Starting a garden can seem overwhelming. How to plan your home vegetable garden when you have never had one before can seem an insurmountable task. There are so many factors and plant varieties it is difficult to decide what to grow. If this is your first time growing something since that red bean project in primary (elementary) school well … the task can seem practically insurmountable. I’ve found one of the best ways to help someone at the beginning of their growing journey is to go through the process of addressing a few key thoughts. If this is you, grab a pen and paper (or an open an excel spreadsheet if you’re fancy) and let’s brainstorm this together.
1. Grow what you eat
As crazy as this sounds you won’t believe how many times home gardeners will grow things they don’t eat just because it looks pretty, is easy to grow, or someone told them they should grow it. If your family isn’t going to eat it then what’s the point? A good way to start is to make a list of everything you eat that comes to your head. Feel free to go to your refrigerator or look up past online produce orders to jog your memory. Don’t try to eliminate anything just yet, we can do that later on. For now, it’s about getting it all out on paper fruits, veggies, seasonings, list it all.
2. Grow what grows best
What can grow in my area may not grow in yours, and vice versa. Unless you are willing to invest in some fancy climate-controlled technology your, next task is to remove everything from your list that you can’t grow in your climate. I would love to grow my own garlic, unfortunately, I am 11 degrees north of the equator which means it’s always too hot for the bulbs to fully form. If you’re not sure what growing temperature some of the items on your list require you can either do a quick google search or check the label on the back of the seed packets before you purchase.
Now would also be the time I would encourage you to eliminate anything that grows on large trees if you don’t have the space for it. If you’re fortunate enough to be growing on upwards of 5000 square feet then maybe you can fit one in there and if you’re on a half-acre or more, then sure. But, if you are trying to maximize growing space in a typical suburban yard space, you will get more out of growing short term crops than planting a tree that is going to bear once or twice a year.
3. Grow high valued produce
Generally, there are 2 main reasons people I’ve come across start growing at home:
- To reduce their exposure to harmful pesticides.
- To save money
If you’re in the category of the latter, this is going to be a very important step. Going back to your list you are going to add 4 columns: price, unit, monthly quantity, and total. Go through the list and add the average price you pay per item in the price column and the unit (per pound, per item, per bundle etc.) in the unit column. Next, in the monthly quantity column estimate how much of that item you purchase in an average month. For example, our household may use a bundle of chive per week which would put us at approximately four bundles per month, so my value in the monthly unit column would be 4. Lastly, calculate your total monthly spend per month by multiplying the price by the monthly quantity.
4. Grow what’s easiest
If you’re a new grower you should choose at least a few crops that grow relatively easily. By this, I mean crops that aren’t prone to pest problems or sensitive to fluctuations in moisture in the soil. If you’re in a temperate climate, sharp changes in temperature is also something you want to keep in mind. Some of the easiest items to grow are the following:
- Pack Choi
- Swiss Chard
- Shadow Bennie/ Cilantro
- Scallions (spring onions)
If you are looking at this list and you are wondering what about the carbs? Where are the potatoes? I’m not saying don’t grow them, but these take a much longer time to mature and are slightly more challenging than ginger and turmeric. We love growing our sweet potatoes in grow bags. This list was just about giving you that short-term gratification you may need to keep you going on your gardening journey.
5. Grow what you can manage
This is probably the step that is going to require the most amount of restraint and honesty. How much time per week are you willing to commit to your new garden? My recommendation is always to start small and add on as you go. Measure the area you would like to start with and determine how much can you grow in that space. Review your list and ask yourself “Can the items I want to start with grow in the area I have available?”
Once you’ve gone through all these steps you should end up with a much better idea of what you could potentially start with in your home garden. How does your list look? Can you grow a reasonable amount of what you need in the space you have available or do you need to cut the list further?
If you still need to cut back I would recommend looking at what will give you the highest dollar value per square inch and what is easiest to grow. Yes, ginger is more expensive than lettuce but lettuce matures in 4-6 weeks and ginger takes 6-9 months! Do you know how much lettuce you could have grown in that time (about 6 -10 heads)? Consider the amount you could grow in a square foot (by the amount I mean dollar value, not quantity) and divide this amount by the number of days it would take to harvest for each crop (i.e. from seed to the first harvest). Note the result. The higher the value, the greater the impact it’s going to have on your budget.
It’s not an exact science and there is no right or wrong answer. Hopefully, these steps gave you some clarity and you’re now in a much better place to take on the next step of planning your garden.
Gardening is just one of those things that are more enjoyable with people who speak the same language. Interacting with people in your local area or joining gardening groups online are a great way to learn and exchange ideas. You may have to search for a bit to find a gardener that is in line with your values (for us, we are big on environmentally friendly, reducing our organic waste going to landfill, and upcycling materials) but whatever is important to you, there is a group ready to welcome you home.
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