If you’ve never sown a seed, grown a gourd, or bitten into a juicy, ripe tomato from your own garden, you’ve come to the right place. Whether you’re planting on a Brooklyn balcony or in a suburban backyard, we’ve asked gardening experts to weigh in on how to turn your barren space into a bountiful harvest by this summer. Read on as we take you through the steps of starting your first vegetable garden, which stands to deliver more than just sustenance in these strange times.
“Plants and flowers can provide so much joy in weird times of uncertainty—that’s what we’re doing while we’re all craving to get our doors back open,” says Amy Lukas, head of garden design at Sprout Home, a retailer offering floral and landscape design services, furnishings, and workshops. Amid the pandemic, the team has shifted to offering weekly planting tutorials via Instagram and tending to their own home gardens. “We’re optimistic about the future, but we’re also turning inward to houseplants and gardens, and finding joy and pleasure in simple things,” says Lukas.
It’s not an unfamiliar sentiment. That connection to nature as an outlet for anxiety as well a practical exercise in self-sufficiency recalls the victory gardens of World War I and II.
Continuing the Legacy of Victory Gardens
In 1918, propaganda filled the streets, urging citizens to plant their own vegetables on whatever vacant grounds they could. It was just before World War I, and as farm workers traded their rakes for rations and headed into war, sustainability took on a whole new meaning. This also dovetailed with the Spanish flu pandemic, which took the lives of 50 million people.
The U.S. government supplied pamphlets to guide citizens through their first gardens, supplying regional tips for where and what to sow. Boosting morale and easing food shortages, victory gardens resurfaced during World War II with some 15 million families turning to homesteading. As we navigate social distancing and food supply shortages yet again, there are lessons to be learned from those early days of front-porch farming— particularly from a mental health standpoint.
“It sounds so cliché, but gardening is really therapeutic, not unlike yoga or running,” says Lukas. “It’s great for clearing your mind and just focusing on a process that is very simple at times but also complicated, and sometimes out of our control.” At Sprout Home, which has locations in Chicago and in Brooklyn, New York, Lukas focuses on growing “edibles”—i.e. fruits, vegetables, and foliage like herbs that you can eat.
But where does one start? “For the novice, amateur gardener who wants to dive in and experiment with growing edibles for the first time, I look at three specifics: containers, soil quality, and the environment,” says Lukas. Yet with 11 Plant Hardiness Zones defined by the USDA, varying sunlight, and overnight frost risk, there’s not a one-size-fits-all gardening guide. The most common advice you’ll hear about what and how to grow: “Well, it depends.”
Determining Where to Plant
“The first step, regardless of your zone, is deciding where you’re going to grow, whether that’s a small plot in an urban garden, in-ground in your yard, in a raised bed, or in a container,” says Brien Darby, manager of urban food programs at Denver Botanic Gardens. There, she oversees the community garden, where those lacking space or sunlight can rent a plot to plant. She also runs the urban farm sites in conjunction with Denver Housing Authority, growing produce in communities of need, and teaches a beginning farmers market course through a local university extension program. In short, she knows her way around the garden.
To help determine the location of your garden, Darby suggests checking out your dirt. “We look for nice, loose soil,” she says. “Compacted soils can be heavy clay, or they’re frequently walked on.” If that’s your situation, you’ll need to dig, toil, double dig, and mix in organic matter. Want to start fresh? Consider investing in a raised bed. “The reason why you might go with raised beds is if you have severely compacted soil and don’t want to deal with it, or don’t want to get rid of grass,” Darby says. “Some do it for the ease of not bending down, and in rare situations in urban areas, the soil, in addition to being compacted, might be contaminated.”
Also, she says it’s simply easier to opt for raised beds. The up-front cost is higher than amending existing soil, but it saves on labor and time. You can also consider containers, which are a smaller version of a raised bed. “Most people plant in containers because of space limitations, or perhaps they’re moving soon,” says Darby. In climates that experience frost, you can bring containers indoors on chilly nights.
As far as what container to choose—again, it depends. In the moisture-rich Chicago climate where Lukas lives, terra-cotta planters are her go-to. “Terra-cotta is the most common, economical container for growing,” says Lukas—at least in her zone. “It’s food-safe and highly porous, which is great, as it has good drainage. That’s all really important for the roots of plants. They don’t want to be wet and soggy for very long after watering.”
That scenario will be different for Darby, who lives in Colorado’s high desert climate. The intense sun and dry air leave plants more susceptible to wilting and drying out. The takeaway: Know your zone, and consult with your local garden center or university extension for the best advice for your region. Regardless of the climate, Lukas offers some sage advice when it comes to containers: “One of the most important attributes is that it’s food-safe,” she says. “Make sure the material itself is stable and doesn’t leech unwanted chemicals, or the roots of the plants may take them in and potentially harm the food.”
