Archive for the Gardening Category

5 Easiest Vegetables To Grow For Beginner Gardeners

I’ve been there, the seed catalogues come in January and you get all excited about what to grow this year in your garden.  It can be hard to figure out where to start, so I thought I’d share my recommendations on five easy vegetables to grow in your garden in your first year.  The biggest mistake new gardeners make is not starting small:  They have too big of a garden, they try to grow too many things, and in the end they get burnt out.

what to grow for begginers gardening

My advice after teaching people how to start gardening for years is to only start with a few things.  Three to five types of vegetables in a single variety of each.  This will give you a really good foundation to start your gardening journey.

Grow What You Eat

grow the vegies that you like to eat basketA very common this that I see newbie gardeners do is get excited by what they could grow, but they may not really like things or they try new stuff before they find out if they really like them.  If you were to look in your kitchen right now, what vegetables are you purchasing from the store?  Many of those could be good contenders for your first year’s short list.

There will be some things that you buy that aren’t in season or are more complicated to grow, but many of what most people like will be on our list below.  So consider what you eat, choose the easier ones to grow and let’s stack the deck in our favor!

Get Your Garden Prepared

It’s important to not just think about the vegetables that you’re going to grow, but to also think about growing good soil.  Have good soil is really what makes a garden go from okay to amazing, so don’t skimp on this step.  If you have never gardened before, check out our post on how to prepare your soil for a vegetable garden.

From Seeds Or From Seedlings

There are some things that do really well from seeds and some things that starting with a seedling is the way to go for first time gardeners.  Seedlings are simply very young plants that have been started ahead of time indoors, that you later transfer outdoors into your garden.

seedlingsIt can be tempting in your first year or two to in addition of starting a garden to also raising seedlings indoors, but my advice is to avoid this.  Your first few years to learn gardening is a lot, to add learning to start seeds into seedlings is too much and you’ll just burn out.


Below I’ll mention which ones I’d start from seed and which ones I’d start from seedlings.

What Plants To Start With?

Here are a few of my favorite plants to start with.  These are pretty easy, widely available and you can find lots of knowledge from local people and online. Start with three to five of these in a single variety.  It will be tempting to choose a bunch of types of vegitables and a few varieties of each, but doing so will bring complexity, stress and a greater chance of failure.  We don’t want that!


zucchnis from gardenThere is an old joke that I like to tell.  In the city people lock their doors so people don’t steal their stuff, in the country they lock their cars so someone doesn’t leave them a bag of zucchini and squash in their front seat.  What is really great about this plant is that it grows really fast, its very simple and it produces a ton of vegetables.

I’d suggest starting out with three plants of zucchini if you have a family.  There will come a point where you can’t eat anymore (trust me), at that point I usually just pull the plants out of my garden and compost them. For your first year I’d start these from seedlings, they’re easy to find, cheap and makes it easy to start.

One piece of advice that I give is I’ve found that there comes a point when I start to see squash bugs on my plants.  When I see more than 2 or 3 of them on a plant, I pull that plant right then and there.  New gardeners will often be hesitant to prune or pull out plants, you can’t be afraid to.  Squash bugs are very difficult to combat, every trick I’ve read online doesn’t do anything for my garden.  So I plant a few extra than I need and then just pull the plants as soon as I see the bugs and am content with whatever squash I got to that point, usually I’m sick of it by then anyways!


These are a favorite for most people and a garden tomato can’t be beat.  I would absolutely use seedlings for tomatoes.  The two varieties I suggest are “Early Girls” or “Roma”.  If you have short growing season I’d suggest Early Girls because they produce pretty quickly and earlier than most tomatoes.

tomatoes just picked

A few notes about tomatoes:  If you find that you are getting a lot of flowers, but they’re not really translating into tomatoes it’s often because they aren’t pollinating well enough.  This could be because they’re aren’t enough natural pollinators like bees or Humidity is binding up the pollen.  Tomatoes will often stop fruiting when it gets really hot, then start back up when summer temperatures start to wind down.

If you live in a very hot and humid area and Early Girls aren’t working for you, consider the variety “Pink Brandywine”.  They produce great tomatoes that are huge and tend to fair a bit better in higher heat.

