Your Green Thumb Can Help You Save Money: How to Start a Backyard Garden

Gardening for beginners
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As the days start getting just a little bit warmer, it’s time to start preparing for a great season of gardening. Growing vegetables at home can help you save money and know exactly what you’re eating. Plus, it’s rewarding to harvest a feast you’ve grown yourself!

You don’t have to have a big plot of land in the countryside to grow delicious vegetables. Once, I lived in a small urban apartment and was able to grow a feast of tomatoes, squash, peppers, eggplants and more in pots right on my porch.

Ready to start growing vegetables and pretty much cross them off your shopping list for the summer? Here’s how to start a vegetable garden.

Find Your Zone

Before you get started on your garden, take a look at this handy map to see what climatic zone you live in. The zones show the climatic conditions in different areas, based on the average low temperatures in the winter, and tell you what kinds of plants will grow best in your region. With this interactive online map from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, just type in your ZIP code to find out your zone number.

Be sure to consider plants to grow that thrive in your zone. If you live in Michigan but want to plant mango and lemon trees outside, you may end up disappointed when they fail to thrive. Work with your climate, rather than against it.

You’ll find plenty of plants that thrive in almost all climates, so do a little research. Ask around at your local garden shop, where staff can likely provide the best advice on veggies and fruits varieties that grow best in your zone.

Also consider how your zone will affect your timing. Burpee’s vegetable catalog features interactive information telling you when to plant each vegetable for the area in which you live. For example, the site tells me that in my particular zone (zone 3), I will need to sow my cucumbers in mid-June. If I lived in Orlando, I could start planting my cucumbers right now. Those few months make a key difference, since if I planted cucumbers now, they would quickly die.

Gardening for Beginners: First, Decide What to Grow

Part of setting up your garden is, of course, figuring out what you’d like to grow. You’ll only have so much space, so you’ll want to make the most of it! Choose to plant foods you enjoy eating, and consider the impact on your bottom line by planting these cost-effective vegetables.

Consider your garden’s location. Evaluate how much sun you have and what times of day different areas of your yard or garden receive sunlight. Different plants have different sun and shade needs. For example, basil and bell peppers like full sun, while arugula thrives in shadier areas.

Your garden’s size is also an important factor. Different plants have different space requirements. Some plants, like corn and broccoli, prefer a foot or two of space between rows, while beans only need half that space. And leafy plants, such as spinach and lettuce, are often just fine when they are planted only 4 to 6 inches apart.

Also, think about how often plants need to be watered and what is realistic with your schedule. If you won’t be around much, be sure to get lower-maintenance plants, and if you’re planning on leaving town for a chunk of time, think about who may be able to help water your plants when you’re away. It would be a shame to let months of work shrivel up when you’re on vacation for a week.

Short on Space? Have a Potted Plant Garden

You might not have an extensive backyard to grow a garden. But this doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy homegrown tomatoes and other veggies this summer! It’s possible to grow a bounty of tasty treats from pots right on your patio, or even inside your home.

Be sure to consider the sun and shade you have available, as well as the space needs of the vegetables you choose to grow. It’s also a good idea to specifically ask at a garden shop if the plants you’re considering growing typically do well in pots in your climate.

Gather Your Tools and Seeds

Now that you know what grows well in your area, how much space you’re working with and what you’d like to grow, it’s time to start gathering what you’ll need to put your garden together.

Think about seeds or starts, soil, fertilizer, mulch, a watering system (which can be as simple as a watering can or a mason jar, or as complicated as a sprinkler system), and any tools you may need and don’t already have (shovel, hoe, rake, etc.) A local gardening shop can share in-depth information on the fertilizing combinations and items that will work best in your particular area for the plants you plan on growing.

Once you have an idea of what you need, think of ways to save money on these items. Many plant stores have sales in the springtime, but also consider Craigslist, FreeCycle, garage sales, Facebook garage sale groups and other ways to source these materials inexpensively (or even for free!).

Be mindful that used gardening supplies, such as pots and shovels, can harbor diseases and pathogens that can be transmitted to your plants. For example, if you use a tool or pot that previously held or touched contaminated soil or a diseased plant, your plants may be susceptible to becoming infected.

Be sure to thoroughly clean all the dirt off and wash everything well before using. These sterilization guidelines will help “disinfest” certain gardening items from certain pests.

Prepare Your Garden

Prepare the soil by evaluating its texture and cultivating it to allow air in and provide drainage. Consider using mulch to keep out weeds and enhance soil fertility, and add a layer of compost to help fertilize your garden. Compost is usually free — you can collect veggie scraps and yard waste all year to create this “black gold.”

Consider Raised Beds

Raised beds help keep vegetables high and dry in areas with a lot of soil moisture. They also help keep neighboring plants, such as grass, from taking over your vegetable garden, and reduce soil compaction since you’re not stepping on the garden itself to access your plants. And then there’s the added benefit that raised beds mean less crouching during garden maintenance, weeding and harvesting.

If you’d like to build your own raised beds, follow these simple directions for different options. It doesn’t have to be a huge construction project, though. You can create raised beds by using logs to create an outline and then filling it up with soil. Concrete blocks can also do the trick, as well as a number of other simple materials.

Planting a garden doesn’t have to be complicated, and it’s a simple way to save money on food. Plus, there’s nothing like biting into a perfectly ripe tomato straight off the vine, or serving a salad fresh from your backyard. Whatever you decide to grow this year, enjoy it!

Your Turn: What tips do you have about gardening for beginners?

Kristen Pope is a freelance writer and editor in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.