It may be hard to think about growing herbs and tomatoes in February, when temperatures are still freezing. But in reality, this is the best time to start planning for a culinary garden — no matter how much space you have. Before you break ground, here are six factors to consider.
If possible, choose a spot close to the kitchen (especially for growing herbs) so you can easily snip and harvest for cooking. If there is no nearby space for a ground plot or raised beds, containers set on a patio or deck are a good option. Herbs and some small plants can also be grown in pots on a sunny windowsill.
If you’re planting your first edible garden, it’s best to start small. Once you begin to water, weed and harvest your plants, you’ll have a better sense of what size garden will be ideal for your culinary interests and lifestyle. For a one-sided garden, aim for a planting area with a depth of about three feet, which is the average adult reach. This will allow you to tend your plants and pick fruits and vegetables without stepping on the soil. The length of your garden will depend on available space and preference, but if you have enough room, consider a two-sided garden plot with a four-to-six-foot expanse. Using a plant-a-gram will help you maximize a small space and anticipate your harvest.
Almost all herbs, vegetables and fruits need sunlight to flourish. To determine the best location for your garden, note the position of the sun as it moves over your yard during the day. Select a spot that gets at least four hours of direct midday sun. A spot near a wall that reflects sunlight or holds heat can also be helpful. Pay attention to shadows from buildings and large trees and to how the light changes from season to season.
In general, herbs and plants that produce edible fruit (basil, tomatoes, peppers, blueberries) need the most light, while vegetables with edible leaves (lettuce, spinach, chard and other leafy greens) do better with less sunlight; some can even handle partial shade.
Take note of how water runs through the property and where it settles. For the best plant health and productivity, choose a level spot that allows the water to drain from the soil naturally, and avoid locations where water pools after a rain. If drainage isn’t ideal in your yard, a raised bed is a smart solution.
Almost all soil requires amending to give roots oxygen and nutrients. Supplement heavy, compacted soil with an organic growing mix and incorporate it well to aerate it. Otherwise, the water can run off without soaking in and plants spread out shallowly instead of growing down deep.
Mixing compost into the soil helps achieve the optimum pH levels for nutrient production and primes it with beneficial microorganisms. Home-made compost is ideal for an edible garden, if you have it, but commercial options also work well.
Make it easy to tend your garden by positioning it near a faucet that’s attached to a food-grade hose. Save time and water by installing a drip-irrigation system (it doesn’t require a large investment, either). Rain barrels offer an eco-friendly watering option and can be placed close to a garden as an extra water supply.
The best time to water plants is in the morning; they will begin the day well hydrated. Gardens always benefit from a rain shower, but when you are watering, avoid wetting the foliage. Instead, apply the water directly to the soil. A thorough soaking will reach the roots deep in the ground, helping plants tolerate high temperatures and other environmental challenges.
Start with just a few vegetables and herbs to focus your efforts and give you confidence as your garden grows. Take into consideration which herbs, vegetables and fruits you buy regularly and enjoy cooking — you might grow them yourself instead! It can also be fun to choose a few unfamiliar ones to experiment with.
Consider which plants are both appropriate for the size of your garden and your hardiness zone. With a little planning, sowing your own seeds is a fun and cost-effective way of introducing a wide variety of foods in your edible garden. Alternatively, planting young, already established plants can save time and ensure that you don’t miss out on any growing seasons.
Ready to get started? Check out our plant-a-grams to start mapping out your edible garden, and see our Annual Harvest Calendar to learn the best times to plant and harvest different crops in your location.