The best grocery store can be your own backyard. Whether you just want a few fresh herbs to add to your favorite dishes or an entire vegetable garden, our beginner’s guide will help you start growing your edible garden.
Why grow an edible garden?
An edible garden is just what it sounds like — a garden you can eat! Edible gardens have a ton of benefits for everyone, from the landscaping pro to the busy homeowner.
Pros of growing an edible garden:
- Fresh, vibrant flavors
- Many edible plants attract pollinators like birds, butterflies, and bees
- Reduce your carbon footprint by eliminating the average 1,500 miles traveled to transport food
- Fun way to get your family in nature
- Adds beauty and variety to your landscape
- Encourages you and your family to eat more fruits and vegetables
7 tips for how to grow an edible garden
Choose your site
You might think the bigger the better, but edible gardens require special attention so it’s best to start small and grow when you’re ready. Once you determine which plants you’ll be growing, you can decide exactly how big the plot needs to be. Melons and pumpkins, for example, need a lot of space.
Most edible plants like six to eight hours of direct sunlight daily. When you’re choosing a site, make sure you don’t have a tree or structure casting a shadow over the plot. For maximum sunlight, position your garden so it receives light from the south if possible. West-facing gardens will get strong afternoon light, whereas east-facing gardens will get weaker morning light.
Raised or in-ground garden bed
You’ve chosen your place – now what? It’s time to decide if you want to use a raised garden bed or an in-ground bed.
A raised bed is a structure usually built from wood that acts as a large container for your plants and sits on top of the ground.
An in-ground garden bed just means planting your veggies straight into the ground.
To understand the difference, we’ll go through the pros of a raised garden bed and an in-ground garden.
|Pros of a raised garden bed||Pros of an in-ground garden bed|
|Total control over the soil||Doesn’t require as many materials or costs up front|
|Easier to reach for harvesting and watering||Won’t need repairs|
|Discourages pests like slugs, rabbits, and gophers||Easy to move plants elsewhere|
|Ensure deep soil for strong roots||Can be in curved shapes|
Both raised and in-ground beds can produce a beautiful edible garden. If you’re good with a drill and want to DIY a raised box, that’s a great option. If you’d like to stick with the ground you have, an in-ground garden is just as good.
Prepare the area
If you already have a dedicated garden space, great! You can skip to the next step for preparing the soil. Otherwise, you may need to get rid of an area of turfgrass to make way for your edible garden.
There are a few methods for eliminating a lawn:
- Herbicide will kill grass in a week, but there may be chemical residue which isn’t ideal for growing things that will go in your mouth.
- You can cut and remove sod with a sod cutter. After removal, you have two options:
- Cover the soil with a layer of newspapers and compost to enrich the soil and make sure the grass doesn’t grow back.
- Till the area. Tilling too frequently, though, can lead to soil compaction.
- Sheet mulching or “lasagna gardening” is one of the easiest ways to go from lawn to garden. You’ll cut the grass extremely short and cover it with cardboard or newspaper, then a layer of mulch. You can cut holes in the cardboard or newspaper to add plants or just wait for that layer to decompose.
Prepare the soil
Quality soil will make your plants grow faster, bounce back easier, and taste better. If you don’t have top-grade soil already, don’t worry — there are ways to amend your soil to make it the best possible home for your plants.
If you’re using a raised garden bed, you won’t need to worry about amending your existing soil. Choose a rich potting soil and add compost a few times a year to keep it as nutritious as possible.
The first step to prepping your soil is getting to know what kind of soil you have. The best way to find out what particular amendments your soil needs is to perform a soil test. Your local Cooperative Extension service will have a soil testing lab you can send a sample to for a full report. Your soil report will tell you what nutrients your soil is lacking so you can make changes for healthy growth.
Soil amendments fall into two categories: organic and inorganic:
Organic soil amendments come from plant matter or animal byproducts (like manure). These add nutrients and beneficial microorganisms.
