Growing our own food has evolved over the years. What started as a necessity has now grown into a hobby for many people and a way to live more sustainably.
Why should you grow your own food?
Beyond saving you a trip to the grocery store every now and then, growing your own food is a great way to eat more fruits and vegetables and understand what chemicals and fertilizers come into contact with your food (if any). It also saves you money and it’s better for the environment.
Okay, we’ve got you hooked… you’re ready to run to your local garden center to pick up what you need, but where do you start? There are many different ways you can grow your own edible garden—whether you have space outside for raised beds, a balcony, or a tiny apartment, you can grow your own food in almost any condition! Here is all you need to know about edible gardening for beginners:
Raised Bed Gardening
The key to developing a garden space for the first time is to install some structured raised beds and fill them with purchased planting mix. Because our climate is cool even into the summer, raised beds allow soil to dry out and warm up long before in-ground soil does.
Soils in many parts of the Portland metro area have low fertility, weeds, pests, and diseases, and are often composed of clay that will take years of work to develop into decent garden soil. A purchased planting mix will have high fertility and be pest, weed, and disease free. This is THE garden for a beginner. If cost is an issue, you can find scrap wood for structure, pick up the planting mix to save delivery costs, and start small. One or two 4 by 10-foot beds can be plenty for a beginner and can produce a huge harvest.
Balcony & Patio Container Gardening
Container gardening is another great way to start growing your own food, and it works perfectly for smaller spaces! You can set them on your balcony, place them on a stand, or let them hang from your porch. Edible container gardens require the same setup as raised beds, though on a much smaller scale. It’s best to choose the plants that you want to grow in containers and learn the amount of space they need to grow before choosing the actual containers.
We were not exaggerating when we said you can grow edible plants anywhere, even inside your home! Herbs are a great option to grow indoors, and with a little research, you can also grow fruits and vegetables inside as well.
Tips for Starting Your First Edible Garden
Soil Fertility & Fertilizer
Adding fertilizer to your beds or containers is often overlooked—adequate soil fertility is critical to a successful backyard food garden. Soil amendments like compost and manure generally lack the nutrients that plants need to grow rapidly.
True fertilizer products always have an assay on the label. It will look something like “5-5-5” or “4-6-3.” The numbers represent the percentage of nitrogen, percent of phosphorus, and percentage of potassium. These are the three primary nutrients plants need to grow and are often lacking in garden soil. We recommend using high-quality, organic fertilizers.
Begin by blending the proper amount of granular fertilizer into the soil at planting time and follow up with applications of liquid fertilizer every few weeks. Reapply granular fertilizer as a top dressing every 2 months for in-ground plantings or about every 6 weeks for containerized plants.
As with any garden product, be sure to read and follow the label instructions. Fertilizer should be added each time you plant a new crop, but a soil test is the best way to determine overall needs. Fall and winter plantings may require more frequent fertilization because available nutrients break down more slowly in cooler soils.
Don’t succumb to spring fever! If it’s too cold, plants will not grow and they are sitting ducks for pests and disease. See the planting calendar or use a soil thermometer for correct planting times for common garden vegetables. For the beginner, it’s much better to plant a week or two later than sooner in the spring. Just because transplants are available in the nursery doesn’t mean it’s the best time to plant them. Timely planting for fall and winter crops is more critical for a successful harvest.
Seeds vs Transplants
There are pros and cons for each—if you have raised beds and are purchased planting mix, seeds work well. If your soil is heavy, consider using more transplants. Some edibles such as corn, peas, beans, and carrots do not grow well from transplants. Transplants are a must for all hot weather plants in our climate (tomatoes). Select transplants that are green, healthy-looking, and small for the size of their container. Avoid plants with yellow leaves or plants that look “old”. And never crowd the plants. Reference books or plant tags for preferred plant spacing. Fall plantings will grow slower as the weather cools; it is important for roots to be well-established before the first hard frost.
What to Try
Learn to grow easier crops first, then move on to the more difficult types.
- Easy: garlic, shallots, potatoes, all types of greens, peas
- Harder: root crops, onions, squash, snap beans, tomatoes, cabbage, cucumbers
- Harder yet: broccoli, cauliflower, leeks, corn
- Can be difficult: peppers, eggplant, Brussels sprouts, melons, celery, fennel
The level of difficulty is relative to your garden—good site conditions and soil make everything easier.
Weeds & Pests
If you have purchased a quality planting mix, these should not be much of a problem for the first season. Hand pulling and hoeing are the best way to keep weeds under control in the vegetable garden. This type of maintenance should be done with frequency throughout the season. Using transplants can also give you a jump-start on weed prevention.
