The Big Spring Spruce-Up

Dreaming of Growing Your Own Vegetables? It's Easier Than You Think.

Keep these 8 simple tips in mind when planning your garden-to-table year ahead.

February  2, 2021
Photo by Ty Mecham

Food definitely tastes better when it’s made with fresh ingredients, and if you don’t have a farmers market nearby (or even if you do!), why not try growing your own produce this year? A lot of people are intimidated by the idea of cultivating a vegetable garden—I know I was!—but with the right tools and intel, it’s easier than you might think.

Where there’s a will to grow a vegetable garden, there’s definitely a way, no matter how much space or experience you have. Sure, gardening often takes some trial and error, but the worst thing that can happen is your plants don’t make it, in which case you can simply try again next year! (I know, I know. It feels bad when plants die, but part of gardening is learning not to take it so personally.)

If you’re ready to get your hands dirty and sow your very own plot of veggies, here are some expert tips to get you going in the right direction.

1. Pick the Right Spot

Even if you don’t have a large yard, you’ll want to consider the lighting and conditions of the spot where you’re going to plant. The Old Farmer’s Almanac explains that vegetables need around six hours of direct sunlight each day, so you’ll want to pick an area away from trees or the shade of your house.

Further, you’ll want to choose a space that doesn’t get overly wet or dry during the summer, as either of these conditions can hurt your plants.

If your yard has less-than-ideal conditions, don’t fret. Certain plants are more tolerant than others! For instance, veggies like kale, swiss chard, and carrots can all grow in partially shaded areas.

2. Start Small & Pick Easy Plants

Just like with houseplants, some vegetables are more forgiving and easier to grow than others. The Old Farmer’s Almanac lists squash, beans, kale, cucumbers, and carrots among some of the easiest plants to grow from seed. Tomatoes are also rather easy to care for, but you’ll have better luck if you purchase young plants from a local nursery and transplant them into your garden. I’ve even been able to grow cherry tomatoes from the patio of my apartment using a large nursery pot and a plant cage!

It’s also a good idea to keep things small for your first few years. Many beginners overestimate how many plants they need, and not only will this make your garden time-consuming to care for, but you’ll probably end up with more produce than you know what to do with. In particular, vegetables like tomatoes and eggplants have a short shelf life, so if you grow too many, you’ll be forced to give them away quickly or end up tossing them in the compost. How many plants do you need? For a family of four, Garden Gate recommends four zucchini plants, four to six tomato plants, and three squash plants.

3. Use Raised Beds

If possible, you should plant your garden in raised beds. Why? You’ll be able to fit more plants, since you don’t need rows, and you can also fill the beds with rich, organic soil that will help your plants thrive. Plus, when your plants are closer together, there’s less room for weeds, which means less work for you.

4. Grow Vertically to Save Space

If you’re pressed for space, you can fit more plants into your garden by encouraging them to grow up, not out. Most vining crops, such as tomatoes, beans, peas, squash, and cucumbers, will happily grow up trellises or cages, allowing you to maximize your planting area.

5. Give Plants Space

Raised beds allow you to plant closer together, but your vegetables still need space to grow—otherwise, they’ll end up competing for water, nutrients, and sunlight. Most vegetable and herb seeds come with spacing guidelines on the packet, so take these into account as you plan your garden. Also, be sure not to plant tall crops where they might block the sunlight for shorter plants.

6. Keep Weeds and Pests Under Control

Weeds aren’t just unsightly to look at. They can hinder the growth of your precious vegetables, which is why weeding is an essential task for any gardener. A set of high-quality garden tools will help you keep them at bay—take caution with weed killer or pesticides in your vegetable garden, or else you might contaminate your produce.

Debris such as fallen leaves can also be harmful to your plants, as it can spread diseases. For this reason, you’ll want to remove anything that’s covering the ground around your plants, especially during the fall.

Of course, there’s also the issue of bugs that can invade your garden, hindering the growth of your precious plants. There are some vegetable-safe insecticides you can use in vegetable gardens to control common pests like aphids and whiteflies, but you’ll want to use these products sparingly and be sure to wash produce thoroughly. On the other hand, if birds, deer, and other woodland critters have decided your garden is a good place to snack, garden netting is an inexpensive way to keep your plants safe.


7. Be Careful When Watering

Most people who claim to have a “brown (or black) thumb” simply haven’t figured out how much to water their plants. If you water them too much, the roots may rot, but if you don’t water them enough, they’ll wilt and die.

