Growing fresh vegetables in a backyard garden sounds so simple, doesn’t it? I mean, people have been doing it for thousands of years. How hard can it be? The good news is, it’s not that hard. The bad news is, it’s a little hard, especially if you’re just starting out. Planning a backyard garden doesn’t have to be complicated, but there are a few things you should consider before sprinkling those seeds.
While it may seem counter-intuitive, the best time to think about planting a vegetable garden is actually in the middle of the winter—usually January or February—especially if you’d like to grow vegetables from seed.
We’ve been planting and growing a backyard garden for about 10 years now. While no two years are quite the same, we’ve tried a little of everything and have learned quite a bit along the way.
I aim for foods we’ll actually eat and foods that go together (ex: tomatoes and basil for caprese, tomatoes and cilantro for salsa—although cilantro is annoying to grow). I also throw in a few flowers for the bees and pest control.
Planning a Backyard Garden Space
There are a lot of options for planning a backyard garden space. Whether you live in an apartment with a small balcony, a town with a small yard, or on a few acres, you can plan a backyard garden. Three main options for growing a garden are container gardens, raised garden beds, or in-the-ground gardens. We’ve had all three and have learned the benefits and downfalls of them all.
Container gardens are gardens planted in pots. This is a great option for people who don’t have a ton of outdoor space or who don’t want a lot of commitment.
Benefits of Container Gardens: It’s easy to grow plants in container gardens because of the fertile dirt, little to no weeds, versatile, and good drainage (maybe a little too good, keep reading).
Negatives of Container Gardens: Purchasing pots and dirt can be expensive, but not exorbitantly so. Container gardens often need more frequent watering, plus, not all veggies grow well in a pot. Finally, the pot size may lead to less root expansion and result in a smaller crop to harvest.
Raised Garden Beds
Raised garden beds are essentially giant container gardens, often built right on top of the ground, but sometimes raised up. They’re a great middle ground between containers and traditional garden.
Benefits of Raised Garden Beds: You need to add dirt, so you might as well make it fertile — which means a better crop. Looser dirt is better for drainage, root growth and expansion, leading to more crops. Raised beds may reduce pests, such as slugs, rabbits, and mice, although if they’re smart enough the rabbits can figure it out. These beds are also easier to reach (less bending). There are fewer weeds and those that grow are easier to pull. Raised beds can also add fun design elements to your backyard.
Negatives of Raised Garden Beds: Raised garden beds take up more space than smaller containers. Purchasing them, building them, and filling them with dirt can also be expensive, time-consuming, and labor-intensive.
The most traditional of all gardens is the in-ground garden. Yup, growing a garden right in the dirt.
Benefits of an In-Ground Garden: If you’ve got a yard, you’ve probably got lots of space for planting crops that need a lot of room to grow. In-ground gardens also hold water better than container options.
Negatives of an In-Ground Garden: If you’ve got a yard that already has a lawn, it’s going to need to be tilled, which can be labor intensive. In-ground gardens often have more weeds and more pests. Depending on your dirt, drainage may not be ideal and you may need additional fertilizer to ensure crop growth.
Your Background Garden Space
Choose a method for your backyard garden based on your space, budget, and commitment level. If it’s your first time, I’d recommend a small container garden or in-ground patch in your yard. If you love it and keep up with it through the summer months, you can always expand your backyard garden plans next year!
Planning Your Backyard Garden Bounty
One of the most exciting parts of planning your backyard garden is deciding what you’re going to plant! There are three factors that weigh in here: figuring out what will grow in your area, deciding what your family will want to eat, and determining what you have room for.
What’s Easy to Grow?
Just because your family enjoys certain foods, doesn’t guarantee it will grow in your area. Do a little research on what zone you’re in, this can help you decide what to grow and when to grow it (many plants can’t be planted until after the last frost, which is indicated by your zone).
What Do You Want to Eat?
The best foods to grow in your garden are foods you and your family will enjoy. If no one likes tomatoes, don’t grow tomatoes! You can also think about ingredients you use often or recipes you enjoy and grow foods that are a part of those meals.
We grow vegetables we’ll eat, salad ingredients, and herbs to flavor our meals. More details below.
How much space do you have?
Different vegetable plants take up different amounts of space. After you’ve figured out what kind of garden you’re going to have (container, raised, in-ground), and what plants you’d like to grow, you can determine how much space those plants need and map out your garden.
You’ll need to do some research here — if you’re buying seed packets this information will be on the back of the package, otherwise this website has a great chart to help you determine spacing. Cucumbers and zucchini take up a lot of space, plus you need at least 2 so they can pollinate one another. These might not be practical choices for container gardens, but are perfect in raised beds and in-ground gardens as long as you plan ahead.
Container gardens are ideal for herbs, tomatoes, green beans, lettuce, spinach, onions, and maybe carrots (if your container is deep enough).
How much should you grow?
