How to Grow an Edible Garden
Truest of true facts: if I can plant an edible garden, you can plant an edible garden.
Edible gardening: the basics
There have always been countless reasons to grow some of your own food: to be more self-sufficient; to teach your children a powerful skill that is also a great joy; to justify your exorbitant real-estate taxes; or simply to tuck into an honest salad whenever your heart desires. These days you can add: to jump on the bandwagon.
Here I offer some basic guidance for beginning gardeners based on my own research and experience. I am no Master Gardener, but over the past few years my family and I have overcome our cluelessness and our urban-ness and produced some totally respectable vegetables and herbs with nothing more than a few good tips and a little hard work. If we can do it, you can do it.
If you're already a seasoned grower of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, please feel more than welcome to add your own perspective in the comments.
In this first section we'll talk about the steps you'll take before planting a single seed.
Note: I first published these edible gardening tips and tricks as a series in my Crisper Whisperer column on Serious Eats.
Step 1: Get Confident
First things first: the Pareto principle officially applies to your edible garden. To be an earth-shatteringly brilliant gardener, you need to know an unbelievable amount. But to produce a few varieties of delicious tomatoes or lettuce for your family's summer indulgence? Not so much. Although the country has seen a huge uptick in seed sales to casual backyard gardeners in the past few seasons, many more of us are still holding back, thinking we can't possibly know enough to get it right. If that sounds like you, it's time to deep six the bad attitude and embrace the 80/20 rule.
The three most important—and very basic—things you'll give your garden are good soil, enough sun and plentiful (but not overly plentiful) water. When you're choosing where to plant your garden, think carefully about all three. You'll need a spot that gets plenty of sun throughout the day, has rich soil (you have more control over this factor than you might think), and is close enough to the water supply that you'll be able to water freely without a big hassle.
Step 2: Get Sunny
Most edibles want "full sun," or about six hours per day of good quality sunlight. (There are exceptions, like lettuces, which do well in shade. But it's easier to create shade where necessary than to create sun, especially if you're a mere mortal.) If you're not sure where your sunniest spots are, spend some time paying attention to your lawn, stoop or balcony this weekend at various times of day. Spots with southern exposure do well—so ahead and break out that compass on your iPhone. If you live in a very hot climate, you'll want to choose a spot that doesn't get much more than six hours of sun per day.
And no matter your climate, try to choose a spot that is somewhat protected from wind.Our first year in the garden, we learned what an upside-down zucchini plant looks like one particularly windy summer day. It's not as lovely as a right-side-up one.
If you're very restricted in space and sunlight (gardening on an urban balcony, for example), don't despair. There are plenty of online resources to help you choose the right plants for your conditions.
Step 3: Get Grounded
As for soil, there are three primary options: use the ground you've got, plant in raised beds, or plant in containers. If you're considering planting in the ground, learn a bit about your soil conditions.
Do you have clay soil or loamy (sandy) soil? An easy way to find out is to wet some dirt and press it between your fingers. If it's sticky or slimy, it's clay. If it's gritty and dries quickly, it's sand. Knowing which type of soil you have will help you decide how to amend it—what to add to make it closer to plants' ideal growing medium.
You might also consider having your soil tested for pH and contaminants, especially if you're relatively new to the property. Many state extension schools provide testing for a small fee. Google "soil testing" or "soil analysis" to find one in your area. The University of Massachusetts website provides a useful overview of what to expect. Testing will help determine how to make your soil more productive by adding nutrients and ensure that it's safe for planting.
Once you've chosen an in-ground location, get prepared for some elbow grease—but not too much. If it's your first go at a garden, start small. You'd be surprised how much you can grow in a handful of square feet. You'd also be surprised how hard it can be to dig up grass where it's been growing for years.
When determining garden size, take a look at the "Get Hungry" section below. The resources linked there will help you understand how much space you'll need for each variety you want to grow, and how much food each plant will yield.
About two to three weeks before you're ready to plant, clear any grass and weeds with a sod cutter (you can rent one from a home improvement chain or hire a landscaper to do it for a not-so-big fee). Turn your soil with a roto-tiller or a good old-fashioned shovel. Finally, add lots of organic compost. Check the resources linked throughout this post for more details on these processes.
If you're not happy with the quality of your soil or just want a beautiful, accessible garden, another great option is to plant in raised beds. You'll build (or purchase) a structure in which to place good-quality topsoil and plant your seeds or starters there. This Old Househas a thorough resource on how to get started with raised beds.
If you're planting in an urban environment, want to keep the garden close to the house, or just want to start small, planting in containers is the way to go. I was surprised to learn what a tremendous variety of edibles can grow well in pots. Don't overlook this convenient option for herbs, fruits, and vegetables alike.
Step 4: Get Hungry
The final step for this week—though let's be honest, it's also the first step around these parts—is to think closely about what you'd like to eat this summer. It helps to know which hardiness zone you're in so you'll know what grows easily in your area and when to plant it, but beyond that, what to grow comes down largely to personal preference.
