The Three Most Important Things for a Successful Backyard (or Patio!) Vegetable Garden

There’s nothing better than a homegrown tomato, still warm from the sun, chopped up with a crispy cucumber bursting with flavor, on top of multicolored salad greens grown right in your very own backyard!

Or maybe a handful of fresh herbs for your roasted chicken, some lemon balm for a refreshing glass of tea, or maybe even a handful of figs picked from your potted tree! (Now I’m getting hungry!)

No matter what space you have to work with, whether you have a sprawling backyard or an apartment patio, you can grow your own food and it is easier than you think – even if you supposedly have a “brown thumb”.  🙂

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Let’s discuss the three things that will affect the success of your garden, so that you will be growing your own veggies for you and your family in no time!

The three most critical things for a successful garden are:

  1. Sunlight
  2. Soil
  3. Water

1.  Sunlight

I would argue that this is the most important factor in having a successful garden, so I put it first!

Most fruits and vegetables need about 6-8 hours of full sun to reach full production. (A fruit is anything with seeds, so yes, your tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash are technically fruits!)  If they get too much less than that, like 4 hours or less, your plants will have poor growth or become long and lanky and won’t produce a whole lot of fruit for you.

So you want to place your garden in the part of your yard that gets the most amount of sunlight for at least part of the year. I say this because your yard may get different amounts of sunlight at different times of the year.  My garden, for example, is placed in one specific part of the backyard, because that part receives the most amount of sun in most of the spring, summer, and fall.  It is more shady in the winter time because we have tall trees surrounding our lot, and the sun is behind those trees for much of the winter, but I can still grow lots of leafy greens then, because here in Texas it doesn’t get too cold for them and they don’t need quite as much light. 

What if I don’t get a full six hours of sunlight anywhere? Can I still have a garden?  Yes!!! You just have to be a little more creative. And here is a post about some veggies that can grow quite well with less than full sunlight.  Growing in pots is an excellent way to deal with shade.  I had a really sunny area that got maybe 4-6 hours of sunlight in the summer time on the side of my driveway.  So I planted veggies and some fruits too in those pots and if the sun would move during the season, I could just move the pots wherever the sun went.  This is also a great option if your best sun is on a paved area or a patio. Just stick a pot wherever you get some sun, and move it around if necessary! 

Now if you still do not get the full recommended amount of sun you have two options:

  • Experiment!  Want to grow tomatoes but you’re not sure if you get enough sun? Try it out and see what happens!  Maybe it will get just enough sun to produce a few tomatoes for you.  The only cost to you to try it out is the couple of dollars for the plant and your time, but the benefit might be realizing you can grow more than you thought!

  • Plant veggies with lower light requirements (see this post for specific suggestions) – any kinds of leafy greens can grow in lower light areas, they may just grow a bit slower. Now they won’t do well in deep shade, they need some light, but a few hours is fine.  I have grown many varieties of lettuce, spinach, swiss chard, kale, bok choi, and tatsoi in lower light areas.  I have also grown radishes, turnips, beets, and carrots in these same areas, but they are generally a bit smaller and take a lot longer to grow, so I tend to fill the space more with the vegetables that produce more food for us. But this is where the experimentation comes into play!  If you want to try growing it, put it in the ground or in a pot in your sunniest spot you have and try it!

In the above picture, you can see my garden gets a few hours of sun in the winter, but most of the day it is like this…

But it’s still just enough to grow leafy greens and some peas!

 

2. Soil

Next on the list for garden success is soil.  I have tried a LOT of different things over the years so I will tell you what works best for me.

  • Good quality compost
  • Good quality organic fertilizer
  • Rock Dust

Let’s discuss each of these in a little more detail…

Good Quality Compost 

Compost is simply decayed plant matter that contains all kinds of nutrients and beneficial bacteria, microbes, and fungi that help plants to perform their best!  But not all compost is created equal!  I have bought “compost” that was little more than glorified sawdust and almost killed all my plants!  You want to look for compost that has no smell or a pleasant “foresty/earthy” smell (it should not stink!) and is very dark brown and crumbly like a moist chocolate cake. That’s how you know you’ve found the good stuff!

