One of my go-to fantasies when life is tough is that I’ll run away to start a vegetable farm. I’ll spend long days covered in sweat, soil caked underneath my fingernails, satisfied with the knowledge that I was able to feed myself through hard work and a deep understanding of the natural world. Given our current circumstances—living in an unprecedented global pandemic resulting in much more time spent at home and much more stress when we have to venture to the grocery store—this fantasy is seeming particularly appealing.
The problem with that fantasy is that I am an absolutely rubbish gardener. Name an indestructible plant and I have probably watched it shrivel. Zucchini and mint, for example, which I remember being warned would “take over my garden” if I wasn’t careful—didn’t last a week in my Arizona soil. It became a bit of a running joke. Every summer I’d try again, and every summer I’d fail.
Then I moved to Washington state, where the weather was friendlier and the foliage was lush. I managed to eat a few tomatoes from my potted plant last year and suddenly felt like a new woman. Maybe I could do this gardening thing.
To try to get some clarity on my own gardening woes—and give other hopefuls a leg up on their victory gardens—I spoke with experts who actually know what they’re doing. Here are their best gardening tips.
1. Start small, but not too small.
How much of a garden you want will also depend on how much time you’re willing to invest. Nicole Burke, founder of Gardenary and author of Kitchen Garden Revival: A Modern Guide to Creating a Stylish, Small-scale, Low-maintenance, Edible Garden, estimates it takes 1.5 minutes per square foot a week to maintain a garden. So if you have a 25 square foot garden, you’ll need just under 40 minutes a week to water, prune, harvest and otherwise take care of it. A single seed packet can cover that area, she says (although you’ll probably be hungry for more than one variety of lettuce, I imagine.)
What small looks like will vary based on your experience and your interest. Too small, Burke says, and you may end up over-tending your garden because you don’t have enough to do (been there), or even get disinterested because your plants aren’t changing enough (done that). She recommends a minimum of 15-25 square feet.
Even easier, Venelin Dimitrov, lead horticulturist at Burpee tells SELF that beginners can start with a simple 20-inch diameter pot (that is equally as deep) and a few cucumber or squash seeds. Follow the directions on the seed pack. “It doesn’t get any easier than that, and no knowledge needed,” he says.
While you’re at it, be wary of garden envy, Timothy Hammond, an urban gardener in Houston, Texas who blogs at BigCityGardener.com tells SELF. “You might see people on Instagram with huge gardens and everything flourishing, but I bet you that garden has grown with that person over the years,” Hammond says. “They probably started small with one or two beds or one or two containers and the more they liked it the more they wanted to garden.”
2. Plant your garden where the sun does shine.
“For edible, rule number one is you need full sun,” Dimitrov says. In general, you can usually grow edible food anywhere that is south, south east, or south west facing. Or just pay attention to where the sun goes during the day. Which area spends most of the day in the sun? That’s where you’ll want to put your edible garden.
3. Want quick and bountiful? Focus on leaves instead of fruits.
One of the gardening tips I received courtesy of Burke: edible plants have a pretty basic life cycle. Most edible plants start their life as a seed. They establish roots and a stem, then leaves, then flowers, then fruit (if they make fruit), and then create seeds, starting the process over again.