Are you a salad fan, or do you prefer roasted veggies even in the hot weather? How much fruit do you like to eat compared to vegetables? Which herbs do you gravitate toward?It's a good idea to plant mostly foods you already know and love, with maybe one or two less familiar foods thrown in to keep it interesting.
Start trolling heirloom seed catalogs, and inquire with your local extension school or Master Gardeners when and where they'll be selling starters (seedlings) for plants that don't grow as easily from seed. Lots of hot weather foods, like tomatoes and peppers, will produce much more during their short season if you start your own seeds indoors in what's left of the winter or purchase starters from a reliable source.
Once you have a good idea of what you'd like to plant, make use of an interactive kitchen garden planner such as the one at Gardeners.com. Such resources abound, they're fun to use, and they'll tell you everything you need to know about how and where to fit a variety of crops into the space you've got. Your Edible Garden at Sunset.com is chock full of useful tips, too.
If you'll be planting some of your crops from seed, either to start indoors or to sow in the ground as the weather warms up, now is the time to order. Plunk down a few bucks and get excited for a rewarding season.
Step 5: Consider window box gardening
For those of us with minimal outdoor space who still want to grow a few herbs and even a handful of vegetables, window box gardening can pack a surprising punch. If you have a south-facing window that isn't obstructed by an overhang, you can grow herbs and vegetables that like full sun right outside your window. If you don't have such a fortunately situated window, you can still plant in window boxes or other small containers and arrange them on sunny stoops or terraces or, in a pinch, even indoors with supplemental light.
A wide variety of herbs can do well in window boxes. You won't get the enormous growth you might get in a garden, but with many herbs, a little goes a long way, anyway. Since it's no secret that I'm more of a connoisseur of cooking and eating than gardening, it won't surprise you that growing a few flavor-packed, easily maintained herbs close to my kitchen has been one of the most rewarding gardening endeavors I've tried.
One simple trick will go a long way toward a successful window-box herb garden. Plant herbs with similar soil and water needs together. For example, rosemary, thyme, sage, and lavender thrive in well-drained soil and do not like to be overwatered. Try planting them together. In another box, basil, cilantro, and mint—which can easily grow out of control if not contained—will keep each other in check. Try adding some marigolds to the mix to keep pests away, or pansies, whose flowers are edible when grown safely. Chives, bay laurel, parsley, and many more herbs will also grow well in boxes.
A surprising number of vegetables grow well in containers. Since window boxes aren't huge, though, it's important to be aware of the depth and breadth that a plant will need. Small varieties of vegetables can often be the most intensely flavored, so the size restriction can be a source of inspiration rather than frustration if you plan carefully.
Lettuces, especially those that grow as leaves rather than heads, are a great choice, as are other leafy greens like kale and chard. Small varieties of both sweet and hot peppers, cherry and other small tomatoes, radishes, short varieties of carrots, and even strawberries can thrive in window boxes.
Since there's minimal soil per plant in a window box, it's extra important to learn what each plant you choose needs from the soil and to periodically replenish and feed the soil throughout the season.
Step 6: Have all the fun thinking through a theme garden
Sure, fruits and vegetables are good for you. But just like the act of eating them, there's no reason the growing of them needs to be all serious and virtuous. Why not plant a little fun in your yard or containers with one of these themed gardens?
Planting a theme garden can be worthwhile purely for entertainment value, but it's also a smart approach to choosing what to plant. If your fruits and vegetables make sense together and you've thought over how you might use them even before you put them in the ground, you'll be more likely to use them well when they're ready to eat. Have you ever planted a theme garden, or do you have any great ideas for one? Please share your inspiration in the comments!
1. COCKTAIL GARDEN
With all the creative, culinary cocktails in the world these days, just about any ingredient could be at home in a glass. But here are a few classic choices to grow:
- Baby watermelon
- Meyer lemons
- Chocolate mint
2. MAD MEN GARDEN
Just thinking about Mad Men as you go about your regular daily life makes everything more fun. Imagine how much more glamorous you'd feel digging out potatoes from a Mad Men garden than a regular old potato bed. The best part is that all of these plants are simple and versatile ingredients.
- Tobacco (just kidding)
- Iceberg lettuce
- Plus any ingredients from the Cocktail Garden above
3. THE SIMON AND GARFUNKEL GARDEN // SIMON AND GARDENFUNKEL? (SORRY.)
If you're looking at this list thinking, hey, that's just an herb garden—maybe it's time to reread The Polar Express. Life is better for those who can hear the bell.
4. ITALIAN GRANDMA GARDEN
This garden is full of easy-to-grow foods with all the comfort of a hug from an Italian grandma, but none of that pesky cheek pinching.
5. BIG-SALAD GARDEN
Whether or not you're channeling Elaine from Seinfeld, a big salad is always a good order. These are some no-brainer salad ingredients, but the options are virtually limitless.