For buying compost you have three options:

1.  Buy in bulk from a company or township that makes it from recycled food and yard waste – this is an option if you know of a good place and you are planning a good sized garden. This is the least expensive option because buying in bulk by the 1/2 or cubic yard is the equivalent of I think somewhere around 27 bags of it but costs half the price.  I have heard that some cities actually offer their compost from yard waste for free! (I wish that was my town!)  The benefit of this option is some companies actually test their compost for the presence of the good stuff.  If you are in the Houston area, my absolute favorite place to get compost is Nature’s Way Resources.  They test their compost and offer very good quality stuff!  I had been looking at buying a little farm an hour north of where I live and I would STILL pay for the delivery fees to get that sweet black gold! 🙂

2.  Buy bags of compost from your local nursery or store –  if you need a smaller amount, or you just don’t have a bulk place nearby, or the thought of lugging wheelbarrows full of dirt over and over again makes you feel tired before you have started, you can buy it in bags.  But remember – not all compost is good compost, and they are not all created equal.  So to combat this issue and to get a broader amount of essential nutrients, bacteria, and fungi, I recommend mixing different brands.  For example, say you need 10 bags of compost.  I suggest maybe getting one of each of the different brands or kinds they have. Or if there are only two kinds, mix it half and half.  Then you just mix all the kinds you have together – you can do this for larger amounts on a tarp or in a wheelbarrow, or for a pot, just take a few scoops from each bag until you fill it up. The key here is to get as much variety in there as possible.  That way if you end up with a dud batch, you won’t lose all your plants because you “just want to get these plants in the ground, it’s probably fine, I don’t feel like going to two stores”…not like I have ever done that… 🙂

3.  Make your own compost – this one is more of a long term game strategy, but it is great to be able to supplement what you buy with what you can make and the only effort required by you is saving your food scraps and other compostable material and tossing it around periodically. 

(This was my very first compost bin – I was being very trendy using recycled pallets, but they don’t have to be this fancy! 🙂 )

I will be doing a post very soon on starting a compost pile – it is so easy and is a great way to get kids involved and learning about recycling.  I mean, it is like perfect kid entertainment – bugs, worms, and dirt!  And your homemade compost is usually pretty great because you are the compost curator – you decide what goes in that thing.  So you can put your organic vegetable and fruit trimmings, and untreated grass clippings, and whatever else you choose to add and get a higher quality, more diverse compost than you could buy at the store!

So, wait – quick question, I have dirt in my backyard, can’t I just plant stuff in the ground? Why do I need to add compost?  Or can I just use dirt or garden soil from the store or somewhere else?  You can absolutely plant your garden in the ground, use your native dirt, add bags of garden soil, etc.  But just like compost, dirt comes in all kinds.  Some is too acidic or too alkaline, some is too rocky or sandy, some has too much clay, some may have been contaminated from chemicals in the soil or lead paint from an old house, whatever.  You can of course get your soil tested, and if you are building a substantial garden, you might want to do this to see what you are working with.  But see, I love gardening, however I am also super LAY-ZEE when it comes to testing my soil.  Maybe I do this backwards, but I really only test if I am having significant problems.  The application of the good compost and fertilizer in my experience helps just about anything!  When I built my raised garden beds, I broke up some of the native dirt and then filled in the rest of the raised bed with compost, so it was probably like 25% native dirt, 75% compost.  I just find I get much better growth than growing in my native dirt.

I’m just growing my garden in pots. Do I just use compost?  Yes!  You can – depending on what your compost looks like.  Some people may disagree with me on this one, but I have experimented with this over the years and I have had excellent results, sometimes better than my raised bed garden! The key here though is that your compost is not super fine – if it is, it may compact and that’s not good for your plants.  Compost that has a nice texture with mostly crumbly parts and some little mulch-like pieces in it will still allow for good drainage.  If you are not sure, you can always add a bit of hardwood mulch (not pine, it’s too acidic – unless you are growing blueberries…) or some vermiculite or perlite to help with drainage. You want there to be a certain amount of structure to allow for air and water to get to the roots and not suffocate them.

