Urban Homesteading: Starting a vegetable and herb garden

May 6 | Guest post by Melissa
Seedlings in the sun
Seedlings in the sun

Planting a garden is super easy, and can be done even if you have no yard, and just a small space with some sun. I can’t even keep houseplants alive, and last year grew enough vegetables to keep me stocked for about four months straight in a single 12×5’ vegetable plot!

My vegetable garden this year consists of:

  • Tomatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Corn
  • Pole beans
  • Squash (spaghetti, butternut and acorn)
  • Cucumbers
  • Carrots
  • Chives
  • Basil

Most of these are easy to grow, hearty, and survive well without much interference, and are cool with my benign neglect. They also grow in most climate zones and soil types. I’m also working on Companion Planting, with the corn, beans and squash (more on that in another article), but have a look at your local gardening store, and start with a handful of veggies that work for your climate. We’ll talk about laying out a garden in the next post.

If you're thinking, “WHOA! This is way too hard for me, I don’t think I can manage this.” It’s okay, I’ll be gentle…

Climate and dirt

I live in the Pacific Northwest, and am in a Zone 8 growing zone. Check your area to find out your zone. This will affect your planting dates, watering, harvesting, and what you can or can’t grow. Also, your location will determine the type of soil you have. If you’re planting in the ground, you will need to know if you have sandy soil, clay soil, or silt soil. (If you’re just going to buy potting soil for containers, ignore this part.)

  • Sandy soil: Large particles, doesn’t hold moisture or nutrients well
  • Clay soil: Small particles, soil clumps together, doesn’t drain well
  • Silt soil: Similar to clay, but doesn’t allow aeration.

You also want to find out the Ph of your soil. A Ph of 6.0-7.0 is best for most plants.

“THIS SOUNDS SO COMPLICATED!”

Yeah, it is, but here’s the easy part: just take a sample of your dirt, and take it to your local gardening store. They will test the Ph of the soil, and tell you what type you have, usually for free. Super easy.

They will also recommend what to add to your soil to condition it best for growing. Things like:

  • Organic material: manure, worm castings, compost, sea soil, etc, to help add nutrients to the soil. It’s really hard to add too much!
  • Peat: Lightweight material to break up clay. Don’t use peat moss — it is taken from peat bogs and is screwing up a fragile ecosystem. Coconut fibre is awesome, sustainable and cheap, and a great thing to add to soil with bad drainage.
  • Lime: To neutralize acidic soil
  • Sulfur/calcium sulfate: To neutralize alkaline soil

Also, the soil needs to be tilled very well. The deeper, the better. Mix up all those nutrients, and add air into the soil (if you find it turns back to clay or sand after watering, you need more organic matter, and to mix it better).

Starting seeds

All the things in my garden are pretty easy to start from seed. But you can buy seedlings instead if you have a short growing season, or are terrified of growing from seed. I typically do herbs from seedlings, but most vegetables from seed. But starting seedlings is easy and cheap, and since I’m pretty cheap, I harvest my own seeds, and regrow every year.

A note on fruits: Fruits are hard to grow, with the exception of berries, and take 3-5 years of steady tending before they produce ANY fruit. They attract more pests, and need a lot more maintenance than veggies. They also are way more picky on soil, fertilization, and climate. Essentially, growing fruit is black belt-level agriculture, so I’m not going to tackle it here.

seedling trays

Step 1:

Get seedling trays. These can be purchased for a couple bucks, or repurposed from small containers, like individual yogurt containers. Just make sure there are holes in the bottom for drainage, and they’re completely clean. Getting a base tray to hold the moisture is also advisable, otherwise you may have water leaking all over your house.

add dirt

Step 2:

Add dirt. I have clayish soil, so I add a mixture of 1/3 dirt, 1/3 soil conditioner (peat), and 1/3 mushroom manure, or other organic matter. Potting soil is great if you’re lazy.

planting seeds

Step 3:

Put seeds in. Each seed needs to be planted at a specific depth, which is marked clearly on the package. If in doubt, consult the internets for charts, plant, and cover with dirt.

watered seedlings

Step 4:

Water lightly, just to moisten the soil.

seedlings in the sun

Step 5:

Put in a sunny place. For me, this is an indoor windowsill because Canada be cold, yo. If you’re somewhere warm, where there is NO danger of frost, this can be done outside. If you have no direct sun at all, you can pick up a grow lightbulb for $5-10 and put a light on them (12 hours on, 12 hours off is fine)

Step 6:

Water regularly, but only to moisten the soil. The seeds should germinate in 1-2 weeks, and then you’ll be ready for transplanting.

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  1. That's very exciting! Thanks so much for writing this.
    Can you tell us more about the end result for you last year? what did you grow? do you have any pictures? Guessing we should start asap, but guess I want to see the end result before I start 😉

    2 agree
    • Last year I grew about 30 squash (between large potato – melon sized), a few hundred tomatoes, 50-some potatoes, hundreds of beans, 50ish carrots, corn did not pollinate properly, so only got about a dozen ears, and am revising my pollination. Basil and chives grew like weeds, and cucumbers are new.

