Starting a Simple Vegetable and Herb Garden

When spring break rolls around, our children often head out to the grandparents, leaving Sarah and I with a several day “stay-cation” of sorts. While I’m usually still working, I often plan ahead to take a day or two off during that week, and Sarah, as a schoolteacher, usually has much of the week off, too (though she’s usually setting up a ton of things for the rest of the school year).

So, there’s usually four or so days during mid March where Sarah and I spend time at home taking care of things, and one of the big things we work on is preparing our garden.

We have a nice garden in our backyard. It’s roughly 200 square feet and has grown over the years from the 25 or so square feet that we first started with. We now even have a second garden on the other side of our house that’s about 50 square feet itself. These aren’t giant gardens, of course, but they do provide us with a surprising amount of food in the late summer and early fall.

The thing is, our entire gardening routine started when we lived in a tiny apartment and our “garden” consisted of two large pots on our front patio. Once we bought a house, things just steadily grew from there, but we still do the same basic things, just at a larger scale. You can do the basics of this no matter where you’re at.

While this does take some time and there is some initial startup cost involved, the variety and quantity of vegetables and fruits and herbs we get from our garden makes this an extremely worthwhile endeavor. We often turn a few dollars’ worth of initial cost into hundreds of dollars’ worth of produce by season’s end without that much effort.

Iowa seasons line up perfectly so that we usually do much of our garden prep work in mid March, so now’s the perfect time to talk about our process.

Here’s what we’ll be doing next week.


First of all, we’ll be planning out what we want to do. What do we want to grow this year? What perennial plants are coming back from last year?

Here are some of the things we consider when thinking about what to grow?

What grows well in our area? At this point, we have a pretty good idea of what grows well in central Iowa, but if you’re new to gardening in your area, it’s well worth looking into what kind of garden vegetables grow well for you.

More specifically, you’ll probably want to find a vegetable growing calendar for the state you live in, which will tell you when to plant certain vegetables. We’ve learned to trust such calendars; here’s the calendar we use for our area.

Using those guides and your own desires for vegetables, herbs, and fruits, you’ll probably be able to come up with a list of things you want to grow and roughly when to plant them. The next step, of course, is to figure out where you want to plant those things.

For us, this involves drawing a diagram of our garden and identifying what will fit in there. Some of the space is taken up already by perennials that come back year after year (oregano, thyme, chives, rosemary, sage, asparagus), so we leave that blocked off and focus on the areas where we need to plant new things.

If you’ve never gardened before, a container garden is a great way to start. You just need a large, sturdy container of some kind and access to some dirt and gravel you can borrow. I’ve grown successfully in cheap $3 all-purpose buckets from the hardware store before – they work perfectly fine. Put a few holes on the sides near the bottom (an inch or so from the bottom), then add a layer of ordinary gravel, then put in a layer of newspaper or cloth, then fill it the rest of the way with whatever dirt you can get for cheap (like at a construction site – just ask if you can steal a few shovels of dirt and the construction workers will say “sure!”… just get dark soil if you do this, the closer to black the better). It won’t be the best dirt, but it’s cheap, and you can make your own fertilizer, too (we’ll get back to that).

In general, we find it’s way easier to just focus on a few things we know we’ll eat, and then store the excess and swap it with neighbors. We usually grow tomatoes, some sort of squash, and some kind of bean in our side garden. Sometimes, I’ll also make room for a few pepper plants. That’s it – it’s not complicated.

The more different things you grow, the more attention you have to pay to everything and the more time it takes. It’s much easier to grow just a few things, particularly if you have a friend to trade with or you can store the extras.

Preparing the Ground

Another part of spring garden preparation is preparing the ground for planting. We don’t plant yet, of course, as we follow the planting calendar described above, but we do get the ground ready for planting.

