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Plant Your Own Garden: How to Start a Vegetable Garden from Scratch

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Ready to plant your own garden? Here’s how to start a vegetable garden from scratch so you can begin harvesting food.

These are some of the easiest vegetables to grow for beginners.

woman's hands holding fresh cherry tomatoes in a bowl

As we become more concerned about our food system, many people are working to eat locally by supporting nearby farmers and community supported agriculture projects. Others? They’ve decided to tackle growing some of their own food. If you’re embracing the idea of a garden but not quite sure where to start, read on for ideas on how to plant your own garden.

Bootstrapping a garden

The information below has been on my site for several years. It’s a valuable introduction to gardening — if you’ve had time to plan ahead for growing food. But what if you find yourself feeling like you need to grow some food now and you haven’t prepared? With people tucking in for a possible extended amount of time, worries about food security are rising. As I write this, it’s March 18, 2020 and a lot of people have begun staying in isolation. There is concern about what may happen over the next couple of months and how our food supply may suffer. And there has been a lot of interest in growing some of our own food.

You may not have the materials to start a garden on hand, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t grow some food. Let’s talk about how to bootstrap a garden so you can start harvesting food in just a few short months!

What to grow

For the most part, there’s no getting around the fact that you’re going to need seeds. There are many online sellers to choose from, but here are a few to consider:

As for what crops to grow, I suggest choosing things that will produce over the course of several months or even the entire growing season. Swiss chard is one of my favorite plants to recommend for beginning gardeners. It grows well in containers, you can harvest it all season long, and it’s easy to grow. Other greens that fit this bill are kale and lettuce. Tomatoes will provide fruit all season long. A single zucchini plant can produce enough squash that you’ll have some to share with your neighbors.

There are a few exceptions to the “must have seeds” rule. Some vegetables can be “regrown” from scraps. Green onions in particular are worth trying to regrow, as is lettuce. For green onions, remove the root end of the onion (as one does) and plant it — roots down — in soil, about 1/2″ deep. For lettuce, set the cut end of a head of lettuce in an inch or so of water. New leaves will emerge from the center of the head. This is not a very productive way to grow lettuce, since you’re really only getting the last gasp of the plant, but it’s something! Regrowing root crops like carrots, onions, and beets can be done, too, but you won’t get a new carrot, onion, or beet. You’ll get the leaves of those plants.

tires stacked to make a flower planter

Containers

While yes, you can grow a garden outside in the ground, if you’ve never grown food before, I think growing in containers is more approachable. There are myriad options when it comes to containers. They may not be Martha Stewart-beautiful, but we’re not going to worry about that right now, are we? We’re going to think about all of the different vessels we have in our homes and garages that can be used instead as pots for growing vegetable crops.

Large containers:

  • Household and 5-gallon buckets
  • Plastic storage containers
  • Baskets
  • Plastic and stainless steel bowls
  • Tires (as we said, not so Martha Stewart…)
  • Wooden boxes

Small containers:

  • Coffee cans
  • Tin cans
  • Plastic zip top bags (the kind that sugar is coming in these days)
  • Old boots
  • Cardboard boxes lined with plastic (consider upcycled snack bags or animal feed bags)
  • Plastic bottles
  • Old pots and pans
colorful bottles hanging in a line with plants growing inside

The most important thing to remember when upcycling containers for planting in, is that you need to provide a drainage hole. If you don’t, when you water the planter, it can become water-logged and the plant’s roots will rot.

Click over to read more about what size containers are best for different vegetable crops and then see what you can find around the house!

Soil

Container gardening often starts out with bagged potting soil. But if purchasing soil is out of reach — you can’t get to the store or your budget doesn’t allow it — there are other options. If you have an outdoor space where there’s dirt, you can utilize that for your containers. Does that fit under gardening “best practices?” Probably not. By doing this, you’ll likely transfer some weed seeds to the container. And it’s probably not the most nutrient-rich soil. (We can fix that, though!)

This may mean digging a hole in your lawn or other landscaped area. Only you can decide if it’s more important to grow food or a lawn, but it sure seems like a great time to embrace the idea of victory gardening.