Inorganic amendments include sand, rubber, and minerals and can improve your soil’s pH or texture.
Add compost to the garden area
The best all-around soil additive is compost. Compost is a decomposed mixture of organic material like yard and kitchen waste that improves your soil. Add compost to your garden bed in a quarter-inch layer and watch your plants thrive. Learn more about starting your own backyard composting system.
Benefits of compost:
- Appropriate for all soil types
- Reduces need for chemical fertilizers
- Releases carbon and nitrogen slowly
- Feeds beneficial microorganisms
- Improves soil texture
Pick your plants
Questions to consider when choosing plants for your edible garden:
- What USDA Hardiness Zone do you live in?
- USDA Hardiness Zone recommendations are based on climates where a plant performs as a perennial, but they can often be grown outside that range as an annual.
- How much rainfall do you get annually?
- Most edibles require regular watering, but some herbs like rosemary and sage will tolerate some drought. Drought-tolerant fruits and vegetables include cassava, sweet potatoes, and pomegranate.
- Would you like to attract pollinators?
- Most herbs and native plants (like wild strawberries) attract flying friends like birds, butterflies, and bees. Bee-friendly plants are fantastic for the environment, but you may want to hold off if you have young kids or a bee sting allergy.
For more local advice, take advantage of your online and in-person Cooperative Extension service. They’re a source of science-based information unique to your area complete with gardening calendars and recommendations for specific cultivars based on your location.
Herbs for edible gardens
Herbs are a perfect way to begin your edible garden. They smell delightful and are ideal for small spaces like window boxes, vertical gardens, and containers. Group Mediterranean herbs like sage, lavender, and rosemary together and add some sand to the soil in their area.
Oregano: If you have an area of your yard with less than stellar soil, plant oregano there. Soil that’s rich in organic material can dilute oregano’s pungent flavor. Give it some sun and a weekly watering. Once it grows 4 inches tall, you can start to pinch back the tips to keep it bushy and healthy.
- Great for: Pizza, stuffing, marinades, and chicken and fish dishes.
Basil: A classic herb to place in the window box outside your kitchen, basil will thrive as long as it has enough heat and sun. It appreciates regular, deep waterings and rich soil (feel free to amend with compost).
- Great for: Pesto, pasta, margherita pizza, sandwiches, and caprese salad.
Mint: If you want an herb that you’ll never have to worry about running out of, try mint. It’s a beginner-friendly plant that spreads aggressively (put it in its own container if you don’t want it taking over a whole area). When the soil is dry an inch deep, it’s time to water.
- Great for: Refreshing drinks, summer soups, salads, and desserts.
Chives: Although humans love the strong flavor of chives, many pests can’t stand it. Chives will ward off aphids, mites, Japanese beetles, and even rabbits. Plant it in a sunny spot with rich, well-drained soil.
- Great for: Potato dishes, soups and stews, garlic spreads, and seafood dishes.
Fruits and vegetables for edible gardens
Fruits and vegetables are the stars of the show. From root vegetables that hide underground to trellis-climbing vines and bushy fruits, you’ll have a blast watching the vibrant colors and blossoms as your snacks ripen.
Eggplants: These dark, glossy globes are a statement piece in any garden and a must if you like to grill. Eggplants love heat, so plant them in a spot with plenty of sun. Give them regular water but don’t let them get soggy. Eggplants sometimes fall over due to their heavy fruit, so feel free to stake them if they start to sag.
Lettuce: Plant lettuce when temperatures are mild in mid-spring or fall. If you have a spot that gets some afternoon shade, lettuce is the perfect thing to fill it. Space plants 6 to 18 inches apart (adjusting based on the variety).
Strawberries: A strawberry plant in the backyard will be a delight for the whole neighborhood. Wild strawberries are especially sweet and produce attractive white flowers. Strawberries need room for runners so plant them at least 18 inches apart.
