In the dark, frosty days of late winter, it’s natural to feel cooped up and cut off from the outdoors. But even when it’s too chilly for digging in the dirt, there are plenty of ways to get your green fix. In fact, whether you’re a total novice or a certified plant nerd, these in-between days are the ideal moment to begin sowing the seeds for a summertime vegetable patch that will fill your senses and your belly.
“Growing season isn’t just Mother’s Day to Labor Day. There are so many reasons to get going early,” says Meredith Sheperd, founder of Love & Carrots, a Washington D.C.–based company that helps families and organizations grow food everywhere from backyards and patios to abandoned lots and rooftops. “Planting an edible garden is actually much easier than most people think,” she says. “It improves your mood, it gets you excited about the food you’re eating, and, especially now, when so many things in the world seem uncertain, it’s a simple way to feel more self-sufficient.” Ready to get your garden on? Here’s everything you need to know to begin plotting and planting.
Scope Out Your Space
Whether you have acres of land or just a fire escape to putter around on, the first step is taking a good look at where you’ll be gardening. And no matter how much space you have, you might want to start small. “I usually tell people to start with containers even if they have a big yard,” says Houston-based gardener and garden educator Timothy Hammond (aka @bigcitygardener). “They’re easier to maintain and weed, you can grow the exact same things that you can in a garden bed, and, if you’re resourceful, you can make a container out of anything. Bags, buckets—find an old dresser at a flea market, pull out a drawer, and drill holes in the bottom. Boom, there’s a raised bed!”
Shavonda Gardner (her real name!), the Sacramento-based designer behind the blog SG Style and Insta account @TheCottage BungalowPotager, is also in the raised-bed camp. When she decided to build a sprawling, traditional cottage-style kitchen garden on her suburban lot, she had utility and accessibility in mind, not just aesthetics. “It’s important to test your soil,” she explains. “In a lot of urban areas you might have metals in the soil or lack certain nutrients. Raised beds give you control over not only what’s in the soil but your drainage, too.” There’s also the matter of what feels good. “I have back issues from being in the military, so not having to bend over as much is just more comfortable,” Gardner says.
A mix of containers can also be a good solution for renters or homeowners with patios or yards where there’s not a lot of dirt for digging. The key is to find the mix of options that work for your space—maybe a few pots or a raised bed, plus a little trellis for climbing veggies like beans or cukes—while also being realistic about any other limitations you can’t control, like crowded spaces and low light (more about that in a second).
Sort Out Your Seeds
Now for the fun part! Once you have a sense of your space—and its strengths and weaknesses—it’s time to decide what varieties of veg to grow. Curling up in a cozy chair and combing through a stack of seed catalogs bursting with juicy melons, frilly lettuces, and colorful squash is a fun way to get inspired. But be careful: Don’t get so carried away that you end up with a farm’s worth of crops! “Everything looks cool in the catalog,” warns Hammond, “but not everything will grow everywhere. Sweet potatoes need 90 days of super-hot weather, so don’t plant them if you live in Vermont. But you can grow rhubarb, and I can’t here in Texas. And that’s great! The trick is to pick plants that are going to be the right fit for your garden.”
If you don’t know your zone number, a standard devised by the USDA that helps gardeners identify which plants will thrive in their region based on the area’s average temperatures, Google it. There are plant catalogs tailored to every interest and area of the country, so pick a few and read the descriptions closely, paying attention to notes about cold hardiness and light requirements.
Another essential to consider: size. For small setups without a lot of room to stretch out, dwarf or bush-style plants may be a better choice than big trailing vines. You also have to understand when to say when. “Ask yourself, do you need six zucchini plants or would two be OK?” advises Sheperd. “Because you don’t want to overstuff your garden—that actually reduces production.”
Overwhelmed by all the delicious possibilities? The easiest way to winnow your shopping list is to think about what you actually want to eat. “If you don’t like eggplant, why would you plant it?” asks Gardner with a laugh. “But by the same token, there’s beauty in experimentation, so every season, let yourself plant one thing you’ve never tried before. It’s OK to make space for something that just brings you joy.” And if it’s still not your bag, give it to the neighbors!
Seed catalogs can be a blast to browse even if you have no intention of getting your hands dirty. Most companies put out a new edition every year, packed with plants, growing tips, notes on trends, and more; visit their websites to get on the mailing lists. Some companies, like Burpee, offer both seeds and some small plants (aka starts), while others have a more specialized focus. Here are a few favorites.
Founded in 1876, Burpee remains one of the biggest mainstream seed and plant suppliers in the country. Its huge selection of time-tested varieties makes it a great place for beginners to start.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
A favorite of professional gardeners, this employee-owned company sells 100% GMO-free seeds and develops special breeds using natural crossing methods.
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Warm-climate gardeners should check out this co-op that carries more than 700 open-pollinated and heirloom varieties, many of which are especially suited to steamy regions.