So, how do you use site soil like this? Use a shovel to turn out a scoopful of soil, then use the point of the shovel (or your hands, if the soil is soft enough) to break it up. If there are visible roots, remove most of them, crumbling the soil away from the roots into a bucket or wheelbarrow. If you have visible soil (no lawn to work through) you can scrape off the top 4″ to 6″ over a wider area rather than digging a hole. When you have enough to fill your container(s) for planting, prep your containers.

Compost is a great way to improve the soil in a garden, but if this is all new to you, it’s likely that you’re not composting yet. The good news is, you take advantage of the idea of composting when you plant your containers. Start saving your kitchen scraps! As you crack eggs, trim carrots, empty your coffee filter, and peel onions, collect them in the bottom of each container until it’s about 1/3 full of these scraps. Then add soil to fill the container. The scraps will break down, kind of composting right there in the pot.

If you’ve found worms as you were digging, all the better! Add some to the pot. Their poop is very nutrient rich and they’ll help process the scraps in the bottom of the containers.

fresh vegetables from above

Caring for your bootstrapped container garden

Place your containers in a sunny spot in your yard or on your balcony. (If you’re limited on sunshine, check out this list of crops that will thrive in shade.) Veggie plants in containers need to be watered regularly; they’ll dry out quickly, especially if it’s hot outside. But at the same time, don’t let them get too wet! Water thoroughly, then wait until the top 1″ of soil feels like it’s drying out before watering again.

Fertilize your vegetables every few weeks to help keep them nourished. Since you probably don’t have easy access to fertilizer right now if you’re new to growing food, you might have to consider the idea of using urine as fertilizer. Now don’t get all squeamish — you can do this!

How to plan a vegetable garden from scratch

The how-tos of starting a vegetable garden from scratch can vary a bit based on your individual situation. The biggest piece of advice I have? Just do it. You might not do it exactly right, and you will learn something new every single year. But get started — even if you just plant a few Swiss chard seeds in a pot! Starting a garden from scratch means you can decide exactly how to do it. You don’t have to follow someone else’s idea of what your garden should look like. There are some things to consider, though.

I’ll cover some of the basics here. If you’re bootstrapping a garden — scrabbling to get some food growing this season when you hadn’t really planned too — this information is all good, but don’t get caught up in trying to absorb it all. Most important is just getting started!

Determine the location of your garden

Although some crops can thrive in partial shade — primarily those that you grow for the leaves, like lettuce and chard — most vegetable crops prefer full sun.

When you’re ready to plant your own garden, assess your options for situating your garden area so that it receives plenty of sunlight. Watch your potential garden area throughout the day. Does it get six to eight hours of direct sunlight? Here’s the exception to the rule: If you’re in the hot southwest where summer sun can quickly bake an area, a little bit of dappled shade or a shorter amount of sunlight can give your garden a reprieve.

If your yard is short on sunshine, consider these options:

If you're limited on space, container gardening might be the answer. But you've got to choose the *right containers.

Decide what kind of garden bed to use

Once you’ve determined where your garden will go, decide what kind of garden beds you’ll have. When I was young, our garden was simply rows of veggies planted directly in flat ground. These days, I prefer to have garden beds with the edges delineated somehow. Maybe I just need to know where to stop planting.

Some options to consider:

  • Raised beds — especially raised beds with a seat on the edge — make it easier to access your garden. These are a great choice for people who have limited mobility.
  • If you’re trying to grow some food in a small urban location, container gardening makes sense. But container gardening isn’t just for apartment dwellers. If you’re a family who relocates regularly, by gardening in containers you’ll be able to move your garden with you. And if, like me, you need to “adjust” your garden to take advantage of a certain exposure, they’re good for that, too. I’m particularly fond of Smart Pots for this.
  • Wicking beds are a little more work to put together but can be great for limiting your water usage.
  • A lasagna bed can be created right on top of your existing soil (and you don’t even have to remove the grass before you start) or inside a raised bed as well. I’ve used the lasagna bed method (for building soil) and lined the beds with rocks (for that “edge” I need).
  • Remember that the bigger your garden, the more effort it will take. It’s okay to start small!
Creating good garden soil is crucial if you want a robust vegetable garden. Mulch, compost, and manure are all key elements.

