Ultimate Guide to Planning Your First Vegetable Garden

Hands down, one of the best ways to save money and have guaranteed availability, is to grow as much of your own food as you can. And yes, you can do it!

Fresh vegetables that you can grow yourself

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Starting a small vegetable garden is easy! If you have kids, they will love to help and it’s such a great learning experience for them as well.

I led a horticultural program where we planted and harvested vegetables to donate to local families in need. The program ran successfully for over 9 years, and the kids loved it!

Even if you don’t have a yard, there are other ways you can grow your own vegetables. Certain varieties do very well in containers that you can keep on a balcony or small patio.

Or check to see if your town has a community garden program. Many large cities have these programs as well. One of the best programs I have seen is one done in NYC through Bette Midler’s non-profit organization, New York Restoration Project.

By growing your own vegetables, you will have:

  • readily available ingredients for your meals, with no running to the store
  • zero waste
  • lots of exercise
  • fulfillment, because there is nothing more satisfying than eating a meal from the food you grew yourself
  • guaranteed freshness
  • growing exactly what you want

Deciding what to grow

If you are new to vegetable gardening, deciding what to grow can be overwhelming. Let’s determine what will be the most cost-effective and will save you money on groceries.

Start with the vegetables you buy often

The best place to start in determining what will be the most cost-effective is to think about what you buy at the grocery store or farmer’s market.

  • What does your family like?
  • Are there veggies that you don’t buy often because they are too expensive? (like asparagus!)

Make a list of everything you can think of – sort of a vegetable garden wish list – and as we go along, we’ll weed out what is not realistic or advisable to plant.

Don’t even go there

Are there some vegetables that you or your family just plain hate? For me, it’s turnips and sweet potatoes. Don’t judge! Ever since I was a kid, I find these two to be gross.

Start a list of all the “yucks”.

When flipping through seed catalogs (click on the links below for tons of free seed catalogs), you can zip right by these and hone in on family favourites.

Here are links to sites that list seed companies and how to get their most recent seed catalog: http://freebies.about.com/od/homegardenfreebies/tp/seed-catalogs.htm and http://www.almanac.com/content/garden-seed-catalogs-and-plant-mail-order-sources

Several varieties of bell peppers on display in the grocery store

What homegrown vegetables will save you money?

Sorry if the above photo is a little blurry. I think I fainted when I saw the price of those peppers. $3.99 a pound? You know that I’ll be planting those in the garden!

Now that you have your likes/dislikes list,

Figure out how much it costs to buy your favourites at the store

Here in Connecticut, grape and cherry tomatoes are about $2.99/clamshell, acorn squash is up to $1.29/lb and when it is in season, asparagus is $1.99/lb – on sale.

All these are on my “grow” list. I bought 8 asparagus crowns for $9.99 at the CT Flower Show a few years ago, and they will be ready to start harvesting this year. The good thing about asparagus is that once planted, they will live and produce spears for about 25 years.

On the other end of the cost spectrum, bags of carrots are less than $1.00; and huge bags of potatoes and onions are also fairly inexpensive. For me, these aren’t really cost & time-effective to plan, but I sometimes grow all three, because having a few growing in the garden will save a trip to the store if I run out.

Another thing to keep in mind is that a packet of 25 seeds will cost anywhere from $1.29 to $4.00 for some of the harder to find varieties. So that $1.79 packet of carrot seeds will never beat the price of carrots at the store. But the same price for a packet of acorn squash seeds will beat the store price on any day of the year.

A bunch of golden beets on display at the local farmer's market

Try before you buy

Is there a vegetable that you have never had before, but looks like it might be really good? For me, one variety is the golden beets (pictured above) that I saw at the farmer’s market. Also at the market stand were white eggplant, and another eggplant called Rosa Bianca. I bought both varieties of eggplant, and made eggplant parmesan with them to see how they tasted. OMG! The recipe came out the best it’s ever tasted. So, for this year’s garden, I made sure to get seeds for both varieties, and scratched growing the traditional purple variety.