Finally know that you will need to support the tomatoes in some manner.  This could be a cage, it could be a be a steak or string.  My favorite way to stake these is get a 6 foot pole that is durable metal coated in plastic and then use the rolls of twist ties you can buy at the store.  I find other options just don’t hold up over the years or are too cumbersome.


I’ll be the first to say these aren’t my personal favorite, but they are super easy to grow and they open up the soil some as they grow.  I’ll plant these for the chickens to peck out of the dirt and for friends who like them.  Radishes take between 14 and 21 days to grow full which is very fast and they are a cooler weather crop so early spring or fall is a great time for these.

radishes from garden

These are very easy to grow from seeds and they’re very cheap to buy a lot of seeds.  The seeds are very small, so what I will do is prep my bed nice and even, then just scratch the surface a little bit with the back of a garden rake.  The rule of thumb for seed depth is 3 times the length of the longest dimension of the seed.

In the case of radishes this means you barley cover them if at all, just make sure you keep them nice and moist with a fine mist (not a spray).  It can be easy for these to dry out, but since we plant in the cooler parts of the year it’s a little easier.  For spacing I follow the same approach I use with lettuce, so read below to find out how I do it.


There are a million varieties of lettuce so it can get overwhelming.  Ask around locally to see if people have favorites that do well in your area.  I often just get a lettuce seed mix which is several kinds all mixed together.   You loosely broadcast the seeds over a smoothed and prepared bed and lightly water.

leafy greens

Since we are starting from seeds, we need to know how to space them so they’re not so close that they crowd the others, but not too far that we allow for weeds or wasted space.  For lettuce I typically just shake the seeds out over the entire bed as evenly as I can, then when they start to grow up to about 2 inches, I go in and pluck out some of them to make enough space.  I typically go for about four inches apart from other plants, but I also try to choose the strongest ones.  It doesn’t have to be perfect!

Lettuce is grown in cooler weather, so spring or fall, the heat of the summer is often too much for most varieties, but there are some options for those who live in hot climates.  From seeding to harvest is about 3 weeks and you often can cut the leaves right above the soil about an inch and the lettuce will grow back another two times or so.


green beansThe two main types are “bush” or “pole” beans, the only difference really is that the pole beans need something to climb.  I often just stick with bush beans because it’s less poles and structures I have to deal with. These are a great plant to start out with in your first garden.

Beans are easily started from seed and are a larger seed.  Because we know the rule of thumb: plant three times the longest part of the seed, they typically get buried about an inch or so below the soil.  I usually take my rake and with the handle side make a little divot, drop the seeds about 6 inches apart and then lightly brush the soil of the trough back over the seeds.  Again, we don’t need to get out our ruler here!

So those are my recommendations on how to start a garden the easy way, to stack the deck in your favor and keep it all fun.  In the comments let me know what you’re going to try.

Your Turn!

  • What’s on your list to plant this year?
  • What tips do you have for first time gardeners?


How To Prepare Soil For Vegetable Gardens

Having taught people to garden for years, many people want to know how to prepare their soil so they can start a vegetable garden.  If you talk to people who have been growing for years, you’ll notice they spend a lot of time building the soil in their garden beds.

prep soil to grow foods

For first time gardeners I always recommend to start small and because each patch of dirt is different, I recommend starting with a raised beds, which is nothing more than building a bed of soil on top of the ground instead of in it.  You can add sides made out of wood, edging or other materials as a side wall, but it isn’t required, mounded dirt works just as well if you’re on a budget.

Building A Raised Bed Frame

For most people they want to have the tidy look of a wooden frame and it can be done quickly for little money.  Start with three 2×6’s and cut one of them in half.  This will form the four sides of the bed and create a bed that is 4 feet wide by 8 feet long.

raised bed garden

This is an ideal size because it minimizes the number of cuts (pro tip: big box stores will cut it for free for you) and at four feet, you can reach to the middle from either side without having to stretch too much.  A few screws will make a solid frame for you to fill in the dirt with.

Turn The Soil Below

turn soil with pitchforkEven though we are going to build a bed above the ground, we want to break up the soil below it so that our plant’s roots have an easier time of penetrating the ground as they grow.  Ideally you would shovel off the top layer if it is grass, but I’ve done it both ways.  Removing the grass below will help reduce weeds coming up later, so it’s often worth the effort.