What that means is that we clear the ground of debris. Anything that remains from last year is removed so that we have a clear patch of ground. We then turn the soil over (our garden isn’t really big enough to justify a mechanical tiller, so we just use a shovel) and then spread the dirt around with a rake. That way, the garden is largely ready for planting when it comes time.

A combination of a shovel and a rake is definitely hard manual work – it’s a nice little physical workout. If you’re not up for that, you can definitely buy a small tiller (or borrow one from a friend) to get the same effect with a lot less manual effort.

If this is your first garden, you’ll want to discard the top layer of the ground where all of the grass is unless you want to deal with infinite weeds. This means you may need to find additional soil from somewhere – as mentioned above, construction sites often have some available. Look for dark-colored soil – the closer to black, the better. Bring home a bucket or two of this stuff and spread it on top of your new garden space once you’ve removed the grass layer and turned over the soil underneath it.

Usually, in mid-March, the top layer of the soil is thawed, but it still gets below freezing many nights, so while we can turn over the topsoil, we can’t yet really plant anything. Be patient. Trust the schedule.

There’s another thing we do outside, too. We apply a first natural fertilization.

Simple Homemade Fertilizer

Let’s get one thing straight: there’s nothing better than compost for a home garden, but making and applying compost can be a lot of work. We have a compost bin where we toss many of our plant scraps and we sometimes toss worms in there, too, if we see them out after a rainstorm. Every few months, we turn over our compost bin, and when it looks mostly black and rich, we’ll spread it on our garden.

There’s a much simpler method that has much the same effect and benefit, though. Just take vegetable scraps as you accumulate them – the ends off of carrots and onions, the unused portion of steamed and unseasoned vegetables, and so on – and add in a small portion of coffee grounds after you’ve used them, too (don’t make it ALL coffee grounds, but a small portion is good if you happen to drink coffee). Save it in a gallon freezer bag in the freezer until it’s absolutely stuffed to the brim with scraps.

Then, allow those scraps to thaw, and blend them all together in a blender, adding a bit of water until you have a thick puree. Water it down a little and stir it so that it’s maybe as thick as whole milk, then let it sit out overnight somewhere. In the morning, pour the mixture evenly over your garden, whether it’s just a container garden on your front porch or a patch in your backyard. Your soil will love you.

Again, this isn’t as perfect as compost, but this liquid really will help your garden, especially if you pour it on early. This is a great thing to do right when you turn your soil over in the spring, well before you actually plant.

Between this purpose and making cooking stock, I think it’s a huge waste to ever throw away a vegetable scrap. In fact, my own process is to actually make stock with the vegetable scraps first, strain it, then use the remaining pieces to make this fertilizer. It’s not quite as rich any more, but it still helps!

Acquiring Seeds

Another key part of getting ready to start your garden is to acquire seeds. This is easy enough on the surface, right? Just go to your local garden store or home improvement store (or an online retailer) and pick up a few packets of whatever looks interesting, plant what you have space for, and hold onto the rest for next year.

This is a great start, but I strongly encourage you to spend a little extra time finding good varieties to plant, ones that are naturally low maintenance and resistant to pests. Doing a little extra homework now to find the right variety and acquire seeds of that variety will save you a ton of effort later on in the season.

The first decision to make is whether to use heirloom or hybridized seeds. Hybridized seeds tend to be easier to grow, but if you try to save seeds from them to grow next year, they’re sterile and won’t grow. Heirlooms tend to have more variety and can sometimes be trickier to grow (they’re often a little less resistant to diseases, for example, which isn’t a big deal if you pay regular attention to your garden, but if you’re very hands off it can be tricky), but if you save the seeds by extracting them from the vegetables and drying them for next year, you’ll be able to plant them and have new plants without ever buying more seeds. (Sarah and I use largely heirloom seeds from Seed Savers, for those interested.)

