Want more on this topic?  Listen to Episode 30 of the Food Smarts podcast.

I believe everyone should take part in growing some of what they eat.  Why?  Because:

  • Taking part in the raising of our food gives it value.  Of course, the value is already there, but it is invisible to us.   It’s easy to cruise through the grocery store.  Food just magically appears before us.  When we don’t understand the work that went into (or should have gone into) our food, we don’t see the true value of healthy food.  I remember a friend once complaining about the prices of raspberries at the farmers market.  It is easy to see fresh berries as expensive–even overpriced.  As a farmer who was then spending hours every-other-day meticulously and carefully harvesting raspberries under the hot sun (with the scratches and occasional stings to prove it,) the monetary value I assigned to those berries was a lot different.  I would have charged more.  Those berries took real labor.  I had also planted, weeded, and pruned those raspberries.  They were infused with my time and sweat.   Food has value.
  • We eat what we grow.  Likely, you have all heard the statistic that 40% of food in the US gets thrown away.  When we plant, grow, and harvest our food, we don’t want to waste it.  We worked for that food.  We planted it, weeded it, and watched it ripen.  We waited.  Instead of the instant gratification of any food we want being available all the time, we watched, worked, and built our appetite.  Kids who grow vegetables are 5 times more likely to eat them.  I saw this first hand when I taught K-3 kids gardening and nutrition.  I got kids to eat things that they never had before.  They were adventurous and excited.
  • We value farmers.  When we begin to see and experience the work that goes into our food, we automatically start valuing farmers and good, regenerative agriculture.  Small, local farmers are working very hard right in your community.  They are the guardians of our health and our planet.  That’s not hyperbole.  Small, regenerative farmers should have rock star status.  Support them.
  • We realize we’ve been duped.  As you start to produce some of your own food, you will quickly realize 2 things.  One, there is more flavor in homegrown than you will ever find at the grocery store.  Try a “pink cardboard” grocery store tomato and taste it alongside your homegrown heirloom tomato.  You will be mad about your life full of bad tomatoes.  SO many people think they don’t like a particular food because they have never had a good version of it.  Most of us have grown up with bland, overcooked produce with little nutrition and even less flavor.  Second, there is an entire Willy Wonka-esque world of food diversity.  How about blue tomatoes?  Yep, they exist.  Black carrots?  Those too!  Cucumbers that look like teeny tiny watermelons?  Yep!  Hens that lay turquoise eggs?  Uh-huh!  Pink celery?  Sure! For generations, we have been presented with an anemic, tiny fraction of the foods that naturally exist in the world.  If you don’t believe me, peruse the online offerings of Baker Creek Seeds.  When you grow and buy off the beaten path, you have access to all this food that has been hidden from you.

By now, I  have you super-motivated to plant your first garden, right?  I am going to lay out a plan for a first-time easy summer garden.  Most importantly, just do it!  I so often see people that just get overwhelmed and don’t jump in.  It’s just some soil and plants.  Plants want to grow.  Whatever happens, you will get something, and you will learn a lot.