If the soil is pretty bare, what I’ll do is rake the top then go buy a gallon jug of white vinegar to douse the little bits of weeds or grass with the vinegar to kill a few days before I build my bed.  White vinegar will work well to kill the weeds in spot treatments, but if you have more than 10% coverage, I’d just scrape the top off completely.

The last part is take a “digging fork” and just break up the top few inches of soil, it can be pretty chunky because we’re going to cover it all with our soil bed mix soon anyway.  Don’t get too tied up in making it perfect, this is a really a rough pass that we do quickly and move on.

Mixing The Perfect Soil To Grow In

First off, there are many different options here and if you ask 100 people you’ll get 101 recommendations.  So understand that if someone uses something different, that’s fine.  For most people just starting out I try to make it really simple and we can get into more of the nuances later.  So use this mix to start and in a few years, start to try different things.  We want to get you to gardening as quickly as we can and if you get caught up in what mix is the best, you’ll never actually start gardening.

raised bed soil mixture for good growing a garden

So I use a mix of compost, vermiculite, and peat moss. Typically I buy for a single 4 foot by 8 foot bed that’s around 6 inches deep the following:

  • 10 bags of compost (one cubic foot size bags)
  • 1 bale of compressed peat moss (three cubic feet size)
  • 1 bag of vermiculite (4 cubic foot sized bags).
  • 1 small bag of Bone Meal
  • 1 small bag of Blood Meal

If you don’t know what these are, just print this post off and bring it with you to any big box store, they’ll know exactly what you need from this list.  If the employee doesn’t know these items, it’s best to find someone else because these are gardening 101 supplies.


mushroom compsting mixFor compost you’ll find a lot of different options, my favorite is “mushroom compost” which you can find bags at any big box hardware store.  A close second is “Black Kow” compost.  I’ll often grab a few of each to make up my 10 bags for my bed.

If you can’t find these specific ones, it really isn’t a big deal, use whatever compost you can find at your local store or garden center.  Compost provides a lot of nutrients to your plants and serves as the base for seeds to root into.


bag of vermiculiteVermiculite is essentially rock dust crushed up, it provides a lot of minerals for your plants, but it’s main function is to act like a sponge for water.  Be sure not to get confused with perlite, it’s not the same.  This one might take some calling around to find, if there is a local gardening group they might have some good leads.

I will also add a note here that if you start searching around about vermiculite, you’ll inevitably run into an old timer that will make the point about asbestos in vermiculite.  This is something that we had to worry about 40 years ago, but today there is no source allowed in the USA or Canada that doesn’t carefully screen and test for this.  The myth still persists today, but you should have zero concerns because the industry has long made changes to prevent this.

Often garden centers or seed/farm supply places carry it.  I’ve even seen it in small bags at your big box hardware stores.  If you can’t find it consider purchasing a few bags off of Amazon, while it’s a bit more expensive locally, you can buy a few of these bags of vermiculite and be good for a 4×8 bed.

Peat Moss

package of peat moss or spagnum mossThe last part of the soil mix.  This fluffs up the soil, allows for good oxygen infiltration and also acts like a sponge to hold in moisture until plants need it.  This can be found anywhere and they type or brand doesn’t matter.  The only thing I’ll suggest is make sure you get it from the soils section where you’d find your bags of compost or near the bags of mulch section.  Sometimes they sell small bags that are meant for growing orchids, these are often expensive, but the ones in the bagged compost section is usually sold “compressed” for very cheap ($10-$20 for 3 cubic feet compressed).

A common question that comes up around peat moss are concerns about if peat moss is sustainable.  It is true that 10 years ago peat moss was harvested from natural wet lands, but today it is done in a manner that is regenerative.  If you are still concerned, consider sourcing coconut coir which is a material similar to peat moss but made from the waste product of coconut husks.  In the end, I suggest you don’t get too caught up in your first year or so, just get your first year under your belt and then work on improving in later years.

