Vegetable Growing for Beginners

You see all these people around you growing tons and tons of food and you would love to give it a go as well – but where and how in the world do you start?

We’re not too far away from being beginners ourselves, as we’re just about to embark on our third growing season adventure, and maybe that’s why we felt such a strong desire to actually sit down to write this post. Because… we get it. We get the overwhelmed feeling when people around you discuss methods of composting, mineral composition of the soil, ways of pruning and home-brewed fertilizers. We get all the confusion and seemingly “stupid” questions that pop up in your head, and we get all the frustration when things go wrong. But we also know all the wonders of vegetable growing and the infinite joy and happiness it can bring, and would therefore like nothing more than getting others to discover the same magic that we have. Hence, this post has come about. Read it from start to finish or skip around as you please – and go ahead and share it with all the aspiring green thumbs around you, of course!

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Soil and Soil Health

First: it all begins and ends with the soil. One of our favorite quotes in gardening and growing contexts is actually this one: “The endeavor of farming is building soil. The plants grow themselves” (Josef Carey, 59 Degrees Soil Biology). As you might have picked up in recent climate change related discussions, infinite possibilities to sequester carbon, stabilize eco systems and secure our future food supply lie in the ground beneath our feet. Slowly, it seems to be dawning upon us that the farming methods of modern agriculture might not be the best bet in the long run, and terms such as “regenerative farming” and “permaculture” are being heard more and more frequently. This is fantastic, and hopefully only the beginning of a movement of restoring our soil across the world to what it once was, and then farming it in harmony with nature going forward.

So what do you need to know about soil before you set out to grow your own food? Well, first and foremost: the healthier the soil, the healthier the plants. In other words, caring for your soil will be worthwhile, and that might be the most important takeaway of this whole piece. In order to care for it properly, it will be beneficial to know a few basic facts, which we’ll get right into here. So. Soil is very much alive, and hosts – besides your plants – worms, fungi and thousands of other microorganisms. These soil “inhabitants” break down (in other words, they digest and excrete – or eat and poop) organic matter in the soil, and thereby makes it nutritious and improves its moisture-retaining capabilities. This also makes for an airy soil, where roots can easily grow and expand in all directions. Hence, connection with the ground is crucial. When we put down weed fabrics and dump our soil on top, we effectively close the door to any of these helpers, and our soil will slowly decline in quality. By making sure there is contact with the ground and regularly adding organic material, such as leaves, grass clippings and other “leftover” plant material (or green waste, as it’s often called) to your soil, you feed the microorganisms and keep your soil happy.

One brilliant method of caring for your soil is called mulching. While this might feel too advanced at first sight, trust us – it’s well worth getting the hang of, and it’s not one bit complicated. First of all, mulching means that instead of leaving the soil around a plant bare (and wait for weeds to come in), you cover it with various forms of green waste, such as grass clippings or leaves. You lay down a relatively thick layer (5-15 cm) where you have no plants growing, and refill when it’s shrunk down. Mulching has a wide range of benefits: the soil temperature is kept more even, moisture is prevented from evaporating (which in turn decreases the need for watering) and you’ll barely see any weeds whatsoever. When you mulch, you also more or less create a compost in your garden bed, as the microorganisms will munch down the mulching material and create a slow release of nutrients to the soil, as well as keep it airy and moisture-retaining. Did this feel overwhelming? Fear not. Basically, all it means is that you put a green waste-blanket down around your plants to protect them, and this blanket will slowly feed the microorganisms of your soil. Easy peasy. A little bit of work to set it all up, and then: no weeding, barely any watering, happy plants, happy soil.

The endeavor of farming is building soil. The plants grow themselves.

Josef Carey, 59 Degrees Soil Biology

We said above that you will “more or less create a compost in your garden”. What did we mean by that and what is a compost, really? A compost is essentially a self-propelled soil improvement machine. You add various forms of green waste to some sort of pile, and after some time, you have fantastic soil. This happens all thanks to the worms and microorganisms eating and pooping, eating and pooping. There are various ways of setting up a compost, and not enough space here to dive too deeply into the subject area, but the basic, fundamental structure involves nothing more than some sort of frame (if using wood, make sure it’s not treated) placed right on top of the ground (no barrier in between as this would prevent the microorganisms to get to work). In there, you then layer various types of green waste, and about once a year, you make sure to turn the whole thing. And remember: the material doesn’t need to be completely broken down to be used – it’ll act as food for the microorganisms in your garden bed just as well. In other words, never “throw away” any green waste you might have, but instead use it towards your own soil factory. Old soil from pots can preferably also be dumped on the compost at the end of the season. Simply put, view your compost as your garden’s own recycling station.

Is mulching and setting up a compost all we need to do then? Well, almost. There are a few other things to consider. Adding manure to your beds is an often needed boost, even though you feed your soil with organic material and compost. Options here include cow, chicken and horse manure, which you can either get from a farm close by or purchase in bags from the store. You mix this into the soil before the plants go in. Note: if your compost is really rich in nutrients (you might use e.g. a Bokashi compost or another type of food waste composting system), you could very well be fine without purchasing manure. Food waste contains a whole lot more nutrients than green waste, hence that type of compost comes out quite charged up with good stuff.

