Are you ready to convert that patch of unused grass to a food-producing garden? Or maybe you just moved to a new home with space to make your gardening dream a reality at last? No matter the catalyst, it’s always a great idea to grow more of your own food. Unfortunately, the goal of growing meaningful quantities of food at home has unfairly gained a reputation for being too complex. And that’s a bit of a tragedy.

My hope with this guide is to demystify the process and share just how attainable - and affordable - an undertaking growing food at home really is. Food production is the goal and everything here was written with the aspiring fruit, vegetable, and herb grower in mind. Ornamental plants are welcome (and majorly beneficial in the case of many flowers!) but aren’t the focus.

The steps below are listed in the order you should start them to reduce frustration and unnecessary purchases. Many, however, will overlap and proceed concurrently.

As with most new adventures, throwing money at your garden right away can make it easier and faster to get started, but I recommend resisting the temptation. The low-cost strategy laid out here results in a more sustainable garden for years to come with a positive return on your time, effort, and money in the form of delicious, nutritious food.

Let’s get started!

1. Start a Hot Composting Pile

Your garden will require compost to thrive. It’s just a fact of life when the vast majority of us are working with poor soil.

And there are two big reasons starting a hot compost bing takes the very first spot on our to-do list:

  • The sooner you have compost at the ready, the less you have to rely on store-bought fertilizers and amendments. Compost is a replenishable input you can create at home for effectively free. Compare that price to the specialized fertilizers at the nursery and you’ll see why it’s a good idea to design for success with compost instead.
  • Your first batch of compost is going to take months to be ready and usable in the garden. So you need to both start early, utilize hot composting instead of cold, and check out this video on how to shorten the process.

If this is your first foray into hot composting, I recommend reading through this well-researched article to learn the ins and outs. .

2. Start a Worm Composting Bin

Same story as step #1! Worm composting (vermicompost) produces super-valuable inputs but takes months to produce. Check out this article on how to set up a vermiculture bin for about $25 (the cost of the worms).

I totally get it’s tempting to skip worms and assume you won’t need a worm bin if you’re already hot composting. I strongly recommend at least giving it a try though; for most folks, they’re actually really complementary strategies. Surprisingly, worm composting tends to be the easier process in my experience, making it a great backup (hot composting can be finicky until you get into a groove with it).

3. Clear Garden Space of Weeds or Grass

After both composts are set up and working their magic, it’s time to clear your garden space of existing vegetation (assuming it’s full of unwanted plants like grass and invasive weeds). I put this step early in the overall process to leave plenty of time to do it properly without breaking your back by trying to squeeze it all into one afternoon. If you have a small space that doesn’t need much work, you can leave this for a bit later.

Keeping in mind it’s important to have the space all cleared and ready-to-go early as some of the next steps are tricky to time precisely.

Here are two good strategies for clearing your garden patch:

  1. Grab a loop or action hoe and get to work. Obviously, this can be pretty tiring and only makes sense if you’re physically up to the task. There’s no shame at all in the less labor-intensive second option…
  2. Lay black tarp tightly against moistened ground for four to six weeks. In a process called occultation, the moist ground and heat trapped by the tarp encourage weed seeds present in the soil to germinate, then die from lack of sunlight. It’s a longer process than using a loop hoe by far but much less work and ultimately more effective.

Notice how there’s no weed killer (aka herbicides) step? That’s intentional and won’t be coming later. If you’re used to applying herbicides and worried about annoying weeding chores in the future, know that a thick layer of mulch (we’ll get there later) helps a ton on that front. If you’re still worried, I recommend this podcast on the topic of reducing weed pressure for additional tips and tricks.

You may have also noticed I haven’t mentioned building raised beds or buying containers. While both are great options for temporary, small, or even indoor spaces, they are inherently more expensive. The truth is it’s hard to reach a positive ROI (i.e. reducing your food budget by a greater amount than you spend) from your food garden in year one if you spend hundreds of dollars on raised bed materials and potting soil. As the goal of this guide is to help you harvest meaningful quantities of food on a budget, we’ll be planting directly in the ground!

Finally, the question of whether to till or not is ultimately up to the condition of your ground. While I lean towards not tilling (“no till”) personally, it’s not a bad idea to disturb the surface soil and aerate more deeply if your soil is compact, dry and devoid of life. If you do decide to aerate the soil, rather than renting an expensive tiller, I recommend simply using a standard shovel to gently lever the soil. The goal is not to dig the area at all: just insert the spade into the soil and lift it slightly. Repeat down the planting row.

4. Track the Sunlight in Each Area of Your Garden.

One of the biggest mistakes a gardener in a new space can make is planting before gaining a full idea of how the sunlight tracks across their plot through the day. Spend as much time as you can spare actively recording which areas receive full sun, partial shade, or full shade at different times in the day.

This upfront analysis will payoff when you’re able to effectively plan out which plants should go where.

5. Decide Where to Plant Fruit Trees

This step may come as a surprise, but fruit trees are a terrific addition to a food garden. And before you skip to the next step because you think you don’t have the space for trees, stop!

