7 tips for starting your own vegetable garden

Early January. Though it's the dead of winter, many of us are dreaming about our summer vegetable gardens. The seed catalogs have begun to appear in the mailbox. Kris and I received eight of them today:


Images of summer…

It might seem crazy to start thinking about a vegetable garden in January. It's cold outside! But believe it or not, now is the perfect time to begin preparing for a successful autumn harvest. Over the next month, we'll plan our seed order. By the end of February, our seeds will be started indoors. All of this leads to those exciting days at the end of April when we can move our plants to the vegetable garden!

Our Garden

Kris and I own about two-thirds of an acre in Portland, Oregon. Since moving into this house in June 2004, we've been gradually building a garden of fruit, berries, and vegetables. In 2008, we conducted a year-long experiment. We tracked our garden expenses (in money and time) and also noted our “profit” from the harvest.

Last month I posted detailed results for the project. Here's a summary:

  • We spent $318.43 and 60 hours working in our garden during 2008.
  • We harvested $606.97 worth of produce, including $225.74 in berries, $294.59 in vegetables, and $66.63 in fruit.

For every dollar we spent on the garden, we harvested $1.91 worth of food. We hope to improve on that significantly in 2009. Last week Kris wrote about the winners and losers from our garden last year. Today I'm sharing seven lessons we've learned after many years of gardening.

Tip#1: Plan in Advance

Plan your garden today to ensure summer success. Decide what you'd like to grow. How much space can you devote to the project? How much time are you willing to spend? Answering these questions will help you to determine your priorities.

For those with small spaces (or small ambitions), a container garden is an excellent choice. Containers can also supplement a traditional garden, providing a handy pot of herbs just outside the kitchen door, an experimental area for kids to grow their own produce, and allowing tender plants to be moved according to the season. This winter, we have a container-based indoor herb garden:


Herbs grown from left-over seeds

Others might consider building a raised bed to use for square-foot gardening. Kris and I did this at our first house and met with great success. Square-foot gardening allows you to maximize food production in a minimum of space.

Tip#2: Start Small

When planning your garden, it's better to start too small than to start too large. Please read that sentence again. In order to enjoy your garden, you must be able to control it. Don't get too ambitious.

In 1993, our first year of gardening, Kris planted too many tomatoes (25?) and I planted an insane number of chili peppers (100?). By mid-summer we were overwhelmed. We gave up. It's better to start small and to expand a little every year.

Tip#3: Choose Productive Plants

Some plants are more productive than others.

For us, corn is a disinterested producer. It will grow, yes, and it tastes very good. But we just don't have the space it needs to become prodigious. (I still have fond recollections of my grandfather's forest of corn. His magic ingredient? Cow poop — and lots of it!) We spent about $9 on corn last year — and harvested about $9 worth of the stuff. Not worth the effort.

On the other hand, berries love our yard, and they require little money or time. We spent maybe $5 on berry-related supplies in 2008. In return we harvested $225 worth of fruit. That, my friends, is a bargain.

If you want a rewarding, productive garden, do some research to find out what grows well in your area. In the U.S., one excellent resource is your state's extension office. Here's the Oregon State Extension Service gardening site, for example.

We've decided to forego the corn in 2009, but are looking to expand our berries and fruit trees. Corn is cheap at the grocery store, and the berries are less expensive (and better tasting!) at home.

Tip #4: Share With Others

When you buy a packet of seeds, you generally receive more than you need. We've found that it's fun (and frugal) to split the costs with others. Kris is upstairs at this very moment e-mailing our gardening buddies, negotiating who will share seeds with whom.

We also share equipment with the neighbors. Mike and Paul might borrow our rototiller, for example. We might borrow John's trailer. Kurt has a backhoe (which we've used, actually). Careful borrowing and lending helps keep everybody's costs down.

Tip #5: Buy Quality Tools

When you buy tools, it pays to purchase quality. Remember: thrift and frugality are about obtaining value for your dollar — not just paying the cheapest price.

I used to skimp on garden tools, but I always regretted it. Lately I've been buying more expensive, higher quality tools. I'd rather own fewer tools that were pleasure to use (and lasted many seasons) than own lots of crappy tools that didn't cost me much. (On the other hand, it doesn't hurt to keep your eyes open at garage sales. Sometimes you can get great deals on quality stuff.)

