by Jennifer Cuevas
photography by Nicholas Mitzenmacher

Planting a vegetable garden is a simple way to eat fresh. If you do not have a patch of dirt—no problem. Vegetable and herb gardens are easy to grow in containers. Here is how to get started.

Step 1

Check how much sun is available and select vegetables or plants that are appropriate for the amount of light in the planting location, “If you have dirt and sun, you can probably have a garden,” says Cinthya Guillen, master gardener and program coordinator of Seedscapes, a hands-on program that teaches affordable housing residents how to design, build and maintain water and energy conserving gardens. Guillen recommends scouting the proposed garden area first before planting. “Ideally, you want to have full sun,” says Guillen. “For example, plants like squash and tomatoes need full sun; whereas some leafy greens may do OK in partial sunlight, but full sunlight is optimal.”

Photo by Nicholas Mitzenmacher

Photo by Nicholas Mitzenmacher

Step 2

Choose a container for the type of vegetable you will plant. If you plant in a container, it must have drainage. Ask the local nursery what plants work well with containers for a successful harvest.

Step 3

Test your dirt or purchase potting soil with nutrients like nitrogen and worms that help vegetables flourish. “Local labs will test the dirt, or you can go to a nursery to ask how to amend the soil. If you plant in containers, ask what kind of potting soil will work well with your plants,” says Guillen.

Step 4

Remove weeds from the proposed planting area. “Before you plant in the ground, be sure to take out all the weeds and grass first, as this will invade the garden,” says Michael Wolfsen, Peace and Carrots Garden co-manager. If you choose to plant in the ground, you can create a border with large rocks, bricks or recycle something you may already have in your home. “Next, you need to dig in the dirt. We like to double-dig,” says Ms. Wolfsen. “That means you dig shovel deep all around the plot one time and put that dirt aside. Then dig shovel deep again and put that dirt on the side. We normally amend the dirt with an organic product called ‘Bumper Crop,’ which helps add nitrogen.” If you are a container gardener, you can purchase a bag of potting soil at your local nursery for about $10. Ms. Wolfsen recommends organic soil to ensure no harmful additives have been added to the dirt, which can ultimately be ingested through the food.

Photo by Nicholas Mitzenmacher

Photo by Nicholas Mitzenmacher

Step 5

Ask what to plant in your available space. “Before planting, be aware of the root space,” says Guillen. “Onions or leafy greens work well in container pots, whereas some tomatoes have root systems of three feet or more, and you want to have enough space for the plant to reach its potential.” Ask your nursery master gardener what to plant, how far apart to plant each vegetable and tell whether you are planting in dirt or containers. Most seeds cost less than $5 an envelope, which can also save you a bundle in grocery costs.

Step 6

Irrigation: Water is the next critical component of gardening. Ms. Wolfsen recommends a drip system to conserve water. “If you have a water hose, soak the ground well the first few times when you first plant, so the water sinks deep into the dirt, then cover the area with mulch. After that, you can water the area once or twice a week.”

Step 7

See your food grow, eat and enjoy! “When you have an organic garden, you can eat well and have better nutrition for not a lot of money,” says Ms. Wolfsen.

Also see the companion piece, “Feeding a community.”