We live on a postage stamp, but that doesn’t stop us from growing our own food. Here are some tips and tricks on how to start your own DIY backyard vegetable garden, at any stage and any age!
We’ve always tried to grow food and edible plants wherever we’ve lived. When we lived in downtown Charleston, we also lived on a postage stamp. But we also created three large raised garden beds, we kept bees, foraged for mulberries and loquats in the city, and we taught ourselves how to cure our own bacon.
Just because you’re living in a suburban neighborhood or a small space doesn’t mean you can’t plant a fruit tree or grow your own vegetables. (Sure, you might have to have it approved by your HOA - or, declined because it’s not a “canopy tree on the list” - but with a bit of persistence, you can do it!)
We moved to our current home a little under two years ago. Since we moved in, we’ve planted the following on the property:
- 8 Blueberry bushes (and, we had a huge harvest in June, in their first season!)
- Raspberry bush
- Blackberry bush
- Fig tree
- Peach tree
- Banana tree
- Lime tree
- Grapefruit tree
- 2 loquat trees
- 4 Pineapple guava bushes
- 3 Rosemary bushes
- 2 American Beauty Berry bushes
And, of course, we have Velma the Vego - our raised bed garden where we grow our seasonal veggies. We installed her last year, filled her up with dirt, and she’s been good to us ever since.
Right now Velma is carrying bell peppers, tomatoes, okra, and shishito peppers. We just pulled up all the onions (my first time growing actual onions, not for lack of trying), and she also holds our worm composter, where we put our kitchen scraps and the worms turn it into compost and then carry it out into the veggie garden without us doing much of anything. Yay worms!
Now, that’s a lot. I’m not suggesting that you need to go all in and plant a million things. But I would encourage you to try for one or two.
There are seriously few things in life that are as rewarding as walking out your back door, picking some fresh tomatoes and peppers off a plant, chopping them up in a salad and eating it for dinner.
Or, just biting into a warm, juicy, ripe fig right off the tree.
We get almost all of our fruit trees from fastgrowingtrees.com - they always have high quality plants and if you’re not sure about the fast growing part, you can just take a look at my banana tree, which arrived a year ago, froze and got completely cut down to the ground in February, and from March - August has grown to it’s height today of probably 10 feet tall or more! (Oh, and did I mention it multiplies itself?)
Growing food is also such an amazing educational experience for kids. With everyone flying around at a million miles an hour and always looking for the most convenient and shortest way…it’s a lesson in patience. In the time it takes to nurture living things.
In how to see something through from start to finish. How hard work can reap big rewards. And most importantly, where our food really does come from - the earth, not the grocery store.
How to start a garden
The best way to start is...just to start. Start with a small garden. Choose plants based on their growing season - there's a bit of a learning curve to this, as plants need to go in earlier than you think.
If you buy starter plants, you can get a little bit more grace with the time. For example, tomato plants, which produce their biggest crop around July here, actually need to go in the ground in early spring. If you wait until it's too hot, they'll wilt and die before they have a chance to grow.
Here are five tips to help you get started with a DIY backyard vegetable garden:
1. Start with pots. There’s no need to go purchase your own Velma just yet, or build raised beds. You can grow tons of stuff just in pots. This is a great option if you don't have a yard, and just have a small balcony. Grab a few pots, some soil, and a couple of starter plants. Put them in a sunny spot, give them some water, and see if you enjoy it.
2. Choose things that are easy to grow. Don’t start with finicky vegetables. Start with things that are easy to grow, that are resistant to pests and diseases, and that don’t need to be coddled.
3. Grow things you like to eat. Listen, okra grows like a weed. Literally, new okra will show up on your plant overnight. But if you don’t like okra, there’s no point in growing it, because you won’t eat it. The best vegetables to grow are the ones you will eat. Choose something you enjoy!
4. Add fresh herbs. You can get herb starter plants too, and they can be a game changer. Start with a tomato plant and a basil plant, and then harvest some and toss them with some avocado, balsamic vinegar, and a sprinkle of salt.
Thyme and oregano are also easy to grow and can season up a ton of different dishes. An herb garden is a great way to get started. I especially love the ones that are made out of wooden pallets.
5. Find a new recipe. Find something you’re excited about making that includes an ingredient that you’re growing. When it’s harvest time, find your recipe and get to work! It will be so much more rewarding to eat it knowing that at least one of the ingredients came straight from your yard or patio!