Calling all Yankees! Maine-based Fedco supports sustainable practices and specializes in hardy varieties that thrive in cooler climes. It also has a lovely selection of flower seeds.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
The massive full-color Whole Seed Catalog from this Missouri-based company is an heirloom gardener’s dream, packed with eye-popping photos, fascinating history, growing tips, and thousands of delectable varieties of veggies, fruits, and flowers.
Row 7 Seeds
This startup has serious culinary cred. Founded in collaboration with chef Dan Barber and “dedicated to deliciousness,” the company’s focus is developing breeds that are big on both flavor and sustainability.
Plot Your Plantings
Once you’ve picked your space and the containers you plan to use, it’s time to start sketching. Begin by drawing a map of your pots, boxes, or beds. Then spend at least a few days really observing your plot. Gardner recommends keeping a journal to track which areas get the most light and how the sun moves throughout the day—all essential information for deciding what to plant and where. Also scope out any trees that might shade the space once they’re all leafed out in the spring. “I planned my garden for two solid years before I ever touched a seed,” she explains. “I wanted to know which part of my yard had the best sunlight. I thought about the layout and how to arrange the beds so tall plants wouldn’t overshadow low ones.”
While ample light is a must for many vegetables, if it turns out your yard is in shadow for half the day, don’t despair—just adjust your expectations. “You have to listen to your space,” says Hammond. “Tomatoes need a minimum of six hours of sun a day and if you have a lot of shade there’s not much you can do about that. But you can grow all the herbs and greens you want because they don’t need a ton of light and they grow fast. Instant gratification!”
Beds to Buy (or DIY)
Ready to move beyond a collection of pots or planters? Check out some options for your growing garden.
Natural Cedar Stackable Beds
For the tool-averse, these stackable beds (starting at $49.95) are a slam dunk. Because cedar is inherently rot-resistant, they should stand up to years of use. And over time the wood will weather naturally to a pale, rustic gray—which looks great filled with garden greens.
Don’t have a yard—or even a fire escape? Don’t fret! A hydroponic (read: soil-free) kit can help you harness green technology and grow a garden’s worth of produce right in your living room. The options range from small and budget-friendly, like the Hydropod ($25), to large top-of-the line, app-enabled models such as the ones from Rise Gardens ($549).
Believe it or not, you can make great raised beds with one trip to the home-improvement store. Just grab four 2-by-12-inch planks (two cut 8 feet long and two cut 4 feet long) and twelve 2-foot pieces of rebar. At home, arrange the planks in a rectangle with their inner corners touching. Stand one long plank on its side. Hammer a piece of rebar a few inches into the ground about a foot from the end of the board. Do the same at the other end, letting the board rest against the rebar. Repeat with remaining long piece, then the short pieces, spacing the rebar supports along the outside of boards until you have an upright perimeter. Fill the bed with dirt and voilà! Who’s the weekend warrior now?
When it’s time to grow, there are a few ways to go. Some veggies (like radishes and peas) grow fast enough that you can plant the seeds directly into tilled soil once the weather’s warm enough (that timing will depend on your growing zone). Others will need to be started from seed inside and then transplanted to your outdoor garden. A third option? Starts—those small plants you see popping up at your home-improvement store in early spring.
Seed starting itself doesn’t require any fancy tools; a bright window and a simple peat-pellet kit from your local hardware store or even a couple of old egg cartons and a small bag of soil will do the trick. Just remember: Besides sunlight and soil, the most important element you need to get your garden off on the right foot is time. “Seeds don’t just take off overnight,” says Hammond. “If a pack says it needs 80 days to reach maturity, that means 80 days from when you put the plant in the ground—but you also need to factor in six to eight weeks before that to let the seeds sprout into sturdy seedlings.” To keep yourself on schedule, look up when your region usually experiences its last frost and work backward; you should prepare to get your seeds started at least eight weeks before that date.
If that sounds like a lot of work, remember that you don’t have to do it all. “Seed starting takes patience and not everything germinates, so even the most amazing gardeners use starts,” says Gardner. Her advice? Try a mix—pick a few unusual or special crops each year to grow from seed and lighten the rest of your workload by buying nursery-grown starts. And, she says, don’t forget that it’s all a journey: “Don’t like what you grew this year? No big deal. There’s always next year. Every season is a lesson.”
Why are tomatoes and basil such an iconic combo? It’s not just kitchen tradition. Basil contains an oil that repels pests like the tomato hornworm, so the plants actually benefit from being grown side by side. This strategy is known as companion planting, and there are tons of resources online that can help you understand which varieties to pair up and which to keep apart. Another way to organize your garden is less about science and more about flavor. Famous for your Sunday sauce? Give your garden an Italian accent. Love taco night? A plot full of veggies common in Mexican cooking might be right for you. In other words, grow the things together that you like to cook together! Here are some other ideas to get you started.
- Summer squash (great for the veggies and their blossoms)
- Sweet peppers and chile peppers
- Japanese eggplant
- Bok choy
- Napa cabbage
- Thai basil
- Italian eggplant
- Banana peppers
- Heirloom tomatoes
- Pole beans
This article originally appeared in our Winter/Spring 2021 issue. Get the magazine here.