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What to know before you dig in.

By Amy Pennington
March 24, 2021
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There are three things every person needs to successfully grow food in their yard: sun, soil and water. If you have all three, you can grow all sorts of vegetables and fruits, and put food on your family's table. Simple, right? Not so fast.

Backyard farmers need to start with an ideal garden space before building or planting. You may need to pull up grass or build a raised bed. You'll need access to water and seeds or plant starts to get growing. Eventually, you will need to feed those plants. If this is your first year, getting started can feel overwhelming, so here we break it down into five simple steps to get planting, sow seeds, and maximize your space.

1. Location, location, location.

You need to identify the sunniest part of your yard and grow food there. It's that simple. This can be the front yard or maybe it's the middle of your lawn. Trees, neighbors, and fences can block sunlight; look for these and plan around them.

Be mindful of the position of your garden beds and how sun tracks across them. Remember, sun rises in the east and sets in the west. In the northern hemisphere, the earth will continue tipping south on its axis through summer, creating more light in the northern parts of your landscape. That means after summer equinox, it starts tipping north and may cast shadows where once there was light.

Leafy greens (lettuce, spinach, kale) require four to six hours of direct sunlight to grow well. Roots need a bit longer (beets, carrots), as do flowers. To thrive, fruiting plants (tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, corn, apples, blueberries) need ten to 12 hours of direct sunlight daily.

If you have a partly shady garden or you only get sunlight from midday onward, you may struggle to grow healthy fruiting plants, but leafy greens will flourish. If you have a yard in full sun and no protection, you can grow amazing tomatoes, but maybe your cilantro and spinach (cool season crops) will constantly bolt.

2. Should you use a raised bed? Maybe not.

Everyone assumes you need a raised bed to grow food. Not true. A "raised bed" is any sort of formal or loose structure that raises your soil line. This can be a casual pile of soil that sits higher than a pathway (also called a "mounded raised bed"), or it can be a formal structure that has sides and a bottom (like a wooden box or stock tank).

Most commonly, of course, a "raised bed" is what we all think of as a rectangular structure with sides that sits on top of the ground and is filled with soil.

Here are some common reasons to install a raised bed:

  • Your growing space has extremely compacted soil.
  • You do not have a yard and are growing on a balcony, patio, driveway, etc.
  • You live at the bottom of a hill and have year-round wet soil.
  • You may have soil contaminants (if you live on industrial land).
  • You have dogs or other animals that will be in the yard with the garden.
  • You do not want to squat or kneel to access your garden.
  • You wish to intentionally extend the growing season as much as possible. Using raised beds means your soil will warm up faster, as sunlight hits the sides of the bed and creates heat.

Many home gardeners opt for building raised garden beds. They are pretty and they create structure and order. But they're not mandatory. I grow a lot of food by planting directly into the earth in slightly mounded soil, shaped into rows. This makes it easy to work in a large area: Digging, raking, and pulling dead plants is easier when there is open space. It also provides more workable land to grow in. (Any container, whether it's a six-foot-long bed or 18-inches-wide pot, is contained and therefore, somewhat restrictive.) You decide what's best — just be sure to choose a sunny spot.

Getting started in pots.

To start a garden in containers, you must use potting soil in your containers. These soil mixes are formulated to maintain a certain level of lightness so that plants are able to breathe, drain well, and still hold in some moisture. (Air is right up there with sun and water in importance to healthy, thriving plants!)

Most plants need a little legroom to stretch their roots. Choose a pot that's a bit bigger than the plant will actually need. It is better to leave a little wiggle room than to have plant roots mashing up against the container walls. If you allow for some growth, you increase the odds of your plant growing to full maturity. Aim to keep the soil perpetually damp, never wet and definitely don't let it dry between waterings.

3. Dirt don't hurt.

The soil in your garden is a living thing. It is full of bacteria, nutrients, microbes, and insects. Your soil is thriving and alive, and your most important work as a gardener (as a human?!) is to nurture and cultivate a healthy garden space. A healthy garden will always provide.

To get started, clear the soil of all weeds and deep root structures. Using a hand rake helps pull root hairs from the soil and gives it a nice, light loam — some vegetables have a hard time growing when soil is compacted. All soils benefit from the addition of amendments like a live compost product or fertilizer. Purchase a gentle, organic fertilizer and add to your garden beds according to the directions. (Different fertilizers will have different application rates.) Once you have a clean, fertilized garden bed to work with, you can get planting.

4. Crop rotation.

Crops are rotated in gardens (and in large-scale agriculture) to support healthy soil. By rotating crops through garden beds continually over the seasons and years, you confuse pests, minimize the threat of soil disease, and replenish nitrogen in the soil by planting and tilling in green 'manure.' Some crop families must be rotated because they are prone to soil disease, for example brassicas (cabbage, kale, broccoli) and nightshades (tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes). Outside of disease, different types of plants use different nutrients. Alliums (onions, garlic, leeks) are heavy feeders and use up a lot of nitrogen. Rotating plant families through garden beds over time, prevents nutrient depletion.

5. What to plant and when.

Here are basics families of plants that do well in each season. Follow these loose planting seasons for a tasty first year. And when it comes to narrowing down what you'll actually plant, here's a hot tip: Grow what you'll eat!

Spring

sugar snap peas growing on a vine
Credit: Meredith

As soon as the threat of frost passes, we plant cool season crops. Brassica plants (broccoli, arugula, kale, mustard greens) get planted in spring. Many greens do well when it's a bit colder, as well: lettuces, Asian greens, cabbage, spinach, and chard. Sow root vegetables like carrots, beets, turnips, radishes. There are some spring-fruiting plants like sweet peas, snap peas, and fava beans that can be planted by seed or transplant. And finally, spring is also a great time to plant many herbs; just steer clear from basil, which is a summer crop.

Summer

close up of ripening cherry tomatoes growing on supports
Credit: Meredith

Once summer season begins, plant warm season crops. Think tomatoes, cucumbers, and melons — all of the things we crave in summer that are cooling. Leafy greens can be a challenge (many don't do well in excessive heat) so make sure to choose varieties that are slow to go to flower (slow to bolt), and plant your basil in this season. In summer, we continue planting root vegetables like carrots and radish.

Fall

scallions growing in a garden bed next to squash plant
Credit: Meredith

Some climates allow for plants to overwinter, and many people can do this by placing plants under protective cover — like a mini greenhouse in your yard. From late September through October we are back into cool season crops and those that will either overwinter well or grow quickly. We can plant lettuces, arugula, green onions, garlic, cover crop, and any bulbing annual flowers, including saffron crocus. It's best to check with local resources in order to time your sow dates.

Remember to keep your soil clean from weeds, put up fencing to protect plants from bunnies, deer, or your neighbor's cat, and don't forget to water regularly! Your plants will appreciate it and it keeps you engaged with the garden.

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