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From Backyard to Table: How to Start Your Own Vegetable Garden

Starting a garden and growing our own healthy and delicious food is a great way to head outside and get close to nature.

It’s spring and we can plant things!

I feel like this year, if the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is about food and having a greater understanding of how we feed ourselves. For many of us, that’s meant binge eating while binge watching. But I’d like to think that most of us have gained a greater appreciation for our health and feeding ourselves in a deeper way.

That makes the idea of planting a garden and growing our own healthy and delicious food seem like the thing to do this year. You can’t get more locally grown or fresh than your own backyard. Now’s your chance to dig your hands into the dirt and start your own vegetable garden. Plus, you’re playing an important part in creating a more sustainable planet.

“Starting a garden from scratch can seem a little intimidating, but thinking everything through up front saves a lot of time and energy later,” says Monica Milla, co-chair of NSF’s Garden Committee, and an advanced Master Gardener and Master Composter. “The good news is, you can do as little or as much as you want, based on your resources.”

Here, Monica shares tips for starting your own vegetable garden:

Pick a location: Most veggies need at least six hours of sun a day, so pick the sunniest location you can. Consider how far the location is away from a water source and where you store your tools to make sure things you need aren’t too far away.

Pro tip: Don’t plant near walnut trees as many vegetables (especially tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and peppers) won’t grow well there.

Pro tip: Start small. Learn this year, expand next year.

Decide on garden size, type and soil: Based on your location, decide what your garden bed will look like. Beyond removing some lawn to create a new bed, consider options like a raised bed, a community garden plot, containers and adding vegetables to existing flower beds. Use a potting or soil mix (not topsoil) when filling raised beds and containers, and consider adding compost to your in-ground beds. “You may also want to consider getting a soil test through your local cooperative extension center,” Monica says. “This inexpensive test lists which nutrients to add based specifically around what you want to grow.”

Pro tip: Start small. Learn this year, expand next year.

Pick your plants: Decide what you want to grow based on what you or your family would like to eat, and then decide on whether you want to grow from seed or buy plants. Seeds can be started indoors or outdoors, depending on your climate. They cost less, but require more work. Plants are ready to go in the ground, but are more expensive. You can purchase seeds and plants locally or from online stores. “Shopping local allows seeing exactly what you’re getting and there are no shipping charges, but mail order often provides a larger variety of choices,” Monica says.

Pro tip: Some communities host seed and plant swaps, and gardening clubs often host inexpensive plant sales. Friends and neighbors may have leftover seeds or plants to share as well.

Pick your tools: Select your tools based on your garden. It’s tempting to go overboard, but a few tools do 90% of the work. You’ll need these basics:

  • A trowel to dig small planting holes
  • A shovel to dig larger holes
  • A hoe or handheld weeder to remove weeds
  • A wheelbarrow or cart to move soil, mulch or plants around
  • A trug, basket or bag to carry harvested vegetables
  • Bypass pruners or scissors for pruning and cutting

Monica adds, “A hori hori is not just a fun name for a tool, but it does three jobs in one: It makes a great trowel, its pointy end is great for weeding and its edges act like a knife.”

Pro tip: Plastic sleds and tarps are low-cost, easy ways to move soil, mulch and plants around.

Keep your veggies growing: Decide how you are going to water and fertilize based on your type of garden and plants. Whether you pick a traditional, soaker, coiling or retractable hose, it should easily reach your garden. Drip irrigation systems are ideal for larger beds, while watering cans are ideal for containers. Fertilizer helps provide nutrients to your vegetables. Compost is an excellent source of fertilizer that you can buy or make by using kitchen scraps and garden and household waste that break down over time in a tumbler.

Pro tip: Adding compost can help clay soil drain better and sandy soil retain more moisture.

Once you get to the root of these basics, you are ready to plant your garden! “You can look up online how to plant and care for the plants you choose. County extension centers have many free resources and tips for growing in your area,” Monica says. “You may also want to consider donating some of your harvest to a local food pantry.” A team of NSFers maintain a garden at NSF’s headquarters and have donated over 4,000 pounds of produce to a local non-profit food rescue organization.

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