Starter Vegetable Garden

Ilona Erwin

A small vegetable patch is one of the first gardens I made when I was a twenty-something. I hadn’t really gardened on my own, but I knew what a delicious treat a fresh homegrown tomato was… I had enjoyed them from my mother’s garden. My mother’s vegetable gardens never changed very much from what is essentially an easy starter vegetable garden. So this little guide might serve you for your career as a gardener, or it might be a jump off point for a love affair with your own kitchen garden. It will provide some fresh produce for your dining table.

What does your starter vegetable garden look like?

This vegetable garden is small

Probably is the number one piece of advice beginning gardeners will always get, and it as often gets ignored, is to start small. Still, small is not less, so try to keep your first vegetable garden a size that is easy to take care of. I think my first vegetable patch was four feet by five feet in the city backyard, next to the walkway back to the garage. It was in the sunshine, not shadowed by my house or the neighbor’s buildings or any trees.

Keep your garden

  • manageable
  • healthy, -pick off bugs, harvest regularly
  • in the sunshine
  • fertilized
  • well-drained, but regularly watered

My patch was a simple rectangle shape, easy to access for weeding and harvesting. As your interest and needs grow, you can always add more rectangles. Some people start out with raised beds, although I didn’t. The benefit of a raised bed is the good drainage, and the good soil it can provide for you, as you add amendments in a concentrated way. Less compaction because rarely does anyone walk inside their raised beds.

What vegetables should I grow?

The easiest answer is, “The ones you want to eat!” But take a look at some of those suggested here.

Space-saving Vegetables

Of course you can try any that you like, but I would encourage a new gardener to plant things that are easy to succeed with and give a good quality crop. The main motivation for growing food is to have something good to eat!

Another tip is to choose space-saving types, for instance, did you know that green beans can grow as bush types? Or that determinate tomatoes take much less space than those labeled “indeterminate”? There are also dwarfed varieties and some that are “patio” or container sizes.

Use Compact or Bush Varieties

paste tomatoes

ripening on the sill

Tomatoes: because of their cost, and the poor quality of grocery store fruits, I would always have tomatoes in the starter garden. You might love the idea of heirlooms, and I do too… but the hybrids were bred for disease resistance. Nothing is more discouraging than dried up vines that got attacked by wilt.

Why not have a plant of each? ‘Better Boy’ is a very good hybrid, and ‘Brandywine‘ or ‘Pink Caspian’ are a very good heirlooms. The actual choices in the nursery or seed companies are myriad. Need warm weather to grow.

Bush beans: although you can usually buy them fresh in the markets they are easy to grow and you might like some right outside your back door. Need warm weather to germinate and grow.

Peppers: sweet or hot, they don’t take much space and produce prolifically. Every starter garden should have a few pepper plants. They are easy to grow and take similar conditions to tomatoes (fertile soil, regular but not too much moisture.)

Green Leafy things: Grow spinach. It is good for you and very easy- it also grows in cooler weather. Leaf lettuces are easy, and mesclun mixes are too. Gourmet salads are in your future if you plant these. They need cooler temperatures. Swiss Chard- try this, it is something like spinach, is easy to grow, lasts better through hotter weather. Wonderful addition to quiche.

Interplant or Succession Planting

Radishes: radishes are just the simplest plant you can grow- they come up quickly and taste delicious in the cooler weather they love. As soon as hot weather temperatures hit, they are over- plant another crop to succeed them, like beans or eggplants.

Green onions: early crop that is sown in spring for all sorts of uses; salads, eggs, and baked potatoes all are better for a bit of green onion! AKA “scallions”. Use them to mark the rows and then plant later crop for all summer use of your space.

A row of herbs and a row of marigolds: because the herbs taste good and help your veggies taste better, and marigolds for repelling insects, but mainly because they look pretty. Easy herbs (and VERY easy if you buy plants rather than seed) are Parsley, Savory, Chives, and Basil. Or should I say Basils, plural, because there are so many types – all wonderfully tasty.

The starter garden how-to

Space-saver gardening methods

I know what you are thinking- long list of vegetables and small spaces- how does all that cram into a tiny plot? A starter garden has tricks to accomplish all that. One is called “vertical” gardening, and one is interplanting. Make sure you stake the tomatoes, or tie them to a fence ( should your neighboring yard and yours have one). Tomatoes take the most space in this little garden.

  • Go vertical with a trellis or tuteur
  • Interplant tall and low growing veggies: like tomatoes with parsley underneath
  • “Square foot” or block planting methods instead of rows

After this, if you notice that some plants grow early in the season and don’t like warm weather (lettuces, spinach, and radishes, etc), you can well imagine that you will have harvested them by the time you plant the tomatoes and peppers.

Swiss Chard and parsley like the shade that a tomato plant can provide them. Radishes are often grown in among the lettuces- and are usually harvested before the lettuce is ready, but both grow happily together. Green onions are also harvested early, leaving spaces for beans or peppers. So you can see there are early and later crops grown out of the same space of ground.

  • Plan crops by seasons, early and late
  • Companion plant for sunshine needs: a tall sun lover+ a shorter part-sun tolerant companion

Plantings of herbs and marigolds are around the edges of the garden or you can have them take the place of some of the early vegetables. Or here is an idea, place a couple big pots and seed them with marigolds and herb plants. Containers do take extra care to water, but have the advantage that you can move them wherever you want.

Things Missing?

Can I grow corn on my patio?

If you are successful with your small garden, you can always make a large one next year, if you have the space.
You can grow whatever you want, you don’t need my suggestions to try them, but more can go awry with carrots, and corn takes a large amount of space, as do pumpkins. And zucchini is the butt of many a joke for its huge harvests…

If you love zucchini or squash, think about vertical growing methodsgrowing upwards on a trellis or support. If you have never tried growing a garden, I hope you attempt this little starter vegetable garden or the easy herb garden. I believe you will be successful and you might find out how much fun it is to grow things to eat.

I see some garden articles encouraging people to grow corn in a container. Why? To get one measly cob of corn when you could have a bushel of tomatoes, instead? Some choices just don’t make sense, and the advice to grow them is poor in my opinion.

A good idea for helping your garden is to get the good bugs to visit. The Good Bugs

Starter Vegetable Gardens: 24 No-Fail Plans for Small Organic Gardens

Look into these pages for more information:
Grow Mesclun

Growing vegetables
Use good bugs to protect your garden from the destructive ones.

Grow your own food.

Preparation Chores for Your Vegetables

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.