Once the plants are in and the mulching material is in place, the best way to keep boosting the plants and provide them with a steady stream of nutrients is by adding liquid fertilizers of different kinds. More of this in the Maintenance section below.

Summary soil and soil health:

  1. Make sure there is contact between the ground and the soil.
  2. Add compost and/or manure before you sow/plant.
  3. Add organic material to the soil by mulching throughout the whole season.
  4. Make sure to not let any green waste go to… well, waste, by setting up a basic compost.
  5. Apply liquid fertilizer as you go along.

Different Setups For Growing

There are many different ways of growing vegetables, and what you end up choosing will largely depend on the type of space you have on hand, how much work you’re willing to put in vs. how much money you’re willing to spend and the scale of your desired operation. You can grow a whole range of plants in pots on a deck or a balcony, and thereby create a culinary garden without an actual garden on hand. The pots need some sort of drainage (a hole in the bottom + a saucer, for example) so the plants don’t end up too wet, but the rest is up to your imagination. Tomatoes, cucumber, eggplant, chili, lettuce, carrots (provided the pot is deep enough) and all kinds of herbs are all fun varieties to try this way – just make sure you read the labels of the particular kinds to make sure they’re not going to outgrow you. There are typically low-growing, bushier varieties available.

Planter boxes of different kinds are very popular, and will also look very nice in your garden. These are practical since the soil surface is raised, which thereby means less bending over, and having smaller “plots” can feel less overwhelming and easier to maintain and manage for the beginner. You can buy frames of different sorts, or build your own (see this Guide to Building Your Own Garden Boxes for the ones we have). Once the frames are in place, it’s a good idea to lay down a layer of cardboard/newspaper or remove the sod/weeds, so as to prevent unwelcome growth in the box. The cardboard/newspaper will decompose over time, and should not be viewed as a barrier between soil and microorganisms, but simply a way to get rid of any unwanted weeds and give your selected plants as much space and nutrition as possible. Typically, boxes hold water a little less efficiently compared to dug patches so making sure you water enough is important. It can be a bit deceiving in the beginning, before you get the hang of it, as the surface can look soaked as you water, but if you were to stick your finger down, it can be bone dry 10 cm below the surface. Actually sticking your finger down is a good idea to get yourself familiar with the amounts needed. An advantage with boxes, however, is that the soil thaws and warms up earlier in the spring than a dug patch, which means a potentially longer season for you.

The third option is patches more or less level with the ground, and typically not surrounded by frames of any kind. These can be massive – such as the ones lining the highways – or small plots of land, and they can either be dug or slightly raised (or a combination of both). In the case of the former, you simply remove the sod and dig down however deep you want (we typically do about 20-30 cm, since we have a notoriously rocky soil and thereby lots to remove). If your situation looks a bit different, simply removing the sod and then loosening the soil with a spading fork will do, provided you add a mix of organic material as well as compost/manure and, if necessary, fill up with more (purchased) soil. If you’re not interested in digging down, you can instead create more of a raised bed type of deal. This is accomplished by putting down cardboard/newspaper in a single layer (which, again, will decompose over time but before then prevent any weeds from thriving) and then placing soil on top. This raised bed will, despite its elevated appearance, share the same characteristics as the dug patch. Patches have a range of benefits: there is no material involved except the soil (no boxes to purchase/build/maintain), they retain water better and they’re great for plants needing lots of space.

Perfect Beginner Vegetables to Start Out With

After some pondering, we came up with a list of what we think are perfect beginner vegetables. The reasons for that are many: first, plants that yield a lot make for a fun growing experience. It’s not nearly as satisfying to spend time nurturing plants that might spit out one or two fruits at the end of the season, as opposed to actually being able to go out and harvest enough for a full meal for a whole family time and time again. The feeling of bounty is indescribable, and will get your momentum going. It gives confidence and joy, and will surely spark your desire to keep growing. Another reason is of course that these are “easy” plants to succeed with. That doesn’t mean success is a guarantee, but with the right approach, neither one of the plants below should bring you a headache. But before we go into a few details of each, let’s straighten out a few terms you’ll see a lot of:

Starting seeds indoors: refers to when you sow seeds in small cups or pots inside, replant them into bigger pots as they grow and prepare them in the best way possible for the outdoor season ahead. This is the preferred method for all plants that take longer to grow and bear fruit (such as tomatoes, eggplant, peppers) but not really necessary (or practical) for most root vegetables. You can purchase seed-starting soil (in bags) that is specifically meant for starting seeds, but more often than not, we find ourselves with regular garden soil on hand and go for this already from the beginning. In other words, it won’t make the biggest difference in the world. But back to actually starting the seeds. Remember: when you have placed the seeds on top of the soil in the small cup and are about to cover with some more, never pack this down. Instead, let it remain nice and airy. And that the soil needs moisture both when sowing takes place and all throughout the lifecycle of the plant, we’ll say here but won’t repeat going forward.

Direct sowing: refers to when you don’t start seeds inside but instead put the seeds down right where you’re intending for the plant to grow the rest of the season.

