Gardening 101: Three Options for Creating New Vegetable Gardens

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It may still be cold and frosty where you are, but believe it or not, it’s time to start thinking about planting a spring vegetable garden.

Even if you have very little yard space – or none at all – you can still grow veggies and fruits, as long as you have at least a patio or balcony. Chances are, right now you are growing a whole bunch of grass, and not much more. Why not use some of that space to grow something you can eat? It will nourish your family for years to come, and save you money, too.

Eren gave us some awesome tips last Friday about starting a garden using repurposed materials. Today we’ll look at a few different ways you can create a vegetable garden for the first time.

Garden Option #1: Square Foot Gardening/Raised Beds

In square foot gardening, you build raised beds on top of your existing soil. If there’s grass growing where you want to plant, no problem – just cover it with cardboard or newspaper. This will keep weeds from growing up into your garden.

Then use a material such as untreated lumber to build boxes that measure no more than four feet wide. Your beds can be as long as you’d like, but the four feet width ensures that you can reach the plants from either side of the bed, without actually stepping into it. Instead of lumber, you can also use cinder blocks, fencing, or repurposed materials such as bi-fold doors, as Eren mentioned.

Then you will fill the boxes with soil that you purchase – the best option is a blend that contains compost and other organic matter. This is undoubtedly the priciest part of starting a garden, but it is a one-time investment. You will be able to plant again and again in that soil, so don’t skimp on it – find good quality organic soil for growing food, and you will not regret it.

You can plant your veggies very close together with this method because you don’t need to leave room to walk between the plants. A perfect method for limited space!

Photo by SuburbanDollar

Some other notes:

• If you can’t access one side of the bed, then your bed should only be two feet wide.
• If you want to build more than one box, make sure that they are at least two or three feet apart, to leaving walking and kneeling space.
Yes, you CAN do this on a patio or balcony – just add a bottom to your boxes, and make sure to drill some drainage holes!

For more information about square foot gardening, visit the website of the author and originator of this method, Mel Bartholomew.

This is a photo of our raised beds in the backyard of our duplex.

Garden Option #2: Traditional Beds

When you garden with traditional beds, you can follow many of the same principles as described above, but you will plant your garden directly into the existing soil. If there is grass growing, you will need to dig it up, and then till (loosen) the ground, working some organic compost and/or peat moss into the soil so that it is ready for producing food.

You will be a little more limited by the kind of soil that you have – loamy, sandy, silty, clay, etc. Different kinds of soil will require different kinds of amendments – for example, it is hard to retain moisture in sandy soil, and clay soil holds too much water and needs extra help with drainage. If you’re not sure what kind of soil you have, there are some tricks and tests to figure it out, or you can purchase a test kit from your local gardening store.

Once you’ve tilled, added compost, and soil amendments if needed, water the soil and let it rest for a a few days before you plant. If your bed is wider than four feet, you will need to actually step into the bed to work the garden, so make sure to plant in rows no less than eighteen inches apart. Never step on an area where you have planted.

Photo by Anne Norman

Garden Option #3: Container Gardening

Container gardening is exactly what it sounds like – growing your veggies in containers, such as pots, boxes, hanging baskets, or repurposed crates, buckets, etc. Just make sure there are drainage holes in the bottom, or drill some yourself. Usually, a larger container is better than smaller – it will hold more moisture, so you don’t need to water as often, and many plants, such as tomatoes, prefer the extra room.

You will need a soil mix that is specifically made for containers, so make sure you specify this at your garden center when you’re buying the soil. Make sure to look for organic potting soil – you will be eating the plants that grow in this soil!

Photo by Mike Lieberman

A few things to know:

• Make sure your veggies will be able to get at least 6-8 hours of sunlight. If you need to trim a few branches from a tree, it may be worthwhile.
• In any of these kinds of gardens, you can plant seeds, plants that you start from seeds inside (called transplants), or plants you purchase at a garden center.
• If you plant seeds, follow the package directions. Plant a few more than you think you need, because not all of them will germinate. You can thin the plants out later.
• Mulch, mulch, mulch! This prevents weeds and holds moisture in the soil. Eventually your plants may be growing in thickly enough that you no longer need to worry about mulching, especially if you use the square-foot method.

