Gardening was once a normal part of life for most people. Not so many generations ago, neighbors exchanged fresh produce over fences (too many zucchini again!) and most people knew their local farmer. Most of us too probably have fond memories of grandmothers opening a can of homemade pickles or jam.
Even though times have changed (Wal-Mart, anyone?), we still have the ability to grow some of our own food at least part of the year in almost all parts of the world. Yet statistically many of us don’t (especially in the US).
Conserving a local food source is important and working in a garden is good for the body and the soul. This year, do something great for the Earth and your family and consider testing out that green thumb! Instead of paying top dollar for organic produce at the store, try organic gardening in your own backyard.
It’s Time to Bring Back Gardening!
In war times, families were encouraged to grow “victory gardens” to help prevent food shortage and at their peak, there were over 20,000,000 of these gardens in the US. As the war died down and population moved away from agriculture and into more urban settings, gardening in the backyard became more impractical and began to decline.
Even without much space, a productive backyard garden is possible! With rising food & gas prices, droughts, and issues with the food supply (like decreased nutrients from long transit and chemicals galore on our food), it’s time to bring back this valuable pastime.
Growing some of your own food, even in small containers on a patio, will let you have fresh organic produce at a fraction of the cost. If you have the room, a medium to large garden can produce enough food to feed a family, especially if you have time to devote to preservation and storage.
Organic Gardening for Beginners: How to Get Started
I know, the thought of a garden can be overwhelming. There’s so many options of what to buy, when and how to plant, not to mention how to keep it all alive! Then there’s weeding and harvesting and canning … and who has extra time!?
The truth is, time is what you make of it. If having access to fresh food with maximum nutrients is a priority, then even a small-scale garden or an indoor herb box is a step in the right direction. Foods from the garden don’t have to be canned … many of them can just be thrown in the freezer (or just eaten up fresh!).
My favorite gardening benefit? Kids connect with healthy eating in a whole new magical way by seeing where their food comes from.
Here’s how to get started with your own backyard organic garden, step by step!
1. Decide What to Grow
The first year especially, it can be tough to know what to plant. When I started gardening, we often ended up with too many tomatoes to use and wished we had more cucumbers. This website has a good list with an average of how much to grow for a family of four.
My strategy now is to grow foods that (a) we eat the most of and (b) are the most expensive to buy organically. For us, this means lots of spinach, strawberries, winter squash, tomatoes (which are canned or fermented), herbs, cucumbers (naturally fermented to preserve), blueberries, sweet potatoes, and peppers (usually dried to preserve).
To help figure out how much of each plant to grow and when to plant, check out GrowVeg.com. They offer a free 30-day trial of their garden planning guide, which lets you see visually how many of each variety to plant.
Here’s a picture of what our spring garden looked like one year using this garden planner:
They also give you a great chart of planting dates for your climate:
Beginner Tip: Don’t be overwhelmed by gardening books and sites, charts, and planning. The above is what I tried after several years of experience gardening. The important thing is to start getting some hands-on experience. Choose a few seed packets and follow the instructions on the back. Each year you’ll try something new and build up to the garden of your dreams!
Great beginner seed choices are:
- snap peas (kids love these!)
- marigolds (the garden needs flowers – this variety is even edible)
Want to keep it super simple? Order a beginner’s gardening kit like this one (it’s even organic) that comes with all the instructions and planning tools. Decision done!
2. Start Seeds Indoors Early
Starting seeds indoors lets you get a head start on the garden and a longer growing season. For plants like tomatoes and peppers, starting them inside is almost necessary for a good growing season. (You can of course also just buy starter plants from a greenhouse, but growing some of your own from seed is a fun learning experience!)
You need just a few items that are easy to pick up at a local store:
- organic seed starting soil mix
- seed starter trays or clean egg shells in an egg carton
- seeds from a quality source (non-GMO and organic, preferably)
- the instructions on the back of the packet
- a sunny south-facing window in a warm space (or a grow light – I like this one because it comes with a way to hang it)
The key is, start early! Start tomatoes and peppers about 4-6 weeks before you plant them outside, so for us that means starting early April indoors and transplanting outdoors in mid-May.
How to Start Seedlings:
To speed up the process, you can pre-germinate the seeds in unbleached coffee filters or paper towels in unzipped plastic bags.
- Just place about 10 seeds with space in between on 1 unbleached coffee filter.
- Put another coffee filter on top and get damp with warm water.
- Fold in half and put in a quart size or larger plastic bag, but don’t zip it!
- Place the bag on a plate and put on top of your fridge or in another slightly warm place. Keyword: warm!
- In 2-3 days, you should see tiny sprouts coming from the seeds.
- At this point, plant seeds in small pots indoors using tweezers.
- Keep pots indoors near a window (south-facing if possible), keep moist, and watch them grow!
When seedlings are 4-5 inches high and have their true leaves (translation: they look like the seedlings you see at the store), it’s time to prepare them for going outside. It’s important to do this gradually or plants can go into “shock.” Put your baby plants outside for a brief time initially in a sheltered location, and gradually increase the time each day until they are accustomed to the temperature and amount of sun in your garden location.