The Dirt on Choosing Dirt
Whether you’re planting in a bed or container, when starting anew (i.e. not amending existing soil) Lukas recommends using a high-draining potting mix. “It’s important to use high-quality, fresh-out-of-the-bag potting soil,” she says. “You want to steer clear of what the industry calls landscape or topsoil.”
And you’re going to want to fertilize, too. She opts for a natural fertilizer for environmentally friendly gardening. “But certain vegetables require different nutrients,” she says. “The building blocks of any plant are knowing these essential nutrients [that play] into the structure of the plant.”
For beginner container gardening, it’s why she suggests planting each vegetable in its own pot. “For example, nitrogen is really important for foliage and leafy greens,” she says. “Nitrogen can be added with soil amendment like worm castings—basically, worm poop. The process involves them eating our trash, composting it, and what is excreted is referred to as ‘black gold.’ It’s super rich in nitrogen, so applying that to a container garden is one of the best things you can do for it. Casting is the crème de le crème.”
You should fertilize upon seeding, but the frequency after that, once again, depends. “Whatever fertilizer or soil amendment you’re using, look to the instructions to guide you for the rest of the season, so you don’t overdo it.”
Adjusting for Your Local Climate
While those in Southern California can plant year-round, that looks a whole lot different for those in colder zones. Once you know your zone, timing is everything. “Each plant has an estimated day to maturity on the seed packet,” says Darby. “Radish is one of the quickest, something to harvest in about a month to 45 days. The same is true for lettuce and spinach.”
Lukas likes tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants for beginner container gardeners. “I would recommend starting indoors several weeks ahead of the last frost date of the season,” she says, and suggests letting seeds germinate and become sprouts, which over several weeks then become seedlings. “You’re basically starting from an embryo and watching evolution,” says Lukas. “It’s not difficult by any means. You can even use yogurt cups with holes in the bottoms. They need a lot of sun, a lot of warmth, and regular water. A sunny, south-facing window is a great place.”
Wherever you are in your gardening ambition, just dive in, and that can be small. “Start simple,” says Darby. “Only grow a few things, and spacing is huge. If you only have a 5-foot-square space, be reasonable and only plant one per every square foot.”
What’s also key is knowing your environment and how to be prepared for nature and the dangers it may pose based on your specific climate and geography. For some, it’s pests like snails, and in other areas, it’s hail. “It’s trial and error. That’s the process with any gardening,” says Lukas. “Know you’re working alongside Mother Nature, and she will always have the upper hand.”
If you do get hit with an unseasonal snowstorm, it’s common to cover the plants to protect them from frost, but be sure to acclimate them the next day, as the drastic temperature change from frost to hot sun puts your plants at risk. Like any living thing, the better your care, the better chance they have at survival. “Healthy gardens that are well-weeded, well-spaced, and well-watered will always have a better chance,” says Darby.
Designing and Experimenting
The fruits of your harvest go beyond fueling bellies, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about garden design. Not only can you make your edible garden look beautiful, but you can also create a full, sensory experience to help soothe anxieties and create a meaningful lift on your well-being. “That’s what we do—people approach us for a design-forward garden,” says Lukas. “For my own clients, if [we’re] asked to design a veggie garden, for one it has to function, and you have to consider all the factors we talked about. But it also has to be visually compelling.”
A holistic, ethical, sustainable approach to agriculture is dubbed permaculture, and the process also includes design. Lukas encourages playing with herbs to start: “You could design a pot of assorted herbs; a combination of sage, rosemary, and thyme would grow beautifully together aesthetically. Tall rosemary, the dusty light green sage, and low, soil-hugging thyme that creeps and grows over the pot create a visually pleasing container and grow well together from a culinary perspective.”
For those with the space—perhaps in a bed or rooftop container—Lukas suggests “breaking the rules” by combining different types of plants. Planting wildflowers, for instance, encourages bees to pollinate, taking nectar from the flower to the tomato, which will increase your yield and look beautiful. “How do you make it enjoyable to look at and feel and touch?” says Lukas. “Gardens provide so much to our senses besides being able to pluck a tomato and use it in food.”
Ultimately, she recommends not being too hard on yourself or too afraid to experiment. “You can always do things differently, and that’s how any gardener learns,” she says. “It’s a constant process of evolution and constantly changing with season. You have to go with the flow.”
Taking on gardening is an opportunity for learning, not just for the new gardener, but for families, too. With a new baby in the mix, Lukas finds herself eager to teach him when the time comes. “I’m anxious to get this kid out there and see the simplicity of a life cycle of a plant,” she says. “It’s a really beautiful meditation and so rewarding even if it’s just a group of containers on a balcony to see what you’ve accomplished—or not. And that’s okay. Everyone kills plants, and it’s all part of the willingness to admit that things don’t always go right the first time. And you’ll try again next year.”