Choosing what kind of garden to plant is the first step in growing your own food. These three types of gardens are all easily accessible for the beginning gardener. Now you just need to look at your available space and decide what will work best for you.

Are you planning a spring vegetable garden? Have you ever grown your food before? If not, what’s stopping you from trying?

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About Katie

Katie loves to learn about natural living, and believes that caring for the earth and caring for yourself don't have to be mutually exclusive. She loves to help other people understand how they can both contribute to and benefit from a switch to a more natural and organic lifestyle. She is a stay-at-home mom and a native Texas girl, happily married to her best friend.

Comments

  1. Stephanie P says:

    Thanks so much!!! I have no yard and a balcony that gets zero direct sunlight so I’m still figuring out how this can work for me.

    • Stephanie, depending on where you live, you may be able to grow a few things that don’t require direct sunlight – ask your local nursery. But do you have any good windowsills? That’s a great option, too!

  2. This will be our fourth summer growing a vegetable garden. This year, I’m expanding by adding raised beds for the first time. I’m curious, do you have a height you recommend for the beds? In the photos, it looks like yours are only about 6 inches high, whereas I’ve seen recommendations for 18 inches to ensure a good root depth. But maybe it depends on the crop.

    I am starting just about everything from seed — saves a lot of $$$, and extends the growing season if you start indoors — so I am already planting! If anyone’s interested, I am running a weekly feature every Sunday, checking in on the progress of the seedlings. Kids are fascinated by how much the young plants change day by day and week by week. http://www.chickencounting.com

    Oh, and even if you have no space (just a windowsill or a balcony), there are lots of things that grow beautifully in containers, I can attest! We have had a lot of success with basil and other herbs in containers, even indoors on a sunny windowsill. And peppers and tomatoes do great in containers, too! Less weeding.

    • Our wood was eight inches wide, so that’s how deep the beds are. It has worked fine for us, so I’m not sure about recommendations for other depths.

      Thanks for the reminder about window sills, too! That’s a great option for those without sun or space outside.

    • mlindley says:

      This will be my third year with a square foot garden two beds are 8 inches deep and one is 18 inches. I have found that every spring I need to add more dirt, and the beds do need quite a bit of water and mulch to keep them from drying out. I think that last year I weeded the square foot spots maybe four or five times all year, and then only because I was looking for something to pull out, not because it actually had to by done. By comparison my traditional flower beds have to be weeded once a week or they get out of control.

      In one 8 inch bed I usually grow carrots, peas, lettuce, spinach, beans and tomatoes. The second 8 inch bed is reserved for fresh herbs. I have successfully been able to winter(in Northern BC) oregano, thyme, chocolate mint, pineapple mint, spearmint, English lavender and chives in less than 8 inches of soil. The 18inch bed produced amazing potatoes, onions and another batch of larger carrots. This year I will be adding several types of squash as well.

  3. Thanks! I am going to share this on my blog. I am starting a garden this year with my children – and this article is perfect! I LOVE all of your sites.

  4. I’m so excited to start a little garden on my patio this year! I have no yard or grass, just a little balcony. I’m planning to use purchased plants the first time around, then maybe next year start from seeds, if everything goes well. I definitely don’t have a green thumb so I’m a little nervous! But I am excited, and thrilled at the idea of growing food for my husband and I to eat.
    .-= Nikki Moore’s last blog: Why I Stopped Using Shampoo, Why I Started Again, and What I’ve Learned Along The Way =-.

    • You can do a lot with a balcony, Nikki! Good luck, and don’t be nervous – it’s all a learning process for everyone, so just look at it that way – even seasoned gardeners learn something new every year!

  5. Thank you for the tip on using potting soil specifically designed for containers. I didn’t know that could be an issue.

  6. Thank you! I’m looking forward to the day I have some space for growing my own vegetables. Now I only have some indoors containers for herbs.
    .-= Laura’s last blog: Batik and me =-.

  7. Katie, what a great follow up piece! You covered everything!!! Love seeing your little garden. Its amazing what you can grow in such a small space isnt it?
    .-= Eren’s last blog: New Growth =-.