While it can be very tempting to plant all the seeds in a packet or all the tomatoes in a flat… don’t! Unless you’ve got a ton of space and a ton of time to dedicate to this new hobby, planting too much will come back to hurt you in the end.
This is a mistake I make every year when planning my backyard garden. 6 baby tomato plants come in a bunch at the farmer’s market. Guess who’s family doesn’t eat 6 tomato plants’ worth of tomatoes? Guess who ends up with rotting tomatoes and fruit flies on in her kitchen each summer? Yup. Me.
Do yourself a favor and stick to 2-3 plants for vegetables that grow larger crops like tomatoes and cucumbers, or get educated on canning and pickling if you plan to grow more than you can eat at one time.
Crops such as zucchini and broccoli need a lot of space, but don’t yield a lot of fruit. 2-3 of each will feed your family a few times over the summer.
Go a bit crazier with crops with smaller yields such as onions, green beans, spinach. These don’t take up a ton of space and they provide more manageable amounts of vegetables. For our family of 5, I’m aiming for 12 onion plants, 6 spinach plants, and 12-16 green bean plants.
I don’t enjoy having extra vegetables that we won’t eat. I’m not interested in canning or pickling, and we don’t have a ton of people to share our vegetables with, so I keep my garden pretty minimal. I’d suggest you do the same if this is your first year planting and planning a backyard garden — if you love it, you can do more next year!
Mapping Out Your Garden
This is my favorite part. It’s time to get out the graph paper and ruler and plan your garden. Based on your space, what you’re going to grow, and how much room each plant takes up, map out your garden space.
I find this is easiest to do when I round to the nearest foot. Remember that vegetable spacing guide? Refer to that and use a pencil (to start, pretty sharpies can come later). It’s okay if you don’t end up planting your garden exactly the way you plan it, but having a guide will be helpful.
Did you think it was as easy as measuring and sticking plants in the ground? Hold up. Let’s quickly talk about companion plants. Afterall, if you’re going to spend all this time, effort, and money on a backyard garden, you’re going to want to give your vegetables good neighbors.
This might sound like a lot, but it’s not that bad. Basically, certain plants can help or hurt one another based on the nutrients they need and the pests they attract. You’ll want to plant certain veggies next to some, but further away from others.
Here are a few examples:
- Basil helps peppers, lettuce, and tomatoes
- Beans are good near corn and squash
- Cucumbers grow well near beans and lettuce
There are also certain flowers that can be very beneficial to plant amongst your vegetables if you have room. Sunflowers and nasturtium are two examples. We always include these in our vegetable garden because of their beneficial properties and because they’re gorgeous additions to any yard.
Try not to agonize over your vegetable placement, just give it some thought.
How to Grow in your Backyard Garden
You’ve figured out where you’re going to have your garden, you know what you’re going to grow and how much space it’s going to take up…now let’s get some plants!
Your two options for getting plants are starting seeds and buying plants already started and somewhat established. I’ve done both.
Starting seeds is (potentially) less expensive than purchasing plants, however this really depends. If you purchase seeds, pots, and dirt it can get pricey but a quick Pinterest search will show you a ton of ideas for starting seeds using everything from kitchen scraps to egg cartons.
You’ll most likely need to start some seeds inside your home in January or February (depends on the plant) and keep them wet and warm. While it’s quite exciting to watch seeds grow, it can take a lot of time and effort. After the seeds sprout, you’ll then need to wait a few weeks and give them a taste of the great outdoors. Finally, after a few more weeks, they’re ready to be planted in your garden… where they may or may not survive.
If you don’t want to start seeds inside, you can start them outside when it will no longer frost, but waiting the two extra months will delay food production.
Some seeds are super easy to grow outside in the ground. These seeds are generally much less finicky than the seeds you need to start inside.
Plants I grow from seeds outside: spinach, sunflowers, green beans, lima beans, nasturtium, beets, marigolds, and peas.
That’s not to say the others are hard, they’re just not as easy.
If you’re on the impatient side and want an established garden quickly, buying plants is the way to go. While a single, established plant may be more expensive than a pack of seeds, you’re probably not going to need all those seeds, anyway.
I like to shop at local farms or farmers’ markets for my plants. They’re usually around $1 per plant, which is totally worth it in my book when you consider how much time and effort I save.
**Be careful when purchasing plants from home improvement stores, they’re often overpriced and treated with pesticides that hurt bees… which you need in your garden to pollinate so your veggies grow. It doesn’t even make sense.**
Plants I Buy Established: Cucumbers, zucchini, broccoli, onions, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs.
Helpful Tips about Fruits and Vegetables
Like I said, I’ve learned a lot along the way about planning a backyard garden. Here are some cliff notes about what I’ve learned and what I’ve succeeded and failed at.
Fruits & Vegetables for your Backyard Garden
Beets– easy to grow from seed, especially seed tape. Harvest when the tops are sticking out of the ground. You can plant something else after you remove the beets. Multiples aren’t necessary for pollination, but you’ll probably want a few rows.
