Are You Ready to Grow Your Own Vegetable Garden?
Have you been dreaming of growing food in your very own garden? Well, I’m here to tell you this is the year to make it happen! So many people want to grow their own vegetables to use in their recipes but don’t know what it takes. With spring just a few months away you still have time to plan and prepare for a bountiful harvest— even if you’re new to gardening! There is a lot to learn, but the best way is to just get started. Let me give you some key things to consider about ‘where’, ‘what’, and ‘how’ to help you get growing this year.
First things first; you’ll need to decide where you’re going to plant. Start by exploring your backyard, side yard, and even your front yard. Take note of the sunlight- are there any homes, trees, fences, or structures casting a shadow that could hinder the sun from reaching that prime location? You will want an area that gets 6-8 hours of sun per day. Use a compass or the map app on your phone to determine which part of your yard is facing south. The south facing part will get the longest duration of sun. Do you have a space in mind? Make note of how big that potential space is.
Now that you’ve found that sweet spot you’ll need to decide how large you want the garden to be. A good size for a starter garden is 3’x6’ (that’s 18 square feet of garden).
This size bed allows you to reach into the bed rather than step into it (by staying out of the garden you can prevent soil compaction which can hinder growing conditions).
You have the option of designing your bed to keep out pets, children, or deer. If you happen to have a lot of deer visitors, you will likely have to take a more involved approach to protecting your veggies.
Note: If you do decide to build a raised bed, it is suggested that you use wood that is not treated because research has shown that small amounts of chemicals can leach into the soil and be taken up by the plants. Cedar is one of the best woods you can use because it doesn’t rot as quickly as other woods. You can also repurpose a pallet into a 4’x6’ bed (as seen below) but again, remember it is best if the wood is untreated.
Don’t skip this section! If you’ve read my other blog posts you know how important it is to know your growing zone. I personally live North of Philadelphia in zone 7a/6b. Find out what zone you’re in using the Farmer’s Almanac. Once you know yours you’ll be able to determine the optimal times to plant your garden based on the date you can expect the last frost. In zone 7a/6b our estimated last frost date is April 20th of each year but to stay on the safe side I typically start a week or two later depending on the weather forecast. For example, last year we had a late frost that came on May 8th. Sadly, many gardeners in this area lost vegetable plants due to this frost.
Note: As a precaution it is wise to place a sheet or cloth covering your plants should you have a surprise frost after planting.
If you’re starting to feel overwhelmed by what and when to plant based on zoning, don’t fret! The Urban Farmer created a scheduling guide to help gardeners like you and I make these decisions. Their charts will help you decide if it’s best to start your planting indoors, when to transplant outdoors, and when to direct seed. As an example, here is the Urban Farmer’s guide for Zone 7:
Growing Outside or Inside
Next you’ll have some important decisions to make about the best planting method for your specific garden. Will you be planting from seed or buying nursery plants? Will you plant the seed directly in the soil or start the seed inside first? Will you be trying all three methods?
Start this decision process by listing out the plants you want to grow. Plants that grow best when planted directly in the outside soil are root vegetables like beets, carrots, radishes, and potatoes. Other plants that are best to direct seed are melons, peas, spinach, squashes, cucumbers, and corn. Ones that are great to start inside are lettuces, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, peppers, celery, cabbage, and eggplant.
If you struggle with the seed process or have a unique plant in mind that you cannot find seed for you can always purchase from a nursery. Whether you start inside or outside, be sure to do your research to find out how much space each mature plant will require. This will help you to know how many seeds to buy and how many you will plant.
Hint: It’s a good idea to grow more than you think you will need. Extra veggies make great gifts for friends and neighbors!
Growing Containers for Starting Seed Indoors
As I said above you can always plant your seeds directly in the soil based on the directions on your seed packets, but many of them grow well if you start them indoors (see above suggestions). This allows you to have a jump start on your growing season. For example, you can start tomatoes inside 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost date and by the time it’s time to plant outside instead of starting with just a seed in the soil, you will have a healthy established plant.
