It may still be cold and frosty where you are, but believe it or not, it’s time to start thinking about planting a spring vegetable garden.

Even if you have very little yard space – or none at all – you can still grow veggies and fruits, as long as you have at least a patio or balcony.  Chances are, right now you are growing a whole bunch of grass, and not much more.  Why not use some of that space to grow something you can eat?  It will nourish your family for years to come, and save you money, too.

Eren gave us some awesome tips last Friday about starting a garden using repurposed materials.  Today we’ll look at a few different ways you can create a vegetable garden for the first time.

Garden Option #1: Square Foot Gardening/Raised Beds

In square foot gardening, you build raised beds on top of your existing soil. If there’s grass growing where you want to plant, no problem – just cover it with cardboard or newspaper.  This will keep weeds from growing up into your garden.

Then use a material such as untreated lumber to build boxes that measure no more than four feet wide.  Your beds can be as long as you’d like, but the four feet width ensures that you can reach the plants from either side of the bed, without actually stepping into it.  Instead of lumber, you can also use cinder blocks, fencing, or repurposed materials such as bi-fold doors, as Eren mentioned.

Then you will fill the boxes with soil that you purchase – the best option is a blend that contains compost and other organic matter.  This is undoubtedly the priciest part of starting a garden, but it is a one-time investment.  You will be able to plant again and again in that soil, so don’t skimp on it – find good quality organic soil for growing food, and you will not regret it.

You can plant your veggies very close together with this method because you don’t need to leave room to walk between the plants.  A perfect method for limited space!

Photo by SuburbanDollar

Some other notes:

• If you can’t access one side of the bed, then your bed should only be two feet wide.
• If you want to build more than one box, make sure that they are at least two or three feet apart, to leaving walking and kneeling space.
Yes, you CAN do this on a patio or balcony – just add a bottom to your boxes, and make sure to drill some drainage holes!

For more information about square foot gardening, visit the website of the author and originator of this method, Mel Bartholomew.

This is a photo of our raised beds in the backyard of our duplex.

Garden Option #2: Traditional Beds

When you garden with traditional beds, you can follow many of the same principles as described above, but you will plant your garden directly into the existing soil. If there is grass growing, you will need to dig it up, and then till (loosen) the ground, working some organic compost and/or peat moss into the soil so that it is ready for producing food.

You will be a little more limited by the kind of soil that you have – loamy, sandy, silty, clay, etc.  Different kinds of soil will require different kinds of amendments – for example, it is hard to retain moisture in sandy soil, and clay soil holds too much water and needs extra help with drainage.  If you’re not sure what kind of soil you have, there are some tricks and tests to figure it out, or you can purchase a test kit from your local gardening store.

Once you’ve tilled, added compost, and soil amendments if needed, water the soil and let it rest for a a few days before you plant.  If your bed is wider than four feet, you will need to actually step into the bed to work the garden, so make sure to plant in rows no less than eighteen inches apart. Never step on an area where you have planted.

Photo by Anne Norman

Garden Option #3: Container Gardening

Container gardening is exactly what it sounds like – growing your veggies in containers, such as pots, boxes, hanging baskets, or repurposed crates, buckets, etc.  Just make sure there are drainage holes in the bottom, or drill some yourself. Usually, a larger container is better than smaller – it will hold more moisture, so you don’t need to water as often, and many plants, such as tomatoes, prefer the extra room.

You will need a soil mix that is specifically made for containers, so make sure you specify this at your garden center when you’re buying the soil.  Make sure to look for organic potting soil – you will be eating the plants that grow in this soil!

Photo by Mike Lieberman

A few things to know:

• Make sure your veggies will be able to get at least 6-8 hours of sunlight.  If you need to trim a few branches from a tree, it may be worthwhile.
• In any of these kinds of gardens, you can plant seeds, plants that you start from seeds inside (called transplants), or plants you purchase at a garden center.
• If you plant seeds, follow the package directions.  Plant a few more than you think you need, because not all of them will germinate. You can thin the plants out later.
• Mulch, mulch, mulch!  This prevents weeds and holds moisture in the soil.  Eventually your plants may be growing in thickly enough that you no longer need to worry about mulching, especially if you use the square-foot method.

Choosing what kind of garden to plant is the first step in growing your own food. These three types of gardens are all easily accessible for the beginning gardener.  Now you just need to look at your available space and decide what will work best for you.

Are you planning a spring vegetable garden?  Have you ever grown your food before?  If not, what’s stopping you from trying?