I’m not really qualified to teach anyone how to garden, but people ask me often enough that I thought I’d share a few basic tips. I’ve grown edibles for the last eight years in a variety of locations and conditions and have learned along the way through experience. Growing up, my parents had a few large beds, a potato patch, and a backyard composter, so the seeds of interest were probably sown early (sorry, couldn’t resist).
When I was learning how to garden as an adult with zero knowledge or skills, I tried to find resources to help me, but nothing I found spelled out the ultra-beginner basics. There’s plenty about various plants and how to care for them, but it’s harder to find information about how to actually start a garden when you don’t know anything. (Later, I found out about square foot gardening, which is a great book series that does spell out some of these basics.)
This is embarrassing to share, but my first garden was a complete failure: I carefully grew a few tomato seedlings from seeds, then transplanted them into our south facing garden. Right into the compacted greyish soil, beneath a mature tree that would soon grow in its summer leaves. I got one single cherry tomato out of that plant, which tasted pretty meh. I’m telling you this to remind you that we all have to start somewhere and it’s okay to know nothing. Experience is the greatest teacher anyway. And if you just read the next few paragraphs, you’ll already know way more than I did that first year.
Here’s what I wish I’d known from day one: plants need three things to grow—sunlight, water, and nutrients.
Most edible plants need at least six hours of sunlight to grow properly. Without enough sunlight, they will not grow as prolifically. To see how much sun the patch you’re eyeing gets, simply keep an eye on it on a sunny day, and make a note of when the sun starts shining on it and when it passes. Don’t forget to look up and make note of any trees that may grow a canopy. Also keep in mind that the sun gets higher as spring progresses.
One year, when we were living in a ground-floor apartment, I guerilla-gardened a patch of kale between our building and the neighbouring building. It only got about three hours of sunlight per day, but the kale actually did okay because it’s a hardy plant, although it didn’t grow as big as it could’ve. Sun-loving fruiting plants like tomatoes and eggplant probably wouldn’t have fared as well.
Bottom line: find the sunniest spot you can, and if you don’t have much sun, consider planting some edibles that will do okay with a little shade.
Plants need to be watered, of course. I think even the most beginner gardener knows this. Soak plants around their base when the soil dries out, every day or two when it’s super hot and dry. You can add a layer of mulch (seaweed, grass clippings, wood chips, straw, whatever you can get your hands on) which will help keep water in the soil so you’re watering less.
The soil you’re growing in will need nutrients, in the form of compost or fertilizer. This needs to be added every year, because the plants will use the nutrients to grow, depleting the soil. In the autumn, for bonus points, you could consider planting a cover crop. Fun fact: legume plants (such as beans) add nitrogen to the soil, and nitrogen is exactly what you need to grow big green leaves… like kale, for example.
What should you grow? Well, that depends on what you like to eat. My favourite thing to grow is clearly kale, because it’s so easy to grow, it’s super nutritious, and you can harvest it throughout the spring, summer and fall—then again the next spring, when it grows again and flowers. I grow lettuce for similar reasons and to add some variety, although lettuce doesn’t quite measure up on any of these counts to almighty kale. Tomatoes are another one that’s nice to grow at home, because fresh-picked sun-ripened tomatoes taste amazing. Other good beginner plants are peas, beans, carrots, and radishes, all of which grow from seed. And if you have a lot of space, sprawling zucchini plants can do well.
There’s plenty more to learn—about companion planting, managing pests, pollinators, seeds vs seedlings, soil quality from acidity to drainage, weeding, when to plant and when to harvest, and on and on—but once you’ve prepared a little garden patch you can google specific things as they come up and learn as you go. If you just find a sunny spot, add some nutrients to the soil, plant some seeds or seedlings, and don’t forget to water them, something edible will grow. Follow the instructions on the seed packet or seedling tag.
Don’t be afraid of failure. Failure is learning. I repeat: the best way to learn is through experience.
Now go plant a garden!