those were the biggest hits. Some sad broccoli and cauliflower didn’t feel worth mentioning.
I actually ended up with enough salad greens to not have to buy them for 5 months, which was pretty awesome. And those pumpkins? I could make several meals from 1 pumpkin!
But for any of this to work, I needed to adjust my expectations. I had a hard time with this last year. I wanted to grow a garden large enough to never have to go the grocery store! And while this is possible for some people, it definitely takes a lot of planning and preparation. I definitely had garden failures, but also garden successes that were often times surprising, like the snap peas I forgot about last fall. They finally took off and I have tons of snap peas at the moment.
This experience, while at times frustrating, definitely gave me a lot more confidence managing the garden moving forward. There’s something I’ve always liked about digging around in the dirt. I like to imagine all the women in lineage who probably gardened before me. I also discovered that my cat really enjoyed being outside with me in the garden, typically munching on grass or scaring the squirrels away.
Honestly, the best thing I can suggest is to turn over your garden with fresh compost at least once per year and then as you plant throughout the season, plant things intentionally, following the seed packet’s instructions, make sure you water your baby plants and then forget about them the rest of the time. Add compost as needed, love your plants, and have patience.
I’ve noticed that the biggest deterrents to people continually gardening is poor soil, too much water/too little water, not understanding what to plant and how to care for the plants they have, and starting plants in the wrong season.
Below, I’ll attempt to demystify some of these concepts.
Grow Your Own Food Basics
First, let’s cut through all the crap: you don’t need a huge garden to grow your own food. You can have a small plot in a community garden and you can have a patio with some hefty containers. You can have a small plot in your backyard like I do, that gets relatively hit-or-miss sun as long as you know where to plant things.
- Seeds – preferably packaged for the calendar year that you’re planting
- A small shovel
- A normal shovel
- A rake
- Fresh compost – learn how to make your own compost here!
- Random things like used popsicle sticks to mark plants with
- Used twisty ties from grocery store produce (good for staking)
- A Hose
Non-Essentials, But Good To have:
- Extra garden soil
- A few large pots (or buckets, whatever)
- A few small pots (or yogurt containers, get creative)
- A Hoe
- Gardening gloves
- Chicken wire (keeps the squirels at bay)
- A few sticks for staking
- Garden clippers
- Plant Starts – if you’re having the worst time germinating your plants, you can go to your local nursery and buy starts for many vegetables. This workes great for things like tomatoes and strawberries.
Start Small, Grow Big
If you have never ever gardened before, I highly recommend starting with three plants and going from there. Salad green, radishes, and tomatoes (plus any herbs) are great plants to start with. You can grow all three of these yummy plants on your porch, and as long as you water them and pay attention, you’re almost guaranteed to end up with something.
When you’ve got your feet wet, you can move on to bigger veggies in bigger spaces. When you decide to start a bigger plot, look for a space that has lots of sunlight throughout the day. I would start with a 5 by 5 foot plot and go from there. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot of space but it is!
Good Soil Is ESSENTIAL To Grow Your Own Food
No matter what kind of space you have to work with, an essential component is your soil health. Do yourself a favor before you even get started and work fresh compost, at least 6 inches deep into your soil. I usually go out with a shovel and a hose, dig everything up, loosen the soil with my shovel, remove big rocks, and then work the compost in. It’s great upper-body workout!
If you see worms, that’s a really good sign you have healthy soil! If you don’t see worms you’ll need to do a little more work. Keep this newly processed soil nice and moist, consider planting cover crops in the fall and/or winter of buckwheat, fava bean or another legume that will add nitrogen back into the soil.
Full disclosure– there were no worms in my garden when I started last year, and now there’s a ton! So it really is possible to restore health to the soil.
You could also go the extra mile and test your soil for lead. We live in an area where lead contamination is a huge problem. If you have a small lead problem, I would suggest purchasing a few buckets of fish bones and working them into the soil. The phosphorous in the fishbones combines with the lead to make pyromorphite, a compound not readily bioavailable. That means that when you eat the veggies grown in the soil, the pyromorphite them will pass right through your body instead of lingering. To learn more about it, check out this awesome garden project from my own community.
If you do have lead in your soil, I’d highly recommend not growing root veggies for now. Leafy greens however, have at it!
Different vegetables like different nutrients in the soil. For example, tomatoes like a lot of nitrogen while pumpkins like a lot of phosphorous. You might consider finding an organic fertilizer to help your heavy feeders (like squash!) along. Organic compost, egg shells, fish bones, and vermiculture are all great fertilizer options as well.
