With organic gardening and the farm-to-table concept on the rise, it’s no surprise that more and more novice gardeners are taking an interest in growing their own food. “Because of the popularity of ‘going green’ and living healthy lifestyles, more people are attracted to the idea of producing good food themselves,” says Judith Robertson, coordinator of the educational gardens at Emory University. And luckily, you don’t need a green thumb—or a ton of space—to grow fruits, veggies and herbs right in your own back yard (or on your porch)! Check out our helpful hints for starting an edible garden this season.
1. Start simple. If you’re looking for a low-maintenance garden, consider beginning with herbs. “Any herbs are easier to grow than vegetables and fruits,” says Dixie Speck, president of Solterra Landscape. “They require less space and less extensive soil preparation.” If you have your sights set on heartier foods, however, try planting radish, beans, summer squash, corn, cherry tomatoes, lettuce or eggplant. According to both Robertson and Colleen Dudley, senior horticulturist at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, these plants won’t attract as many pests as some other veggies, and they also yield a high return.
2. Practice companion planting. Contrary to what many beginner gardeners believe, most edible plants can grow together in the same bed. “Combining plants that grow well together saves space, improves harvest and can be attractive,” Robertson says. Companion planting also offers shade and protection for other plants. For example, lettuce, onion, beets and spinach grow well in the shade of corn and beans.
Planting a variety of vegetables together also reduces the risk of complete crop infestation. “The more veggies you put together, the better,” Dudley says. “If you get a pest, it’s more difficult for them to decimate the crop; this is a concept is called ‘security through diversity.’”
3. Consider containers. If you think living in a condo, apartment or town home will put a damper on your gardening endeavors, think again. Containers are perfect options for areas that are short on ground space. “Edible container growing is something I highly suggest,” says Amy Borden of Simply Flowers Inc. “Tomatoes, peppers, herbs, some edible shrubs (such as blueberries) and even small trees (such as figs) are great options for container gardening.” Borden also recommends that new gardeners try container planting to test out their skills. “This way you don’t spend a whole lot of money on something you’re not sure about,” she says.
However, Dudley warns that container gardening can be more high maintenance than some expect. “The main thing people have to realize is that they’re solely responsible for supplying all of the water and nutrients to the plant since it’s not in the ground,” she says. “The bigger the pot the better so the root system can grow. I suggest using dwarf varieties of vegetables.” Robertson adds that plants with running and climbing vines should be avoided unless a wall or trellis is nearby for support.
4. Wait until the time is right. You may be eager to hit the ground running with your edible garden, but pull in the reigns—at least until mid April. Atlanta’s fluctuating temperatures can be deceptive, and you don’t want to begin your garden on a warm-weather weekend only to have it freeze over the next. The general rule of thumb is to wait until after April 15. If you’re unsure when to plant a particular fruit, herb or vegetable, Borden recommends visiting the store to see what’s available. If it’s in stock, it’s usually safe to start growing.
5. Plant natural repellants. When it comes to repelling pests the natural way, keep one rule in mind: smellier is better. “Insects have a very heightened sense of smell, so any kind of stinky plant generally deters them,” Dudley says. She suggests planting strong-scented vegetables such as onions, radish and garlic, and potent herbs, including rosemary, marigold, chives and oregano.
If you’re planning to grow tomatoes, Robertson suggests planting dill alongside them to deter the hornworm. If you’re planting cabbage, place some thyme nearby to repel cabbage moths. Like Dudley, Robertson advocates planting marigolds. “They’re the classic favorite for protection from harmful insects and add brilliant color to the garden.”
6. Set a schedule. We’ve all heard the adage, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” and it’s certainly no exception when gardening is involved. Establishing a schedule of watering, pruning and harvesting will set your garden up for maximum success. “No matter which [edible varieties] you plant, they all need about an inch of water per week,” Dudley says. Plants will also need to be mulched, fertilized twice each month and harvested regularly. “The more you harvest, the more your plants will produce,” Dudley says.
7. Give your garden a theme. Planting an edible garden can be even more fun if you give it a theme based on your favorite foods. “Plant according to the foods you love,” Borden says. “For example, if you love cooking Mexican food, try doing a salsa garden and plant tomatoes, cilantro, onions and jalapenos. Look at the ingredients of your favorite meals and check off the ones that you can grow yourself. This works well in containers, too.” As another option, Dudley suggests a pizza garden containing tomatoes, eggplant, rosemary and oregano, or creating striped, spotted or rainbow gardens with different colored plants. “It’s a great way to get kids involved,” she says.
8. Enhance your landscape. While the primary purpose of your edible garden is to yield yummy fruits, vegetables and herbs, it can also be an aesthetically appealing addition to your landscape. Blueberry and pomegranate shrubs can add fullness to your yard year round, as can fig trees. Tall plants, such as beans and corn, can double as a privacy wall in your back yard; Borden suggests using a trellis to create a “fence-like effect.” And herbs placed in decorative containers on front porches and patios offer inviting aromas.
Whether you decide to just dabble with a few herbs this season or you’re prepared to forge full-steam ahead with a large vegetable garden, keep in mind that the goal is to have fun. “I always tell people not to get discouraged,” Dudley says. “You’re going to kill some plants, and that’s OK. It’s a learning process. Try something new and have fun with it.”
Get your garden growing with the following plants, all of which thrive in Atlanta’s spring and summer climate.