Build your soil

Once you’ve determined where your garden will be, probably the most important thing you can do is start building your soil. If you don’t have good soil, you simply won’t have a thriving garden.  That’s not to say you can’t grow things while you work on your soil. If you’re bringing poor soil up to par, it may take a year or two. Eventually, you’ll see a marked improvement in your crops.

  • If you’re not composting yet, get started now. Your kitchen scraps and yard waste are garden gold. If you don’t want to build a compost pile, consider a compost tumbler or a worm bin.
  • Use your finished compost as a side dressing alongside plants, or work it into the planting hole as you transplant your seedlings. If you have a lot of it, cover the whole garden bed with a couple inches of compost. You just can’t go wrong with it.
  • For new beds, try a lasagna bed as mentioned above. This is kind of like composting in layers. All of the materials used would be perfectly suitable in a compost pile, but this method doesn’t require any waiting.
  • You can get started even if you won’t be planting right away, though. Create lasagna beds in the fall and they’ll break down over the winter months, leaving you with lovely soil to work in the spring. Or build a compost or manure pile right where you plan to plant. Again, by springtime it will be teeming with worms and ready for planting.
  • Mulch! Adding several inches of mulch (lawn clippings, straw, leaves) helps to retain moisture in the soil and hold down weeds. And as that mulch breaks down, it adds organic matter to your soil. Ruth Stout’s Gardening Without Work makes an excellent (and funny) case for deep mulching.
  • Manure from barnyard animals is an excellent addition to garden beds, but with the exception of rabbit manure, you’ll need to let it sit for a couple of months so it doesn’t burn plants. Alternatively, add it to a fallow bed and let it work its magic for a couple of months before you plant.

Choose your crops

Plan ahead before heading to the nursery for seeds and seedlings. It’s easy to get caught up in spring fever. Instead, focus on what will work best for your garden and your family.

  • If you’re trying to move more of your diet to food you’ve grown, you’ll want to consider calories. A garden full of lettuce isn’t going to sustain you, you know? Think about adding some of these crops to boost the calorie content of your garden.
  • Choose the things your family enjoys. A garden full of okra isn’t going to serve you well if only one person in your family will eat it.
  • Plant enough. When starting a garden from scratch, with little knowledge of crops and how they grow, this is a sticking point for a lot of people! Here’s how I calculated the number of tomato plants we need for our household. Whether it’s beans or zucchini, you’ll want to know how much you can expect to harvest from a single plant. This will help you decide how many to grow. A single bush bean plant isn’t going to cut it for a family of four; a single zucchini might.
  • Talk to your local gardening friends to find out what grows well in your region. Or visit your local cooperative extension office. Choosing plants that thrive in your region will lead you to a successful gardening season.
  • Don’t forget about fruit when you’re starting a garden from scratch! Unlike an annual garden, fruit trees and shrubs will produce for years. Try your hand at planting a nectarine from seed or growing blueberries in a container.
green seedlings in a line in dark garden soil

Choose your planting options

  • Besides choosing the different vegetable varieties, you’ll want to decide how you feel about using hybrids or transgenically modified seeds. I cover the difference between them and non-hybrid, open-pollinated seeds here.
  • Do you want to start with seeds or seedlings? Or maybe some of each?
  • If you’re hoping to add both vegetables and herbs to your garden, you can start with seeds, a plant, or find a friend from whom you can take a cutting. Here’s how you can make a rooting hormone for more success.

Plan for pests

Pests are a inevitable part of gardening, whether it’s a bug or a disease or a critter. Knowing how to handle pests in the garden will help you avoid some problems and tackle others quickly. I positively always avoid harsh chemicals and poisons in the garden, opting for organic methods. I don’t want to be exposed to the poisons, and I certainly don’t want to harm the beneficial bugs while I’m trying to eradicate the ones that are a nuisance.

Originally published in May 2016; this post has been updated.

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Meet the Author

Kris Bordessa

Kris Bordessa founded Attainable Sustainable as a resource for revitalizing vintage skills. Her book, Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living (National Geographic) offers a collection of projects and recipes to help readers who are working their way to a more fulfilling DIY lifestyle.

2 comments… add one
  • Jenny Mar 29, 2020, 2:40 am

    Great ideas, I also thought an old wooden bookshelf would make a great raised bed garden ic laid on its side

    • Kris Bordessa Mar 29, 2020, 1:13 pm

      Good one!

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