Are you ready to start a garden, but just don’t know how? This guide will give you all the tools to feel confident planning, planting, harvesting and preserving your garden. Learn how to grow your own food and save money at the same time!
1. Decide what you want to grow
Before you buy seeds or start designing a layout, ask yourself:
- What do you and your family normally buy at the grocery store?
- What will save you the most money by growing yourself?
- Which items are difficult to find fresh at your local stores.
- Are you interested in growing fresh herbs for cooking, making tea or using medicinally?
- Do you want to focus on edible landscaping with perennial fruits and veggies that live year after year without replanting?
- Will you grow heirloom varieties or hybrids?
- What varieties of fruit and veggies will you realistically be able to consume and what will you be able to preserve?
Once you have narrowed it down, you can determine how much space each of these plants will require and begin designing a garden layout.
2. Plan your garden layout
Techniques such as companion planting can be used to determine what plants do well next to one another. Here is a great guide to planning your garden layout.
Always plan for future expansion. You may find that you want to grow more plants as your gardening skills develop. Setting up a new garden is hard work, so planning to add more beds over time will make it much more manageable to build the first year.
Some common garden designs are:
- Mandala or keyhole gardens
- Herb spiral
- Raised beds/Potager style
- Food forest
- Edible landscaping
- Plot of row crops
3. Gather supplies
Make a list of everything you need – seeds, pots, shovels, etc. If you don’t know where to start here’s a great reference! Check out garage sales or online marketplace sites for inexpensive used gardening materials.
My absolute favorite place to buy seeds is Seed Savers Exchange. They have a very wide variety of seeds as well as transplants you can have shipped right to your door. Seed savers has an amazing collection of rare and heirloom seeds that have been passed down from generation to generation.
4. Prep your site
Once you have a layout planned and designed, put it into action! Build raised beds or prepare the ground for planting. It may be necessary to purchase dirt to get your garden beds started. Around here, it costs about $30/yard for a garden soil mix with compost from our local landscape supply. You can also find bags of garden soil at your local grocery or hardware store.
If you’re planning a new garden where grass is growing, there are two options: till or no till. The tilling option is much more work and doesn’t improve the soil in any way, but is the most cost effective (assuming you have a rototiller). Just remove as much grass as possible, till it up and you’re ready to plant.
The easiest way to get started is the no till method. This works well for raised beds but can also work on top of an existing lawn. First, lay cardboard or newspaper down over the area (preferably in the fall, but spring works too). Then add a deep layer of garden soil on top. Garden soil typically has a mixture of topsoil and compost with perlite and/or peat moss.
It’s optional to add a layer of mulch on top of your garden beds. Benefits of mulching include: increased moisture retention, weed control, and nutrient release into the soil over time. Some great options for mulch are wood chips, straw, pine needles, leaves or grass clippings. If you look at a forest floor, you can see that Mother Nature uses mulch as well, and she typically knows what she’s doing.
5. Start seeds/transplants
Some seeds need to be started indoors, while others can be directed seeded outside. Seedlings that have been started indoors must be hardened-off (slowly acclimated to the change in environment) before transplanting outside.
Check the varieties you’re growing for frost tolerance. Planting exactly on your last frost date can still be risky for cold sensitive plants. I’ve killed tomato seedlings before because I was too excited to get them in the ground and we had a crazy late frost.
6. Tend your plants
Determine how you plan to provide regular water to your plants – drip irrigation, sprinkler systems, berms/swales, or a simple garden hose with sprayer.
Weeds also need to be dealt with so they don’t steal valuable nutrients from your plants. They can be pulled by hand, tilled/hoed or suppressed by mulch. Companion planting can greatly reduce the amount of work you put into tending your garden. Some plants act as a living mulch, while others accumulate nutrients in the soil and many will attract or repel certain pollinators or pests insects.
Determine proper harvesting times and techniques for each variety of plant you are growing. Some veggies such as potatoes and onions require curing time before they can be placed in storage. Try to get to your veggies and fruit when they are just turning ripe to encourage your plants to produce more.
A good rule of thumb is to harvest when everything is dry and it hasn’t rained for several days. Most herbs have a higher concentration of essential oils in the morning, so harvest these just after the dew has evaporated.
Don’t forget, you can also harvest seeds from your garden. If you are growing heirloom (non-hybrid) varieties, let some of your plants go to seed and save these for next year’s planting season. Fruit and vegetables such as squash, beans and tomatoes have their seeds on the inside, so save these when you are preparing the produce to eat. Seed saving for some plants can prove more difficult than others so if you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend the book “The Complete Guide to Saving Seeds: 322 Vegetables, Herbs, Fruits, Flowers, Trees, and Shrubs”.
No matter how small your garden, you probably won’t be able to eat everything fresh. Even a 1ft by 3 ft plot of carrots can produce over 30lbs! For an in-depth explanation of these preservation methods, read more here.
- Pressure Canning
- Water-bath Canning
- Root Cellar/Cold Storage
- Packed in Oil
This is one of the most important steps that so many gardeners miss. Create a journal where you can write down dates and notes for all your plants. Write down what worked well and what didn’t, when you started seeds or transplanted, and when/how much you harvested. The following year, you can make adjustments based on these notes and improve your process.
You may think, “I’m only planting 5 different types of plants, I’ll remember what went right and wrong for next year.” But I promise, when next year rolls around you’ll be thinking “I remember wishing I had started those seeds two weeks earlier but what was my start date?”
Having a record is also helpful for first time gardeners to know when to harvest. Most seed packets will have the “days to maturity” listed on the back. If you have written down the planting date, you won’t have to wonder if your plants are ready to be harvested. Some plants, like root vegetables, can be hard to judge when your first starting out because the produce is all underground.
The best way to learn how to garden is by doing. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – sometimes plants die or don’t produce much, but trial and error is the best way to hone your process. It took me 3 years of trying just to grow my first eggplant from seed, but what a feeling of accomplishment when I finally got it right! Good luck and happy gardening!