To remedy your plant-killing ways, stop guessing at when plants need water. The Old Farmer’s Almanac explains you’ll want to feel the soil before you water—if it sticks to your hand and holds together when pressed into a ball, it’s still moist enough and doesn’t need more water.

In general, you’ll also want to water earlier in the day so excess moisture has time to evaporate off leaves. Further, if you invest in equipment to help water your garden, a soaker hose is generally preferable to a sprinkler, as these deliver water closer to the root of the plant.

8. Create an Indoor Garden, Instead

If a full-size garden isn’t going to work in your yard, you can always create an abridged indoor garden instead. For instance, there are lots of herb kits that you can easily grow in a windowsill, and they’ll provide you with fresh garnishes for all of your meals.

There are also a number of cool indoor gardening systems that are ideal for anyone who lacks outdoor space. AeroGarden and Click & Grow both offer countertop hydroponic systems that automatically regulate water and light using built-in LED grow lights, and you can use them to sprout herbs, small vegetable plants, and even flowers. Plus, these systems can often connect to your smartphone, providing gentle reminders when you need to add plant food or otherwise tend to your sprouts.

What are your tips for gardening success? Let us know below!

This post has been updated in February 2021 to include even more gardening know-how.

This post contains products independently chosen (and loved) by our editors and writers. As an Amazon Associate and Skimlinks affiliate, Food52 earns a commission on qualifying purchases of the products we link to.

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melly April 18, 2021
OMG, I LOVE the clay pots in the photo! Where can I get them? Are you selling them?
vidura April 9, 2021
Why garden? If you’ve never tasted fresh vegetables from your garden, you will be amazed by the sweet, fresh flavors and vibrant textures. If you grow them yourself, there’s absolutely nothing quite like fresh veggies, especially. This guide will provide you with some tips to start your vegetable garden.
Sher G. March 28, 2021
WHERE can I find/buy the pots featured in your picture of the produce being grown? LOVE THEM! Would love to know how to buy one (or two or three)... thank you!
Charlotte B. March 28, 2021
Omg please do not plant four zucchini for a family of four unless every single person wants to eat nothing but zucchini for a solid 6 weeks. If you do, then enjoy.
norma February 21, 2021
I have been using the Lettuce Hydroponic Grow Tower for almost a year and it is amazing . I harvest a variety of lettuces and herbs weekly - the rainbow chard just keeps growing and growing even as I cut off leaves as I need them. Zucchini and sweet peppers grow beautifully . Easy to set up and maintain indoors or out. ( mine is outside year round since I live in a warmer climate ) It is worth the investment plus it s a great source of fun for my grandkids to plant the seedlings, watch them grow and harvest what they eat . It is made from recycled plastics and they give back to the communities through school donations of the Tower for classrooms .
Susan P. February 14, 2021
My mother put a window box on the kitchen windowsill and planted lettuce. We cultivated it with an old kitchen fork and watered it with the tea kettle. Plantings progressed to carrots and cherry tomatoes, then back to lettuce. That was 60 years ago; I’ve been hooked ever since. (And my garden had grown a bit too—18’ by 35’ now.)
Smaug February 2, 2021
I would dispute a lot of this if I were felling more energetic, but I'll go with the tomatoes. I think it's pretty misleading in an article intended for beginners to characterize tomatoes as "easy". They are highly subject to a number of diseases, including several basically incurable soil diseases, and nutritional diseases such as blossom end rot that can ruin a crop. They are subject to all manner of pests, which can be very difficult to deal with- even if you're willing to spray, a fair sized tomato plant has a billion places that spider mites can hide, you'll never get them all. Larger pests, such as deer and rabbits, will wipe them out in no time, and underground pests (gophers in my neck of the woods) can kill a whole stand off before you know they're there. A lot of these things may not be present in the middle of NYC, but they are in most places. Tomatoes also have a gawky growth habit that needs dealing with, struggle in really hot weather, and in general take regular and informed care. I would encourage beginners to give them a try- there is a ton of advice available- but don't expect it to be particularly easy. On the bright side, there are ways to preserve your crop- canning, either whole or as a sauce, puree etc., dried or frozen. I freeze them whole in suitable sized batches for sauce making, for which they work superbly.
mizerychik March 28, 2021
I have an extensive hydroponic tomato system in my yard, and even that has problems with aphids and most critically, squirrels. I had to build a giant metal hardware cloth cube to enclose the thing, because nothing deterred the squirrels. Not those mesh bags, not any of the repellent sprays, and they didn't even particularly care when I shot them with a pellet gun. It took a considerable amount of time and money, and by the end of the build I was absolutely covered in teeny scratches from the metal.

