Gardening is one of the most popular hobbies in the world, and there’s nothing quite like the sense of pride you’ll feel when you pick that perfectly ripe tomato from a vine you nurtured all summer. Whether you’re planning a big vegetable garden plot or just want to garnish your recipes with fresh herbs, a few simple tips will turn you into a successful gardener.
If you have a sunny window, you can plant your seeds in small pots inside. To do this, use the smallest pots you can find, or invest in a special seed-starting tray (also known as a flat). Fill it with a seed starting mix instead of traditional potting soil, which is too dense for new shoots. Plant your seeds, water well, and cover the pot with plastic wrap until they sprout.
Then, water about twice per week and rotate the pots so the plants grow straight and tall. For best results, plant your seeds about two months before you plan to move them outside.
Seedlings started indoors—whether in your own place or a professional greenhouse—need to gradually get used to the weather outside. Once they have at least four mature leaves, take your seedlings out to a sheltered area where they won’t be exposed to wind or direct sunlight. They only need an hour outside for the first day, and you can double the time every day until they’re out all day. Then, repeat the process to get them into direct sunlight, ideally in the place you’ll plant them.
If you don’t have the time or space to start your own seeds, you can buy young plants from a local nursery or garden center. They often come in six-packs, but you can also buy singles if you want to experiment with several varieties. Keep your seedlings watered until you’re ready to plant, according to the directions that are usually included with them.
If you buy organic, you can also try growing your favorite food from scraps. This will work with vegetables that still have their root systems attached. For example, you let a potato sprout in a dark cabinet, cut it into pieces for each sprout (or “eye”), and plant them outdoors. Scallions with roots can also be planted to encourage new green growth, and you can poke garlic cloves in the ground to start your own bulbs.
Vegetables need at least six (and preferably eight) hours of sunlight every day. Examine your balcony, patio, porch, or yard to see if you have a good spot. If you have only four to six hours of daylight, you might still be able to grow leafy greens or herbs, but tomatoes, peppers, and root vegetables will struggle to mature.
Vegetables grow best in soil that is neither too acidic nor too alkaline. How can you tell? Head to your local garden center for a soil test kit to test the dirt where you want to plant. If the reading is less than ideal, you can add compost and other amendments—or you can choose to plant in raised beds or other containers instead. These require an initial outlay to purchase the containers and loam to fill them, but they’ll get your plants off to a good start.
If you have a small patio or balcony, a container garden can provide more space than you think for your favorite vegetables. Choose lightweight plastic or fabric pots, which will make moving the containers around to catch the sunlight much easier. You might also consider hanging containers and window boxes, which are a great way to maximize space. When planting a container garden, seek varieties labeled as “dwarf” or “compact.”
To make the most of a small garden, look for plants that mature quickly so you can plant something else in the same space after the first harvest. For example, early spring plants like radishes and peas can be replaced by lettuces and carrots that will mature in late summer or fall. This is also a good system for quick-growing herbs like dill and cilantro.
It’s tempting to plant eight varieties of tomatoes, but can you really eat that many? As you plan your garden, think ahead about how much you can actually harvest and consume. If you’re new to vegetable gardening, plant just two to three of each veggie so you can get a sense of how much it yields in your growing conditions. Then you can plant more or less next year as you discover what you like—and what thrives in your area.
Overwhelmed by choice? Design a theme garden to help you decide what to plant. For example, consider growing a salsa garden with tomatoes, jalapeños, onions, and cilantro, or a pickling garden with cucumbers, dill, garlic, and tarragon. You can focus on growing the ingredients for your favorite dish or choose flavors from your favorite regional cuisines.