Harden off: the process of getting plants that have been cultivated indoors used to life outdoors. Over the course of a week or two, plants should preferably be moved outside to a protected spot during the day, and then brought inside again at night. Start with a few hours, and extend the time spent outside a little every day. And make sure you check the weather forecast carefully the day you choose to plant them in their permanent positions, so that first night doesn’t bring a cold spell. It’s much better to hold off a little, in that case.

Thin: when sowing, you often end up putting down more seeds than necessary – this could be to ensure at least one sprouts, due to the seeds being super small and ending up everywhere or to mark a row. Eventually, you might have too many plants growing too close to each other, and then you thin by simply pulling up the excessive plants by the roots. This can be done when they’re babies, or you can wait a little while and maybe get a small harvest out of it. If you don’t thin, the world won’t end. The only thing that will happen is that each plant will only have space to develop to a certain degree, and the result might be that you get hundreds of tiny carrots, for example, but no big ones at all.

Mulching: See information in the Soil and soil health section above

Liquid fertilizer: Read more in the Maintenance section below

Carrots

Usage: Is there a more loyal and easy going vegetable? Raw or cooked, it’s a staple in many, many homes all year round across the globe – and for good reasons. We think you already know how to use them though, so we’ll leave it at that.

How to: Direct sowing is by far the easiest and most convenient method for most root vegetables, as it’s rather difficult (if not impossible) to keep the roots straight and thereby get straight, full-size “fruits” later on if you start the seeds in one container and need to move them elsewhere later. Any little twist, and you’ll get small and crooked carrots, in other words. Carrots can be sowed early – already during the winter – as these seeds will stay in hibernation mode until the time is right for them to sprout. This, however, doesn’t mean they can’t be sowed at other times of the  year – because of course they can. It’s just a way of getting an extra early first harvest and spreading out the work a little bit. Sow the seeds 1 cm deep in rows about 30-40 cm apart, and keep the seeds about 5 cm from each other. Carrot seeds are small, however, and you’ll most likely end up with a few more seeds here and there, as they stick to each other and fall out of your hand easily. This is not to worry about – when the seedlings are up, you simply thin to the desired space. Adding liquid fertilizer to the watering routine a few times throughout the season will boost growth. Mulching is also recommended.

Sowing method: direct
Seed depth: 1 cm
Plant spacing: 5 cm
Row spacing: 30-40 cm

When to sow: really anytime, but January-July for harvest the same year

Chard

Usage: Think a substitute for either lettuce, spinach or kale – it’s a gorgeous, big leafy green where you can eat both the leaves and the stalks (whatever you do, don’t throw these away!), and applications are many. Sautéed to taste, eaten raw in salads, put on sandwiches, used as a wrap… And be prepared – you could very well end up with A LOT (hint: our first season, we got 26 kg worth).

How to: Chard seeds are fairly large and unevenly shaped, and can be sowed directly outside once the soil has warmed up a bit (early May is usually a good time). You can also start the seeds indoors, but we find this rather unnecessary. Instead, sow the seeds in rows about 1 cm deep, 10 cm apart, with the rows being 30-40 cm apart. Each chard “seed” could potentially contain up to 5 actual seeds on the inside, which means thinning could become necessary. Do this when the plants are about 10 cm tall, and use the young leaves as lettuce. When it’s time to harvest, you can either cut off the entire plant at the base, or cut off individual leaves about 1-2 cm above the soil surface. This is what we do, and the plants continue to produce new stalks and leaves from the center all throughout the season. Mulching works great for chard, and applying liquid fertilizer a few times throughout the season is a good idea.

Sowing method: direct
Seed depth: 1 cm
Plant spacing: 10 cm
Row spacing: 30-40 cm

When to sow: May-June

Cucumber

Usage: We trust that everyone knows how to enjoy their cucumbers. Remember that any surplus can be pickled and enjoyed at a later date.

How to: Cucumbers are relatively fast-growing plants and shouldn’t be sowed too early, or else you’ll have to accommodate some large plants in your living room for a while. Because yes, these should be started indoors for the best result. We typically sow cucumber in April. Sow 1-2 seeds in a small cup with soil, and cover with 1-2 cm of additional soil. Keep in a warm place until sprouted, and place under grow lights or in a south-facing window once the seedlings have popped up. Replant a few weeks later, and be careful with the roots – cucumbers are sensitive. When you move the plant into its new home, make sure it ends up at the same depth as before. The stalk should be peeking up from the soil at the same level as it did in the smaller pot.

Make sure to harden off before permanently moving the cucumbers outside or to a greenhouse. They can grow either in pots or in beds of some sort – but make sure the pot is at least 10-15 liters. If in beds, place them 30 cm apart and keep the rows about 1 m apart. Apply liquid fertilizer once or twice a week during the entire season to keep the fruit production going, and harvest as the fruits get ready. Most cucumbers will need help to climb, so keep that in mind. We usually just use twine and tie them up as they grow, relying on stakes or walls nearby. If you grow them outside and not in a greenhouse, using a garden fabric (see Extras later on) for the first few weeks (or the entire summer if it’s a cold one) is a good idea. Cucumbers like it warm. Mulching is recommended.