If you're doing a container garden, you'll want to make sure you focus on three things: soil, space, and rotation. Let's talk about each one.
When it comes to soil, you want to make sure you have a rich soil full of organic matter. (Yes, that might mean manure!) The other thing I have found works well is making sure that the soil is a sandy soil. Now that doesn't mean you want it to be mostly sandy; it just means you want it to have sand in it.
It helps with drainage and allows the roots some space to breathe, rather than everything getting packed in dense, hard, clay or mud. If you're growing things that need a certain soil acidity (like blueberries) then you will need to test your soil ph too. There are additives you can buy to balance it, and you can do an at-home test or can mail it somewhere to have it tested also.
When it comes to spacing, you want to make sure your vegetable plants in your backyard garden have a lot of space. Root vegetables in fall and winter will need less, as they grow straight down.
Summer vegetables will need full sun and enough room to grow far and wide! Do your research to know what you can fit. The last thing you want is crowded plants that can't grow because they're in the shade of other plants (been there, done that).
When we first started, we used the square foot gardening method. This worked for us while we were learning, but now I find it to be a bit too constrictive for my tastes. I can easily grow more than one carrot in a square foot, but cannot grow more than one tomato plant per square foot. It's a bit subjective to the plants.
These days, I use a mix of methods, to include companion planting (putting things that grow well together, together!) as well as vertical gardening - giving things that can climb the ability to go UP!
You have to just consider the variety of vegetables you're growing, and then figure out what garden design works best for you. This can take a little bit of trial and error, so don't be upset if you get it wrong the first couple of tries.
When it comes to crop rotation, you'll have to learn what each plant needs. For example, plants shouldn't be grown in the same spot in vegetable beds in consecutive years. So if they're in the back left corner one year, you'll need to go back right corner the next year.
You'll also be rotating your crops seasonally, so thinking about what you're going to grow for the upcoming season and prepping accordingly is important. If you let too much time pass, you'll discover that the next season has already started and you never got your plants in. Whoops! (Also been there, done that.)
I prefer a raised garden bed for my vegetable gardening - I get full control over the soil composition, and I get the added benefit of not having to bend over the whole time I'm taking care of my plants! (Yes, I'm ninety.)
That said, there are so so many creative ideas out there on how to start a DIY backyard vegetable garden. Don't put too much pressure on yourself for the first year.
Plan for a small plot with 6-8 hours of direct sunlight, put in some soil additives, and choose the easiest vegetables to grow - peppers, tomatoes, okra, root veggies like turnips and radishes (Seasonally, of course.)
Advanced backyard gardening
Ok, so let's say you've been doing the DIY backyard vegetable garden for a few seasons, and you're ready to advance your game. What now?
1. Try starting from seed. I like to order seeds from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, but you can also just go grab a seed packet from Home Depot and start there. You'll want to start most of your plants indoors while they are babies; we keep ours in the kitchen and spritz them daily with a spray bottle.
Once they're established enough to withstand rain and wind (think slightly smaller than starter plant size from the hardware store) you can transplant them to the garden. Keep in mind that some can be planted directly, so read the packet instructions before planting!
2. Start a compost pile. Plants looooove compost. And, if you're already growing the veggies, then you're sure to have vegetable scraps. This is an easy way to amend poor soil as well.
There are a million different compost setups - we use a worm composter in the middle of our veggie garden, but you can get any number of compost bins - vertical ones with doors in the bottom, round ones that roll so you don't have to stir it , and even countertop ones to hold your scraps between visits. It really depends on where you'll keep it and how you'll use it.
3. Consider drip irrigation or soaker hoses. It can get taxing to try and remember to water your plants with the garden hose every single day. If you can get set up with a system that is integrated into the garden, then you can just turn it on and run it for 15-20 minutes to saturate the ground and the roots.
This a great option for some of the more water-persnickity plants, too - tomatoes don't like water on their leaves, so this is a perfect way to water from the ground up.
Whatever your growing space, a backyard vegetable garden is an easy DIY project that you can start over the weekend. And there's little more rewarding than fresh produce, straight from the yard and onto your plate. 🙌🏻
This site contains affiliate links through the Amazon Affiliate program and others, which allow me to earn a small commission when you purchase through them, at no cost to you. Thanks for your support!