Starting An Edible Garden

February 28, 2013

Get your garden ready for summer! Tips on how to start your seeds while it's still winter.

By Raleigh-Elizabeth. Images by Steve Albert via Home DIY.  

It’s hard not to feel like you’re behind when you look at Martha Stewart’s monthly calendar in the first few pages of Living. No, Martha, I haven’t cleaned my gutters, defrosted my fridge (have I ever?), or chilled with my ponies this month. I don’t even have ponies. But I also haven’t started getting seedlings ready for my garden, either. Every time I think about it, my brain shuts down. Garden? What garden! It’s freezing out! But freezing or not, Martha’s right: it is time to start planning.

As a cook, there’s nothing more empowering than having control over your ingredients. And there’s no better way to ensure their greatness than having grown them yourself. From broccoli to squash blossoms, growing an edible garden is not only a great way to connect with your food, it’s also a fun way to reduce your monthly produce bill.

Creating an edible garden is something you can do anywhere. For years, I grew herbs, fruits, and vegetables in the two windowsills of my postage-stamp sized New York City apartment. Now, we go whole hog on a half acre of loamy land and a shady front porch. From April until November, we have fresh veggies on hand. There’s something about a plant you grew yourself that just tastes better on a plate.

To get started, take a little time to know before you grow. What grows well in your region? How do you get started? Marta Teecan is a trained chef turned kitchen gardener, and her book, Homegrown, can help you get your garden plans off the ground. (It’s also just a really nice read!) I like to have a regional planting guide on hand, too, just so that I avoid any rookie farmer pitfalls. Ask your local nursery if they can recommend a good one — they usually know the best guide for the area.

Next, you’ll want to figure out where you’re going to garden. I like to use our back yard, away from where the dogs play, but I also grow lettuce in the shade of our covered front porch and herbs and potted fruits on the back porch. Granted, as a partial garden, my front door doesn’t welcome you with anything as pretty as twisty-topiaries, but there’s something charming about a guest entering your home near a bed of arugula that will soon become their dinner salad.

After you’ve worked out the basics and mapped out your garden, determine your seedling growing schedule. No matter where you are, it’s probably time to get a jump start on your veggies. This temperature chart for when to start your seeds is really helpful. Starting seeds is a fun activity, and it’s great to do with kids! There are a lot of clever ways to start seeds, too. I’m partial to planting my seeds in eggshells, which are easy to label and a great source of calcium for the plant, but you can also use ice cream cones or create your own mini-green house. It’ll be awhile yet before they go outside, so come up with a plan for where they can live in the meantime that works well with your home (and the two and four legged traffic therein).

As the seeds start to grow, you’ll have plenty of time to work out the rest of the details (like tilling the soil and finding a super cute gardening apron). But taking a few minutes this time of year to sit down and plan for the summer will yield a delicious bounty in just a few months. Plus, garden planning can legitimately include salivating over the Agrarian collection from Williams Sonoma (and dreaming of owning your own chickens who would, of course, live in an Architectural Digest-worthy chicken coop), which is never a bad way to spend an afternoon.

I have no big dreams of micro-farming an organically perfect crop like Martha probably does, but I do love keeping an edible garden that sustains us with fruits, vegetables, and herbs throughout the year. Last year, we nursed to life four different kinds of corn, a variety of lettuce, more tomatoes than I can name (all of them delicious), peppers, broccoli, brussels sprouts, peas, beans, lemons, strawberries, and all manner of herbs. And for all that bounty, I can thank a little careful planning when it was still freezing cold out. Even if I always fail to do it on Martha’s schedule.

Tell me: Do you keep an edible garden at home? If not, what’s stopping you? (We can do this together! I promise it will be worth it.)

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{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kate Frishman February 28, 2013 at 6:55 am

Unfortunately, I’m a lousy gardener. We lived in the country for six years, and every year I put in a massive garden, weeded it by hand daily for six weeks or so (I don’t do chemicals), and then ignored it, frequently not even eating what grew! Now that we’re living in town I thought about trying small and seeing what happens, but…
Maybe. I could just start with spinach and work my way up.
(Oh, and we had chickens. They were mean. They would chase my kids and peck at them, and they beat up on each other all the time. I am so not a farmer.)