Vegetables like these go for big bucks at the farmer’s market, but growing them myself will cost under $5.00. And that $5 is for what I can use right away; freeze AND still have some to give away.

I didn’t try the golden beets yet, but I’ll see if the market vendor has them this summer. But – I probably won’t be considering the golden beets as a vegetable garden “potential”. Why not?

Not all vegetables are cost-effective to grow

While the golden beets look pretty and probably taste great, planting them will not be cost-effective for me. I like beets a lot, but I never have been able to get them to grow well and get to a nice size. Also, I really (really) like eating the leaves steamed with tons of melted butter. (tastes like spinach, but with a hint of beet flavour.)

Since beets don’t do well, and the greens are more what I prefer, I plant a much more cost-effective alternative – rhubarb chard and/or Swiss chard. Chard grows really well, I can plant a little at a time and have fresh greens all summer, and it’s something that isn’t always available in the grocery store. WIN!

Some vegetables are ones that I would never use enough of to justify the time and effort required to plant them.

Like snow peas. I love them – but would only use a handful every month. And because they like cool weather, there’s a small window of growing opportunity here in New England. Which brings me to…

Sometimes the weather just isn’t right

What climate do you live in? That will determine a LOT of what you can and cannot grow. If you have been gathering seed catalogs, you’ll see a zone chart in most of them. Here’s a plant hardiness zone map for the US from the USDA.

Look at the back of the seed packet or in the catalog, and most of them will tell you the days to maturity for the vegetable. This tells you how many optimum growing days you will need for seed to harvest.

Some crops do best in cool weather – like spinach. Since New England weather changes quickly, the spring isn’t really long enough to keep the spinach from bolting and going to seed. (Another reason why I plant chard.)

Other crops like a long, long period of warm, sunny weather. Again, New England just isn’t suitable for those crops.

Therefore, even though you may really like something, and it would be cost-effective to grow – you need the right conditions to grow it at home. I would love to have pineapples, avocados and limes in my garden, but I would have to move out of New England to grow them!

How much space do you have

Another consideration is the amount of room you have for a garden. An acre? One small raised bed? A few pots on the balcony? Limited space will narrow down your choices.

Not that I have limited space, but one year I decided to grow pumpkins in the far back corner of my property. Pumpkins grow, and grow and grow! It also takes them the entire summer and early fall to mature. AND the plants and leaves are huge. So off to the back corner they went, where I could let the plants take up as much room as they wanted to.  

When it came time to harvest the pumpkins, I followed the vines all through the corner of my yard to pick the pumpkins until I got to the end of the vine. Well, one plant decided that MY yard wasn’t big enough, and he went on a little adventure. I followed the vine, and then saw that it had traveled over the fence, and into the back yard of the neighbour on the next street over.

And to make matters worse, the most beautiful, plump, gorgeous orange pumpkin was sitting there in full glory – in the middle of the neighbour’s back yard.

Yeah, so not exactly cost-effective when your renegade pumpkin decides to live in somebody else’s yard. And I don’t even know those people, so I wasn’t going to ask them to give me my pumpkin back!

Green lettuce in a cobalt blue clay strawberry jar

But, something like leaf lettuce is perfect in a pot! I grow mine in a cobalt blue ceramic strawberry planter that sits at the foot of the back steps. (The planter is too small for the amount of strawberries I want to grow.) Lettuce has a fairly shallow root system, and I can move the pot into a shaded area as the summer progresses. I also sow a few seeds at a time, and have an almost continuous supply of different varieties of lettuce from spring to fall.

To give you an idea of the bounty you can expect, this is a small sampling of what I harvest in a typical summer (plus what I used before freezing & canning):

  • 18 plum tomato plants = 28+ quarts of spaghetti sauce
  • 5 one-gallon-size freezer bags of cut and blanched green beans from 2 rows/packets of seeds
  • 12 freezer bags of shredded zucchini at 2 cups/bag (what my zucchini bread, brownie and muffin recipes call for) from THREE plants/seeds!!!
  • 24 half pints of hot dog relish and bread and butter pickles from THREE cucumber plants/3 seeds!!!
  • lots and lots of leaf lettuce (from 1/2 packet of seeds)
  • radishes (one packet of seeds)
  • Swiss chard and beet greens (one packet of seeds each)
  • 19 POUNDS of acorn squash from 9 plants (NINE seeds)

Amazing, isn’t it? I mean, nineteen pounds of squash from a few little seeds! Which also is a reminder to be careful not to over-plant. (Note to self.) Those teeny tiny seeds look so innocent as you put them in the soil in the Spring.