To grow your selected seeds inside you will need 2 containers; one with holes and one solid tray without holes for excess water to drain into. You have the option to buy growing trays (see photos below) from your local nursery/hardware store or you can DIY your own growing containers. I personally choose to use plug trays and opt to re-use them every season:
Left to Right: Plug Tray (with drainage holes), Bottom Tray (no drainage), Dome (until seeds germinate, then remove), Seed labels (re-usable, just wipe with nail polish remover), Label Marker
Growing Medium for Starting Seeds Indoors
You’ll need to decide what type of soil is best to help your seeds grow, so here are some ideas! For new plants the optimal soil is a sterile seed starting mix because you aren’t risking the presence of a virus or foreign invader that could potentially harm them. Of course there are plenty of times seeds germinate and grow out in nature, so you certainly can use the soil you have outside. However, with that comes variable risks and potentially hungry critters. In addition, a seed starting mixture provides finer textures than outdoor soil and is lightweight which allows ideal oxygen and moisture levels to support germination. It also helps the early life of a sapling (baby plant). Here are my top soil recommendations:
There are so many seed options out there! You can find them locally at a nearby nursery, hardware store, OR you can order seeds online. Online suppliers offer some seeds in bulk as well as unique varieties. They can be more expensive and have additional shipping costs, so I would suggest partnering with some fellow gardeners as you make your orders. It can be fun to see your friends’ plants growing at the same time! Keep in mind that there are lots of gardeners that shop for seeds online, so demand is high and suppliers are always working to keep up. If you plan on ordering online for this upcoming spring, don’t wait. If you do venture into the online world, here are my recommendations on where to start shopping:
Fruition Seeds is a great source for organic seeds. They are located in New York and specialize in providing seeds for growers in shorter seasons. The owner, Petra, has a wealth of knowledge on her website.
Renee’s Garden offers only non-GMO varieties and lots of organic seed options. Their seed packets are also gorgeous!
Johnny’s Selected Seeds has many seeds as well as garden supplies. Due to their demand they are limiting orders from home gardeners. Check out their website to learn more.
Botanical Interests just celebrated 25 years of offering high quality seeds. They are a great source for online seed purchases.
Note: Make sure to plant only 1 to 3 seeds per a cell in a plug tray because not all seeds will germinate. If more than one plant does come up, sacrifice the excess plants. You do not want more than 1 plant fighting for space in each cell. I do this after a plant has 2 sets of leaves. My trays pictured above show some that still need to be sacrificed.
Growing Light & Pad
If you’re planning on starting your plants off indoors, a window location isn’t ideal in the home as some may think because seedlings get leggy wanting to reach towards the sun. A heated greenhouse is always a favorite for plants and gardeners (it’s on my wishlist!) but it is not the only way. It’s possible to grow seeds inside using a light and heating mat. You can purchase these online as well.
This Grow Light from Amazon is very similar to the first one I ever purchased and is still one of my favorites. As far as how to place your light over your plants, here is a graphic that shows the distance based on whether the bulbs are LED or fluorescent:
If you choose to use a heat mat you will create an environment that speeds seed germination, supports a healthier plant and prevents the plant from staying too wet. I would recommend this heating mat:
Growing in your Home
If you decide to start growing inside, don’t forget to harden off your plants prior to transplanting into your garden. The ‘hardening off’ of your plants will take place by putting them outside a little bit at a time. Expose them first to a sheltered and shaded area then gradually move them into a more sunny location. You are helping them get used to the outdoor climate before making it their full-time home. You can increase the time they spend outside each day over the course of 1-2 weeks. If you move them out too quickly, you risk compromising your strong and happy seedlings. For most plants I recommend starting this process about 1 week before the final frost date in your zone, not leaving them out at night until after the final frost date. For further guidance see your seed packet. Here’s a picture of last year’s plants ‘hardening off’ before planting:
You’re now closer to your dream garden than ever before! I hope you feel more confident in your knowledge and a readiness to start. After gardening for over a decade I can tell you that I am always learning, so don’t feel discouraged if you feel like there is a lot to take in. New techniques and methods are being discovered every day so remember that to be a gardener is to be a learner! I hope you have the confidence to get your garden started but if you find yourself in need of conversation I would be happy to schedule a 20 minute Zoom consultation with you for $20 where we can discuss your personal garden goals. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a time to chat. I can’t wait to see what your garden will be!
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Owner & Founder of Hello Green Thumb