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2 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 28, 2013 at 6:59 am

you may have just saved us from an unfortunate chicken experience. bill, my husband, jokes that i’ve made them seem like a totally reasonable request since my newest pet-crave is a penguin (we don’t need to get into the legalities of that, i also can’t have my pet unicorn). but if you’re going to start small – can i recommend something super easy like arugula? or brussels? those you leave alone and completely forget you planted and then ta-da, they somehow survived your dogs, little children, some alligators (in our case), and general neglect. very hardy!

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3 Kate Frishman February 28, 2013 at 9:11 am

Plant it and forget it sounds perfect – thanks for the recommendations!

Oh, and I can totally get behind the penguin idea :)

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4 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 28, 2013 at 10:03 am

yay : )

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5 Tina from A Few Pretty Things February 28, 2013 at 8:02 am

This post is coming just in time! We moved in the country last summer and a few days ago I started reading about seeds and vegetables. I got excited and started a big list of vegetables I want to grow but now I am thinking that maybe I should start slower since I am a beginner. It is very tempting though and when you start thinking about your own edible garden you want tomatoes and cucumbers and beans and water melons and zucchinis and aubergines and peppers….

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6 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 28, 2013 at 8:03 am

hooray! my advice: seed everything. some seeds just won’t turn out like you’d like. so give them all an equal opportunity for growth – and plant those that come in well! keep us updated on the progress! would love to hear!

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7 Jillian in Italy February 28, 2013 at 8:02 am

Just a few days ago I put in my seed order for 10 different heirloom tomatoes and various other veggies. I love the idea of planting them in egg shells though. I will definitely do that this year. Do you just plant the plant with shell and all?

We have a great edible garden that feeds us various produce from June until October (actually ends up feeding the whole neighbourhood). All winter I dream and sketch what will go where and what new plants I can try (the more colourful the better). My kids favorite garden snack? Nasturtium flowers.

This morning I found a site that ships out boxes full of live ladybugs to protect your garden from pesky insects. Do you have any experience with that?

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8 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 28, 2013 at 8:06 am

LADYBUGS! I hadn’t even thought of that. We have a very pesky kudzu bug problem (they’re like very tiny stink bugs that fly en masse – yick) and what HAD been an organic garden got the serious chemical treatment when nothing we did got rid of them. Finally, though, they just moved on. We do heirloom seeds, too, which can be so tricky – but I always order from Baker Creek and we’ve had pretty good luck with them.

As for planting in the egg shell – yes, you plant the seed DIRECTLY in the shell. I crack the shell a little when I plant it, just to make it easy for the roots to grow out, but it goes in eggshell and all, and it’s a very easy way to keep it labeled and stored during the seedling cycle. Plus, they provide great calcium for the plants once they are in the ground!

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9 Lauren February 28, 2013 at 8:21 am

We have tried to grow veggies in the past, but never had great success. I think that I get overwhelmed by all the watering, as it doesn’t rain much in the summer here! I always have a big herb garden though and love having those on hand to cook with. This year, we are adopting a two year old and my husband will be on paternity leave for most of the summer, so I’m thinking about trying a small vegetable garden as a fun family project, since we’ll be home a lot. This post has inspired me to start jotting down some ideas today!

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10 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 28, 2013 at 8:23 am

CONGRATULATIONS!!!

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11 Paige February 28, 2013 at 8:21 am

We *just* started our seeds last night! I’m hoping they’ll be good to transplant by the end of March (freezing season ends here mid March). I’m always good with veggies, but man, somehow, I end up killing herbs. Any recommendations would be super welcome, haha.

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12 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 28, 2013 at 8:24 am

Have you tried rosemary? My experience with it is that no matter what I do, it and thyme grow wild. I also put nursery nannies in my herb planters – have you tried those?

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13 Mari February 28, 2013 at 8:58 am

We have a pretty big city lot and, so far, we have 9 raised beds plus a raspberry patch and a couple young apple trees. We also have 5 chickens that help with bugs and composting. I am working on getting motivated to start my tomatoes, broccoli, kohlrabi, and a few other early seeds but I am about 8 weeks pregnant so I am short on energy. Here’s hoping that I get it done this weekend. : )

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14 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 28, 2013 at 8:59 am

Wow, Mari! How incredible! Y’all have done so much! And I’d give yourself a by on getting everything started on time – I’m 7 months, and I’m still dragging. I think we might be a bit smaller than normal this year, but truthfully, I’m not sure I’ll have the time to tend the garden as much anyway! And CONGRATULATIONS!