Bone And Blood Meal

I prefer to use bone meal and blood meal, but there are many options.  Obviously from their names, they are a animal sourced product.  Those wanting a non-animal source can try seaweed meal or fertilize, you can buy seaweed fertilizer here.  Bone and blood meal are organic sources of the major nutrient (NPK: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium).

bone meal and blood meal in bags

Since we are starting out with such good ingredients, we don’t need much of these.  If we were starting with the soil in ground, there may be need for more as directed from a soil test, but since we are building our own soil we don’t need a soil test for our first year or two.  I start out with one large handful of each, mixed evenly across the whole 4×8 raised bed.

Mixing It All Together

Some people will use a tarp to mix the soil together, I just skip that and dump everything in a pile in the framed bed, then mix with my hands or a shovel.  If you choose compost that is moist, but not sopping wet it will mix easier.  Sometimes this means pulling off the top few bags at the garden supply place so you get to a lower layer of bags that haven’t soaked up any recent rain.

Here is my basic approach:

  • Take your peat moss bale and place it in the bed
  • With a shovel stab the plastic in a line to break open the bale
  • Turn it over to dump the peat on the ground and remove the plastic
  • Shake out half your vermiculite on top of the peat moss, set the rest aside
  • Grab one large handful each of bone meal and blood meal, sprinkle across the bed
  • Place a bag of compost in the bed, stab with shovel to dump on the pile
  • Repeat with compost about half your bags
  • Using the shovel and hands, mix it all up until it’s well mixed
  • Add remaining materials and mix it all up
  • smooth out the top and give the soil a brief water

How To Water Your Garden

You want to water it a few days before you plant if you can, this will let all the water to absorb into the peat moss and vermiculite.  Water for a count of five and then stop.  Again, counting to five, if the water fully absorbs into the soil so there is no sheen on the dirt from the water, water again for a count of five. repeat counting to five until the water doesn’t absorb all the way in five seconds.  This is a good indicator that the soil is nicely saturated with moisture, but not soaking.

how to water your garden and vegitables

In the end building your soil will set you up for success for years to come.  Following this formula and starting small, you will have a better drastically easier time because we’re not trying to fix our existing soil or battle weeds.  Start with one 4×8 bed, then next year go a little bigger.  The number one thing I see is new gardeners burning out their first year because they took on too big of a garden.

Your Turn!

  • What are your garden plans this year?
  • What tips have you learned?

Start Growing Perennials in Your Backyard Garden

Perennial plants are a great addition to your backyard garden. They require little maintenance and come back for several years without needing to be replanted. They are often cold hardy and more drought tolerant as well.

raspberry bush

We have been living in our current house for three years now. It is a beautiful property with a lot of unused land that we have slowly reclaimed a little each year. We are renting this property while we work toward our forever homestead. Unfortunately when you are renting you have a very temporary mindset. We didn’t know if we would be here for one year or five when we moved in. For some reason, we thought it was more likely to be one.

planting strawberries

Because of our temporary mindset, we didn’t make an effort to plant any perennials the first summer here. The second summer I put in a few things and even more the third. Had I followed my intuition the first year we would be eating asparagus and lots of raspberries right from the land we are living on. Thankfully the strawberries I planted a couple of years ago are going gang-busters. I can’t wait to eat them on pancakes this summer!

What are perennials?

There are three types of plants, annual, biannual and perennial. Annuals are plants that need to be planted every year. Plants like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and most garden vegetables are annuals. Biannual plants have a two-year cycle. Carrots and onions are both biannual. Perennials are so great because you plant them once and then reap the benefits year after year. They rarely need to be replanted because they either spread or reseed themselves. Peppermint, asparagus, and strawberries are all perennials.

Benefits of planting perennials

strawberry flowers

They don’t need replanted year after year

Unlike annuals, which need to be planted each year, perennials will come back at least three years before they need to be replanted. Many perennials will last much longer than that. I have heard that a healthy asparagus crown can produce for 20 years. The longevity of their life cycle reduces the amount of work you have to invest to see a good harvest.

Perennials are generally hardy plants

Many perennial plants can survive through the cold of winter. We have the most beautiful sage bushes in our garden. They amaze me the way the come back bigger and better every year. It is important to know your USDA cold hardiness zones so that you buy plants that can survive your growing conditions. See the map below to find out your hardiness zone.