Bell peppers — recommend purchasing small plants, it takes a while to produce peppers, plants will probably need some support when they get tall. Leave green peppers on the plant longer and they’ll get sweeter and turn red, yellow, or orange. Do not need multiple plants for pollination.
Blueberries — purchase as a small bush, but leave room, some varieties get large! You need at least two plants to cross pollinate. Fertilize.
Broccoli — recommend purchasing small plants, can get two harvests if you pick them when they’re small. They finish early in the season. Check for broccoli-colored worms, they hide SUPER well. Do not need multiple plants for pollination, but you probably want a few since the crop size is small.
Carrots — can start seeds in the ground early, make sure you thin the seedlings, tricky to grow to large size, better in raised beds. We’ve never grown a strong crop.
Cucumbers — recommend purchasing small plants. Vines expand, take up a ton of space, usually need a trellis, may choke out other plants, provide lots of food, need at least two. Pick when they’re 10-12” long, they’ll just keep growing and taste bad. They’re spikey when you pick them!
Green beans — super easy to grow from seed. Plant when it won’t frost. Plant some, then about 2 weeks later plant some more so you have a steady crop. Let your kids eat them raw right from the garden!
Jalapeno peppers — recommend purchasing small plants, take a while to grow, provide lots of peppers, bugs don’t eat them. Do not need multiple plants for pollination.
Onions — recommend purchasing small plants. They actually take quite a long time to grow. Harvest as needed after mid-summer or when the leaves flop over. Leave tops attached and lay them out to dry if you won’t be using them right away.
Potatoes — pretty easy to grow, you can even use potatoes growing eyes in your pantry. Kind of hard to find after you grow them. We’ve definitely left some in the ground. Vines spread. Potato boxes might be handy if you’d like a larger crop.
Spinach– easy to plant from seed when it’s still cold. Easy to grow, pick larger leaves from the outside of the plant and it will keep producing leaves. Won’t grow when it’s hot, so pick it early.
Strawberries — always tempting, but we have never had success, quit trying a few years ago
Sweet Potatoes — pretty easy to grow, vines spread everywhere. Potatoes can be hard to find. If mice find them first, you might not be able to eat your crop. Womp, womp.
Tomatoes — recommend purchasing at least 12″ plants. Bountiful harvest, always more than we can eat. Stick to two to three plants unless you really love tomatoes. Lots of varieties, which are better for different recipes. Need multiple plants for pollination.
Zucchini — recommend purchasing small plants. Need to plant at least two (pollination). HUGE leaves take up a lot of space, leave plenty of room. They grow a bunch of zucchinis, but usually earlier in the season. Pick zucchini when they’re about 12″ long, they will just keep growing, but won’t taste good.
Favorite Herbs for your Backyard Garden
Basil — recommend purchasing an established plant, easy to grow, but needs watering. When they develop flowers, snap them stems off to prolong the life of the bush. Great for making caprese salads with your tomatoes.
Cilantro — we just buy it at the store. Cilantro is easy enough to grow, but once it bolts, which it does in warm weather, you can’t eat it. I couldn’t keep up with it.
Dill — recommend purchasing established plants. Easy to grow, bees like it, good with cucumbers and for making pickles.
Lemongrass — recommend purchasing established plants. Decorative, smells good, keeps mosquitos away. Pretty in containers on a deck or patio. Can be dried for tea.
Mint — recommend purchasing established plants. Smells good, good in tea or mojitos, will spread and take over the world.
Rosemary — recommend purchasing a small plant, easy to keep alive, hardy, fun for picking and tossing with dinner
Stevia — Yes, the sweetener is an herb. My kids pick leaves off the bushes and eat them. You can also put them in teas.
Fennel — easy to grow, but we don’t really like the taste, so we don’t grow it anymore.
Helpful Flowers for your Backyard Garden
Yes, we’re talking mostly about fruits and vegetables in your garden, however planting a few flowers can be very beneficial. First off, the flowers will attract insects that will pollinate your plants and help them produce food. Many of the plants I list below also repel negative insects that may damage your crop— and they’re all super low maintenance.
Marigolds — basic, yes, but functional. Plant a few around your garden, but leave space because they get large. Easy to plant from seed or inexpensive to purchase. Plus, harvesting the seeds when the flowers dry out is fun — have your kids do it!
Nasturtiums — these are some of my favorite plants. Not only are they pretty, the seeds are giant and easy to plant. They attract aphids and squash bugs so those pests don’t get the vegetables.
Sunflowers — these are another favorite. They’re striking to look at and fun to grow. They grow easily from seeds and get remarkably tall (we like the mammoth ones). They also attract birds, which eat garden pests.
Planning a Backyard Garden
Planning a backyard garden can be a lot of work, but it’s also a great way to whittle away those cold winter days. Plus, there are so many benefits to growing a garden, it’s worth investing time into researching options.
Are you planning a garden for this summer? I’d love to hear about it! Drop a comment below and let me know the details.