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15 Dee February 28, 2013 at 10:08 am

I do have an edible garden. Last summer, I grew tomatoes, tromboncino squash, and herbs. I have a winter garden at present with kale, carrots, broccoli and brussels sprouts, but it’s not doing very well. The broccoli has bolted and something in the garden is enjoying the kale before we can get to it! I’ve already started my seedlings for the spring/summer garden which will include an expanded herb/medicinal bed and more veggies. And I’m hoping my strawberries will do better this year than last when I only got a few.

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16 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 28, 2013 at 10:28 am

You know, Dee, I actually heard that last year wasn’t a great year for strawberries. (We’ll just ignore any geographical significance of that and keep it as a “blanket statement.”) So, definitely not you! Better luck this year : ) And tell those rabbits to stay away from the kale! Mister McGreggor and all.

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17 Shannon { A Mom's Year } February 28, 2013 at 10:08 am

Okay, I’m doing this. Especially after reading Amy’s post on perfectionism. (I haven’t started a garden because I need to figure out how to do it “right.”) But I know it would a great experience for my kids!

We’ve grown pumpkins successfully for a few years, but it’s time to branch out into a few of our favorites: watermelons, broccoli, tomatoes, beans, and herbs. I love your eggshell idea.

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18 Shannon { A Mom's Year } February 28, 2013 at 10:10 am

*it would BE a great experience. :)

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19 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 28, 2013 at 10:30 am

HOORAY! All of these sound like fantastic ideas! Definitely give it a go – worst case scenario, seeds aren’t very costly and neither is soil. You might as well give it a shot and see how it comes out- better than not trying at all, right? (Plus, it’s such a tasty treat when it works!)

Best of luck!

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20 Adina | Gluten Free Travelette February 28, 2013 at 10:09 am

We’re renters but are fortunate enough to have fantastic landlords who let us transform half of our urban front yard into an edible garden – so we currently have three raised beds and our building a fourth! We’re also lucky enough to have a covered porch that does a great job as a greenhouse! Next week. we’re building the fourth bed and prepping the beds for our next planting and in two weeks, we’ll start planting!

For anyone interested in our experience; I’ve been chronicling the whole thing on my blog! http://www.glutenfreetravelette.com/blog/tag/edible-garden-project

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21 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 28, 2013 at 10:30 am

Adina, that’s so exciting! And your garden looks beautiful!

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22 Lisette Wolter-McKinley February 28, 2013 at 10:11 am

I have found rosemary, thyme, sage and oregano to do well in pots on the deck or planted in the ground in Seattle.They require minimal effort and I save a lot of money not having to go buy fresh herbs all the time.

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23 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 28, 2013 at 10:31 am

Amen! I like to keep my herbs posted near my kitchen, too. They always seem to do pretty well, even when I totally forget about them. (What? That’s never happened. We didn’t go away for two weeks last summer and just sort of see-what-happens or anything…)

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24 Adina | Gluten Free Travelette February 28, 2013 at 2:20 pm

Green (spring) onions were another one that did surprisingly well in Seattle – you just cut them off near the soil and they’ll regrow for another use!

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25 Lindsey February 28, 2013 at 11:36 am

Oh, I love this! The perfectionist in me has been delaying for one reason or another – not enough sun on our windowsills (and only windowsills!) but now I feel inspired. Gabrielle, would you please share which types of fruits and vegetables you were able to grow in New York? I honestly thought we’d be limited to herbs only.

My favorite part about this post is that you point out how starting seedlings buys you some time. I can start the seeds and then worry about the planter boxes, placement, etc. later. LOVE IT! Thank you so much! xoxo

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26 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 28, 2013 at 11:49 am

I grew a TON of tomatoes and usually a lot of leafy greens. I used the wrought-iron work on my window ledges for peas, too, and that was always super successful (obviously a fire escape would have been a lot better). I also kept berries one summer that was particularly hot (2007 maybe?). But everything always did really well – especially the tomatoes. Just spend some time thinking about how much sun/shade you have… NYC kitchens tend to be perfectly suited to mushrooms, for instance, since they’re usually pretty dark! Think about placement later. Seed now : )

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27 Kelly February 28, 2013 at 11:40 am

We’ve lived in our house for almost 9 years, with an empty raised bed of dirt in my backyard. It’s about 7×4 feet. This is going to be our year to finally DO something with it! Just checked out some gardening/kid’s gardening books from the library. I live in SoCal with lots of sun, heat, and arid weather — and ants. So we’ll see what happens. I would be happy with some tomatoes and basil for a caprese salad this summer!