  8. This is my favorite time of year! When I get to start planning my garden. I love the 3 ideas you’ve suggested. The last few years we’ve had 2 large raised beds. This year I think I’m going to dig in to the dirt again. We’ll use the raised beds for herbs and I’m going to start an asparagus bed (woo hoo). I’m also going to start some celery seeds inside this year, which will be a first. We use so much celery I figure it’s smart to try to grow it ourselves. I love having a pot of tomatoes on the porch right near the door so I can grab some fresh maters to throw in a salad for dinner. AHHH… I love growing veggies. Hurry up spring!!
    .-= Jackie Lee’s last blog: Garden Insomnia =-.

  9. We planted our garden a few weeks ago here in Arizona. We are starting to see some of the sprouts come up. It is exciting!
    .-= Hannah’s last blog: Like Digi Scrapping? =-.

  10. I’ve never planted my own garden before, but now that I finally have a backyard I’m excited to give it a try this year! I’ve been wanting to try raised beds, so thank you for all the good information!
    .-= Jeanne’s last blog: Olive Oil Brownies =-.

  11. Great info! We are planting a garden for the very first time this year using raised beds and square foot gardening. I think we’re going to try to start seeds, but we’re so nervous! We’re really looking forward to gardening together and sharing it with our now nine-month-old son!
    .-= Toni Turbeville’s last blog: GREEN LIVING TIP OF THE WEEK : Think =-.

    • Our first year we did a mix of seeds and plants, and I remember how miraculous it was to see that first plant growing up from seed. Have fun!

  12. I’m hoping I’ll end up with more sunlight on my patio by summer (hard to tell since we’ve only lived here since September) but I’m definitely going to do something- at least some containers and hopefully in my tiny plot of dirt in the patio area. Thanks for the great ideas!
    .-= Nicole aka Gidget’s last blog: Encyclopedia of Me =-.

    • Oh, that’s tough – you’ll have to see what you get in terms of sun! I’m sure you’ll have enough for growing SOMETHING!

  13. Great info. Thanks. This is only my second year doing a container garden so we will see what happens. Out of curiousity, in the picture of the “traditional beds” I like the flags at the top of the fence. Does anyone know what those are called? Great site.

    • I know, I love those flags, too! They are the reason I was drawn to use that picture. You could follow the link in the photo credit to the photographer’s info and try to ask them directly!

    • Brigitte says:

      I think they are Tibetan Prayer Flags.

  14. This post and Eren’s have been SO helpful! I am planning my first garden this year, and I am doing a raised bed. I am so excited to be able to grow some of our food myself.
    .-= Melissa’s last blog: Just a Boring Update! =-.

  15. I am so excited about this! We have a very small space in our backyard that gets sunlight, but I could definitely do a couple containers! Do you have any suggestions for which fruits or veggies might grow best in containers?
    .-= Angela @ Homegrown Mom’s last blog: Do you Have a Family Fun Night Idea? =-.

  16. This is such an exciting time of year! I want so badly to start a garden this year. We just moved to a new house and the yard is not fenced so we still have some wild animals that trek through our backyard occasionally and I’m fearful they will help themselves to what we start growing! Any ideas of small fencing for a raised bed that isn’t an eyesore? We have beautiful landscaping and don’t want to detract from the natural beauty of the trees on our property either. The kids would love growing lots of healthy veggies and it’s so rewarding!

  17. Jeannie says:

    I LOVE the picture of the fenced garden with fabric flags around the top! We have deer and will have to fence and this is a fun way to add some character to our yard!

  18. This post makes me so excited for spring, even though it’s still a ways off here in Canada.

    There is so much good stuff in here, Katie. I’m hugely inspired. I love gardening, but we recently moved to a place that has NO beds period. I think it’s going to be container gardening this year from me, and working on a getting a plot ready for next year.
    .-= Aimee’s last blog: One Pot Wonders For Babies & Toddlers =-.

  19. Great suggestions. I am excited for the new growing season, I just started some seeds indoors. In one of my SFG that has a cover I will sow some spring crops this week. I cannot wait for yummy garden fresh greens!
    And for those just started a SFG really do not skip the step of covering the grass my beds are filled with it since the weed barrier could not keep it out!