While sage, strawberries, and chives thrive here in Idaho rosemary and thyme just can’t survive the winter. I am always amazed when I see the gigantic blueberry bushes from the south, another plant that doesn’t do very well here. So make sure to grow what is appropriate for your region.

rhubarb harvest

They multiply without intervention

While the life cycle of a perennial plant can sometimes be a short as three years, they rarely need to be replanted because they multiply through their root system or by reseeding themselves. I get so excited every spring when my chives come back bigger and better than ever. I started with a very small plant and now have several large bunches. I recently harvested a pound of the flowers to put in the dehydrator, and that was not even a quarter of what was on the plants!

chive flowers

Perennials require minimal care to produce a harvest

Perennial plants have a more established root system than an annual plant. Over time they continue to spread their roots and adapt to their environment, often translating into less watering without a loss in yield from the plant. Their deep root system means that they are able to access nutrients further down in the soil than annuals can.

Raspberries are a perennial plant that thrive in our area. You plant one bush, and pretty soon you have a whole patch. They don’t need large amounts of water to bear fruit and only need some pruning in the fall to continue to produce and spread.

picking raspberries

They bear fruit earlier than annuals

Most annuals can’t be planted until the danger of frost has passed while perennials will often leaf out and begin growing before the last few touches of frost. They seem to handle cooler temperatures which mean that you will be able to harvest them earlier than the annuals you plant. It is so refreshing when my chives and strawberries begin to grow after a long cold winter.

choke cherries

Whether you have an established garden or are just getting started on your property, make sure that perennials are a major part of your plan. Include fruit trees, herbs and fruit-bearing bushes in your planning. The sooner you get them in the ground, the sooner you will be enjoying the fruits of your labor!

Your Turn!

  • What perennials do your have growing in your garden?
  • Which perennials do you hope to add to your garden?

Fall Gardening: Planning for a Longer Growing Season

No matter how early I start or how big my garden is I always want my growing season to last longer! With a little planning, you can extend your growing season by planting cold-hardy plants that will be ready to harvest as the first frosts are beginning. While frost kills tender summer veggies, it will sweeten many of the autumn root crops and will prepare them for long-term storage.


The timing of your fall garden will be determined by what region you live in and if you have light or hard frosts in early fall. Here in the northern states where the growing seasons are short, and our first frosts are hard, many of our fall vegetables are planted at the same time as our spring and summer crops. The latest I can plant fast-growing, cold-hardy greens is early July. However, If you live in the south, it may be hard to grow through the heat of the summer. You will most likely plant your fall garden in September for a harvest in December and January.

When do I plant?

There are two important dates you need to figure out – the first day of frost and your planting date. Asking neighboring gardeners or local nurseries is the best way to pinpoint what is typical for your area. There are also some great frost calculators on the internet. The ones I checked were very close to the dates we use for our garden.

The date you plant into your garden will vary based on the plants and their rate of maturation (how fast they mature). You will count backward from your first day of frost to calculate when your fall garden needs to be started. If your vegetables need 75 days to maturation, then plant at least 75 days before your first frost.

Do I plant directly into the ground?

Many of the plants you will be growing in your fall garden will not tolerate the heat of the summer so they need to be started indoors, just like you would start seedings during winter for your spring garden. Brassicas (the cabbage family – broccoli, cabbage, kale…) all take a while to mature so you would start them indoors and then plant into the garden when they are 4-6 weeks old.

fall garden

Tender leafy greens can be sown directly into the garden. One way to make sure they don’t bolt before you have a chance to enjoy them is to plant them under the shade of your summer plants. I was able to extend my peas last year by planting them under sunflowers. It worked great and looked beautiful.

What if my summer garden isn’t finished when it is time to plant?

You do not need to completely clean out your garden before you can begin planting your fall garden. Planting fall crops as you harvest and pull out summer veggies is a great way to keep your garden growing. When your tender seedlings are ready for the garden, they will thank you for planting them in the partial shade of your summer veggies. Not sure what to grow? This is how I prioritize and plan my space.

Here is a list of popular fall garden plants:Fall gardening

  • peas
  • brussel sprouts
  • broccoli
  • cauliflower
  • kale
  • collards
  • cabbage
  • kohlrabi
  • lettuce
  • arugula
  • spinach
  • cilantro
  • parsley
  • carrots
  • parsnips
  • rutabaga
  • turnips
  • potatoes

Your Turn!