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28 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 28, 2013 at 11:50 am

Oooh! Let us know what happens! You could get one of those make your own cheese kits for mozz and be all super-DIY on the caprese salad : )

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29 Adina | Gluten Free Travelette February 28, 2013 at 2:19 pm

Oh you’re in southern California? You’ll be able to grow so many yummy things! Think of the peppers! (Excuse my heat jealousy – peppers are hard to grow in cool Seattle!)

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30 Leanne February 28, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Okay, I am in too! I would be really happy with just the herbs this year. I want my daughter to see where her food comes from (I can always explain that the other large vegetables and fruit grow from the ground like the herbs that I will hopefully not kill). We have just moved to France so if I get more ambitious I will have to navigate the local nursery with my limited French and my dictionary. Thanks for the post, it has motivated me to make this a priority!

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31 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 28, 2013 at 2:36 pm

They’ll probably enjoy your effort! And y’all will have so much fun planting. Happy Spring! (Isn’t that what planting always makes you feel like? Spring!)

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32 Sally February 28, 2013 at 8:43 pm

We just finished reading ‘Mr Popper’s Penguins’ and my 4 year old now wants a pet penguin with a frozen basement for it to live in. Funny kids…
As for a garden, we started simple last year to wet our feet a little and did tomatoes, cucumbers, greens of various sorts and carrots. Oh and we managed one zucchini and a couple of green pumpkins before the frost hit (I got those started a little late). This year we are going to build/make a couple more plots and expand with some of the things that can get started now like peas, broccoli, kale, onions and who knows what else. It’s my thing to do this Saturday.

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33 Rebekah March 1, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Boy I’m glad you did a post on gardening because I realized it was time to start mine! Just finished planting my little seeds and I’ll be praying over the next two weeks they’ll germinate! :)

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34 Raleigh-Elizabeth March 1, 2013 at 12:35 pm

We’ll all hope for goodluck!

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35 Amy Hackworth March 1, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Thanks for this inspiration, Raleigh-Elizabeth. I need someone to keep my on schedule, and tell me I can do it. I realllly want a successful garden this year and this is just what I needed.

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36 Raleigh-Elizabeth March 1, 2013 at 1:47 pm

You can do it! And tell us how it goes, Amy! I’m sure it’ll be great.

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37 Mandy Toombs March 2, 2013 at 4:49 pm

This is one of the things I would love to achieve more than anything else – and I think that’s because of of my husband and my appalling track record of keeping house plants alive. However, we decided as we’d managed to grow a beautiful and clever girl and a gorgeous caring boy we should be a little more confident with a few bulbs and seeds! Our little boy planted some garlic just before Christmas and there are shoots… so we went for it and have just planted onions, potatoes, asparagus and rhubarb… and an apple tree. The best bit is that we’ve now transformed Sunday afternoon into ‘Gardening Club’. After church each week we all get into muddy boots and get digging and watering and record everything in our garden journal. If we grow very little there’s a million happy points just in the fun we’ve been having in just having a go!

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38 Jessica March 3, 2013 at 8:17 pm

does growing lettuce in a city picker count? then yes!

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39 randa handler March 7, 2013 at 11:15 am

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40 Carole April 11, 2014 at 12:14 pm

I’m a long time gardener, and although I like the idea of using inexpensive ice cream cones (newspaper made into cups also works), wouldn’t the cones disintegrate when watered over a length of time?

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41 Ashela Boven May 3, 2014 at 10:27 pm

The picture of the perfectly growing plant in the Icecream cone is quite deceitful. Although a great idea, it’s a definate fail. My mom and I just spend the evening planting all of our veggies, getting them ready for transplant after memorial weekend. Everything was going according to plan until we watered them. The cones turned to mush and now we have to come up with a new plan. A waste of time and money. At least we had a lot of good laughs over it.

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42 Pj October 25, 2014 at 1:57 pm

seriously you’re ahead of Martha as she does very little of the dirty work, she has a slew of minions do it. Most ideas from her magazine and show aren’t even hers, people are paid to find them and carry out the grunt work. Martha might have been resourceful at some time but she doesn’t do it all now. Give yourself credit for researching, planting and reaping the rewards of your own garden! Kudos!!

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