10 tips for a successful backyard vegetable garden
Step outside to get food from your own home.
Saturday mornings during my childhood meant getting up early and heading to the Dane County Farmers’ Market with my dad. As I enjoyed a honey stick, he hunted for the weirdest-looking tomato he could find — he says the uglier the tomato, the better the flavor. I learned you need to do two laps of the farmers’ market — one to scope out the full selection and another to buy. And you always walk counterclockwise around Capitol Square.
Later, we would sit down to dinner with brats hot off the grill, green beans we had picked from dad’s garden, sweet corn from a farm stand and that weird-looking tomato, cut into thick slices, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt.
Variations of this menu were on repeat almost every summer evening at our house, and when my brother and I would complain, “green beans and sweet corn, again?” my dad would remind us that in a few short months we’d be missing them.
The menu changed with the seasons. There was asparagus picked from the side of the road and foraged morel mushrooms in the spring, sweet root vegetables in the fall and lots of squash and potatoes in the winter. I learned that it’s easy to make delicious meals if you start with fresh food, and fresh means local and in season. So I was excited when I bought my own house and was able to start a garden.
My husband and I found a house on the north side of Madison, and for more than six years — with supervision from our two dogs, Aesop and Odin — we worked to turn our backyard garden into a mini farm that produces the majority of the vegetables we eat in the warmer months. Even though my undying love of the farmers’ market lives on and I try to buy all I can from local farms, I’ve discovered that the best-tasting tomato comes from my own backyard. I’m amazed at how the tiny seeds that I plant in spring transform our yard into a verdant, lush paradise that overflows with delicious food.
What if you could step outside your backdoor to find the most delicious food in town? If you start a small garden this month, you could be enjoying fresh, delicious vegetables all summer long. But there are a few things to think about before you start digging.
1. Choose your sunniest spot.
Planting produce like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers requires full sun, which here in Wisconsin means eight or more hours of direct sunlight each day. Root vegetables like carrots, beets and radishes require six or more hours, and leafy greens can survive on four or more. Choosing the spot that gets the most sun will provide the most options on what you can plant, and it will give you a higher-quality harvest.
2. Don’t get soggy.
If your yard has places where puddles linger after a heavy rain, avoid planting in that area, or your garden might end up waterlogged. Good drainage is becoming more important as our summers keep getting wetter.
3. Start small.
Starting with a small garden will make maintenance and harvests a lot more enjoyable. You can grow an impressive amount of food in a few raised beds. You can always add more later.
4. Check your soil.
Not all backyards have soil that is great for growing. Make sure you have a healthy layer of topsoil to plant in, because the better your soil, the better your harvest. If you’re not sure about your soil, consider doing a soil test or install and fill raised beds with topsoil and compost.
5. Grow what you love to eat.
What do you buy regularly? Is there something that you can’t wait to arrive at the farmers’ market? Think about what would bring you the most value if you grew it yourself. I choose lots of fresh herbs and tomatoes of every color.
6. Don’t be afraid to try something a little different.
You can grow unique varieties of the vegetables you love and can’t find at the store or farmers’ market. When you’re choosing plants, think about trying an interesting-sounding heirloom tomato or new-to-you type of pepper. I like the Mexican sour gherkin (pictured above). It’s a tiny cucumber that looks like a watermelon and has a slightly sour flavor.
7. Plant at the right time.
Putting plants in the ground too early can lead to heartbreak. Madison’s average last frost date is around May 10, but some heat-loving plants like tomatoes and peppers grow best when planted even later, after the soil has warmed a bit. Check your seed packet or the tags of your plants for guidance on when to plant relative to our last frost date.
8. Watch your watering.
It’s especially important to keep the soil moist when seeds are germinating and the plants are small. After they are established, vegetables generally need about an inch of water per week. If we end up with a very wet summer like we have had the past few years, you may not need to do any additional watering. But if it does get dry, be sure to give your plants a drink.
9. Mulch is your best friend.
Applying a layer of mulch on top of your soil helps improve the soil, retains moisture so you don’t have to water as much and, best of all, prevents a lot of weeds. I prefer marsh hay, but straw, leaves or wood chips all work well.
10. Enjoy your harvest!
The best part about gardening is being able to enjoy food at its perfect peak of freshness. There’s nothing like biting into a homegrown, sun-ripened tomato or crunching into a cucumber you just pulled off the vine.
Eat What You Grow
3 veggies you’ll want to get on your plate immediately
Sweet, Spicy and Easy:
Growing radishes is as close to instant gratification as a gardener can get. Plant some seeds now and in a month you’ll have enough radishes to make my favorite sweet-and-spicy pickled veggie, which is good on just about everything.
A Summer Sammy:
I pretty much live off tomato sandwiches in the summer. Sourdough bread, a smear of mayo, an extra-thick slice of heirloom tomato and a sprinkle of salt are all you need for the ultimate summer meal.
Root Vegetable Candy:
As the days get shorter and colder in the fall, the root vegetables in the garden get sweeter. Anything I harvest at that time gets roasted in the oven and ends up as sweet as candy.
Heather Lynch chronicles much of her backyard gardening on her Instagram account, @hlynch13. After six years of growing their own food in their small backyard on the north side of Madison, Lynch and her husband, Dylan, moved to rural Brooklyn, Wisconsin, and are starting a new garden from scratch.
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