Green Thumbs, Power Up!

As the days get longer and warmer, you might be feeling a little antsy. You’ve been stuck inside all winter, so when the first cool, sunny spring day that comes your way you’ll probably want to head straight outside to soak up some of that springtime air. This year, consider converting some of that energy into a backyard garden. Not only will you have the immediate satisfaction of working outdoors in the dirt, but you’ll reap the benefits later with fresh, organic, homegrown produce.

But before you can make a stir fry with your backyard veggies, you have to actually plant them first. And that’s where it can all seem a little overwhelming. This is a simple, concise guide to getting started on your gardening journey, from seed to supper.

Visualize Whirled Peas
Before getting started, it helps to sit down and do a little thinking. The temptation with gardening is to jump right in, but as with almost everything else in life, pausing to plan and think will pay off later. Look at your yard. Think about where you might want to put a garden bed or two. The most important factor in this stage of planning is sunlight. For vegetable gardening, the more sunlight the better. To find your yard’s sunniest spots, figure out which direction is south–your garden should be south-facing and get at least 5 hours of direct sunlight, but the more the better. There’s even an app for iPhone and Android that can help you see exactly where the sun will be at different times of the day and year.

Once you’ve decided where, figure out how. For most backyard gardeners, raised beds will be the ideal solution. They’re easier to maintain and they look nice. There are about a million different ways to build a raised bed from extremely simple designs to more complex ones, so do some Googling, find a design you like, and make a supply list.

This is also a good time to sit down with your family and talk about what you’d like to grow. When you pick up a seed catalogue you may be overwhelmed with the choices available, so it’s good to get a general idea of what you’d like to plant before you even look at seeds. Focus on vegetables you know your family enjoys eating regularly and things that will be productive in a backyard garden setting.

Seed Matters
Ok, so you know you want peas, tomatoes, and lettuce, but what kinds? Start with the old-fashioned seed catalogue. Find a seed company that sells seeds that do well in your region. There are dozens of small seed companies that focus on specific regions, such as Adaptive Seeds, which breeds seed for the Pacific Northwest, or Southern Exposure, which produces a wide variety of southern heirlooms. It’s always a good idea to build your garden around varieties that will do well in your climate, and you’ll have better success doing that if you buy from local seed companies.

Once you decide on a source for your seeds, you may be shocked at how many interesting and beautiful varieties of different vegetables there are. There are a few things to keep in mind when buying seeds: yield (how productive a certain varietal is), flavor, hardiness, and appearance are just a few of them. For gardening in small spaces, you want varietals that yield more fruit in less space, but you also want vegetables that taste really good. If you live somewhere with hot, dry summers, drought tolerance will be important. If you live in a humid climate, you might look for rot or fungus-resistance.

The Starter Pack
Since seed shopping can be so overwhelming, start with these 5 vegetables and go from there. It’s always good to aspire to great things, but you have to start somewhere, and the vegetables below will reward you with a delicious, productive crop with less stress. Bonus: if you plant the vegetables listed below, you’ll be able to make homegrown salads all summer long!

● Radishes – This is one of the quickest things you can grow, and radishes are especially nice because they are one of the first crops you can start in the spring. They prefer cool weather, can be direct-sown in your garden (as opposed to starting them indoors under grow lights), and are ready in about 22 days. Choose small varieties like French Breakfast or Early Scarlet Globe.

● Snow or Sugar Snap Peas – Consider growing peas if you have a fence because peas love to climb! Like radishes, peas are a cool weather crop. If you live in a cooler climate, consider planting them indoors and then transplanting them when the danger of frost is past to get a jump on the growing season.

● Cherry Tomatoes – The easiest type of tomato to grow, cherry tomatoes are also the most productive. And you’ll love being able to snack on home-grown cherry tomatoes. Buy them already started in pots, especially if you live in a cooler climate. Look for varieties like Sungold or Matt’s Wild Cherry. These fruits are nature’s candy!

● Lettuce – How rewarding would it be to leisurely walk out to your garden after working all day and hand-pick a salad for dinner? That dream can be yours if you plant lettuce. For tender, sweet heads of lettuce, choose Buttercrunch (a butter lettuce), Forellenschluss (a speckled variety of romaine), and Little Gem (a heat-tolerant romaine).

● Cucumbers – To finish off that salad bowl, you’re going to need a good supply of cucumbers. Unless you want to pickle them, don’t plant a pickling cucumber variety. Rather, look into varieties like Marketmore, Tendergreen Burpless, or Green Fingers Persian.

Just Grow It!
It’s impossible to get into all the details of gardening in a short post like this, but sometimes too much information can be less helpful than just going out there and getting your hands dirty. Don’t get so obsessed with reading and planning that you miss out on the actual gardening part. The best way to learn is to go for it. You’ll likely have some crops that do really well, and you’ll probably have some failures, but either way you’ll learn a lot. Make sure to get the whole family involved in the process. Gardens are not only a good source of food, but they can serve as a great teaching tool for kids and a way for adults to de-stress. You might love gardening so much that you decide to turn your lawn into a mini farm. Who needs grass anyway?