Slugs can be a real problem in the spring. It is best to use slug bait before you sow seeds or set out transplants, as control is not very effective when there are tender seedlings to eat instead of bait. Most other garden pests can be controlled by using floating row covers, or harvest gaurds. This spun polyester cloth is lightly laid over your beds directly on the plants. Sun, water, and air can permeate the material, but pests cannot.
Keep it simple—use a watering can for seedlings and transplants; use a hose and water wand for mature plants. Plus, hand watering will get you outdoors and observing your garden!
The best time to water is in the early morning so plants are hydrated going into the heat of the day; if watering is done in the late afternoon or evening, try to keep vegetation dry and only wet the soil. New plantings should be given temporary shade during hot weather to help them get established and to avoid wilting from water stress.
Deep watering is better than frequent, shallow sprinkling. In-ground plantings require less frequent watering than raised beds, and container plantings usually need to be watered the most. A 2 to 3-inch thick layer of mulch can help reduce water loss from garden soils and maintain consistent soil moisture.
Different crops have various moisture requirements. For example, artichokes are fairly drought tolerant once established, but blueberries and snap beans have shallow roots and are sensitive to drying out if not regularly watered.
Harvesting on time is critical if you want to enjoy high-quality produce and keep your garden productive. Over-mature plants attract pests.
- Peas, snap beans, asparagus, squash: Harvest every day or every other day in the morning; degrade rapidly in hot weather
- Sweet fruit like berries, tomatoes, melons: Harvest when just ripe; end of a warm day (store ripe tomatoes indoors and away from direct sunlight, but never in the refrigerator)
- Greens like lettuce, chicory, spinach: Harvest thinnings or mature in the morning; degrade rapidly in hot weather
- Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower: Harvest heads firm and tight; degrade rapidly in hot weather
- Sweet corn: Harvest tassels brown/ husk tight; kernel liquid is milky
- Potatoes, onion family: Harvest when tops die back; allow soil to dry out before harvest
- Winter squash, pumpkins: Harvest when vines die back; fruit has a hard shell for storage
- Root crops: Harvest thinnings or mature; store well in the refrigerator
Willamette Valley Vegetable Garden Planting Dates
The following are recommended planting dates* for vegetables that grow well in Oregon. Dates are for planting from seed or bulb, unless noted that “starts” should be planted. Green crops are easiest to grow if planted in the designated month and should be planted by the first week of the month unless otherwise noted.
The Maritime Northwest Garden Guide is another great resource for year-round edible gardening in our area
*Information from Oregon State University Extension Service
Garlic, Peas, Fava beans, Asparagus (crowns), Rhubarb (crowns), Shallots (bulbs)
Beets, Carrots, Celery (starts), Leeks, Onions (starts), Parsley (starts) Peas, Radishes, Potatoes, Lettuce (starts), Shallots
Beets, Broccoli (starts), Cabbage (starts), Carrots, Cauliflower (starts), Celery (starts), Kohlrabi, Spinach, Corn, Leeks, Lettuce (starts), Fennel, Onions (starts), Parsley (starts), Peas, Potatoes, Radishes
Beets, Broccoli (starts), Cabbage (starts), Melons (starts, end of May), Carrots, Cauliflower (starts), Celery (starts), Corn, Cucumbers (starts, end of May), Eggplant (starts, end of May), Kale, Leeks, Lettuce (starts), Onions (starts), Parsley (starts), Peas, Peppers (starts, end of May), Potatoes, Pumpkins (starts), Radishes, Snap Beans (mid-May), Squash (starts, mid-May), Tomatoes (starts)
Beets, Broccoli (starts), Cabbage (starts), Carrots, Cauliflower (starts) Celery (starts), Corn, Cucumbers (starts), Kale, Lettuce (starts), Leeks, Parsley (starts), Peppers (starts), Potatoes (end of June), Radishes, Snap beans, Squash (starts), Tomatoes (starts)
Bold crops for this month are planted for fall and winter harvest; will mature from September through April of the following year: Snap beans, Broccoli, Cabbage, Brussels Sprouts, Beets, Carrots, Chicory/Radicchio, Overwintering cauliflower/Broccoli, Cauliflower, Celery (starts), Kale, Lettuce (starts), Radishes
Bold crops for this month are planted for fall and winter harvest; will mature from October through April of the following year: Broccoli (starts), Lettuce, Kale, Beets, Fennel, Chicory/Radicchio, Mustard Greens, Swiss Chard, Kohlrabi, Chinese Cabbage (starts), Radishes
Bold crops for this month and next month are planted for fall and winter harvest; will mature from October through June of the following year: Garlic, Radishes, Spinach, Lettuce, Fava Beans, Mustard Greens
Garlic, Fava Beans, Overwintering Onions (starts)
Still have questions? Our garden center employees are the best source of information on new varieties, suppliers of bulk soils, and other local information for new gardeners.