Sowing method: indoors
Seed depth: 1-2 cm
Plant spacing: 30 cm
Row spacing:
100 cm
When to sow: April-May

Green beans

Usage: We love our green beans! Easier and tastier side veggie is hard to come by, as the preparation (we prefer steaming) only takes a few minutes and the only seasoning needed is some salt and perhaps a splash of oil or a dollop of butter. (A squirt of lemon juice is also delicious.) Green beans can, in addition, be sautéed (see for example this recipe for Cold Sesame Noodles and Green Beans), and are excellent to freeze for the winter. We brush off any debris and freeze them as is without any blanching or rinsing (we cut off the little “twig” and pull off any strings, however). Then, as we take them out of the freezer, we rinse and cook them.

How to: Green beans can either be started indoors or direct sowed. Choose the method that is the most practical for you. Whether indoors or outdoors, you sow the seeds rather deep – about 3 cm down – and keep the plants about 10-15 cm apart and the rows 30-40 cm apart. Beans like some air around them, so don’t pack them too tight. Depending on the variety, they might need some sort of support (stakes, a trellis etc), but many green beans are so called bush varieties, which will do fine without. If you start your seeds inside, keep in mind that you shouldn’t start too early, as beans are relatively fast-growing as well as sensitive to cold weather, so you need to wait until all risk of frost is gone before you plant them outside. Sowing inside in late April is a good idea. If you direct sow, you also have to wait until the soil temperature is fairly warm (at least 12ºC), as the seeds will rotten otherwise. Mulching is good to keep the moisture in the soil, but liquid fertilizer won’t be needed. Legumes don’t require too much nutrition.

Sowing method: direct or indoors
Seed depth: 3 cm
Plant spacing: 10-15 cm
Row spacing: 30-40 cm

When to sow: April-June

Herbs

Usage: endless. Great money saver for the one using a lot of fresh herbs in cooking. All herbs are fun to grow, but some are easier than others. Thyme, oregano, sage and mint are excellent to invest in already your very first year, as these are perennials and will come back season after season without much upkeep needed. These can be a little tricky to get going from seeds though, so it could be worth the money to buy plants from a garden center instead, and placing them somewhere practical where they can live for many years to come. Basil, parsley and dill are our favorite annual herbs (well, parsley is bi-annual, but we’ll look past that for now), and we grow plenty of all of these. We use a lot during the season, but we also make sure to put any surplus in the freezer (any basil surplus, we typically turn into pesto and then freeze that). Few things beat pulling a bag of your own super fragrant dill out of the freezer in the middle of the winter, that’s for sure! 

How to: For dill, direct sowing using the broadcast method is advised. Scatter seeds across your designated surface, cover with about 1 cm of soil and keep it moist. You can harvest, using scissors, when the dill is anywhere between 10 and 30 cm tall. For access to fresh dill for a long time, a tip is to stagger your sowings. In other words, you sow some seeds a week or so apart for a month or so, in order for everything to not be ready at the very same time.

For basil, we start the seeds indoors in April. Basil is not a fan of cold weather, and if you – like us – live in a place where nighttime temperatures even in the summertime can drop to 10ºC and below, it’s advised to grow it in pots that you can easily bring inside if need be. We grow ours in big pots on the front deck. When you sow, sow in clusters by sprinkling 5-10 seeds in a small cup of soil, cover with the tiniest sprinkle of more soil (2-3 mm), moisten and allow to sprout. Once the seedlings are up, place under grow lights or in a south facing window. When it’s time to plant the basil outside – roughly when they plants are about 10 cm tall and when there’s no risk of frost remaining, keep the clusters intact – as in, just remove the cup and do not separate any roots/seedlings but let them be close to each other. Space the clusters about 10-15 cm apart if you have a big pot where more than one cluster fits. For harvesting, cut – using scissors – right above the lowest set of leaves, and you’ll see two new stems grow out in a little while, creating a bushy, high-yielding basil plant.

For parsley, we also pre-cultivate, and the procedure is very much the same as for basil. Parsley is, however, hardier than basil, and will be fine even if the temperate drops. Planting them outside for the first time though, make sure there’s no risk of frost remaining.

Potatoes

Usage: Boiled, roasted, mashed… we could eat potatoes every day, and nothing beats the ones you grow yourself. The early ones, with the thinnest of thinnest skins, are a true delicacy, and are definitely best enjoyed boiled al dente, with just a slather of butter and sprinkle of salt.

How to: Purchase seed potatoes and place them to sprout sometime in late March-early April (or about 4 weeks before you plan on planting them outside). You can either place them to sprout in a container with soil (but placed more or less on top of the soil, not dug down) or on a piece of newspaper/in egg cartons/on trays. If you do the former – i.e. use soil – the potatoes will start to produce roots a little earlier. Place the potatoes in a cool (no more than 15ºC) and light space and allow the sprouting to begin. When the soil temperature outside is around 7-8ºC and there’s no imminent frost threat left, it’s time to plant the potatoes. Place them 10 cm deep and keep them 20-30 cm apart, with the rows 50-60 cm apart. Twice before harvest (which will be around 8-12 weeks after planting for most varieties, but read on the label for the specifics of yours), you want to mound the potatoes. What this entails is simple: you just scoop soil up from the sides to cover the plant a bit (not entirely), which will prevent any potatoes from turning green and also promote more growth, as the part of the stem covered by soil will start to produce potatoes. Mound the first time when the greens are about 10 cm tall, and the second time about three weeks later. You don’t need to add any fertilizer, but mulching is always encouraged.