Tip #6: Read Up on the Subject

Though Kris and I have been gardening for a while, we're always trying to learn more. Your public library will have many books on the subject, some tailored to your location. There are also many excellent web sites that can help you get started. Here are some useful resources:

Books

Websites

Suppliers

Past articles at GRS

Tip #7: Have Fun!

Most importantly, have fun. Don't make gardening into more work than it needs to be. Your garden doesn't need to be perfect. It's great if you're able to achieve a substantial return on your investment, but it's also okay if you lose a little money. (You don't want to lose a lot of money, though — then you're caught in the predicament of the American farmer.)

Pick a favorite fruit or vegetable, plant a few seeds, and have fun watching them grow to maturity. Make it a family thing. Kris and I will be here, too. We plan to continue our garden project in 2009, providing monthly updates of the time and money we spend, and the “profits” we reap from the harvest. Stay tuned to see how we do!

More about...Home & Garden, Food, Frugality

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Jessica
Jessica
11 years ago

Thanks for the post! I never plan for gardening far enough in advance, so it’s helpful to have the timeline + tips laid out in one post. Definitely agree on starting small and building up each year, and on looking to maximize the bang for your effort/buck. It’s better to think that more could have been done than to get discouraged and give up for good. Do you grow produce into fall and winter? Some of the hearty greens like kale and Swiss chard can last into cold weather, don’t take up too much room, and can be rotated through… Read more »

Becky
Becky
11 years ago

I was wondering if when you figured your time, did you also figure this time in planning/writing emails to friends in order to trade seeds and/or borrow tools, transport, etc. (60 hours seems like very little considering it was both of you…I was just wondering.) For me, corn was a better deal because it is so expensive to buy here (Poland) compared to other things which we can buy in season dirt cheap. I’ve lost my tomato crop every time I’ve planted them due to some fungus that seems to exist here but last year I tried cherry tomatoes in… Read more »

deb
deb
11 years ago

Many garden centers have seed sales during the month of February. Plan your garden now, buy the seeds next month. We buy more common seeds locally and the harder to find or specialty varieties by catalog.

Denise
Denise
11 years ago

I just wrote up a big long post about my garden plan, and I just ordered my seeds and plants. My goal is to grow 100 pounds of veggies this year. This is only the second year for our garden, and now that we know the land better (our 1/2 acre plot, in a city), we are putting in berry bushes and fruit trees. It’s very fulfilling.

15 Minutes to Riches!
15 Minutes to Riches!
11 years ago

“Buy quality tools” is probably my #1 tip for anybody who wants to do ANY kind of project. If you always have the right tools for the job, your job will be orders of magnitude easier. If you’ve ever rushed into fixing something around the house, or putting together unassembled furniture, you know that much of the time spent on the job is hunting down the tools with which to do it. On top of that, there’s always the chance that you try to use the “wrong” tool and either break the tool or break the thing you are trying… Read more »

cherie
cherie
11 years ago

Another great gardening book is ‘Growing Plants for Free’ by Geoff Bryant – it is not only food plants but flowers etc – it has details on the best time and method for propogating a gazillion types of plants – I’ve found it very useful!

kelle
kelle
11 years ago

Agree 100% with your tips. Have worked on and off for around 10 yrs. in greenhouse businesses. Raising plants from your own seed will get you better plants. I like Pinetree Garden Seeds catalog for small seed amounts for small prices. You will learn the perfect looking vegies in the stores isn’t the best tasting.
You can make good money with selling plants and produce, but you need a business person to make a profit. My bosses worked with us because they enjoyed it, but we the workers produced and they focused on selling.

Mrs. Accountability
Mrs. Accountability
11 years ago

My number one tip, know WHEN TO PLANT WHAT! In Arizona, we’re at the height of our planting season! I remember the year before I finally became a successful gardener I planted spinach seeds in April. They germinated and grew to be about as big as my pinky finger’s thumbnail and died. That’s because it had already gotten far too hot to survive. During the summer, I found a book on square foot gardening that helped me finally learned I didn’t have a black thumb after all, I’d just been planting things at the wrong time of the year! And… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
11 years ago

I had an organic garden for 15 years in VT and encourage everyone to use companion, organic, and/or biodynamic practices to grow healthy food that sustains rather than pollutes the environment. I often planted a little extra to “give” to the insects and critters that visited, and my yields were still high because my soil and plants were healthy. Here are some great resources: “Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening” by Louise Riotte This method works wonders to reduce pests and diseases. “The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control: A Complete Problem-Solving Guide… Read more »

Courtney
Courtney
11 years ago

Thanks for all these great tips! I was thinking about the idea of starting a container garden, so this post came at the perfect time for me. Thanks!