  1. Location.  Sun, sun, sun is what you want.  A little shade is ok, but you want a nice sunny location.   The other thing to consider is water availability. You need to be able to get a hose there.  Also, look for a nice level spot that is not prone to flooding.  Hopefully, the ground you are going to use has not been sprayed with chemicals.  If you or a company are spraying in your yard, please stop.
  2. Buy or build a raised bed.  A raised bed makes so many things easy.  You just need one.  Drainage will be better, weeds will be greatly reduced, and harvesting will be easier.  And, because you are using a raised bed, you don’t have to break up your ground–at all!  If you have the skills, build your raised bed yourself.  If not, go to a local home center and buy a kit or order this oneGardener’s Supply has an amazing array of raised beds to spark your own creations or to purchase.  Make your raised bed however big you want, but not wider than 4 feet.  You need to be able to reach in there to work and harvest.  Do not plan on walking in your bed.  That compacts your soil.
  3. Fill your raised bed.  Place your raised bed on the location you have chosen.  Line the inside of the bed with a thick layer (8 or so sheets) of wet newspaper.  So, if you are putting your garden on top of grass–lay the wet newspaper on top of the grass.  Then, fill with soil.  The grass will be killed, and the newspaper will decompose.  If you don’t have newspaper, you can use cardboard.  The soil you use is important.  Very important.  Plants can’t absorb nutrients that don’t exist.  Unless you have some amazing soil available on your property, you will be bringing this soil in from somewhere.  You can go to home and garden centers and buy garden soil, but you will be better off finding a soil/compost business or large greenhouse that sells in bulk.  Locally, I recommend Soilmaker.  Do not buy potting soil.  You want good garden soil with compost.  Fill to the top.
  4. Plan.  The biggest mistake I made my first year growing on a large scale was not having realistic expectations for what kind of space different plants would need.  That first summer I worked in a jungle of vines.  I harvested a lot, but it was mayhem.  We are all constantly learning, so know from the outset that it’s not all going to follow your plan.  Here is a nice chart that gives you spacing guidelines.
    • Some plants are vines and take up some serious space.  This means you need more space for them.  You are either going to have a large and strong trellis to keep them off the ground or you need to be ok with them trailing across the ground.  Commonly planted vines are cucumbers, winter squashes, and melons.  My recommendation for your first-time garden is to skip the vines.
    • Skip starting your own plants with seeds (with one exception.)  Seed starting is its own art.  For your first garden, go to a local greenhouse and buy plants that are ready to go. They have already done the work of babying that tomato seedling for 6-8 weeks.  If you’re local, I highly recommend Hamilton’s Greenhouse in Westpoint.  The only plant I recommend you starting with seeds is green beans.  These are direct-sown (meaning you will plant the seed directly in your garden.)  If you want to grow green beans, direct seeding is the way to do it.
    • Here are the plants I recommend you consider for your first summer garden:
      1. Tomatoes.  Tomato plants need support.  A hybrid plant will usually do ok with a sturdy tomato cage, but an heirloom will grow much taller and really needs something more substantial, like this.
        1. A DETERMINATE tomato will have tomatoes that ripen about the same time.  An INDETERMINATE will provide tomatoes throughout the growing season.  You will probably want the indeterminate so you get tomatoes all summer long.
      2. Peppers
      3. Kale
      4. Zucchini or yellow squash
      5. Green Beans (plant seeds directly in the garden)
      6. Okra
      7. Basil
      8. Parsley
      9. Other herbs as desired (cilantro won’t hold up to summer heat)
  5. Plant.  This is a summer garden so you need to plant after the frost-free date in your area.  For me, that means early to mid-May.  Mother’s Day is the hallmark date folks use in my area.  Planting is easy!  Pay attention to your spacing needs and plant your transplants at the same depth that they were growing in the pot.
    1. Here’s the exception.  Prune off lower branches on your tomatoes and plant them deep.  This will make for a stronger plant.
  6. Water. Water your plants right after planting.  Without rain, you will need to water daily for several days.  Your plants are just getting acclimated.   They have to extend roots into the soil so they can be more self-sufficient.  Of course, you will have to monitor watering throughout the season.  You need to plan for about an inch a rain or water a week.  Look at your plants daily and notice if they are stressed and need water.  Note: many plants will “wilt” a bit at the zenith of the day.  Look at plants in the morning and evening to see how they are doing.  A long, deep watering is better than a little water every day.  Deep, occasional watering promotes root growth.
  7. Mulch.  Consider mulching your garden.  This means spreading a layer of compost/grass clippings/mulch on top of the soil.  It’s like putting on a bedspread.  This will help feed your soil and plants, maintain moisture in the soil, suppress weeds, and regulate soil temps.  I find it to be invaluable.  I skip the fertilizer and use a good compost-rich garden mulch.  Mulch SHOULD NOT be dyed bark chips sold to spread around manicured landscapes.  That’s junk.
  8. Weed.  Keep your garden weeded.  This is important in the beginning and is easily done by hand or with a simple tool like the one listed below.  Don’t worry.  Once your plants really get growing and you are harvesting heavily, weeds won’t be much of an issue.  Your plants will have outcompeted them.
  9. Insects?  Seeing insects is not a problem.  Not seeing any is!  If you have insects that are absolutely destroying your plants, do some research into natural and organic ways to control for them.  The best controls for insect problems are good soil and a diverse landscape.  Look around you, are you surrounded by an artificial, sterile landscape?  Do you spray your lawn with chemicals?  Is your landscaping surrounded by dyed wood chips?  Do you lack mature trees?  If so, you are not supporting an ecosystem.  In a healthy ecosystem, there are checks and balances.  Don’t give in to the temptation to “spray away” problems.  The idea that spraying poison on our food is even remotely “ok” is insane.  Practice natural controls and work on turning your yard into a non-toxic ecosystem that’s a safe place for your food and for you.
  10. Harvest!  Do a little online sleuthing of what you planted to know when to pick if you aren’t sure.  Don’t wait too long to pick items like green beans and zucchini.  They grow fast!  At the height of the season, a max of 48 hours elapses between my harvests.

Tools?  You notice I didn’t mention any.  You won’t need many.  I actually taught kids gardening for 4 years and never had tools beyond a shovel.  Here are the tools I think are worth the investment.

  • A shovel.  You need to be able to move that great soil into your raised bed.
  • Gloves.  Honestly, this is optional.  I almost always wear gloves.  I do almost everything with my hands and that means they need a little protection.  These gloves are essential to me.  They offer some protection without getting in the way.  They allow me complete dexterity and I can even answer my phone wearing them.
  • CobraHead weeder. This is hands-down my favorite tool (after my actual hands that is.)  I use it to break up soil, weed, plant, help dig up root crops, spread mulch, and even to help fill my TubTrug with soil or compost. This is the one tool I use constantly and it’s the perfect tool for someone with a first garden.
  • TubTrug–I use these to move plants, carry soil/compost, hold my harvest, and even to carry water sometimes.  They are strong, easy to clean, come in myriad sizes, and are easy to carry.  For your first garden, 1 is plenty.

Finally, enjoy your bounty.  The produce you have grown toxin-free in your own back yard is superior to any other.