  • What are your favorite fall garden vegetables?
  • What are you going to grow in your fall garden this year?

Choose the Right Vegetables for Your Garden in 5 Easy Steps

Whether you are a beginner or advanced gardener this step by step guide will help you grow a well-rounded vegetable garden. Your family will love the variety and you can feel confident that you picked the best vegetables for your garden.

As I write this there is about two feet of snow on the ground and we are hibernating by the fire. We have had night time temps below zero and day time temps below freezing. It would seem that gardening would be the farthest thing from my mind. In reality, it is the best time to start planning the garden and getting prepared for growing season.

Gather ideas

I start by making a dream list of all of the yummy things I want to grow. Don’t get ahead of yourself and be logical at this point, just jot down all of your ideas. It is very easy to get bogged down in the details of timing, spacing, and companions and not get things planned. Don’t worry, the list will narrow down as we continue to plan.


Now, mark the items on your list that are non-negotiable. These are foods that your family loves to eat. You don’t want to get swept away by all of the colors and rare foods in the seed catalogs and end up with a harvest your family doesn’t enjoy.

A couple years ago we planted blue potatoes – a whole row of blue potatoes. We didn’t try eating them first; we just planted. They grew really well but we struggled to eat them and ended up wasting a bunch. We have blue volunteer potato plants that come back every year, all on their own. It is the gift that keeps giving.

Homegrown potatoes

Now that you have marked your favorites, go back through your list and mark the foods that you could save a lot of money on, by growing yourself. Cucumbers are a great example. They often cost $2 for a single organic cucumber. A typical cucumber plant will produce approximately 5 pounds of cucumbers.

Narrow down the list

It is time to pull out the seed catalogs. We will look up each item that you have marked. Maybe tomatoes are something you eat a lot of and you want to can some as well. Start by looking at the days to maturation – how long it takes for the plant to grow, fruit and the fruit to ripen.

Our growing season is typically 90 days but that can include a freeze or two near the beginning or the end of the season. I try to only grow 55-75 day vegetables. That gives me enough time to harvest more than just the first fruit.

Our short growing season makes tomatoes very hard to grow, especially if I want something substantial enough to can. So I will weigh that information against the space I have in my garden. Is the space that tomatoes would occupy worth the risk of having a non-productive crop?

green beans, yellow wax beans

Green beans, on the other hand, thrive here and will produce enough for us to enjoy through the summer and freeze for eating in the winter. Until I have a greenhouse they will get higher priority than tomatoes.

But not too narrow

If you are new to gardening don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. It is so easy to get dreamy when you are planning your garden. You start thinking about canning and dehydrating and all of the money you will save. Your priority for the first couple years should be to keep your plants alive and enjoy some fresh veggies during the summer. Which is easier than you think when you set yourself up for success. As you become a more seasoned gardener you can expand your garden and plan for a big enough crop to preserve.

Our garden two years ago overflowed with cucumbers. We literally carried in bucket after bucket. However, last year we grew about three. It was a very cool summer and we just couldn’t get the plants to come up. It is so important to have enough diversity that you are not banking on one crop. Not to mention that it is easier to keep disease and pests at bay with lots of diversity.


Fill in the missing pieces

Use your list to choose at least one variety for each type of vegetable (as garden space permits). Don’t be limited by my suggestions. Choose what your family will enjoy eating!

sage herb

  • Leafy greens – Spinach and butter lettuce are favorites at our house.
  • Root veggies – We love how potatoes and carrots are so versatile and delicious.
  • Salad veggies – Cucumbers and sweet peas are so refreshing in the heat of summer. It is easy to find us munching these down while in the garden.
  • Stir fry veggies – Green beans, summer squash, and broccoli are the staples of our summer menu and can be frozen for winter meals as well.
  • Winter storage – Butternut squash and sweet potatoes are filling, add a lot of variety, and store long into the winter.
  • Herbs – Basil and sage are very prolific and add a punch to your meals.
  • Now choose one experimental, just-for-the-fun-of-it plant. Every garden needs a wild card!

By methodically working through your list, you will have a great variety of vegetables that will ripen during your growing season.

Your Turn!

  • What is your favorite vegetable to eat straight out of the garden?
  • Have you grown a vegetable your family didn’t want to eat?
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