When you can buy endless amounts of vegetables year round at your grocery store, why would you invest in a backyard veggie garden? The reasons are compelling and simple.
First, when you grow your own food, you control what goes into its making. The seeds or seedlings, soil, nutrients and pest control are all up to you. Second, a home-grown tomato is much more flavorful in comparison to its bland (and mealy) grocery store counterpart (the same is true for all other veggies). Both flavor and texture are impacted by the way grocery store vegetables are transported and stored, and not in a good way.
What about the costs? The upfront investment of a home garden might seem like a lot — that is until you’ve scrutinized your grocery bill. If you’re like me, a third of the total is spent on fresh vegetables. Over the course of a year, that really adds up. The $400 to $500 cost of a garden is much less than the $2,400 I spent on veggies last year.
Now that you’re on board, here are steps to growing a successful garden. By successful, we mean healthy and abundant!
Step 1: Set Up a Raised Bed
Build or assemble a raised bed. An in-ground garden is good, too, but a raised bed means you don’t have to spend much time improving your soil. The easiest way to make a raised bed is a no-nails solution: The M-Brace — a product developed by a teacher in California — consists of four corner brackets that hold your wood planks together. You can also make a raised bed by using the traditional screws and wood. If you do this, make sure to use untreated wood to prevent leaching of chemicals into your soil. Other options for making a raised bed include bricks, galvanized steel containers and pretty much anything that will hold soil and that was not treated with chemicals.
Remember to place your raised bed in an area where it will get sun all day. Partial shade is less than ideal for vegetables and will decrease your harvest and prevent some plants from growing. Vegetables actually need a minimum of six hours of direct sun to thrive.
Step 2: Buy Soil
Choose your soil wisely and amend it properly. A good local (non-chain) nursery will offer soil mixes that are already prepared for planting. A conversation with the nurseryman will help you understand which of his soil mixes are best for growing vegetables. You can even have the soil delivered directly to your raised bed.
Less expensive, but more labor intensive, are bags of garden soil. Some brands, like Miracle-Gro, are already treated with nutrients. Others need them to be added. If you choose the latter, make sure you buy additives.
Once you’ve dumped your bags of soil into the raised bed, mix in a few bags of organic material, such as manure. (I like Black Kow composted cow manure.) This will soften the soil, which allows roots to spread more easily. Also, organic material is full of beneficial nutrients. You want your soil to be well draining and not at all like clay. I describe good garden soil as both rich and fluffy.
Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium
The triumvirate of plant nutrients that every vegetable needs is nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, in addition to other nutrients that are needed in smaller quantities. Instead of heading straight for the chemical fertilizer, consider organic choices that contain sea weed, bone meal and wood ash. These come in liquid, granule and powder forms, so explore the aisles of your local garden center and talk to a knowledgeable staff member.
The same goes if you want a beautiful lawn.
Step 3: Choose Your Plants
The vegetable gardener’s greatest support system is the local Cooperative Extension Office. This state university program exists throughout the United States and offers phenomenal, locally oriented advice for gardeners in the form of trained agents whose purpose is to help you grow successfully, classes and training for those who want to become experts and online articles and charts written by experienced horticulturalists.
Search online for your Cooperative Extension service or visit their brick-and-mortar location. Either way, you will discover the date of the final frost (after which you can start planting), which vegetables do well in your area, how long they take to grow to maturity and how to care for them along the way.
Based on advice from the Cooperative Extension, choose the plants you’ll grow. Environmental factors play a big role in this decision. For example, in Florida, where we are right at sea level, root vegetables, such as carrots and potatoes, rot. This has been a major disappointment for me, because freshly harvested beets are my favorite (a gardener friend used to bring us paper bags full of beets when I was growing up in upstate New York). But I’ve done well with okra, tomatoes and a dozen different kinds of herbs.
You’ll also want to decide whether to start your own seeds or buy seedlings (small plants already sprouted from seed). The latter is my recommendation for first-time veggie gardeners, because seeds require more careful effort and planning. Seeds are considerably less expensive than seedlings, but depending on where you live, you might have to start seeds indoors under grow lights to get them going in time for the growing season.
Your plants come with directions on how far apart the seeds or plants must be. Follow those directions, because if the plants are too close together, they will compete for water and nutrients. What happens in a competition? One plant wins and another loses. You want all of your plants to win, so give them the space they need.
Step 4: Install Irrigation
Irrigation is so important that there’s no room for error. You’ve got to get it right. My suggestion is to install an inexpensive drip irrigation system. This consists of hoses with tiny holes that leak water into the soil so that it stays moist, but is never soaking wet. These are the conditions plants like best, as the stability allows them to focus their energy on growing and fruiting rather than sustaining themselves through dry periods or enduring overwatering. Drip irrigation systems hook up to your hose spigot. If you’re worried about losing access to the spigot for other purposes, an easily installed splitter will solve that problem. A drip irrigation system will also help to reduce evaporation, making your watering method more efficient.