Tomatoes: No summer is complete without a ripe, juicy tomato. Tomatoes are great for the beginner gardener, though you’ll need stakes, trellises, or cages to keep them upright. These fruits need six to eight hours of sun, so make sure nothing blocks their view of the sky.
Peppers: Peppers are another fantastic option for those still getting their footing in the garden. There are tons of pepper varieties — from as sweet as a cherry to hot enough to bring tears to your eyes. The vibrant red, orange, yellow, and even chocolate brown peppers will add a beautiful pop of color to your edible garden.
Carrots: These crisp vegetables grow underground and benefit from plenty of space, which makes them perfect for a deep, raised garden bed. Carrots grow in mild temperatures during the spring and fall and are usually harvested 50 to 75 days after planting. Root vegetables are a bit of a gamble because you won’t know if they’re ripe until you pull them out, but it’s rewarding when you get it right.
Although gardeners may be powerful, we unfortunately can’t control the elements. Extreme temperatures can harm plants, especially ones that aren’t established yet, and arid climates can zap the precious water you just poured into the ground.
The answer? Mulch, a material you spread on top of the soil around your plants. Look for organic mulch like shredded bark, straw, or wood chips to provide the most benefits for your garden.
Spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch throughout your garden bed, maintaining at least 2-3 inches of space between the mulch and the plant itself.
Benefits of mulch:
- Prevents weeds from growing
- Regulates soil temperatures to protect from heat and frost
- Retains moisture
- Adds nutrients to the soil as it breaks down
- Defines your space (especially with an in-ground garden bed)
- Makes your garden more attractive
Keep your garden watered
Every plant has a different water preference, but in general, fruits and vegetables like 1-2 deep waterings a week. A deep watering means the top 6 inches of soil get wet.
Put down the watering can. If you want to ensure your irrigation is efficient and effective, drip irrigation is king.
A drip irrigation system is a series of tubes that lay on the ground and release water through holes placed near the base of plants. An automated drip system means the water is going directly into the soil. Plus, you can set it to run early in the morning (the best time to water) without needing to wake up.
You waited all spring and now you get to see a tiny seed turn into a tower of ripe tomatoes. This is the best part! Getting to observe all the different stages of growth is rewarding (and tasty), but it can be confusing trying to tell when something is ready for harvest.
Most fruits and vegetables will let you know they’re ripe for picking with their color. Look up what the final color should be, and harvest it when it has reached a rich, vibrant shade. Root vegetables require more trial and error, but dark green leaves and thick stems usually indicate when it is harvest time.
Tips for harvesting:
- You can harvest up to 75% of an herb’s foliage at once.
- Harvest edible plants early in the morning (after the dew dries).
- Harvest before plants go to flower for maximum flavor.
- Ask a local nursery employee or research if you should be snipping, pinching, or breaking off your harvest for each plant.
FAQ about edible gardening
You can! Think vertically. Multi-tiered carts are great for small containers. A shoe organizer can serve as a holder for herbs. Try a gutter garden for microgreens. Focus on plants that don’t require lots of room for roots.
Drip irrigation is the best watering system for an edible garden. A series of above-ground tubes with holes in them release water directly into the soil to minimize the runoff and evaporation you get with a normal sprinkler. Plus, you’ll avoid getting the leaves soaked.
Herbs are great to start with because they don’t require much space and their care is straightforward. Mint and basil are excellent to start with, and once you’ve mastered those, you can add to your garden.
Yes, but follow the directions closely and choose a weed killer that is less likely to move into the soil or air or be absorbed by plants. It’s best to choose an organic weed killer or hand-weed the area instead of applying chemicals.
If you’re more interested in the edible end product than the gardening to get there, hire a professional landscaping team to help with installation and maintenance. A local pro can take care of the labor for you so you can enjoy the fruits (literally).
Main Photo Credit: k-e-k-u-l-é | Pixabay