The second area of consideration is which varieties to buy. Again, if you’re starting from scratch, I strongly encourage you to look for low maintenance varieties, ones that resist lots of diseases and don’t require a lot of work. In general, varieties that are disease-resistant and low maintenance will talk about these features on their display or packaging, while ones that aren’t particularly strong in those areas typically won’t mention it. This is particularly true with plants that are prone to disease, such as tomatoes – you should really look for easy-to-grow and disease resistant tomatoes if this is your first attempt at growing them.

Starting (Some) Plants

Another early spring gardening tactic is to consider starting some plants indoors before moving them outside. This is really only a good idea if you have grow lights or you have a very well illuminated area with lots of natural lighting several hours a day.

If either of these is true, it’s pretty easy to start plants indoors in small pots. Just fill them up with a little dirt and plant the seeds right in there. You can transfer the full contents of the little containers outside when the weather gets better.

Why do this? The advantage of starting a plant indoors early on is to accelerate the harvest. If you start a 90 day plant indoors in late March, then transfer it into your garden in May, you’re getting produce from that plant in late June. You may even have time to pull that plant and replace it with something else in early July, aiming for a late September and early October harvest.

However, starting a seed indoors can be a notable amount of additional work if you don’t have an appropriate spot for the plants, and it can add some cost, too, if you don’t have a grow light. It just gives you the opportunity to expand your growing season a little if you have the tools.

Sarah and I start seeds some years, and other years we don’t bother with it. It depends greatly on what we’re specifically growing that year and, honestly, how organized we are.

Our Garden Plans This Year

So, what are we planning for the current year?

About half of our main garden is covered in perennials, mostly herbs. Each spring, we mostly just clear this out so the perennials can grow again.

Our perennials include chives, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, and asparagus. These mostly grow entirely on their own, with almost no help from us aside from clearing out the area each fall and spring. These are the easiest part of our garden by far.

Our main crops this year are going to be green beans, sweet corn, tomatoes, and watermelons. Our beans and sweet corn are grown in our “side garden” really close to one another, with the bean vines growing up on a handmade string “trellis.” Corn tends to thrive close to beans, so we’re growing our sweet corn as close to the beans as possible. We may end up planting some squash in there to make a traditional “three sisters” garden.

Our larger garden patch will be mostly tomatoes and watermelon. Our children love watermelon and take an active part in preparing the ground and growing them. Sarah and I love tomatoes for their variety of culinary uses. If there’s a bit of extra space, I may also plant some green onions in a single row.

Most of our work will be centered around the tomatoes, which do take a fair amount of work. We tend to cover the ground around the plants in newspapers and straw (or some of our other leftover ground cover materials) to prevent competition from growing and minimize the effort needed for weeding. This basically means our only weeding efforts, once this is all done, will be around the beans and the corn and the watermelon, perhaps 100 square feet in all at most.

Our goal is to set aside one or two heavy workdays in our garden, one over spring break (ideally, given cooperative weather) and one in late May, to get all of this stuff into fertile ground. Once that’s done, we’ll be in a relatively low maintenance mode until harvesting, with just occasional watering and weeding throughout June and July, with harvesting to ideally begin in early August.

Final Thoughts

Gardening is an annual ritual for Sarah and myself. It’s a way to spend some time outdoors, usually together, and to save quite a bit of money on food. The produce that comes from our garden fills our kitchen in the summer and fall, with much of it traded to family and friends and some of it preserved for winter, too.

We incorporate our children into it, too, but we don’t push them into it to the point of burning out. Instead, they just view it as an ordinary part of life – they do a bit of weeding and a bit of planting and a bit of watering here and there and then they have fresh things to eat in the late summer.

Our gardening started in a simple container garden on the front patio of our small apartment we shared more than a decade ago, with a little tomato plant and a few onions near the edge. We got many dozens of tomatoes out of that little container during those first few years, and once we had more space, it just grew from there.

It’s a simple, rather inexpensive, relaxing, and meditative hobby that produces lots of vegetables and herbs for our family. If you’ve ever even considered giving gardening a try, this is the year.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.