You’re now well on your way to a garden that produces a large yield. But before you hang up your hoe and call it a day, remember that there are a few problems that can intrude upon your blissful backyard vegetable habitat. Pests and disease are a reality we can’t avoid and there are some great solutions. How do we know they work? Because gardeners all over the world have been using these techniques for ages (long before chemical pesticides existed) and getting good results.
Step 5: Identify and Eliminate Pests and Disease
Pests are called pests because we don’t like them. But, in their world, they’re doing what they are supposed to do: eating, growing and proliferating. We’d rather they just go away, and, so, with the best of intentions, we hose down our veggies with pesticides. But is that the best method?
Relying on heavy doses of pesticides means we contaminate our food with chemicals, and even with that sacrifice, the bugs might linger. There is a better way.
By providing your plants with ideal growing conditions, you give them the opportunity to be the strongest they can be. Great soil in a raised bed, the right nutrients, plenty of sunlight and consistent irrigation make your vegetable plants thrive, so they can fend off attacks from insects and disease.
This doesn’t mean that hungry pests (not always insects — don’t forget about deer and other critters!) and disease will pass over your garden. You’ll probably have some issues along the way. Before you bust out the pesticide, find out exactly what is going on.
Your investigative work should lead you to insect and disease identification guides, the most reliable of which can be found on the websites and printed materials produced by your Cooperative Extension service. As I mentioned in Part One of this series, the vegetable gardener’s greatest support system is the Cooperative Extension Office. This state university program exists throughout the United States and offers phenomenal, locally oriented advice for gardeners in the form of trained agents whose purpose is to help you grow successfully, classes and training for those who want to become experts and online articles and charts written by experienced horticulturalists.
Once you know what pest or disease is ailing your veggies, treat specifically for that. For example, if aphids are descending upon your cucumbers like a plague, first try spraying cold water on the plant’s leaves. Then try spraying a solution of water, dish soap and cayenne pepper. Or buy a bag of live lady bugs to let loose in the garden. Make chemicals your last resort. If you use organic pesticides, make sure they are truly organic by investigating the product’s ingredients. These tips and more are available to you through your Cooperative Extension service, so take advantage of the lessons the volunteers there can teach you and give back by becoming a volunteer yourself.
Step 6: Harvest and Store
When your veggies are ripe, it’s time to pick them, right? It depends. Some veggies are best picked slightly before maturity. To get the specifics, check out the amazing harvest and storing chart, created by the University of Minnesota Extension service. Here you’ll find a list of vegetables, when to harvest them, and even better, how to best store them.
Before harvest, prepare storage areas for any veggies you plan to keep without canning. If you are a lucky duck with a root cellar, then you can keep your potatoes, carrots and beets there in cold and moist conditions for five months or more. Other veggies that prefer cold and moist storage, like asparagus, beans, broccoli and cabbage, can be stored there, too, but not for nearly as long.
After all the effort you’ve put into growing a garden, you want to extract every possible benefit of its bounty. Many gardeners give away large quantities of tomatoes or beans at harvest time because the alternative is having more than they can handle (also, gardeners tend to be sharers, which is nice), or eating the same veggies in every meal for two weeks straight. But you don’t have to burn through your fresh veggies. Canning, as old-fashioned as it sounds, is a viable option that is hardly outdated.
Canning is an easy process, but it’s important to do some research and to follow proper sterilization procedures to prevent spoilage, as well as to prevent food contamination (food-borne botulism is one reason you don’t want food contamination).
The University of Georgia’s National Center for Home Food Preservation offers helpful articles on how to safely and effectively can, freeze, dry, cure, smoke, ferment and pickle food, in addition to how to make jam and jelly. For beginners, consider taking a free online course in preserving food at home. The class provides foundational knowledge in safe handling and steps in canning.
Step 7: Cook
The joy of local, seasonal cooking is a pleasure that can’t be matched by any other eating experience. There’s a reason this dining trend has caught fire and gardeners knew this long before it was en vogue: homegrown food just tastes better.
Planning your meals alongside your garden harvest places you squarely in the middle of a major cultural moment where people are recognizing the value of knowing where their food comes from and in some way have taken part in producing it.
One of my favorite cookbooks, designed to match up with garden harvests, is Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors. When I’m wondering what to do with my kale or black-eyed peas, this cookbook is my Bible. But that’s not all. Tasteofhome.com and Gardenersnet.com each offer gardener-approved dishes worth trying.
Sarah Kinbar is a writer and editor with a passion for design and images. She was the editor of Garden Design magazine, curating coverage of residential gardens around the globe. As the editor of American Photo, Kinbar worked with photographers of every genre to create a magazine that told the story of the photographer’s journey.
She has been writing about architecture, landscape design and new-home construction for NewHomeSource since 2012. During that time, she founded Kinship Design Marketing, a boutique agency that provides content for website redesigns, blogs, inbound marketing campaigns and eNewsletters.