       

 

Good Quality Organic Fertilizer

Some people are not picky about the kind of fertilizer they use (nitrogen is nitrogen, right?) but I prefer to use a more natural type of fertilizer.  I feel that just like our bodies, plants will be able to utilize the nutrients that come from natural sources more efficiently than synthetic sources and there is little to no risk of “burning” the plants with too much fertilizer.  But use whatever fertilizer you have access to and you feel comfortable with.  But I like something that is granular or in little pellets that I can mix in the compost (along with the rock dust – see section below) before I put it into the pot or my raised bed.  Then you can throw another handful under the plants as they get growing and need a little boost.  It just makes it easier for me.

My favorite fertilizer is Microlife – it is the best stuff in my opinion!  If you are in Texas, especially near the Houston area, most area nurseries carry it in small containers and the big 20-40lb bags. (I just buy a big bag and store it in a plastic locking trashcan in the garage to keep out pests, and it is much more cost effective that way!)  But if you are not in the area, you can still find it online! I like the green multipurpose one, but they have other formulations if you want something for a specific type of plant like azaleas or blueberries.

 

Rock Dust 

Sadly, due to lots of different factors, our food is not quite as nutritious as it used to be.  A study done in 2004 by University of Texas found that the mineral content of the soil has dramatically decreased since 1950 (you can read more about the findings here and here in case you don’t feel like reading the scientific paper!).  So it’s like picturing my grandma eating an orange, and then realizing to get the same amount of nutrition, I would have to eat eight oranges! Anyways, I digress…

Applying rock dust helps to replenish the minerals taken out by the plant, and keeps your garden healthier long term and your homegrown produce more nutritious for you!  

Now you can always overdo it, so make sure you follow the directions on the product you are using. I tend to mix about two cups of rock dust and maybe 3-4 cups of fertilizer in with a full wheelbarrow full of compost, mix it all together, and dump it in the garden or pot.  Also wear a mask (we all have access to those now!) because the dust is usually very fine powder (unless you get it granulated) and you don’t want to inhale it.

My rock dust of choice is Azomite.  I tend to have a hard time finding it locally in nurseries – every once and a while they have it, and they always say it sells out so fast, so I have no idea why they don’t stock more of it!  I buy mine online in the 44 lb bag and it lasts me a few years for my large garden! You can buy it in smaller bags as well.

 

3. Water

So you have found the sunny spot in your yard, you have planted your precious tomato plant and babied it with premium compost and fertilizer and rock dust, and then you give it just the right amount of water to make it thrive!

But how do you know how much water to give it so that it does more thriving and less dying?

You don’t want your plants to dry out and get wilted because that causes stress to the plant, but you don’t want to over water either, because that can cause problems as well!

Drip systems are great for getting moisture right to the roots, but I still tend to do a lot of hand watering because my garden is not too big, and walking around watering helps me to keep an eye on how everything is growing, any pest issues that pop up, etc.

Especially once the heat of spring and summer begins, check the soil daily. To do this, I just stick my finger into the soil near the plant maybe about an inch deep.  If it still feels moist, you can wait to water and check the next day.  If you want something a little more scientific, soil moisture meters like this one are a really cool gadget and can really help you tell when things are drying out and you need to water again.

Once the weather heats up, you may have to water every other day (with pots, you may have to water them every day, but again, check the moisture level of the soil).  

 

So there you have it!!! So in summary, for the best garden ever. . .

1.  Place your garden beds or pots wherever you get the most amount of sunlight, and grow veggies that can tolerate more shade if you have lower light areas.

 

2.  Feed you plants with good quality compost, fertilizer, and rock dust.

 

3.  Keep your soil moist, not too dry and not too damp, and check regularly by touch or with a moisture meter.

 

Happy Gardening!!!

   -Jamie



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