It’s no secret that heading to the grocery store seems less appealing for many of us these days. Delivery services like Instacart have experienced a 500 percent increase in customers over the past few months due to COVID-19, and online grocery stores like Thrive Market are working harder than ever to keep up with the new demand. But guess what? There’s another way to get food into your kitchen without leaving your home: grow your own vegetables!
You may not have new greens growing in time for tonight’s dinner, but if you plan appropriately, you could start to have fresh, organic veggies, fruit and herbs within as little as a few weeks. Not only will you know where your food comes from, your produce will have a longer shelf life, remain free from extra toxins, and help you cut down on the unnecessary waste of packaging (which is a great place to start for plastic-free July!). As a bonus, home gardening can be incredibly therapeutic and help you connect to Mother Earth.
Not sure where to start? From raised garden beds to potted plants to indoor hydroponics, there are tons of different directions you can take to grow your own food at home, but here are some quick tips for beginners when starting your own garden.
Gardening 101: How to Grow Your Own Food in Your Backyard:
Know your zone.
The USDA Plant Hardiness Map breaks down the United States and Canada into 11 planting zones based on temperature. Understanding your zone will help you determine which plants are feasible for growing during various times of the year. Depending on your zone, the summer and winter seasons can be your friend or foe. For example, here in zone 10a, summer is not exactly the best time to begin growing most foods, however I found a few that seem to thrive in it. Sweet potatoes, okra, heartier herbs like oregano, and many tropical fruits are low-maintenance once they get going and tend to do well during extreme temperatures and drought. Learning about your zone will also help you stay aware of frost dates. Do not plant heat-loving vegetables too early, plus stay away from plants that may take so long to grow that cold weather comes before you can harvest them.
- Pick your sunny spot.
Most vegetables need six to eight hours of sunlight per day, so choose a location that will give your plants the attention they need from that giant star in the sky. If your area experiences extreme heat this time of year, you may opt for a more shaded spot for your seasonals. When choosing a location, we also recommend steering clear of flood zones and large trees or other plants that may sprinkle seeds on your garden or have large roots that want to creep in the way.
If your green thumb is just starting out, it’s probably best not to transform your entire yard into a farm…yet, anyway. Gardening can be a fun hobby, but it is also a lot of work to maintain correctly. Consider starting with a few potted herbs to learn the lay of the land, then move onto growing from scraps like pineapple, chives or garlic in larger planters. Once you get a feel for it, move onto a small plot to try out some leafy greens. If you have success with your smaller areas, slowly increase in size over time.
Another option that is becoming more popular is to hire a professional gardener to help you kick off your garden on the right foot. Many of them, like one of the locals to Port St. Lucie, Revolutionary Garden, will help you build a raised garden bed, share their knowledge through a consultation, and fill it with the proper goods to get you started. This can be a nice stepping stone for those who may be a little shy about starting from scratch.
Choose simple starter veggies.
As a beginner grower, I prefer to start most of my vegetables through transplants from local nurseries or farms until I get a groove with the variety. My tomatoes and herbs have done well this way and are even surviving the current heat (the tomato plants don’t look so hot, but are still producing delicious fruit!).
If you want to watch the growth early on from inside the house, it can be fun to play with veggie scraps rather than tossing them in the compost or trash. For example, raw sweet potatoes can be halved and placed partially in water to grow slips. Little vines in a gorgeous purple color will begin to grow from the eyes, and once they are about 4 in. tall, you can twist them off and place the bottoms in water to grow roots before planting in soil.
Seeds are also an option for your vegetables, of course. Peppers are somewhat easy and can be grown from seeds that are removed and dried from vegetables you already have in your kitchen. Seeds like this are often best started in mini pots indoors before transplanting, but if you prefer to sow directly into the garden soil, consider lettuce, kale or Swiss chard.
Once they get going, all of these options are pretty low-maintenance, making them great for beginners.
Prepare the land and soil.
Gardening is not as simple as digging a hole in your yard and tossing down seeds. Prep the earth by removing any grass, mulch and most importantly, weeds. Those little buggers love to pop up, especially if you do not let the natural grasses and plants die off first before digging. We like to lay down cardboard barriers to help provide an extra buffer between any leftover weed roots before topping with soil. Cardboard is nice because it breaks down over time, but there are also plastic protection materials that can also help ward off bugs.
Vegetables crave soft, loose soil that is bustling with nutrients, so unless your natural land is prime for gardening, get some extra soil meant for this use. Once you choose a soil that has the components you’re looking for, don’t skimp on the compost. Whether homemade or purchased from a local business, compost materials or worm castings are a “must” for adding much-needed nutrients, improving soil texture and retaining moisture. You should till a small portion into your soil, but it should not account for more than 25 percent of the overall garden soil.
Grab your gear.
Now you’re getting close! It’s time to gather your supplies. If you’re not using a raised garden bed, we recommend devising another kind of border from stone pavers, cedar planks or some other type of fencing to separate your plants and soil from “outsiders” like grass and weeds. Taller mesh fencing can help if you are worried about critters like rabbits or raccoons getting to the fruits of your labor before you do. Are you growing vines or plants that may need a bit of stability as they get taller? Make sure you have supports on hand, such as a trellis, stakes or cages.
Once you have the base, grab your tools. You do not need to go the expensive route to get started. Simple pruning or garden shears, a hand rake and trowel – especially one with measurements listed on it – are the basic necessities for most gardens. You’ll also need a water source; preferably a hose since a watering can takes a long time to get the job done.
When it’s time to get to work, have a big bottle of water nearby to stay hydrated. A good pair of gardening gloves, preferably a design that doesn't let the soil seep in, will also help protect your hands. Don’t forget to bring your Bug Bite Thing outside in case you come in contact with any of the pesky insects trying to get a taste of your new garden (or you!). Pro tip: in addition to providing relief for insect bites and stings, the suction tool is also handy for pulling out thorns!
- Planting time!
Plan it out in advance. Some veggies are not compatible with each other, whereas others are companion plants and can give each other a boost, so do your research. This doesn't mean that you cannot plant carrots and dill at the same; it's just best to have separate areas for them. When you know which vegetables can coexist and have made your picks, give them each a designated spot. Plants need room to grow, so space them out appropriately, both horizontally and vertically. If you are worried about pests, consider adding some fragrant herbs like parsley, mint or lemon balm around your garden to help ward them off.
Once you get them in the ground, be sure to give them plenty of water. If you use transplants, they may look a little sad in the beginning, but seemingly wilting plants usually just need water and time to re-establish their roots.
Nourish your plants.
Gardening doesn’t stop once plants are in the ground. Water them accordingly – each plant and zone calls for different amounts. Fertilizers can benefit your garden, but be mindful of which nutrients your plants enjoy before choosing one so you do not feed them too much or too little of any mineral. Continue to watch them and care for them until you harvest, and while you do, start planning your next set of plants.
If you’ve followed all these steps, you can officially call yourself a gardener! It’s important to understand your garden will not always go exactly as planned. Some may shrivel up and others might experience rot or insects, but it’s all part of the experience. Each mistake or misfortune will make you a more knowledgeable grower, so try to go with the flow. Chances are, you’ll soon be feasting on food right from your own backyard!
Are you inspired to grow your own garden? Pin this article for later so you can jump back to it at any time!