How to Start a Vegetable Garden that Suits Your Lifestyle

How to start a vegetable garden

A couple of years ago a friend of mine got an allotment (that’s British for a small plot of land you rent from a community garden). It was completely overrun with weeds when he started clearing it in February.  I decided to lend him a hand.  

We spent a few weekends in the spring digging it over, working in some manure and then planted a huge host of veg.  It was wonderful fun.  We both had one year old sons at the time.  We’d dig a while, drink a little beer and watch our toddlers get very muddy.    

We planted masses of potatoes and onions, broad beans, runner beans, cabbage, leeks, purple sprouting broccoli, courgettes, rhubarb, corn . . .    Then in May the heavens opened for about three weeks in a row.  And the whole thing went to mush.

The potatoes and onions rotted (too late, too much rain, bad drainage), black fly got the broad beans, a dear ate the runner beans and caterpillars did the broccoli.  All we had to show for the escapade by August was some lovely corn, a couple of giant marrows and some promising looking rhubarb.

The whole debacle was utterly predictable of course.  My mate was a hard working lawyer with a young boy.  He was lucky to make it to the allotment once every two weeks.  I wasn’t around much to help either and the space was just huge.  It was the wrong vegetable patch for this point in his life. He literally had more produce from the small salad box I gave him as a consolation present.

When you start a new vegetable garden the most important thing is to choose the right garden.

A Veg Patch For Your Life

The ideal vegetable garden for you looks unlike it does for anyone else.  You’ve got a life, and your veg patch needs to fit that lifestyle and give you pleasure.  Otherwise it simply won’t last.

So you need to choose a style of veg patch that matches your levels of enthusiasm, time and money, as well as your physical space and local climate.  Personally I always think it is a good idea to start modestly and to build up.  Because everyone has more enthusiasm for gardening in the spring than they do later on in the summer.

The following is a list of 8 types of home vegetable garden.  A good garden for you is probably a hybrid of some of these elements.  Mine certainly is.  I hope they provide some inspiration.

1) The One Pot Herb Garden

One Pot Herb GardenThe one pot herb garden is easy, cheap, beautiful and low maintenance.  It might not produce that much, but the variety can be superb.  This one has basil, rosemary, lavender, mint, parsley, dill and chives.

If you are just a beginner don’t mess around with seed.  Buy a mixed set of plugs, make sure the soil has decent drainage and stick it somewhere sunny you see a lot, so you remember to water.  The kitchen window is ideal.

2) The Windowsill Garden

Windowsill Garden

If you live in a flat, a windowsill garden (or balcony garden) could be great for you.  Windowsills are superb places for growing stuff as they are often sunny, cool and have good airflow.  They also tend to be quite contained which makes them fast and simple to water.

Herbs, salad, strawberries, peppers and hanging tomatoes are all ideal for this set up as their soil and space demands are limited. The windowsill is also brilliant for avoiding snails, slugs and other pests that you might get on ground level.

3) The  Container Garden

Container GardenContainer gardens are a super way to maximize both the yield and variety of food you can grow in a small space.  If you are creative about it you can often get one going very quickly and cheaply by re-purposing old pots, boxes and crates to make functional growing space.  They can also be really gorgeous because you get different heights and textures.

For people who are really busy ‘self watering planters’ are a good idea as you can get away with many more days without watering.  The picture above is from VerticalVeg, a guy renowned for growing a lot in a small space.

4) The Square Foot Garden

4 Square Foot GardenThe square foot garden really is what it says on the tin.  You build a small bed (often raised with good drainage) and divide it up into square feet.  You can pot this up with little plugs, but most people tend to do them with seed.

I’ve never actually tried one of these myself but am quite tempted this year.  You can grow a lot of variety in one space and watering is simple and fast.  The example above is from The Wealthy Earth.

5) The Potager

The Potager

If you like form as much as function then a potager might be for you.  The ‘jardin potager’ is the traditional French kitchen garden that incorporates herbs, veg and fruit as well as flowers, shrubs and structure.

The DIY version is simply to plant all your stuff in mixed beds and to make it beautiful.  It really helps with motivation if it’s your view out of your kitchen window.  The French . . . . ?  Well they know a thing or two about kitchen gardens.

6) The Raised Bed Garden

Raised Garden Beds

I think this is possibly the best option for newbies with some space.  If you’ve got the time to spend then a raised garden bed is a fabulous investment.  Two great things about them is that they stop you compacting the soil by walking on it, and they generally have better drainage.

You can grow most things in them.  They are good to water and easy to weed.  They are also super for crops that might need netting at some point, like carrots or broccoli.  People seem to spend a fortune buying them, but seriously, it’s a few bits of wood. Just knock one up with something you can get cheap.  This example is from Gardenista.

7) The Greenhouse

7 Greenhouse

That’s me in my greenhouse last September filming a silly video about food waste.  I’m surrounded by tomatoes, there’s eggplant and peppers to my left, some basil below me.  None of these things can be grown reliably here in the UK without a greenhouse.

But a word of warming.  If you can’t find time to water every day, a greenhouse is not for you.  If you go away in the summer, someone needs to water.  All the wonderful stuff you can grow in a greenhouse takes months of consistent loving and care.  They can also cost a pretty penny, so you only want to go for one if you are really keen.  But my word our tomatoes are heavenly!

8) The Traditional Plot

8 Traditional Garden PlotThe traditional vegetable garden is the tradition because it is a cheap, easy and functional way to grow food.  Their major feature is long rows of different crops.  In cool climates you expect to see things like potatoes, onions, leeks, beans, zucchini, pumpkin, cabbages, broccoli, asparagus, carrots, beets, kale and corn (they should really be in blocks not rows).

The spacing between rows is important.  You want it to be wide enough to hoe for weeds and walk along, but not so wide it wastes precious space.  A big skill in planting this way is to improve your soil each year by adding compost, manure and drainage where necessary.  Rotating crops is also a feature of people who take it seriously.

Starting Your Garden

If you are just starting out and have limited time then why not think about growing some herbs and salads in containers.  If you get a simple pack of herb and salad seedlings, one bag of compost (peat free) and some old containers you can have a veg garden in 30 minutes.  And you’ll be eating it in just a couple of weeks.

If you are getting more serious about it then both containers and raised beds are a great way to set out your garden and limit the amount of watering and weeding you’ll need to do.  You can grow all sorts in them!  Finally if you’re lucky enough to have the space and time then why not consider a traditional bed of vegetables or try your hand at a greenhouse?

Check out our post on 7 Vegetables That Taste Better If You Grow Your Own for ideas on planting.

What type of veg garden are you going for this year?

  • Bob Ashworth

    Growing potatoes is a problem for people who have with a small garden. One way of overcoming this is to grow them in a stack of used car tyres. Starting with one tyre and as the plant grows add further tyres and compost. Potatoes will grow up the stack as it grows.

  • Daniel Black

    Nice post Lindsay, it’s really important that people don’t bite off more than they can chew when it comes to growing space in order to stay interested. At first I felt like I’d made that exact mistake with my allotment, however my father decided to help me out with it and now we grow pretty well. One problem we do have is with our fruit, we don’t seem to be able to successfully protect it from hungry wildlife. I’ve been thinking about buying something like these fruit cages, but I’m concerned it’s a little bit of overkill. We have discussed the issue with people on our allotment site and nobody else seems to be having a problem to the extent that we are and they’re not using cages, what do you think? I think the pros outweigh any cons with the fruit cages as they offer pretty comprehensive protection to our allotment.