A Newbie-Friendly Guide to Starting a Vegetable Garden

For when you're interested in growing your own food, but are feeling overwhelmed.

April 19, 2021
Photo by Jeni Afuso

Jeni Afuso used to kill her houseplants. “For years, I thought I had a black thumb,” the Los Angeles-based food photographer told me over the phone. Turns out, she was wrong. Frustrated by the lack of regularity of certain kitchen staples at her market, the abundance of plastic used to wrap the ingredients she did buy on a regular basis, and the money she was spending on them, Afuso decided to start her own outdoor edible garden—previous failures be damned.

In a certain way, it’s no surprise things went better than expected. Gardening is in her blood. Her great-grandfather emigrated from Okinawa to Maui and ended up, as many Japanese immigrants did, working in the sugarcane fields. Her grandfather, who moved the whole family from Hawaii to Los Angeles in the mid-’50s, had his own gardening and landscaping business in the Valley. Her parents, though not professionals, grew food in their backyard. “I don’t remember my mom or dad ever buying green onions,” she says.

I first noticed Afuso’s own impressive exploits last spring, just as we began what would turn into a year-long quarantine, a time when many people stuck at home decided to try their hand at windowsill scallion-sprouting and beyond. Afuso leaned towards the “and beyond,” filling pots with fruits, vegetables, and herbs, all the while documenting what she was doing on Instagram. She inspired me to create a produce container garden in my own smaller concrete patio across the country in Brooklyn, instead of using raised beds as I’d originally planned. She also led me to buy seeds from Kitazawa, an Oakland-based company that has been selling heirloom Asian plant varieties for more than a century. Both ideas turned out to be incredibly successful.

So I turned to Afuso—not a professional, but a home gardener with a decidedly green thumb—to ask for her best edible gardening tips. These aren’t step-by-step instructions, but simply a list of things that are good to know if you’re interested in starting to grow your own food, but are feeling overwhelmed.

Don’t freak out if you haven’t started yet

If you Google “when to start a food garden,” you’ll likely get a very specific answer based on the climate of your location. While this information is good to know, Afuso is here to tell you that “you’ll be okay if you don’t follow the calendar exactly.” While you can’t begin months after you’re supposed to, falling some weeks behind shouldn’t mean you give up. Your growing season might not be as long, especially if you’re in a colder part of the country, but a month or two of tomatoes is better than no tomatoes at all.

A container garden gives you flexibility

While big raised beds are certainly impressive to look at, there are advantages to planting in containers. Or course, smaller pots will fit on a slim balcony or fire escape. But even if you’re lucky enough to have a lot of space, individual vessels allow you to move plants around to where they’re happiest (cucumbers and basil have different needs, you know?). This is especially helpful when you’re learning the patterns of the sun through the seasons.

Photo by Jeni Afuso

Make sure you understand your space

Speaking of learning the patterns of the sun, that’s something you should certainly do. “I actually took photos of my yard every two hours leading up to my first garden,” Afuso says. Whether you do that or prefer written notes, your recorded findings will come in handy at your local nursery, where professionals can recommend plants accordingly.

Start small

“It takes time to learn,” Afuso says. Plus, setting yourself up from scratch can be expensive. Dive in with a few favorites and you’ll be more likely to succeed—and not waste money. If you end up loving the process, go bigger next year.

Buy good soil...

Soil options are endless, but Afuso’s advice is simple: Buy “good” soil—aka, not the mass-produced brands from big-box hardware and gardening stores that have sticks, rocks, and other fillers in them. Yes, good soil is more expensive, but worth it. Whatever your local nursery has in stock will likely be perfectly sufficient.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Plant them at the right time (when your soil is warm) give them water and step back. They have the most beautiful red flower when they bloom, which becomes a long bean the next day or two. The bees love the flowers, and you can even eat the beans raw if you pick them when they are young. An all-around delight that is an amazing sight. Thank you Mother Nature! ”
— Mary T.

Other than that, all you need is fertilizer. The type will vary depending on what you’re growing. (For example, dark leafy greens like kale and spinach want nitrogen-heavy fertilizer, whereas tomatoes prefer potassium.) A quick Google search or, again, a conversation with someone at your local nursery (are you sensing a theme here?) will lead you to the right product.

Finally, if you’re in your second year of gardening, there’s no need to purchase completely fresh soil. Use what you’ve got, but just mix in compost to revitalize it for the new season.

... But you don't have to own fancy tools

“I have a couple of shovels from Daiso,” Afuso says. “Other than that I use my ice cream spoon to scoop out seedlings, washi tape and a Sharpie to label, super cheap gardening gloves, and regular kitchen scissors.”

Support small seed companies

There are tons of fruits and vegetables to choose from when planting from seed. Afuso is partial to the aforementioned Kitazawa, but also likes Sustainable Seed Company. You can even find several options right here on Food52, including from Potting Shed Creations and The Floral Society.

Photo by Jeni Afuso

Plant what you actually want to eat

It may seem obvious, but the excitement of growing so! many! different! fruits! and! veggies! can obscure any instinct towards practicality. The truth is, if you never buy sweet peppers at the grocery store, you probably shouldn’t grow them. “Think about the way you cook on a regular basis,” Afuso says. “That should be your starting point.”

YouTube is your friend

When questions arise along the way, YouTube is a rabbit hole of good advice. Watching someone demonstrate a particular technique can be extremely helpful. Whether you’re wondering how to prune oregano so that it regrows, or you’ve noticed white dots on the leaves of your cucumbers, there is absolutely someone out there who will guide you.

