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If you can’t attend your local farmer’s market due to COVID-19 or your supermarket’s produce section has disappointed you lately, you have another great option to get your fill of veggies and herbs this summer—start your very own vegetable garden! You might be surprised how much tastier home-grown veggies and herbs are, how much money you can save on fresh-food costs, and how much a small garden can produce.

A common mistake for new gardeners is planting too big of a space. It’s easier to start small while learning the basics before investing more time and money in a large garden. For beginners who are single or live with a partner, a garden measuring 10 feet by 10 feet (the size of a small bedroom) with up to five types of veggies is the perfect place to start. For a family of four, 11 rows measuring 10 feet long running north to south will produce enough veggies for a whole summer, plus extra to give away, can, and freeze.

Veggies to choose

Deciding what to plant is part of the self-gardening fun. Consider what you and your family like to eat and eat most often. Veggies like home-grown tomatoes have ten times the flavor of store bought ones, and growing your own herbs will deliver more flavor for a fraction of grocery store prices.

Another point to consider is how much and how often a plant will produce its vegetable. Tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, cabbage, kohlrabi, lettuce, and spinach keep providing throughout the season, while radishes and corn can be harvested only once before needing to be replanted. For veggies that have a longer producing season, stagger plantings by a few weeks. Most veggies are annuals (they need to be re-planted each year), but some are perennials and should come up year after year, like asparagus, rhubarb, and some herbs.

With a working list of what you’d like to plant, next you should consult your local cooperative extension, which is a consumer-oriented resource within most state universities that provides crucial advice on home gardening. This includes what fruits and veg to grow in your state and climate zone, planting times for seeds and seedlings, fertilizing options, and even plans for how to lay out your garden! You can find your cooperative extension by visiting Almanac.com.

There are two “season types” of veggies: cool-season that grow in spring and warm-season that aren’t planted until summer, when the soil is warmer. In general (check your cooperative extension for details), plant cool-season crops after the last spring frost and then plant warm-season crops in the same area later in the season. Foods like lettuces, peas, radishes, carrots, and broccoli are cool-season veggies, while tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and some herbs are warm-season produce. Many warm-season veggies will continue to produce well into fall.

To get more veggie yield per square foot in your garden, plant tall, vining veggies on A-frame or trellis structures.

You have the option to purchase seeds or seedlings to start your garden. Many cool-season vegetables will need to be started from seeds indoors and then planted as seedlings. Others you might want to buy as seedlings and plant once the threat of frost is past. It’s a good idea to try two or three varieties of each vegetable to see which one does best in your garden.

Ready to decide where to place your garden? The three most important things to consider when laying out your garden are sun, water, and soil.

Sun

Some veggies need full sun—we’re talking at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day—without shadows from trees, tall shrubs, or fences. If you can’t achieve this level of sunlight for plants like tomatoes, peppers, peas, beans, basil, dill, and rosemary, consider putting those in pots on a sunny patio!

For partial shade, you’ll have better luck growing lettuce, kale, chard, spinach, chives, cilantro, parsley, and thyme. For root veggies, you’ll want a patch of land that gets at least four hours of direct sun a day.

Water

Frequent watering is important during the first few weeks after seeds germinate or seedlings are transplanted. For established plants, a long soak every few days is more effective than a light sprinkling every day. You want to give the water a chance to move deeper into the soil, encouraging root growth. If you’re unsure when it’s time to water (maybe it rained the other day, but you’re not sure for how long), feel the soil three to four inches down from the soil surface. If it feels dry, it’s time to water.

Place your garden within easy reach of the garden hose or sprinkler. Be careful not to plant at a low point where flooding occurs.

Soil

For your garden, you want nutrient-rich, healthy soil that’s easy to dig and drains well.

  • Loamy soil is made of silt, clay, and sand in fairly even proportions. This is great for almost all vegetables.
  • Clay holds water to the point of stickiness and does not drain well. Fruit trees and more vigorous vegetables can do well in clay-filled dirt.
  • Silty soil holds water extremely well and feels soft to the touch. Nearly all plants love silty soil!
  • Sandy soil is gritty to the touch. Root vegetables like potatoes, carrots and turnips do very well in sandy soil, as do corn, squash, strawberries, zucchini, lettuce, peppers, corn, greens, and tomatoes.
  • Peaty soil is dark and feels very spongy. It’s good for legumes, root vegetables like beets and carrots, and greens such as spinach.
  • Chalky soil is stony and has a coarse texture. Sweet corn, cabbage, spinach, and beets can thrive in chalky soil.

To find out what type of soil you’re working with, grab a trowel and dig out a handful of dirt. A gritty texture means it’s sandy; powdery indicates silt; dense and wet means clay. If the soil you’re starting with isn’t ideal for what you want to grow, it can be improved over time by incorporating organic matter (compost!) into it.

Another option, for faster results, is to build raised garden beds that you can then fill with whatever type of soil you need.

And that’s how you start a garden! It can be a very rewarding and healthy way to spend your time. Just don’t be discouraged if not everything you plant at first thrives—take note and change it up next year with something else!