The Ultimate Guide to Growing a Kick Ass Veggie Garden in your Backyard for Beginners
Written by Tara McKenna, founder of The Zero Waste Collective. This blog post has been written in collaboration with expertise from Jenn of @pond.view.homestead, who has a hobby farm in Southern Ontario, Canada. All photos have been provided by Jenn.
Note: These tips are primarily for growing vegetables in a backyard, but some of these tips still transfer well to balcony and rooftop gardens.
Are you ready to garden? With the global pandemic keeping people home, veggie gardening has increased in popularity and seeds are flying off (virtual) shelves! For many of us, growing our own vegetables is a new hobby. If you’re a newbie, this is the right post for you! Plus, as sustainably conscious as we are, growing a vegetable garden is the perfect way to be zero waste during a pandemic!
Let’s get started!
Deciding Where to Plant
Pros and Cons of Raised Beds:
Good for areas with poor soil, like clay, because you can import and contain richer soils.
Great for small spaces and can save your back because they are higher up.
Can be expensive to build. Using cedar is ideal but can be expensive. Pressure treated wood is treated with chemicals, which may leach into your soil. Pine or spruce is cheaper but will rot quickly.
They can be expensive to fill with soil, so to be thrifty, throw in old leaves and other plant matter on the bottom, then fill on top with soil.
Pros and Cons of In-Ground Planting:
You will need something to till the soil, like a rototiller.
Weeds can get out of control.
You should consider fencing off your garden to avoid rabbits, squirrels and other animals from eating all of your hard work (even dogs! My dog Vicky likes to snack on snap peas right off the vine!).
Because you can use existing soil, this option reduces the costs associated with filling raised beds.
Depending on existing soil quality, you may need to add additional nutrients like compost or manure.
Use a soil test to determine what nutrients you may be lacking.
Manure or compost can be added to increase the nutrients…but a little goes a long way! There’s lots of information online to help you determine how much to add.
Feel your soil…like actually pick it up and rub it in your hands. Is it sandy? Clay? Loam? Silty? Knowing your soil will help you understand what characteristics it has. This might also help you decide if you want to bring in soil or use what you have.
Plant your garden where you get the most sun (6-8 hours or more is ideal).
Consider maximizing your space by using trellises to allow plants to grow up instead of out.
Trellises are particularly helpful for vegetables like pole beans and peas, which require the support.
Vegetables like squash and cucumbers vine out and can take up a lot of room, so trellising them can save a lot of garden space.
Plan Your Garden
Get Your Seeds:
Decide what you want to grow in your veggie garden and buy the seeds you need. Seeds can also be obtained from friends and seed exchanges!
Understand your climate and follow planting instructions on seed packets.
Be mindful of how much sun your garden gets when choosing vegetable varieties. Tomatoes need a lot of sun, while lettuce can deal with part sun/shade. This information will be available on seed packets or online for each vegetable.
Be prepared to plant most of your seeds once the soil warms and the danger of frost has passed.
Grow Seedlings Inside:
Some vegetables, like tomatoes and peppers, require a longer growing season than the weather will permit in areas like Canada with a short growing season. Growing seedlings inside can help you get a head start on your outdoor veggie garden.
You can either buy already grown veggie plants from garden centre or pre-plant your own indoors.
When transplanting seedlings that you have grown inside, it’s very important to “harden them off” – which is a way of transitioning them to an outdoor climate. A quick online search will provide you information on how to do this successfully.
Seeds from plants like beans, peas, lettuce, carrots, can be sown directly into garden. They grow quickly, and some vegetables like carrots don’t transplant well.
Plan Your Layout:
When you plan the layout of your garden, be sure to follow instructions on the seed packets for how much space each plant needs – it’s easy to overplant and then your plants will struggle to find the space they need when they increase in size later in the season.
Every year rotate where you grow your vegetable varieties to discourage things like pests, diseases and fungus.
Consider companion planting. Knowing what vegetable and flower varieties enhance or inhibit each other’s growth can be helpful when planning your garden. For example, basil and tomatoes grow well together, but planting kohlrabi next to tomatoes may stunt their growth. There are many companion planting charts online to help with your garden planning.
Add flowers! Flowers enhance the aesthetic of your garden, but also attract pollinators, which are essential for some vegetables like cucumbers to produce fruit.
Some flowers like marigolds can attract beneficial insects, while others like nasturtiums are edible.
Some plants prefer cooler weather, and some can handle the heat, so keep this information in mind when planting through the spring and summer seasons.
For example, plant radishes and spinach when its cooler and when they bolt in the warmer weather, you can pull them out and plant something else in their place.
Lettuce can be planted every few weeks to get a consistent supply all summer.
This approach allows you to maximize productivity of your garden by planting varieties like carrots and radishes in the same row. Radishes are harvested early in the season, leaving lots of room for your carrots to grow for the rest of the summer.
Specific Tips on Growing Tomatoes:
Tomatoes can be tricky - they will need a little extra attention. Plant them deep to the first set of leaves, which allows them to create a deep root system and gives them more stability.
Stake or cage your tomatoes early. They will need the support as they develop fruit and grow.
Don’t crowd your tomato plants and keep them well watered.
There are two types of tomato plants:
Determinant (modern hybrid varieties): designed to stop growing at a certain stage, are more manageable, and tend to be more disease resistant.
Indeterminate tomatoes (heirloom): will keep growing, require pruning and may not be as disease resistant. Heirloom varieties often produce fruit with interesting colours, shape and amazing taste! They can be a bit more work but worth it!
To prune tomatoes properly, you’ll have one main stem, with branches growing off. Sometimes a third branch will grow between the main stem and existing branch. Snip this branch off.
Pruning reduces number of leaves, encourages air circulation, and lets sunlight reach ripening fruit. Pruning also allows the plant to concentrate its efforts on fruit production, rather than growing leaves.
Want the visual to go with that description? Watch great videos on YouTube, like this one.
Tending to Your Veggie Garden
Make sure your garden can be easily watered and plan on watering regularly.
If things dry out, you’ll have stressed out plants.
Water the soil, not the leaves, it helps keep diseases down.
Water in the morning, not during mid-day to reduce losing a lot of your water to evaporation.
Don’t let the weeds get a head of you!
You can use cardboard, landscaping fabric, mulch, straw, grass clippings, leaves etc. to create a barrier to weeds, and really helps keep things under control.
Pick Pick Pick!
The more you harvest, the more you’re going to get! The plant wants to send out fruit to make seeds for the next year, so if you keep picking, it’ll make more!
Avoid letting herbs like basil go to flower. Snip off flowers and harvest the leaves often to keep fresh herbs coming all summer.
Harvest vegetables when they’re ripe. You may find your swimming in ripe tomatoes or fresh beans. To avoid waste, learn how to preserve, dry and freeze excess harvests for winter!