Beginner Tip: As mentioned above, there are kits for beginning gardeners to take the stress out of the process. Try a simple seed starting kit like this one for step by step instructions specific to each plant.
3. Prepare the Garden
I know many people who are fortunate enough to have a huge backyard with plenty of room to garden, but many of us live in the city and have limited space that gets enough sun. Figure out how much space you can devote to a garden and plan accordingly. Consider using raised beds to maximize space and production. Or, if you just have a few containers on a patio, make sure they get quality soil, organic fertilizer, and enough sun and water (with good drainage).
Once you have the space for the garden reserved, you need to make sure you have decent soil to work with. Many county extension offices offer soil testing at very inexpensive prices. Getting your soil tested will help you pinpoint what, if anything, you need to add to the soil to make sure your plants grow well. These tests are usually around $10 and give invaluable information that will help your garden all year.
We tilled in several truckloads of organic compost over the last couple of years. While this was a little pricey upfront, it paid off in the long run. Our soil is naturally very acidic dense clay that doesn’t drain well. Adding the compost gave us beautiful, black soil that produced veggies in abundance last year!
Beginner Tip: Want simple? Try a DIY planter box! I shared the instructions for my simple cedar planter box before, and this is one of the simplest ways to grow a small backyard garden. This planter is only three feet long, so it will fit on almost any patio or porch. We grew kale, herbs, and a few microgreens in ours.
4. Make the Most of Your Space
You can easily maximize your growing space and often prevent pests with a few organic gardening methods. To make sure you get the most production from small spaces, practices like companion planting, succession planting, and vertical gardening can really help.
Companion planting allows you to grow multiple plants that help each other in the same area. A classic example is the Indian custom of planting corn, beans and squash together. The corn provides a structure for the beans and squash, and the beans add nitrogen back into the soil to feed the corn and squash.
Another example is planting basil under tomatoes. Besides tasting great together, these two help deter pests from each other and improve the growing quality of each other.
My favorite plants to plant together are:
- Basil with tomato to promote growth and keep pests away
- Marigolds throughout the garden to deter pests and reduce nematodes
- Dill with cucumber
- Catnip, mint and chamomile in brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.) to deter pests
- Beets under cabbage to maximize space
- Cucumbers with mammoth sunflowers – the sunflowers act as the trellis
For more on companion planting, check out this post.
Planting a variety of crops in succession will give you more yield from your garden and extend your harvest season. For instance, right now, my garden has young cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, chart, spinach and lettuce. Once those are harvested, the same beds will become a space for melons or winter squash.
Growing some plants up rather than letting them sprawl can reduce the amount of space they need and actually increase yield by increasing air flow and reducing disease exposure. Trellises and cages are great for tomatoes, cucumbers, vining squash, and others. See this post for ways we’ve used vertical elements in the garden over the years.
Beginner Tip: If these options seem overwhelming, just stick with planting in rows according to seed package directions. If planting tomatoes or cucumbers (which definitely need some vertical support), ask your local garden store to direct you to some store-bought trellises perfect for the job.
5. Feed (and Weed) the Garden
Once the garden is planted, it’s time to feed and weed! If you’ve tested your soil and prepared it with compost, this step won’t be necessary for a little while at least, but I do like to use this homemade compost tea to give the garden a boost. It’s a great alternative to expensive natural fertilizers and easy to make when needed.
Organic gardening does come with its fair share of weeding since we’re not using chemical herbicides around food (shudder) but there are ways to simplify the process. Weeds can’t grow where there isn’t light, so smother them before they start by covering garden aisles with newspaper or cardboard, or use a natural paper weed barrier that will simply till into the soil when the season is over. It really works!
Beginner Tip: A simple garden hoe takes care of the rest and needs to be used between plants every few days. The kids have gardening tools that are just their size and love helping with this job.
6. Be Ready With Natural Pest Control
Think weeds are the biggest problem with a garden? Nope. No gardening post would be complete without mentioning the importance of pest control. It is so frustrating to spend hours working on your garden only to have plants destroyed by bugs, caterpillars, and even small (and large) animals.
With organic gardening, many of the normal pesticides are off-limits, but there are still many great ways to keep the pests out! Check out this post for a variety of natural pest control options.
Beginner Tip: Learn to “scout” the garden. Agriculturalists know that constant observation is the key to success. Take your morning coffee out to the garden and observe what’s going on. That way you’ll catch any pest damage while it’s still small.
7. Enjoy Your Organic Garden!
There are sure to be some failures your first year organic gardening (or even your tenth!), but that’s just part of the package. Plenty of what you plant will grow, and nothing beats picking your own fresh produce from your own backyard garden. It tastes so different from what’s found in the store (a cherry tomato warm from the sun fresh off the vine … aaahh) and what’s more your kids will go nuts for their own garden produce.
Knowing where your food comes from (and what wasn’t sprayed on it!) is ultimately so satisfying and worth the small investment of time and effort. Plus, you’ll be getting that elusive time outdoors in the sunshine and dirt. Your body will thank you!
Are you gardening this year? What are you planting? Let me know below!