when pigs flyLast week, I glanced at a bronze statue of a pig with wings that sits on my stone steps, and thought, “Well, that pretty much sums it up right now.”  Crazy things are happening.

Crazy times make us re-examine our dependencies.  Even if we don’t change anything, it’s good to know where we stand and what we’re capable of — and most people are capable of growing vegetables.

While not easy, it’s a lot easier than manufacturing toilet paper. Or penicillin.

Below, I’ve laid out some important things to think about as you begin. But first, an important caveat.

(And I’m taking my gloves off for a second because I’ve seen one meme too many this morning.)

Gardening is not a passive pastime. It is not without work.  It is more than cute, ‘authentic’ sayings, sweet seed packets and pretty pictures of vegetables artistically arranged on the table by Instagram influencers.  It is more than ‘just three easy steps!’

I sincerely hope this doesn’t stop you, because gardening is also extremely fulfilling – it might be just what you’re looking for in a busy, digitalphilic world that never seems to slow down.

It’s good for your body. It’s good for your mind.  It allows you to create living art both in the garden and on your table, and gives you something to show for that work. It connects us to the Earth and to the tiny miracles and lessons we might otherwise miss.

And, it also allows you to dabble in degrees – a small vegetable bed, a three-acre ornamental garden, a career in plant pathology.  It’s up to you.

Lastly, a hot shower at the end of a good day in the garden is one of the sweetest pleasures in life.

Now, let’s get back to vegetable gardens and the questions you should answer before you start one.

Planning a Vegetable Garden: Step One – What Can You Grow?

When planning a vegetable garden it is wise to ask yourself four things first:

  1. What do you like to eat?
  2. What is easy to grow?
  3. What is expensive to buy?
  4. What can you grow with available sun exposure?
Vegetables can be ornamental as well as edible. Nu-mex Easter packs a spicy punch both in the garden and on the plate.

Vegetables can be ornamental as well as edible. Nu-mex Easter packs a spicy punch both in the garden and on the plate.

For instance: you may eat all kinds of vegetables but particularly enjoy stir-frys and salads with lots of snow peas and broccoli.

Snow and snap peas are very easy to grow directly from seed in the garden, are relatively unmolested by pests, and cost a fair amount per pound. Broccoli is easier started from seedlings (which require extra time), is beloved by cabbage loopers and harlequin bugs, and is relatively cheap to buy in the store.

So, if space and time were an issue, snow peas would be the better bet.

And, quite frankly, if you’re thinking of growing a vegetable garden for the first time, space and time should be an issue for you.

Love soft fruit? Grow it! It's much cheaper than buying it.

Love soft fruit? Grow it! It’s much cheaper than buying it.

Space – because you shouldn’t be taking on too much at first; and time – because…well…you’ll understand in August. More on this in a moment.

Re: Sunlight. Your available sun exposure makes a BIG difference.  Most vegetables do their best in full sun (at least 6-8 hours of sun each day and hopefully more), but we don’t all have that.  If you have a partial shade situation (4-6 hours), plant leafy vegetables such as chard, spinach, kale, collards, lettuce, arugula, etc.  Fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers are going to need additional light to do well.

Planning a Vegetable Garden: Step Two – When Can You Grow It?

Your next step in planning a vegetable garden is determining the best time to plant for what you wish to grow. Whether they are leafy (lettuce), rooting (carrots) or fruiting (tomatoes), vegetables fall into two growing categories: cool season and warm season.

Cool season vegetables are planted in early spring or late summer for the fall, and warm season vegetables are planted in the late spring and throughout summer.  For instance – plant spinach in the early spring and tomatoes in the early summer or late spring. Some vegetables can span the seasons, but when getting started, it’s easier just to follow basic guidelines.


planting tomatoes small town gardener

Tomatoes are a classic warm-season vegetable. Plant them after your last spring frost.


Don’t expect the Big Box garden centers to help you on this one – they rely on our desire for summer veg to fuel impulse purchases of tomato plants in early spring.

But it’s not rocket science.  A quick search for your local state extension office (where the experts live) will give you all the information you need on any vegetable you wish to grow.  More questions?  They are happy to answer them by phone or email. And it’s free.

You can find links to your state’s extension office through this handy Farmer’s Almanac post (and find a great website resource at the same time!). A terrific planting guide for Maryland/Mid-Atlantic states is available at this link.

Planning a Vegetable Garden: Step Three – Where Can You Grow It?

Your next step in planning a vegetable garden involves assessing available space.

  1. Do you have a patio or balcony and must plant in containers?
  2. If you have open space, should you use raised beds or plant in open ground?
  3. How big should it be?
Recent egg shortages may have you thinking that hens might be a good idea for your garden - I completely agree!

Recent egg shortages may have you thinking that hens might be a good idea for your garden – I completely agree!

Patio gardeners take heart!  New varieties of fruits and vegetables have been specifically bred for gardeners to have a productive vegetable garden in a small space. Click here for some of my favorite varieties.

I am a big proponent of raised beds (and you can read why here), but raised beds cost extra time and money and might stop you from getting started if you are short on both.

However, if you decide to plant in open ground, it’s very important to understand that you will be putting a great deal of time in battling weeds away from your precious vegetables before they are smothered and become an unsightly mound in the middle of the yard.

In high summer rainfall areas such as the Midwest, South, Northeast and MidAtlantic, the bare appearance of the garden in early spring bears NO relation to that of late summer.  That totally under control space you are considering Will. Be. Rampant.

Let that carefully inform the size of the garden you are planning, and start small.

Planning a Vegetable Garden: Step Four – Who’s Coming To Dinner?

One of the toughest things about vegetable gardening is doing all the planning, planting and weeding and coming out one morning to find the vegetables completely razed to the ground by a #$@$@# four-legged creature that chose your vegetables over the perfectly edible wild foliage growing just yards away.


raised beds small town gardener

CPVC hoops are easily slid into place and covered with netting on this raised bed to provide protection from groundhogs and other greedy criminals.


You never know what will come to dine on your vegetables, but if you have seen rabbits, deer, voles or groundhogs on your property (I’m speaking from an East Coast USA perspective – my voles are West Coast gophers), do not for one moment think they will avoid your garden.  It is vital that you set up some sort of protection for those veggies from the beginning.  From netting stretched over hoops, to wire enclosing the garden, to soil baskets underground – make sure this is part of your plan.


Growing the things we love and that make economic sense keeps motivation high – especially when the work gets hard out there. It contributes to a sense of self-sufficiency, even if that only stays around until you kill all the tomatoes in a hard frost and realize that, 300 years ago, the first colonies would have perished had they relied upon your gardening skills.

No matter. At the end of the day, you’re making an effort, you’re building skills, you’re learning a ton and you’re breaking the cycle of being completely reliant on the economies and environment of a food producer 3,000, 4,000 or 7,000 miles away.

This year I’ve got a little more motivation to make my vegetable beds more productive than ever.

signature Marianne Willburn