How To Water Your Garden
Most people fall into one of two camps- the over-waterers and the under-waterers. On the one hand, you don’t want to drown your plants. And on the other hand, your plants do need some water to survive. I like to plant new plants right before it rains. The rain provides deep watering that can really help seeds germinate. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible so listen up:
You do not need to water your garden every day, but you do need to deeply water it at least once per week. Some plants will need a light sprinkling of water in the warmest months every day so they don’t bolt: these include lettuce, brassicas, spinach, chard and other leafy greens. The rest of the time, you can just forget about them.
When your plants wilt in the dead of summer, they’re not dying. Wait for them to perk up in the evening and you’ll find that they were just hot.
To deep water, run your hose in your garden on each set of plants for a few minutes, really ensuring the water gets down into the soil. I like to spray lettuce and salad greens with the spray nozzel on my hose.
Do I Need Raised Beds?
The short answer is no, you don’t need raised beds. Some people feel like it’s easier to plant in raised beds than directly into the ground because you can fit more plants and the raised bed offers better drainage. Others feel like raised beds dry out the soil faster and are a pain to build. I don’t use them, mostly because I don’t feel like building raised beds at my apartment building where I don’t plan to live forever. I still grow vegetables without them, and end up with plenty of them.
So, it’s a personal preference really. In an ideal world, like if I magically owned my own home, I’d build a few raised beds and have an additional plot directly in the ground.
What To Grow + When To Grow it
What you grow will depend on your dietary needs, the season, and what your space allows. I highly recommend starting new plants in the season they are meant to grow in, at least at first. I like to grow directly in the ground, but many people enjoy starting their plants off in containers and transplanting. Just make sure you don’t do this with squashes because their roots are very delicate!
Start growing immediately after the last frost clears away. In my opinion, the earlier you start the better. In most places, late March is a great time to start a garden. Where I live, in Northern California, I started planting 2 weeks ago in late February, but even if you lived in my zone you could still start now and get great results.
- Brassicas: Broccoli, collard greens, cauliflower, kale
All other root veggies and leafy greens that grow in cool temperatures.
When the weather starts warming up and the soil is at least 60-65*F, it’s time to plant your summer veggies and squashes
- Summer squashes and courgettes like zucchini
- Winter squashes: pumpkins, butternut squash, delicata squash, acorn squash, etc.
Other warm-weather fruits and veggies, do your research!
I find mid-summer to be an awkward time to plant new veggies, so this will depend a lot on your region.
If you live in a zone where your temperatures drop rapidly come September, then plant cool weather crops (see Feb-March above) . If you live in a zone with an extended summer (like me) plant more warm weather crops (see April-June).
Cool weather crops only.
You might want to plant a cover crop to restore nutrients to the soil.
What Is Companion Planting?
Companion planting is basically when you plant something, and then you plant something specific right next to it that will aid growth. Basically, you introduce your plant babies to the buddy system. Certain plants get along and are best friends, but all plants have enemies. Think of your garden as middle school at lunch time and it gets easier to understand.
I think this is the ultimate companion planting list ever created and I refer back to it all the time.
Succession Planting Means More Food For You!
If you really want to plant all your seeds at the same time, go for it. Just know that you might end up with a lot of food all at once. The key to having just enough food is succession planting. Plant a couple plants one week, then a couple weeks later plant a few more. You can do this with different vegetable varieties or the same vegetables. This will ensure that you always have something to pick, which really makes gardening more fun, if you ask me.
You can also plant a new crop in the space of an old crop when that crop finishes its yield. But remember…
Rotating Crops Is Good For Soil Health + Yields
You’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t plant a vegetable in the same spot as you planted it last year. This is tough with a small garden plot! Let me tell you! But, it’s good advice. Plants grown in the same spot year after year are more prone to fungal diseases and pests. Stuff takes up residence in your soil and you have to be careful. Rotating crops also helps balance the nutrients in your soil.
If you have an impossibly small space that only gets partial sun, like me, you can definitely plant in the same spots again, but make sure you replenish the soil with lots of good compost. You can always skip growing a plant for a couple seasons as well.
This is an easy-to-follow guide for rotating crops if you want to practice it.
Are you still here? Alive? I know that was a lot of information, but hopefully, you’re in a good spot to understand the basics of how to grow your own food. If you’re serious about growing your own food, I highly recommend doing a lot more internet-research than just this post. Don’t get mired down in people’s big, beautiful gardens, it takes YEARS to fully understand your garden, and you will in good time. I love the Old Farmer’s Almanac, it’s my drug of choice for gardening research.
In the comments below, let me know what you plan to plant this spring, or let me know of any garden questions you have and I can see if I can answer them!
Your Compost Questions Answered Here