Tomatoes are prolific and delicious, but they are definitely not easy.
Zorro September 2, 2019
As a Master Gardener, I am always interested in learning more about my passion, growing plants. I was, however, disappointed to the constant reference to the Old Farmer's Almanac, which is an excellent reference but not the only resource available. Tools need not cost over $300.00 to be effective, Lee Valley has similar garden utensils at less than half the cost. Start off small and take inexpensive courses offered at local greenhouses or nearby botanic gardens. Ask neighbours who are gardening for their help, true gardeners are willing to share their wisdom. We all learn from each other and gardening transcends social boundaries. Whether you are growing a pot full of herbs or an acre of organic vegetables, join the conversation! Grow something good to eat and help save the planet!
Smaug March 19, 2019
Well- people should be encouraged to garden, and a beginner CAN have success- with some determination and luck; some of the herbs, and things like radishes and arugula, are hard to miss with, but it's a process. For one thing, if you want to eat it, there are probably innumerable beasties and wogs who would like to do the same (though I suppose that few of them venture to Manhattan), and any number of diseases and fungi that are looking for homes- all of this stuff generally appears in a tiny section at the end of plant books ("Pests and Diseases"). Some of it can be both difficult to diagnose and to treat- questions like "why are the leaves turning yellow" can have a thousand different answers, and plant nutrition isn't really any simpler than human nutrition (though, like us, they can be very good at finding what they need in what they have). On the bright side, there's no reason for gardening to be expensive- you only really need a few simple tools for the vast majority of processes, and they should last a long time. Growing from seed (or cuttings) can be very satisfying, tapping into our parental and creative instincts, and generally- as with most of gardening- there's very little to lose. Most of you have probably learned to make bread, learned to make pie crust etc. and had some failures along the way, and you probably will with gardening too-all part of the experience. Tomatoes, by the way, are quite easy from seed- the seeds need to be fairly fresh (though 2 or 3 year old seeds, if properly stored, will still have fair viability) and they do take some time, so in much of the country you'll need to keep them indoors for several weeks. I would advise against overcommitting for novices (or pros, for that matter)- that couple of dozen seedlings that you keep in a couple of trays in spring can be a real burden by midsummer.
Tedra P. March 22, 2019
Advice from your county Cooperative Extension office is every state Land-Grant university has excellent gardening resources online. Many counties also have Master Gardeners who provide education and information.
Smaug March 23, 2019
There are certainly a lot of resources; good nurseries will have knowledgeable and helpful employees (though it's tough for beginners to judge- a lot of nurseries really don't), University agriculture and horticulture departments can frequently be approached, and of course there are tons of advice on the internet and TV programs, some of it useful. But books are still the backbone; of particular use in the Western US, Sunset's Western Garden Book has been an invaluable resource of practical advice for many decades; I haven't followed recent editions, but I understand that they now have books for other parts of the country, and they published an extensive "Pests and Diseases" book for the west a while back.
gandalf February 2, 2021
I have had success using largish pots -- such as 15-20 inch diameter pots that have drainage holes in the bottom -- to grow hot peppers and also some tomatoes (mostly dwarf or determinate varieties); and I have been able to grow herbs such as dill and basil successfully in slightly smaller pots as well. I am also trying to grow potatoes in containers; I had mixed results after the first year, but I will be tweaking some things and hope to improve the yields.

One thing to be mindful of is not letting the soil in our pots dry out.
Smaug February 2, 2021
I grow tomatoes in 15 gallon nursery pots, all sorts of varieties. The larger peppers work well in those, too, though I don't usually fill them all the way. Tried potatoes last year ( it took most of the year before to produce some viable seed potatoes from a supermarket potato- hard to get around the sprouting inhibitors they use. Turned out a lot of potatoes in a 15 gallon pot, but they cooked funny for unknown reasons; don't know if I'll try again. Tried a new pepper ("Carmen" from Park Seeds) last year that, more or less miraculously, produced a large crop of good sized sweet peppers in a small pot, but most of them need some room.