Menace
Menace
11 years ago

Thanks again for your endless inspiration. I wanted to see the link, “winners and losers from our garden”, but it didn’t work. Just an FYI.

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

Oops. Sorry about that, Menace. I’ve fixed the link. (It was broken because both of these posts were originally set to run last weekend, but then I bumped this one to today and changed the name on the first one.)

ms
ms
11 years ago

I just finished “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver. A GREAT book about gardening at home. http://www.amazon.com/Animal-Vegetable-Miracle-Year-Food/dp/0060852569/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1231233198&sr=8-1 In it, she talks about how 98% of seeds in the U.S. come from one of six different companies. Even though the catalogs look different, the may come from one of these giant companies. She recomended only using heirloom varieties, and this place in particular http://www.seedsavers.org/ Since you’re a gardener, this may be old news to you though. I had no idea. As an apartment dweller, I’ve never had my own garden, but I love reading about them on this site and in… Read more »

Susy
Susy
11 years ago

I would definitely agree with starting small. A few tomtatoes in pots will spark that green thumb for sure.

I also agree with ms about using heirloom seeds. When you save your own seends you also greatly reduce the costs of gardening. I figure with the seeds I save from my veggies & flowers this summer I should save an additional $40-$50 in seed buying expenses. Eventually I’m hoping to be saving almost 100% of my seeds.

thomas
thomas
11 years ago

I would plant a garden, but right now we have a little bit of a mole problem. Probably a good idea to get rid of those rodents before putting a free meal in the ground.

Amber Weinberg
Amber Weinberg
11 years ago

Me and the BF are thinking of starting a veggie/fruit garden in his yard this year. we both love growing stuff and hopefully will loe saving money 🙂 I live in an apt so I’m trying to locate a mini dwarf lemon tree and a few other mini fruit trees…sounds crazy but I heard they grow full size fruit and are the size of a small potted plant!

Lauren
Lauren
11 years ago

Thanks! This couldn’t be better timing… my hubby and I are trying to decide between planting a small garden at our new house or join a local CSA.

NatureMom
NatureMom
11 years ago

Great post! Just FYI your blog does not load completely for me in IE…could be a personal problem but thought I would let you know just in case others are having the same issue. I had to switch to viewing in Firefox to be able to comment.

I always recommend for complete newbies to plan on replacing one or two things they buy consistently in stores…so maybe for year one just planting tomatoes and strawberries and seeing how they manage. This gives them an easy introduction and they get immediate benefits and cost savings.

Jadzia
Jadzia
11 years ago

This is SO helpful! We started a “baby garden” last year (tomatoes only, just to see if we could grow something without killing it). It was a huge success and we want to grow much more this year. I bought the gardening in the Willamette Valley book but have been put off by the condescending tone (i.e., if you’re not going to be harvesting 12 months a year, you’re wasting your efforts and not really gardening, you’re a schmuck if you can and freeze your harvest, etc.). So constructive advice is GREATLY appreciated!

livingmyrichlife
livingmyrichlife
11 years ago

Thanks for this post. It is a big goal for us this year to start a small garden in our courtyard. Thanks for the quick guide to getting started.

Jadzia
Jadzia
11 years ago

Sorry, the title of the book (which was sitting next to me the whole time, d’oh) is Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades.

Ian
Ian
11 years ago

These are really great tips. Here’s some notes from my experience gardening in a small apartment balcony, and now a dining room window: * I really love The Bountiful Container. It’s a great tutorial for those that don’t know anything (I didn’t, when I read it). The worst part about it is trying to hold on to it, because my friends are always borrowing it. * It takes very little space to grow things. All you need is one sunny window, or a tiny balcony. It’ll take a little bit of experimentation to figure out what your space is good… Read more »

Sharon
Sharon
11 years ago

One thing I learned is that sometimes it takes a couple of years for a plant to really start producing so still care for it even if you think it’s a dud…we planted grapes here in Central PA and we ordered white seedless. Turns out this was purple with seeds and for a whole year this thing struggled and didn’t seem to go anywhere. Two summers later, the vine runs thick along a 600 foot fence and we’re up to our necks in plump grapes, huge huge buckets full…we made so much jelly and syrup, we ended up giving a… Read more »

theoddbod
theoddbod
11 years ago

great info. thanks! pumpkins are definitely not recommended unless you have a lot of room. made that mistake last year…those things took over the entire yard!