Got water?

If you live in a dry climate or are in drought conditions, some plants are not good choices for growing at home. Cucumbers are one variety that likes a lot of water, and if they don’t get enough, they will be too bitter to eat.

Will you have access to a hose and water source? Or do you have to rely on the rain or use a watering can? Another consideration is how much you pay for water in your area. Or if you have well water, is there enough?

These are all factors to keep in mind in determining what will be the most cost-effective vegetables to plant.

Who else is sharing your space?

If you have bunnies in the ‘hood and want to plant lettuce, you may want to 1) plant extra and 2) put up fencing.

Deer are another story! Those guys will jump over a fence and eat everything in sight.

And then there are the birds. And all the other critters. Consider who else is living in your environment, and how much you are willing to share. Last summer was very dry, and the birds thought that ALL my seedlings were theirs for the taking.

After that, the neighborhood woodchuck ate everything I replanted. I finally put up netting fences around all the raised beds when I did the third planting.

And then there’s the bugs

Some vegetables seem to draw bugs like a magnet. I once tried planting Brussels sprouts. They took all season to get to harvest size. When they were at their peak and ready to pick, they were coated with thousands of gross, grey bugs. I mean, you couldn’t even see green anymore. Ewwwwww.

Some of these problems you will learn about as you garden, and often you can learn by asking other gardeners in your area. We gardeners love to talk about our gardens, and most are more than willing to help out a newbie.

By now you have:

  1. seed catalogs
  2. likes & yucks list
  3. costs of what you buy at the store
  4. did a “taste test”
  5. determined your climate/weather
  6. assessed the amount of space you have
  7. determined water needs and
  8. took a head count of who else shares your space and wants to be fed

Starting from seeds

The least expensive way to start a vegetable garden is with seeds. There are so many different varieties to choose from! A great way to familiarize yourself with what is available, is to order (free) seed catalogs. Go over them, and read about the varieties they offer.

Most catalogs also contain a Zone Map discussed above, which shows the areas of the country broken down into climates. This information is crucial, as you need to know when your area will no longer have a killing frost.

You will also be able to find seeds at your local garden center, hardware store, discount store or big box store. Just keep in mind that there probably won’t be anyone who can help you determine which variety to buy, so study the catalogs first!

Another great resource is your state’s Cooperative Extension System. Each state has at least one office too. That’s where I gained my Master Gardener certification – a 13 week program (one day a week for at least 8 hours/day) and a full 8-hour day of both written and practical exams. Totally worth it, too.

Spearmint

Herbs

You might also want to think about planting herbs too. For most of them though, you will be better off buying small plants rather than starting from seed. The exceptions are dill, cilantro, parsley and basil. Those grow very well from seed.

My herb garden is right at the foot of the back steps to the house. That makes it convenient when I am cooking and have to run out to snip some ingredients. Or snip some of the spearmint pictured above for my mojito.

In that garden, I grow chives, oregano, sage, parsley, lemon basil (the purple and green basil plants are in the vegetable garden with the tomato plants), chocolate peppermint, lemongrass and rosemary (to name a few).

This is just a taste of the benefits you will get from growing your own vegetables and herbs!

Every gardener will have a different list, and every garden will be different. We love to swap information, recipes, samples and sometimes even seeds and seedlings. And that’s part of what makes gardening so interesting and fun!

Empty raised bed in the vegetable garden

What’s going into that empty garden bed?

What will YOU be growing in your cost-effective garden?

Would you be interested in taking an online course on organic gardening for beginners?

Slices of tomatoes - fresh from the garden. Just one of the 12 reasons to start a garden!

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