Planting depth: 10 cm
Plant spacing: 20-30 cm
Row spacing: 50-60 cm

When to plant: April-May

Spinach

Usage: We eat spinach raw, sautéed, steamed and added to all sorts of soups and stews. It’s one of the most versatile greens, and jam-packed with nutrients. Whatever we can’t fit in our bellies as it grows, we blanch and freeze for the winter.

How to: First, spinach doesn’t quite like the long days of Swedish summer, but instead thrives during spring and fall. This makes spinach a perfect plant to sow a lot of in March-April, enjoy in May and June and then replace with for example squash after that. This way, you get two rounds of harvest from the same space. In other words, don’t think of spinach as a summer crop, or else you’ll get very disappointed when plant after plant just bolts (i.e. goes to seed) and leaves you with nothing but a few thin leaves and a tall, thick flower stalk in the middle, reaching for the sky.

Direct sowing spinach is by far our preferred method. Either sow the seeds 1 cm deep, 5-7 cm apart, in rows (rows about 30 cm apart) or broadcast the seeds – this means you scatter seeds across a designated area without organizing the seeds in any particular fashion. This is what we do – we scatter seeds, cover with a thin layer of soil and then thin out any seedlings that have sprouted too closely to each other. With this method, you get a beautiful, thick bed of spinach and really maximize the yield, and as we treat spinach as the early season crop as it is, we’re happy to give it unlimited space for those first few months of spring, when most other vegetables are still in their infancy. Harvest leaf by leaf or by cutting off the entire plant at the base. When you see the first plants bolting, you know it’s only a matter of time before the rest will follow. Harvest everything as soon as possible, and blanch + freeze what you won’t be consuming fresh. If you decide to go for “our” method of spinach sowing and grow a thick bed of it, there’s no space or point in mulching. The season is also so short you don’t need to apply any fertilization. Instead, prepare the bed with compost and/or manure prior to sowing, and repeat that after harvest and before you plant new crops.

Sowing method: direct
Seed depth: 1 cm
Plant spacing: 5-7 cm
Row spacing: 30 cm or broadcast

When to sow: March-April for early summer harvest and July for fall harvest

Sugar snap peas

Usage: Nothing beats picking a basket full of sugar snaps and eating them just as they are, crispy and sweet like few other vegetables. They also make for excellent additions to all kinds of salads (especially those with new potatoes in them as well), and are downright amazing in any stir-fry.

How to: Deal with sugar snaps the way you would deal with green beans. These both belong to the legume family, and will therefore share many of the same properties. Sugar snaps can, however, be sowed in so called double rows, which means that you can sow two rows closer to each other (about 10 cm apart), provided the next row/rows is/are a full row space away (30-50 cm). Make sure to provide your peas with proper support, as most varieties will need something to climb on. Harvest the pods as they mature. Mulching is good to keep the moisture in the soil, but liquid fertilizer won’t be needed. Legumes don’t require too much nutrition.

Sowing method: direct or indoors
Seed depth: 3 cm
Plant spacing: 10-15 cm
Row spacing: 30-40 cm or double rows
(see above)
When to sow: April-June

Tomatoes

Usage: We all know the infinite culinary possibilities of tomatoes. To us though, few things beat having them raw, still warm from the sun, with just a sprinkle of salt.

How to: You can give starting your own seeds indoors a try until the beginning/middle of April, but any later than that and you might not end up getting any ripe fruits before the end of the summer. Sow 3-5 seeds 0.5-1 cm deep in small cups with soil, and keep them in a warm place until the seeds have sprouted. Light is not necessary until the seedlings have popped up through the soil, but when they do, it’s crucial. Place them under grow lights or in a south-facing window, and allow the temperature to be cooler, more towards 18ºC. You can sow a couple of seeds in the same small cup (let’s say a 5×5 cm cup), and let them stay there until they’re about 10 cm tall. Then it’ll be time to replant them into individual, larger cups. When you do, you can plant them deeper than they were sitting in the first cup. Typically, young tomato plants get a little leggy, but the magical thing is that the stem will develop roots out to the sides if placed beneath the surface of the soil. Therefore, we plant all tomatoes so that the lowermost set of leaves on the stem is right above the surface of the soil. Now you can also start giving your plants a little bit of a nutritional boost, by adding liquid fertilizer to your watering can. Remember that these plants are still babies though, so a small splash of nutrients is more than enough. Depending on when you start your seeds and when you’ll be planting them outside, one more replanting might be necessary. If you see lots of roots coming out through the holes at the bottom of the cups, that’s your signal it might be a good time for a size-upgrade. With tomatoes sowed indoors, hardening off will be very important. And remember to read the labels carefully when selecting seeds, as tomatoes vary a great deal when it comes to size. Choose varieties that will suit your growing space, and keep in mind that tall tomatoes will need some sort of staking.

You can also choose to buy plants from a garden center, and this should by no means be viewed as cheating. It will cost you a little more money, but if the idea of starting your own tomatoes from seeds is overwhelming, please cut yourself some slack. If you buy from a garden center, you just end up giving yourself a head start. Hardening off is still important if the tomatoes you bought come from a protected environment.