      1 agrees
  2. Great beginners guide! I've been an urban gardener for 6 years and just got my Master Gardener certification, with an emphasis in Vegetable gardens! So fun and rewarding! But one concern – Using soil from the outside for indoor seed starting isn't really recommended. The main two reasons being that the soil isn't light or airy enough for young roots to easily grow through, and the second being that soil from your garden is teeming with good things and bad. Your young plants are more likely to catch diseases like “dampening off” which cause them to die if your mix isn't sterile, so I would consider getting a sterile mix to plant your seedlings in. It's usually called "seed starting mix" and can be found at hardware stores and nurseries.

    Pro tip – If you REALLY want to make sure your warm season seeds germinate (like tomatoes!) get a seedlign heat mat. Readily available on Amazon, you can buy it once and use it for years. You put it under the seeds once you plant them and after they sprout and grow for a few days you take it out (or turn it off). Really has always helped just about any seed germinate!

    2 agree
  3. Great tips. We need more urban gardeners in the world.

    I'd also add that if anyone plans on planting directly in the ground, as opposed to raised garden beds or containers, or using soil from the outside to start seeds to get the soil tested for contaminants first. Urban soils are often full of contaminants, especially lead. A yard may look beautiful now but it could have previously been an illegal dump or a previous owner could have repainted the house back before the dangers of lead paint were known leaving paint chips to leach into the soil. I do water quality and stormwater work for my jurisdiction and I this is where I start when residents ask about urban gardening. Most jurisdictions have a local extension office that will supply a kit and test for contaminants (usually lead and arsenic), pH, potassium, phosphorus, calcium and magnesium, and the percentage of organic matter. This will let you know if your soil is safe to plant in and if its healthy enough to grow your garden.

    1 agrees
  4. Nurseries/garden stores in my area do not do soil testing, but the county agricultural extension does I believe. If you go to your local nurseries with a clod of dirt they can probably still give you some information just based on their knowledge of the area, and they should also know what is good to plant now, what's easy in your area for beginners, etc.

    Also they will sell "starts" which are baby plants essentially. That means you don't have to fuss with seed starting, but you will also pay more – a single start will cost as much or more than a packet of seeds. I don't have the patience for seed starting so I shell out the extra moolah for starts.

  5. Maybe someone can help me… I cannot do seeds. Like, if I'm lucky maybe 1/4th of the seeds I plant come up. I have planted huge seed trays (like 30 pods) & had like 3 seedlings come up. They are new seeds bought this season. At first I think I was planting them too deep, but I've been planting them shallower & it's still not working (the lady from the ag extension told me to plant the seed twice as deep as the size of the seed). I bought potting soil & mixed in a little miracle grow. Maybe I am over watering? Am I destined to just buy seedlings? They are so much more expensive!

    • Could be a few problems:

      1. Too much water. Soil should be moist but never wet. Definitely never sopping wet. Seed containers should have excellent drainage.
      2. Too cold. If you live somewhere cold, and it gets close to freezing at night, you can kill the seeds.
      3. Not enough light/heat. If the plants get a lot of shade, and the soil never gets warm, the seeds will have a hard time germinating.
      4. Too much heat. If the soil is very dry and very hot, everything will scorch.

      1 agrees
      • Yeah, I think it's the watering. I'm in Louisiana so I don't think it's cold or lack of sun! I need to get a spray bottle (I saw that tip on another seed related article on here). It's hard to control the amount of water I'm giving them with the watering can I have.

    • I've always failed at starting seeds indoors, too. I don't have room for grow lights and none of my windows get good sunlight. This year I tried winter sowing and it's been amazing. I collected milk and OJ jugs for a couple of months. I put holes in the bottom and cut them across almost all the way through. Then, I added soil and seeds, taped them shut, and put them outside at the end of February. I have so many little plants now. I planted too many tomato seeds because I thought only a few would survive and now I'm begging people to take them. I wish I could post a picture. There's a winter sowers Facebook page if you're interested and wintersown.org has a ton of information.

  6. My favourite part of this (aside, of course, from the excellent beginner's guide instructions) is that you are Canadian. So I read this and I'm not like, WHAT THE FRACK DOES THIS MEAN?? Because Canada be cold indeed, yo.

    2 agree
  7. Awesome post! Living in the tropics it is extremely hard to grow vegetables, if veggies are in the sun then they die because of the heat but if they are not then they die for lack of sun. I had a veggie styrofoam box going but all that lives on is my oregano and very small capsicum. This post is inspiring, maybe I'll try some on my upstairs veranda. Has anyone done hanging tomatoes? The only vege I have had success with in the past are tropical vegetables like bok choy and wombok.

    Fruit however, is unstoppable in the tropics it grows even when you don't even plan it to. I only have a tiny townhouse yard, maybe 5x7m and in it I have two finger banana trees, a passionfruit vine, five pineapples plus all of my non-edibles.

  8. Have you ever done potatoes in a container? I'm in NYC (read: window boxes only) and have a couple plants started but I'm not sure where to put them or how much vertical/horizontal space they need.

    • Potatoes are totally possible in a container. You will need a pretty deep and wide container though, as you're cultivating the roots.

      If you're really ambitious, you can graft a tomato plant on to the tomato plant once it sprouts and grow both potatoes and tomatoes in the same container. You can also buy these "tomtato" plants and plant them on your balcony. Alternately, hanging tomatoes are really easy, if you have a place to hang them, and direct sunlight.

  9. This blog states great new ideas about planting the herbs by checking the soil condition as well as the climate condition, I have been checking more tutorials to learn more about planting and cultivating herb grass like the lemon grass cultivation , that can be used for medicinal purposes.

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