Ron@TheWisdomJournal
11 years ago

I’m planning my garden too!

You might also check out the Seed Savers Exchange if you have some seeds to share.
http://www.seedsavers.org/

Aman@BullsBattleBears.com
11 years ago

nice tips. apart from the $$ saving aspect, for me the best part is the relaxation of watching life grow on my window sill. I live in condos so having an outdoor garden isn’t possible but that does not step me from having fresh herbs when cooking. Its a little bit of zen in an otherwise hectic 20hr day.

Kirsty
Kirsty
11 years ago

I got The Thrifty Gardener by Alys Fowler for Christmas and found it very inspiring. Obviously there’s lots of stuff about cultivating a frugal attitude but she’s also really good on when not to skimp and on explaining WHY you do things. It filled me with confidence and I’m going to be trying growing from seed for the first time this year.

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

@Ron (#25)
I’d never heard of Seed Savers before, but Kris and her gardening buddies have been e-mailing about them this weekend. Sounds like a keen idea.

luneray
luneray
11 years ago

I bought seeds from a single catalog last year and now I have received catalogs from no fewer than five different companies. I swear the only thing my garden produced is a bounty crop of seed catalogs!

Richer Richard
Richer Richard
11 years ago

You’ve inspired me to start a small garden for the next spring. I was always curious about gardening. Plus with the rising costs of produce it makes sense that you can save big. I wrote an entry on my blog about the benefits of growing hops (the primary bittering ingredient in beer) as well, even for those who don’t brew their own beer.

Miss Cellania
Miss Cellania
11 years ago

Sometimes buying cheap tools can’t be helped, like when you buy a new house and suddenly have a garden on top of all those other expenses. But when you buy a lot of cheap tools, they don’t all fall apart at the same time (unless you are really unlucky) so replacing them with better quality tools can be spread out a bit. If you can get GOOD used tools at a yard sale, all the better. BEST is when you can borrow some until you can afford to buy the good kind. I plant my tomato seeds in January, because… Read more »

Annie
Annie
11 years ago

Great post. I would also add “The Postage Stamp Garden” to your book list. It is my FAVORITE!

Skan
Skan
11 years ago
Ragnorok
Ragnorok
11 years ago

Square foot gardening has worked well for my wife and I. We live in Phoenix and can grow veggies all year round, so the ROI is great (and so is the produce). I encourage anyone interested in starting a garden to get a copy of Square-Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. He addresses many of the issues that put people off of gardening: the time and waste factor. Using his method, we have a 4’x4′ planter box and grow tomatoes, peas, spinach, lettuce, green beans, and peppers with very little time invested. Just water it as needed and pick stuff when… Read more »

Marc
Marc
11 years ago

You know, something I did not see you consider in your financial considerations is quality of the produce. Unless you used inferior/run of the mill species/breeds of plants, your crop would have tasted multiple times better than what you can get in a regular grocery store or even a farmers market. Although farmers market produce would probably be better than the grocery store stock, considering that most farmers markets supply mass produce species, you should not have a difficult time producing a far superior quality product by selecting quality species. In many instances, you really should compare the pricing based… Read more »

Kendra @ A Sonoma Garden
Kendra @ A Sonoma Garden
11 years ago

I’m so amazed that you kept such good record of what you spent and how much time you took caring for your garden! I don’t think we could ever be so diligent, but I wish we could see exactly what we spent/saved. Another tip to think about besides planting productive plants, is to plant things that are normally very expensive at the store. We grow a lot of golden beets and bell peppers because they are so expensive. We also have two peach trees and a nectarine tree because buying those organically can be really expensive. Growing those things ourselves… Read more »

Martacus
Martacus
11 years ago

When we moved into our house last year, it was already mid-august and too late to start on gardening. Not too late to start a compost pile, however! When it comes time to plant hopefully we’ll have some decent, usable compost. If not, maybe next year for that. At any rate, my wife and I fully intend to start gardening this spring for the first time. We’ve got some seeds already (a gift from mom-in-law), and a grapevine and red currant bush were already on the property when we moved in. The vine was overgrown along the fence last year… Read more »

Brandon
Brandon
11 years ago

I’ve ordered a lot of heirloom seeds from rareseeds.com (aka Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds) and they have an amazing selection of seeds: Cherokee Purple tomatoes, white habanero peppers, golden strawberries, jelly melons (aka African Horned Cucumber).