Regardless if you’ve started your own seeds or bought plants, tomatoes can be grown both outside and in greenhouses. Read up on different varieties if you have a certain garden spot in mind, as some are better suited for one over the other location. If you grow them outside in beds or planter boxes, space them about 30-60 cm apart (in all directions).

Throughout the season, really make sure you keep the soil moist. Tomatoes do not like to dry up, and this can hamper their fruit production significantly. Until around July, it’s also recommended to water with some type of liquid fertilizer about once a week. Mulching is a good idea, even if you grow in pots – this way, you’ll prevent moisture from escaping into the air during hot, sunny days. Harvest as the tomatoes ripen, and as fall begins to arrive and the first frost is coming closer, it’s advised to pick all the remaining fruits, regardless if they’re still green or not. The unripe tomatoes can preferably be placed in a paper-bag that you close/fold over, and over the course of the next month or two, all tomatoes will eventually have ripened. They might come across as a little less sweet than those ripening on the vine, but that’s all. It’s an excellent way of being able to enjoy homegrown tomatoes for a long time, that’s for sure!

Sowing method: indoors
Seed depth: 0.5-1 cm
Plant spacing: 30-60 cm (if not in pots)
Row spacing: 30-60 cm (if not in pots)

When to sow: February-April

Zucchini

Usage: Sliced and thrown on the grill, grated and turned into fritters, chopped up and stir-fried… There’s no end to the applications – and that’s a good thing, as zucchini harvests are typically found somewhere on the big to massive spectrum.

How to: We follow the same procedure for zucchini as we do for cucumbers, with one exception: we only sow one seed per cup. Otherwise, these two can be handled exactly the same way, from seed starting indoors to harvest. If you’ve let some fruits grow beyond 20-30 cm, they might have lost some of their juiciness and could also contain some slightly tougher seeds. Don’t let this discourage you – grate these instead (you can discard the seeds if they’re not edible) and turn them into fritters, or add the grated zucchini to muffins, breads etc. You can also freeze the grated zucchini as is, and add to pasta sauces, lasagnas etc during the winter. Mulching is highly recommended, as zucchini needs a lot of nutrition, and so is applying liquid fertilizer. Do this once or twice a week throughout the whole season.

Sowing method: indoors
Seed depth: 1-2 cm
Plant spacing: 40-70 cm
Row spacing: 80-100 cm

When to sow: April-May

A Little More Advanced: The Cabbage Family

There are so many amazing plants in the cabbage family that we’d love for everyone to try growing them – but we won’t lie, it could prove a little challenging for your patience if you don’t prepare properly. Your enemies – once you get into cabbages – will be cabbage moth, cabbage butterfly and cabbage fly. The two former lay eggs on the underside of the leaves that hatch into larvae, and once these larvae get their appetite going, they can literally destroy an entire plant overnight. Cabbage flies, on the other hand, lay their eggs around the base of the stem. These hatch into white maggot-like creatures that will devour the root system piece by piece, until one morning you come outside only to find sad-looking plants tipped over, with no roots left.

Those are the problems. Here’s the solution: cabbage nets. With a little bit of planning and preparation, you can grow cabbages without having to worry one bit about critters or having to share your harvest with unwelcome guests. By placing cabbage nets (which you can purchase at just about any garden store) or a similar type of fabric (we know of people using for example old lace curtains or large, thin linen textiles), you get all the light and water you need, but keep the moths and whatnot on the outside. You need to be quite meticulous when you put the nets in place – both by checking to see you didn’t trap any destructors in there as well as making sure there are no holes or gaps anywhere – but once that’s done, you can sit back and relax. We use clothes pins to keep it in place if we put it over a box (with sticks in all corners and the middle), and rocks/weights if used in patch more or less level with the ground (however still with sticks to keep it up).

In the cabbage family, you can choose between a number of different varieties. Based on our experience, kale is the easiest and most fun one to grow. You’ll get a lot of food from just a handful of plants, and you can harvest for a long period of time. Within the group of kale, you can go for green curly, dino or purple. These are all very similar in care instructions, so choose based on your preference. We’re big fans of dino and green curly. Sow 5-8 seeds 0.5-1 cm deep in a small cup of soil. Once about 10 cm tall, replant in individual, larger cups. Just like tomatoes, cabbage family members can be planted much deeper than they were previously sitting, so in case your seedlings have gotten leggy, follow the same procedure as with the tomatoes. During the hardening off process, make sure you don’t expose your plants to any of the enemies listed above (whatever you do, don’t underestimate them. More creative and driven creatures are hard to come by). Younger plants are, naturally, even more susceptible to their damage. Since the plants will be fairly small at this point, you could be a little creative and just drape an appropriate fabric across two stools, boxes or something similar, so as to create a “tent”, in which you place the little cups.

Cabbages need plenty of nutrition during the season, and applying liquid fertilizer about twice a week during the whole summer is advised. Pee water is our go-to when it comes to kale as it contains a lot of nitrogen, which in turn promotes leafy growth. Mulching is encouraged.