  20. Brigitte says:

    I NEED to plant something this year! I keep talking about it and haven’t done a thing yet. This is the year. My problem is that my tiny year isn’t level. I thought about doing a vertical garden using stakes along the fence line where there’s the most sun, growing vine type veggies. I saw the idea online, I hope it works!

  21. When container gardening, do people dump out all their soil at the end of each season and start with new soil the following year? Is it possible to leave the soil in, just kind of break up the top several inches and reuse it? Otherwise, it can be so expensive, I find.

  22. Wow – thank you so much for this post! I have been looking for some info (and frankly, encouragement) to start a square foot garden this spring and wanted to find a great site for support. I found your blog through BlogFrog (from FrugalLivingNW). Nice to discover your blog!

  23. Katie, do you have any tips for the best things to grow in our unpredictable central Texas springs and summers? That would make a fun post in the future — the best things to grow in different zones at different seasons. Just an idea. ;)

    As you already know, I’m soooooo excited to finally have a yard. I’ll probably be calling you for gardening tips! I’ve been watching Craigslist for free lumber to make raised beds.
    .-= Tsh’s last blog: New on Simple Homeschool: How to Homeschool with a Baby or Toddler =-.

  24. I tried container gardening last year, but this year I’m trying to start a small garden bed right off my deck. I’m very nervous though because we have red clay, so I know I will need to add quite a lot of peat or compost. I’m trying to figure out if I can work it in by hand or if that would be too backbreaking and should I get a tiller somehow? Or could I heap dirt/compost on top of the grass and sort of do a raised bed without edges and gradually improve the soil?

  25. I am planning on planting my first official garden this year! I tried to plant one 2 summers ago, but that coincided with the birth of our first baby, and, well… it didn’t get the attention it deserved ;)

    We bought our materials last week, and we’re doing a raised bed garden. We are in a new construction, with very little topsoil before all the rocks and construction debris, so I figured that was the best way to give more soil to my plants (without knowing it had an actual name!). I’m starting with some tomato plants, carrots, lettuce, and rhubarb, as well as some herb in a container :) (Except for the basil which will go with the tomatoes, I’ve read it was good to plant it nearby – as well as the carrots, except some of them might be smaller but that’s ok ;-) ).

    My mom has always had a garden since I can remember, with tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots. I’m looking forward to growing some of my food too – and having ongoing supply of lettuce, without wasting half the head every week from the grocery store :)

  26. I recently opted to create our first raised beds. You have offered great information here for those (like I recently was) who are undecided about how to start their garden. Great tips! I would have never thought to create the raised beds on the patio- what a good solution for those with tight spaces.
    .-= Tori {Daily Grommet}’s last blog: Meet the very talented Koku Gonza =-.

  27. Great tips Katie. My husband and I have been gardening for 3 seasons now with the help of my father-in-law (the real farmer in our clan). We just love spending time in the garden and this year we are getting our grandchildren in on the act too by teaching them how to plant in a small raised bed garden and some container gardening. 3 Generations of vegetable gardeners this year, I am so excited.

  28. All three very good choices, depending on your personal layout and preference. I find raised garden beds are gorgeous.
    Planting Vegetables´s latest post: How To Avoid Common Problems With Your Mini Greenhouse

  29. Just come cross your posting Katie.
    I am particularly agreed with tips #1 & #3.

    My wife & I just bought a small apartment lately, and we felt the belcony is a bit tiny. So, we need to be creative when comes to gardening in our mini yard:)

    Jay
    Publisher, PorchSwingSets.com
    Jay Chua´s latest post: Hammocks Hatteras and Your Backyard

  30. I had got a dream to begin my business, nevertheless I didn’t have got enough amount of money to do that. Thank heaven my close dude advised to utilize the business loans. So I used the short term loan and realized my dream.

  31. If you look after your garden in the off seasons for example covering it up pruning and soil maintainance you will reap the rewards in the flowering and fruiting season. Happy gardening
    raised garden beds

  32. Tips of vegetable gardens were really beneficial. I like it.

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