Love fresh veggies and herbs? We think they taste even better when you get to take all the credit for them. Whether you live out in the country or you're working with a windowsill in a cramped apartment, you can grow your own edible garden. We spoke with Sylvia Schmeichel from the American Horitcultural Society to figure out the best ways to make the most of your space and get started.
First, there's some busy work to be done. Gardening takes a bit of patience and a lot of careful strategizing. But we can guarantee you'll be enjoying fresh produce in no time.
"First, to find out and learn about important information like when the first and last frost dates in your region and what plants work best in your region, the best place to start is your cooperative extension office," said Schmeichel. "You can Google that to find the extension site for your specific state."
Now it's time to choose what kind of garden you want: a traditional garden, a container garden, or a raised-bed garden.
- Traditional gardens are "in-ground" gardens. This leaves a lot to chance, yes, but many gardeners find it rewarding to watch factors in the natural ecosystem bring the plants to term.
- Container gardens are great alternative for those living in cities. It's also a good idea for those who don't have access to quality soil.
- Raised beds are an "in-between" choice. This method involves creating a trough of sorts with bricks or cinder blocks. It allows the gardener to have complete control over soil, weeds, and it's also a great option for gardeners who have a hard time leaning all the way over to the ground.
Whatever you choose, you'll want to choose an area that gets at least six hours of sun a day.
"We always tell people that they're going to be successful if they put the right plant in the right place," said Schmeichel. "It's that simple, but you've got to observe and take note of what you're working with."
Take some time to look around your growing space. Ask yourself: What do you already have? What don't you have? And what can you grow in this space? With full shade and no sun, for instance, your growing possibilities are limited to certain plants. It doesn't mean you have to give up, but you should be aware of your capabilities.
Before heading out to your local garden center, remind yourself of the difference between annuals and perennials. Many herbs and vegetables are annuals, meaning they complete their life-cycle within one growing season.
Plan to grow at least a few perennials, too, if only for landscaping purposes. These are plants that will experience a "rebirth" each spring without requiring a second planting. Some might even last all year long.
It's also important to decide whether you want already-rooted plants or if you'd like to try and grow plants from seed.
"Seeds are certainly less expensive," said Schmeichel. "But already-rooted plants save time and might fit better with your available space, too."
Now for the dirty work!
In a traditional or raised-bed garden, turn and aerate your soil using a spade shovel. Create a bed with a depth of about 12 inches, adding in about three or four inches worth of compost.
For a smaller container garden, you'll be using potting soil, not garden soil, otherwise — in Schmeichel's words — you'll end up with a "dense, heavy, soggy mess." You also don't need any mulch or compost. Just be sure you've got enough depth for whatever plants you intend to put in the container.
Rake the bed until the top is level, or, for the smaller container gardens, use a fork. This is another great way to aerate the soil, allowing both water and air to access all the nooks and crannies surrounding your seeds.
Follow the specific instructions found on your seed packet and plant away!
5. Tend and mulch
There are a few important things to remember to do so as not to neglect your new vegetables. Mulch, water, do some pest control, and, of course, have fun!
Proper mulching is important for traditional and raised-bed gardens. Experts recommend that gardens be mulched when planted as well as regularly afterwards.
"It's great because it helps retain moisture when you're watering, it helps suppress weeds and it keeps things looking tidy," said Schmeichel. "I really like shredded leaf mulch as opposed to hard wood mulch."
As for watering, you'll want to do this immediately after planting and then follow the specific instructions for the vegetables you've chosen and the rainfall in your area. It's recommended that you water in the early morning before plants photosynthesize.
Additionally, monitor crops regularly for pests and take care of those as needed.
And with most vegetables, you do need some sort of fertilization. Fertilize regularly according to your crop instructions.
6. Harvest, enjoy and repeat
When it comes to harvesting, you can generally follow the information found on your seed packet (it'll give you a window of harvest time based on the specific vegetable), and couple that with a bit of common sense. Some varieties take longer than others, and, as Schmeichel points out, it's often a game of trial and error.
"You might pick pick something way too early based on your unique land and weather conditions, even though you follow the instructions," she said. "So it's important to rely on your instincts."
Sure, you might make a few mistakes with your first garden, and there's bound to be a learning curve. But once that first crop is out of the way, you'll have gained a better understanding of everything from your soil to the specific pests in your area, and you'll feel like a pro in no time.
"Start small and keep things manageable so you're not overwhelmed," said Schmeichel. "The best way to get frustrated and give up is to try planting way too much and fail. Let yourself start with something simple."