Sowing method: indoors
Seed depth: 0.5-1 cm
Plant spacing: 50-60 cm
Row spacing: 50-60 cm

When to sow: February-June

Maintenance

So now you have all your plants in your healthy soil. What’s left? Well, if you mulch as advised, there should be no weeding to do whatsoever. Watering needs will also be much reduced thanks to the mulching, and will also depend on the weather. A well-mulched garden and a summer of intermittent rain should typically not mean too many rounds with the watering can. Harvesting will, naturally, become a task as the season goes on – but this is typically not a chore people find tedious. It is, after all, harvesting we’ve all been dreaming of. 

The one important maintenance task that shouldn’t be looked past is adding liquid fertilizer, so as to keep the plants going all throughout the season and making sure you get that nice yield we’ve been promising you. For each vegetable listed in the sections above, we’ve included notes on how often that specific crop would like a boost – it varies from twice a week to a couple of times a season to no fertilizer needed at all. But what does this liquid fertilizer business actually mean? Well, it simply means watering your plants with spiked water. There is a range of different homemade fertilizers that we use and advocate for, and we’d highly recommend not running off to the store and buying something bottled but instead use what you more or less have on hand at home instead. The by far most easily accessible liquid fertilizer is human urine. It’s widely used and recognized as the cheapest, most eco-friendly fertilizer you can think of – and frankly, you have unlimited access to it. Many studies have investigated any potential health risks and found none, provided the water goes into the ground and isn’t being sprayed all over the greens you plan on eating for dinner that same night. You mix 1 part urine with 9 parts water, and simply water the soil around the plants with it. Urine water primarily boosts leafy growth, which is why it shouldn’t be used during the later parts of the summer for for example tomatoes, as we want these to produce fruits and not leaves come August (this is noted under Tomatoes above). There are also other fertilizers to work with. Buying bagged chicken manure pellets and then letting these soak in water overnight is one we return to. You can either do 0.5 dl pellets per 10 liters of water for a ready-to-use brew, or 5 dl pellets for 10 liters of water, which then needs to be diluted with more water at a 1:9 ratio. The smell can be a little funky for sure, but it’s easy and does the trick, no doubts about that. You can also brew some nettle and field horsetail water, if you’d like to experiment a little bit. Soak 1 kg plant material in 10 liters of water and let sit for about a week (preferably place a weight on the plant material so it really soaks and doesn’t just float around at the surface). Strain out the plant stuff, and treat this as green waste in your garden (mix it directly into your soil, use it for mulching or place it on your compost pile). Then mix 1 part green water with 8 parts water, and water your plants with this. (Warning: this will smell).

An important thing to remember here is this: the crucial thing is that you do indeed fertilize, and maybe not so much which type you go for or if you miss a day here and there. All effort is good effort.

Make It Pollinator Friendly

The pollinators of the world are struggling, and humans are much to blame for their misery. The increased usage of harmful pesticides is one of many reasons they’re having a hard time, as these not only contribute to destruction of their natural habitat but also straight-up kill them. We can all help! By far the easiest way of making your garden inviting towards bees and butterflies is by interspersing some of their favorite flowers among your vegetables. This is not just going to provide crucial pollen and nectar, but also make for a beautiful sight – in other words, there’s really no reason to not give it a go. Here’s what you do: get seeds for one or more of the flowers listed below, and just put down a few here and there in between rows and plants in your garden (read the labels for sowing depth). It’s as simple as that. And these are of course not all the varieties that would benefit pollinators, but they’re all super easy annuals that won’t require any special care or attention, except water every so often.

Flowers

Cornflower
California poppy
Poppy
Calendula
Borage (will grow fairly big)
Lady phacelia

How to Deal With Surplus

So there you are in the middle of August, and your garden is looking fantastic. Vegetables are practically begging for you to come harvest them, but you have no more room – neither in your fridge nor in your belly. What to do with this amazing surplus? First, we hear you. Once certain plants (chard and summer squash are two good examples) get going and like it where they live, you’ll potentially end up drowning in produce and it can feel rather overwhelming. Our first summer, Mike simply couldn’t handle the wilderness that our garden had turned into and felt something close to panic at the thought of dealing with it all. So first, relax. If certain things need to be tossed on the compost pile, so be it. Once there, it’ll first turn into worm food and eventually transform into new, nutritious soil, which means no harm done. But if you want to try to store/save food for later on, this is what we do: all greens (spinach, chard and all types of kale) we blanch and freeze. Green beans we freeze without doing anything (not even rinsing, unless obviously dirty). Zucchini we either turn into patties (using this quite wonderful Crispy Zucchini Fritters recipe) right away for quick and easy meals in the future, or just grate and freeze. Tomatoes can either be frozen as they are/cut up into chunks, or be cooked down and turned into sauce, which can be canned or frozen. Potatoes – provided stored in a fairly dark and cool space – will last you a while so no stress there, and the same thing goes for carrots. Herbs can be chopped up and frozen.