Their tomato selection is to die for – and they have a great forum called idigmygarden.com

Becky@FamilyandFinances
11 years ago

Question: How on earth do you keep your cats from eating the seedlings that you start indoors? I tried it once and as soon as the seedlings started to sprout, the cats ATE them!

Gwen
Gwen
11 years ago

“The Bountiful Container” is one of my favorite gardening books too. I do all of my vegetables in containers — tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, lettuces, snow peas, beans, potatoes — as well as figs, quince, and currants, and of course herbs. It’s by necessity, since none of the “dirt” areas of my yard get enough sun, but the results have been great.

Maggi
Maggi
11 years ago

We’re lucky here in Greece that things seem to grow well all year round, as long as they get watered through the summer that is. We’re planning to start a food garden, but my concern is that things seems to grow so well here (and so big) that we could find ourselves overwhelmed with produce if we plant more than a small amount, so the tip by Naturemom (#18) to choose what we consume most of is helpful. Buying seedlings is likely to make more sense than raising from seed, so we can stagger the crop. Although I’d guess this… Read more »

Maggi
Maggi
11 years ago

Another question: has anyone succeeded in growing fruit from seed. I’d love to grow grapefruit and orange, also apples and pears. Am I wasting my time saving the seeds or might some of these actually work (and if so, how?)

Ben
Ben
11 years ago

Totally Tomatoes is owned by the Jung Seed Company. Jung also has purchases several other seed companies over the past few years which is why you might feel your name was “sold” to other companies. You are most likely just getting the catalogs of all of their subcompanies. The Jung Seed Company is located in a very small town in the middle of Wisconsin and are a great employer. Several of my family members that still live in the area (grandparents moved there in the 80’s) have worked there over the years. Maggi, It’s definitely NOT worth your time trying… Read more »

Glenn Carver
Glenn Carver
11 years ago

Great article! My father has always gardened and it’s something that I have always wanted to learn. Additionally, I just did my second juice fast and it would be really cool to juice from my own garden!

David
David
11 years ago

I have a small garden I’ve planted for the last few years. In Hawaii we can get a couple of growing seasons so its a year round activity. I’ve found that its a very cheap way for me to relax, so the time I’ve put in pays off even if there’s no produce. Its not for everyone though, so if you don’t enjoy gardening, I’d recommend saving money in other ways. One suggestion for saving on a garden – instead of paying for fertilizers and soil conditioners, I have a small worm farm that churns out worm casings – a… Read more »

Cindy
Cindy
11 years ago

I’m going to grow more this year. I would love to have a year round garden inside my house. Is that possible?

BSR
BSR
11 years ago

Another good source of information can sometimes be found at your local farmers market. Most places I’ve lived, there is a booth at the market with some outfit offering gardening advice (sometimes the local state extension some other group). Since (most) farmers markets don’t run year-round, this isn’t so helpful for early-season planning, but it can be really helpful half-way through the season when you are having a problem and need help. They can give good advice about disease & pest management or suggestions for different fertilizing or watering. Usually these volunteers are very experienced gardeners and know lots of… Read more »

Charles
Charles
11 years ago

My wife and I spent $500 on supplies last year and made $3,000 at framers market, not to mention all the stored food we have right now. Definitely worth the time!

DebInPortland
DebInPortland
11 years ago

*BECKY* – There is actually a Tomatoe Spotted Wilt Virus, and it makes the tomatoes look fungus infected, constantly thirsty and wilted. It causes their stems to be hollow, and they can’t absorb necessary nutrition. It can do the same to all nightshades, including eggplant. So, do not reuse the soil if your tomatoes have done this – the disease can survive in the soil, and also in the weeds/plants around your tomatoes. Pitch the soil and put in new composted soil. Also – buy heirloom tomatoes/seeds as these are disease resistant. Or, buy tomatoes/seeds that are specifically marked as… Read more »

Kim Cornman
Kim Cornman
11 years ago

Does anybody out there have an Excel spreadsheet that they have devised to keep a record of their garden?

I would love to have one (I’m a little weak on excel)

THANKS!

Anish
Anish
9 years ago
Reply to  Kim Cornman

I don’t have an excel spreadsheet, but I know a GRRRREEAT tool that’ll help you do just that (keep records).. It’s called Smart gardener (smartgardener.com) and it’s free and online. You might wanna give it a shot.. I’ve been using it for a long time 🙂

Hope that helps! Cheers.

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