The best grocery store can be your own backyard. Whether you just want access to a few fresh herbs to add to your favorite dishes or an entire vegetable patch, our beginner’s guide will help you start growing your very own edible garden.
How to grow an edible garden
If starting a home garden seems overwhelming, don’t let that stop you. Follow these easy seven steps and before you know it, you’ll be shopping for fresh veggies in your backyard.
1. Choose the location
There are a few factors that influence where you can set up your garden. For instance, size, bed type, and sunlight all impact the best place on your property to build your garden.
Most edible plants require 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 to receive light from the south if possible. West-facing gardens will get strong afternoon light, whereas east-facing gardens will get weaker morning light.
Determine the size of your edible garden
The biggest factor impacting the location of your garden is its size. You might think the bigger the better, but edible gardens require special attention. It’s best to start with a small garden and expand when you’re ready. Start by determining which plants you’ll be growing. This will determine how big to create the plot for your edible garden. For example, melons and pumpkins need a lot of space.
Raised bed vs. in-ground bed
Now that you know the size and location, it’s time to decide if you want to use a raised garden bed or an in-ground bed setup.
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. Check out the pros and cons of each setup:
|Pros of a raised garden bed
|Pros of an in-ground garden bed
|Total control over the soil
|Lower upfront costs
|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.
2. Prepare the area
If you already have a dedicated garden space, great! You can skip to the next step. Otherwise, you may need to get rid of an area of turfgrass to make way for your edible garden. You have three options for removing a lawn:
There are three options for removing grass:
- Herbicide: Herbicide will kill grass in a week, but there may be chemical residue which isn’t ideal for growing things you plan to consume.
- Remove sod: You can cut and remove sod with a sod cutter. After removal, you can cover the soil with a layer of newspapers and compost or till the area.
- Sheet mulch: Sheet mulching or “lasagna gardening” is one of the easiest ways to go from lawn to garden. Cut your grass 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 the layer to decompose.
3. 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–you can amend your soil to make it the best 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 nutritious. The first step to prepping your soil is understanding what kind of soil you have using a soil test.
Your local Cooperative Extension service will have a soil testing lab where you can send a sample 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.
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.
Benefits of compost:
- Appropriate for all soil types
- Reduces chemical use
- Releases carbon and nitrogen
- Feeds beneficial microorganisms
- Improves soil texture
4. Choose your plants
It can be hard to know which plants you should grow in your garden. You may love cucumbers and zucchini, but is your climate best suited for growing them? Consider your climate when picking which plants to grow and ask yourself the following questions:
- What is my USDA Hardiness Zone? These zones determine plant performance.
- What is the average annual rainfall? 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 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.
- Oregano: Give oregano some sun and a weekly watering and you’re good to go. Once it grows four inches tall, you can pinch back the tips to keep it bushy and healthy. This versatile herb is great for pizza, stuffing, marinades, and fish dishes.
- Basil: Grow this heat-loving classic herb in full sun. Basil appreciates regular, deep watering, and rich soil. This culinary powerhouse tastes great in pesto, pasta, Margherita pizza, sandwiches, and caprese salad.
- Mint: Mint is a beginner-friendly plant that grows quickly. It is great for drinks, teas, salads, desserts, and marinades.
- 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 and add it to potato dishes, soups, stews, garlic spreads, and seafood.
Fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are the stars of your new vegetable garden. From root vegetables like radishes that hide underground to trellis-climbing vines and bushy fruits like blueberries, you’ll have a blast watching the vibrant colors and blossoms as your snacks ripen.
Discover some of the most popular fruits and vegetables for your outdoor space:
- Eggplants: These dark, glossy globes are a statement piece in any garden and a must if you like to grill. Plant them in a spot with plenty of sun and give them regular water.
- Lettuce: Plant lettuce when temperatures are mild in the mid-spring or fall. If you have a spot that gets some afternoon shade, lettuce is the perfect thing to fill it.
- Strawberries: Strawberries make great additions to backyard and community gardens. Wild strawberries are especially sweet and produce attractive white flowers.
- Tomatoes: No summer is complete without a ripe, juicy heirloom 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 beginners. There are tons of varieties–from as sweet as a cherry to fiery and hot. 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
5. Mulch your edible garden
Although gardeners may be powerful, we can’t control the elements. Extreme temperatures can harm plants and shorten their growing season, especially ones that aren’t established yet. Additionally, arid climates can zap the precious water you just poured into the ground.
The answer? Mulch, it’s 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 two- to three-inch layer of mulch throughout your garden bed, maintaining at least two to three inches of space between the mulch and the plant.
Benefits of mulch:
- Prevents weeds
- Regulates soil temperature
- Retains moisture
- Adds nutrients to the soil
- Defines your space
- Increases curb appeal
6. Water your edible garden
Every plant has a different water preference but in general, fruits and vegetables like one to two deep waterings per week. A deep watering means the top six inches of soil get wet.
Pro tip: 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.
7. Harvest your edibles
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 snip, pinch, or break off your harvest for each plant.
Why grow an edible garden?
An edible garden is just what it sounds like–a garden you can eat! Edible gardens provide a ton of benefits for everyone, including:
- Fresh, vibrant flavors
- Edible plants attract pollinators like birds, butterflies, and bees
- Reduce your carbon footprint
- A fun way to get your family in nature
- Adds beauty and variety to your landscape
- Encourages a healthier lifestyle
- Increases physical activity
- Lowers grocery bills
FAQ about edible gardening
I don’t have a lot of yard space. Can I still grow an edible garden?
You can! Think vertically. Try container gardening on a balcony or patio, use vertical gardening techniques, or explore community gardens for shared growing spaces.
How long should I water my edible garden?
Water deeply for about 20 to 30 minutes, two to three times per week depending on the weather. Aim for one inch of water weekly, ensuring the top inch of soil is moist.
What are the easiest edible plants to grow?
Herbs are great to start with because they don’t require much space and their care is straightforward. For vegetables, opt for tomatoes, lettuce, and radishes for beginners.
Can I still use pesticides on my lawn?
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.
Ready to get to picking?
If you’re more interested in the edible end product than the setup to get there, let Lawn Love connect you with a local landscape designer. They can help design and build the outdoor garden of your dreams whether you want to plant fruit trees, edible flowers, or build your own raised bed. 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