What to Do at the End of the Season

When fall and eventually winter arrive, it’s time to put your garden to rest. Doing so properly in the fall will make for much more fun and a lighter workload in the spring, and will feel well worth the effort. Provided you have microorganisms working your soil, you can safely leave green waste buried underneath the surface. We typically pull up all old plants, and all finer parts we mix into the soil. Thicker stems go on the compost pile, as these will take a little longer to break down. A common misconception is that soil should be turned or tilled – in other words, that the soil from way below should make it up to the top, and vice versa. This disrupts the soil life, and only provides temporary fertility instead of longevity. By carefully – perhaps with a spading fork – just loosening up the top soil with its root leftovers from the season and mixing in green waste, your soil will benefit long-term. Finish off by mulching – place a thick layer of leaves or other green waste on top of the surface, and leave the soil be until spring time. This will provide the microorganisms with plenty to eat, digest and excrete over the winter, and you’ll greet the next season with healthy soil, brimming with nutrients.

Extra Credit: Companion Planting, Crop Rotation and the Concept of Row Cover

Companion planting is by no means as advanced as it might sound. All it really refers to is the concept of growing certain plants together, in hopes they will boost each other and keep pests and diseases at bay, as well as increase your total yield. If, for example, chard grows in rows 30 cm apart from each other, you can sow carrots in between the chard rows. Chard produces food above the surface of the soil and carrots below, meaning these will share the space nicely and not crowd each other. Essentially, this is how you approach companion planting – you look at at how certain plants grow (do they block light, produce food upwards or downwards, or spread out a lot?) and through that figure out which ones will fit together. There are also a few combinations that are known to be really bad, and this is often due the spreading of different pests. Tomatoes should not be grown close to potatoes or any cabbage family members, for example. A good way of approaching companion planting is by planning your garden in steps. First, draw up how you’d like things to look without any combinations and with all the advised row and plant spaces, and then go around again with your pen and see where there’s room left. What can go there, then? A quick googling will be able to tell you if there are any particular reasons why that one specific combination isn’t good, and otherwise – just do it.

Crop rotation refers to the method of moving around your crops to different spots in the garden each year, and not letting certain varieties – such as potatoes – grow in the same plot season after season. When you do that, you significantly increase the risk of pests and diseases, and you’ll also deplete the soil of certain types of nutrients. When instead you let new varieties grow in the space every year, they’ll all bring their set of benefits to the space, and you create a much healthier environment. It’s common to group vegetables together based on their properties, and rotate between these groups as opposed to keeping track of all varieties individually. A four year crop rotation is a good system, hence we’re looking at four groups of vegetables. Some are more important than others to rotate, so we typically think of the groups like this: 1. Cabbage, squash and onions 2. Carrots and parsnips 3. Potatoes 4. Legumes (all peas and beans). Group number 4 doesn’t need much nutrition at all, and group number 1 needs the most. As legumes possess the ability to fixate nitrogen in the soil, and thereby by give a natural boost to it, it’s logical to let the nutrient-demanding group 1 go where group 4 grew the previous season. We keep track so that group 1 goes to where 4 was, group 2 to where 1 was, 3 to where 2 was and 4 to where 3 was. Don’t make the mistake of dismissing crop rotation as something only for the professionals – it’s something for all of us, and will benefit you and your garden in the long run.

You might also hear of row cover and wonder what on earth this is. Row cover is a thin fabric that lets water and light through, yet protects plants from unwanted cold spells. We haven’t ever checked the temperature ourselves, but they say you get about a 3-degrees-Celsius boost from a layer of fabric (you can also add more, for particularly long-lasting cold spells in the spring). These can be well worth the investment, as it’s easy to misread the weather forecast and end up moving plants outside too early. Losing plants you’ve cared for for months due to one night of frost is no fun, so we often play it safe it in the beginning and use row covers. The fabric also acts as a protective shield against strong wind and heavy rain, so it’s a good in-between-indoors-and-outdoors kind of solution. We use metal arch supports to prop up the net, and regular wooden clothes pins to secure it around the corners (if boxes) or rocks to weigh it down (if on the ground).

Conclusion

Now you know a little bit about what soil is and what you should do to keep it happy, how to deal with a range of easy and fun vegetables, what to do throughout the season in order to promote a big yield and a fun harvest season, and how to close up shop when fall has settled in. Sure, this turned into a big, long blog post – but breaking it up into pieces and trying to not get overwhelmed are keys to success. At the end of the day, this is what lies ahead of you, should you choose to give vegetable growing a go: setting up a growing space to your liking, planting seeds either indoors or outdoors or both, mulching, watering when rain is absent and watering with a boost following a schedule, harvesting, and mixing in organic material into the soil when the season is over. That doesn’t sound too hard, does it? We would love to answer any questions you might have, and remember: there’s no such thing as a stupid one. Good luck and happy growing season!

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6 thoughts on “Vegetable Growing for Beginners

  1. I am also nearly self sufficient from two allotments and a garden. This is brilliant. Well written, simple to understand and real. Thanks x

    1. Thank you so much, Toni! It sounds like you have a wonderful set-up, and we can only wish you a fantastic growing season – and cross our fingers your life won’t be affected all too much from the craziness in the world currently. Be well!

      /Sophia

  2. Waauw, you learned a lot in just a few years and you wrote a real “manual”. One warning about human urine: don’t use it when you take (certain) meds. And adding another plant that is good for beneficial insects: sweet alyssum.

    1. Such good input! Thank you 🙂 Hope all is well with you in these awkward times. Hugs from Sweden!

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