What's your best beginner-friendly advice for starting a vegetable garden? Tell us below.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • joasp1413
  • Elizabeth Balbon
    Elizabeth Balbon
  • Suzrich
  • Mary thomas
    Mary thomas
  • Smaug
Emma Wartzman

Written by: Emma Wartzman


joasp1413 July 25, 2022
If you live in an area with a short growing season, you'll have better luck growing tomatoes that are determinate. They are tomatoes that produce one huge crop and then the plants die. Indeterminate tomato plants continue to produce fruit, although progressively smaller and smaller fruits, until the plant is killed by cold or frost. Indeterminate varieties are suitable for gardening in the south that have a long growing season. I've read that in New England gardeners plan on an orgy of tomato canning and sauce making over the July 4th holiday to make the most of their tomato bounty.
Smaug July 25, 2022
There are some indeterminates that wok well in a short season- Early Girls and Stupice, various cherry tomatoes. They're all pretty small, though- large tomatoes are relatively slow.
Elizabeth B. April 28, 2021
Thank you very much for the gardening tips for starters. I look forward to other gardening tips as I progress in my new hobby.
Emma W. April 30, 2021
I'm so glad this was helpful!! Good luck!
Suzrich April 27, 2021
The best advice I could give is schedule watering. Overwatering kills more than too little.
Mary T. April 25, 2021
For newbie gardeners, one may get the biggest feeling of success with Scarlet Runner Beans. They just need full sun, and a place to climb. Plant them at the right time (when your soil is warm) give them water and step back. They have the most beautiful red flower when they bloom, which becomes a long bean the next day or two. The bees love the flowers, and you can even eat the beans raw if you pick them when they are young. An all-around delight that is an amazing sight. Thank you Mother Nature!
Emma W. April 27, 2021
Ooo I've never tried them before but I'd love to one day!
joasp1413 July 25, 2022
We grew scarlet runner beans in our first garden where we had planted two rows of corn. We grew them like the American Indians did for centuries--planted them beside corn and used the corn stalks for support. But the best tasting green beans we ever grew were when I followed someone's advice and planted dried pinto beans from the grocery store.
Smaug April 19, 2021
I'm not sure what sort of experiences the author has had with potting soil, but cheap stuff is usually fine with vegetables- anything labeled "potting soil", planter mix etc. will generally serve- most soil companies (which I con't suppose there are a lot of in Brooklyn) will deliver various mixes in quantity for a good price.. I don't buy it anymore- I make my own- but I had noticed that manufacturers were leaning away from including drainage materials such as vermiculite, pumice stone and the like, probably because of expense- you should really add some, as soil can compact as the organic material breaks down. Focusing in on tomatoes, which are the backbone of most home vegetable gardens (you simply can't buy a truly vine ripened tomato)- it can get expensive fast, most tomatoes will need at least a 15 gal. pot- soil for a dozen tomatoes can easily get past $100, and it will need amendments- bone meal and lime particularly, as they add calcium, important for preventing blossom end rot. Tomatoes are also subject to a number of soil borne diseases, so it is best to avoid reusing the same soil for tomatoes. People growing them in the ground try for three years before replanting in the same spot. Most gardeners in fact avoiding replanting in soil that has been used for any plants in the solanaceae (the family that includes tomatoes)- this can be pretty limiting as that group also includes peppers, eggplants and potatoes. Amen on the tools- we are rapidly reaching a point where the only survival skill most Americans have is shopping, but gardening is very little about buying stuff- a trowel and a pruning sheer should about do it for a patio vegetable garden. If you buy decorative pots for your vegetables- most of which require large or larger pots- it can get hideously expensive in a hurry, but they should last more or less forever. Plastic nursery containers- especially the older, thick polyethylene ones, can work very well; I don't suppose they're easy to come by in New York city, but in areas where people have yards they can often be had for free from planting projects. This article doesn't go into herbs, but most of them are very good container subjects.
Emma W. April 20, 2021
Thanks for reading and for all this great info!
Dona V. April 19, 2021
Better than YouTube, check with your local County Extension Office, American Master Gardeners, or The Almanac. Even better, start a club and request a reputable person to lead it. They don’t need to have all the answers, but be willing to guide and research along with the others.
Smaug April 19, 2021
I have to agree with the author as far as You Tube being a rabbit hole, but I'm dubious about the "good advice" part- it's pretty iffy. Same about asking at nurseries- good nurseries will have knowledgeable personnel, but it's hard for a beginner to distinguish; a lot of the time it's no more dependable than asking the guy at the hardware store; he may or may not know what he's talking about. Out west, the Sunset Western Garden Book has been an invaluable resource for generations; I understand that they now have books for other parts of the country.
Jenna C. April 20, 2021
I didn’t know any of this as I’m an old hippie vans have been gardening since before you tube. I plant my tomatoes in the same spot every year with my squash and cakes pour a little coffee grounds around pre planting for the worms because they really love coffee and they keep my soul super. Don’t try so hard dig a hole put a seed in it and wait. It will do its thing.
Or if you really need to get advice ask the birds they’ve been growing things since .. . Well forever 🥰🐝
Have lots of flowers for the bees
No bees no honey no work no money have fun getting dirty
Emma W. April 20, 2021
Thanks for reading! I just re-planted tomato seeds in the same containers as last year. Maybe I'll sprinkle some coffee grounds too!
joasp1413 July 25, 2022
Check out your local library for gardening books. There's also a wealth of information on seed packets and in seed catalogs. In my gardening days I got seed catalogs in the mail. What a treat it was when those catalogs began arriving not long after the new year--to browse through them and plan my garden on a cold winter's evening.