My true passion lies in flower gardening, but enough trips to the grocery store has taught me that produce prices never seem to go down, just the opposite. When I first became interested in starting a vegetable garden, conventional wisdom at the time suggested they were a lot of work with iffy results. Despite some worries that my first veggie garden might be a disaster, I “plowed” ahead anyway. So I was a little surprised when my first try was a success. No pest problems, no mildew problems, everything I planted produced well, and it was pretty easy. I was definitely lucky, but looking back, I think I did quite a few things right my first time, making for an easy vegetable garden that was set up for success.
1 – Pick a Convenient Spot
This seems like a pretty obvious tip, but there’s more to picking a spot for your vegetable garden than just digging up some grass in a sunny location. Vegetable gardening does actually require a little bit of work, with preparing soil, adding fertilizer, weeding, watering, and staking plants. If you have a busy schedule, you want to ensure that your veggie garden activities can be part of your regular schedule rather than an extra chore. The best place is actually closer to your house, and as close as possible to a watering source. I put mine right outside my back door, within easy reach of my garden hose. An easy vegetable garden is not one which is located too many steps from either your door or your hose! A few container plants on your back deck might be a better vegetable garden than that lonely patch behind your garage.
2 – Invest in a Raised Bed System
I have a very small, narrow yard, and two rambunctious dogs. If I had opted to section off a part of the yard and till the soil, my dogs would have trampled the newly dug dirt, and then crushed any seedlings. I had to go with a raised garden bed due to size and pet concerns. It took a little extra time and money to build my raised beds, but they will last for years, require very little weeding, and let me water efficiently. Plus, I didn’t have to worry about relying on my old soil, which was a hard-packed clay. With raised beds you can add your preferred mix of soil and amendments. My favorite soil, made by Black Gold, is a fantastic organic mix based on earth worm castings, and truly takes the worry out of soil prep.
But don’t take my word for it, experts agree that growers can produce crops more abundantly and efficiently with raised bed systems. Basically you use less space, and require fewer inputs of water and fertilizer, producing more pounds per square foot with raised vegetable beds.
3 – Start Small
Due to space limitations, I had to start small, with a 4 x 4 raised bed garden, very similar to this Gronomics raised garden bed. This was also a stroke of luck because I didn’t take on more than I could manage. With that small bed, I had plenty of room for enough of my husband and I, with no waste. Weeding was easy, harvesting was easy, and if I lost a tomato or two due to splitting or found that something was eating my basil, it wasn’t a huge loss in investment. I’ve heard gardeners say that they lost whole crops to powdery mildew, blight, or slugs, or they spent a fortune on several broccoli seedlings and none grew. By starting small, I avoided the chance for big losses. I’ve added on since that year, but I have also learned what I can manage, and with veggie gardens, bigger is definitely not always better.
4 – Grow What you Eat
While you may have good intentions and want to add more vegetable to your diet, if you plant vegetables you don’t enjoy eating, you aren’t likely to enjoy growing them. While brussel sprouts and lima beans are undoubtedly good for you, if you hate eating them, you are not going to care if a bunny or slug gets to them first. Same goes with planting too much of one thing. Don’t plant eight zucchini plants unless you plan on eating zucchini at every meal for the next four months. And trust me, no neighbor wants your 10th bushel of zucchini!
That first year I only grew vining tomatoes, two bush cucumbers, two jalapenos, basil, and some mixed lettuce (mesclun). We ate everything from that garden and were inspired to plant more the next year. I often wonder if I had planted a lot of stuff I didn’t care for, maybe I would haven’t been so inspired to try more the next year?
5 – Find out What Grows Best in your Climate and Region
I know a lot of new vegetable gardeners envision this abundance of peppers and organic sweet potatoes, huge heads of broccoli, and giant heirloom tomatoes, but the reality of it is that here in New England, there are limitations to what a new gardener can produce due to climate and growing conditions. There’s a reason why citrus growers are located in California and Florida, and cranberry bogs are located in New England. A big secret to an easy vegetable garden is to plant what will grow well in your region, or plant veggies that will do well anywhere. Once you become a seasoned grower, you can experiment with exotic varieties of plants or learn ways to extend the seasons.
A few bullet-proof plants that seem to grow well anywhere:
- smaller varieties of tomatoes (the quicker your tomatoes ripen, the more likely you are to have a good harvest)
- radish (don’t forget to thin them once they have sprouted)
- summer squash or zucchini (they grow like crazy!)
- mesclun (this is a fancy French word for mixed young lettuce – just snip the leaves for a fresh salad, and they will grow back quite a few times)
- basil (most varieties can be grown easily from seed once soil warms up)
6 – Try Companion Planting with Flowers
An added benefit of a small vegetable garden is that you will naturally be practicing companion planting, which simply means planting different kinds of crops close together. There are a number of benefits to companion planting, like improving pollination, repelling garden pests, and providing shade or support. I like to plant my raised beds with nasturtium, which is an edible flowering plant, thought to attract pests away from your vegetable plants. Mostly, I find them pretty and tasty, and easy to grow. An attractive looking vegetable garden, in my mind, is an easy vegetable garden. If my crops fail, at least I can enjoy the flowers!
Easy growing flowers that make great companion plants:
- marigold (they can be a companion to almost any vegetable plant!)
- nasturtium (beans, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers — almost everything!)
- sweet pea (beans, lettuce, cole crops)
- sunflower (peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn)
And if companion planting doesn’t seem to be doing the trick, there are a number of organic options for pest control too, so don’t feel as if you need to be limited to just plants! Captain Jack’s Dead Bug Brew, and Sluggo for organic gardening, can be safely added to your arsenal as well.
Even if your vegetable garden is only a few containers on your sunny balcony, there are definitely ways to get the most out of your efforts for the best harvests and enjoyment. But even with the best advice, location, and plants, an easy vegetable garden really depends on a can-do attitude, and the understanding that each year will be a learning and “growing” experience. So pick a good spot, start small, plant what you like to eat, talk to your neighbors about what grows well in their gardens, don’t forget to plant a few flowering plants, and most important of all, have some fun!
If you have your own vegetable gardening tips and tricks, we would love to hear and share them. Feel free to leave a link to your own blog or Pinterest board. We would be happy to follow you and share what you have learned!