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 websites that can help you get started. Here are some useful resources:




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!

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