Fruit trees planted in a backyard garden do not need the kind of spacing you see in commercial orchards. In fact, they can be successfully planted as close as 18 inches apart when pruned properly.

Do yourself a huge favor and read up on backyard orchard culture by the masters at Dave Wilson nursery. Fruit trees are a beautiful, abundantly productive addition to a food garden and I hope you’ll consider them.

6. Sign Up for a Free Wood Chip Delivery or Gather Your Own Mulch

A thick layer of mulch is critical for suppressing weeds, retaining moisture, and adding organic material to the soil over time.

Purchasing wood chips for mulch can be expensive from a landscape company, so consider whether asking local arborists to drop off chips at your home or using a service like would work for you. The tradeoff for the low cost is extreme flexibility; you probably won’t know when you’ll get chips, how much, or what kind. It’s up to you if that makes sense - it’s not for everyone.

If you’re lucky enough to have lots of deciduous trees around, leaf mulch is an effective alternative.

7. Determine your first round of plants to grow

This has to be the most exciting part of gardening, right? There are thousands upon thousands of enticing seed options to consider once you start looking into the many varieties available for all your favorite fruits and vegetables. The world’s truly your oyster.

I like to focus on four things when determining what to grow next:

  1. What am I (and my family) excited to grow and eat? Practicality is not a concern.
  2. Of that list, which will fit into the upcoming growing season? I’ll give most plants a shot if there’s any chance they’ll make it to harvest, but there’s no point pouring energy into something that takes four months from planting to harvesting if it dies with a frost and winter is a month away.
  3. How much do I want to spend? Seeds are relatively cheap, especially when weighed against a grocery bill. But if you live somewhere without a lot of rain, that equation becomes less appealing as the water bill skyrockets. Mulch, again, can help a lot on this front by reducing evaporation from the soil.
  4. What varieties are going to do best in my climate? For example, I may have my heart set on eggplants, but what kind? Aswad from Iraq, Turkish Orange, Nagasaki Long, or the always wonderful Black Beauty? They all have different strengths I can match to my climate and the upcoming season.

I purchase most of my seeds from and Many gardeners love perusing a physical seed catalogue such asthis terrific option from Bakers Creek.

Online stores and catalogues can both offer terrific prices - the two sites I mentioned are particularly affordable - and an incredible array of varieties. Give yourself at least a full evening for this step and have a ton of fun with it.

I generally don’t place a lot of importance on how productive the crop is if it’s something I, or my family, really want to grow and eat. There is a balance though: I’m not going to grow a field of basil alone even if I really love pesto because it won’t impact our food budget much. And ultimately, that’s my ultimate goal on a small scale homestead.

8. Start Seeds in Trays Indoors

First things first: the only way to grow your food economically is by starting from seeds. Not buying seedlings at the nursery.

And good news - the time has come to put seeds into the ground! Well, not the ground exactly. Instead, many of your fruit and vegetables seeds - including the beloved tomato - should be started in seed trays stored indoors.

If you’ve never started seeds in trays and transplanted the seedlings, it can appear a little complicated. The truth is it’s very little extra work in return for tons of benefits like being able to plant before the last frost date, better germination rates, and stronger plants.

We’ve written a simple guide to planting with trays indoors that includes only the necessary, basic steps and none of the frills. One note of caution: planting seeds starts a countdown timer as your garden must be ready by the time the seedlings need to be transplanted.

9. Lay Out Your Gardening Space Strategically

It’s now time to prepare the rows in your plot and decide what’s to go where. Consider a few parameters:

  • A high-density (intensive) planting approach with minimal space between plants in the row is generally more productive than the traditional garden with lots of bare dirt. This is especially true for leafy greens.
  • Have a strategy in mind ahead of time for how you’ll support tall plants like tomatoes and vining plants like pole beans and malabar spinach (which is awesome). This might look like taking advantage of an existing structure such as a fence with a trellis net attached or selecting a subset of rows to trellis.
  • Match the sun-loving plants like hot peppers and malabar spinach to full sun areas and shade-tolerant plants to the partial shade areas.
  • If you have extra room (like odd corners at the end of a row), it’s a good idea to plant flowers known for attracting beneficial pollinator insects like lavender and sunflowers around your garden.

Nailing the perfect row design takes experimentation over multiple growing seasons, so don’t sweat it getting it perfect your first time. There are lots of right strategies. For example, someone who struggles with pruning due to a bad back may want wider walkways between the planting rows than someone who only cares about high production.

A good standard approach would be thirty inch planting rows with 10 inch walkways in between. However, that does not mean a single line of plants in the 30 inch beds. For our leafy greens, we may get three or even four plants across the row all the way down the bed. And even plants like tomatoes that need a lot of airflow can be planted in an offset pattern to increase the total number per row.

10. Lay Compost on Your Rows

For most of us, the unamended native soil in our yards will not support a high-production food garden. Sandy, dead, clay, compacted… there are many types of poor soil and compost helps with most of them. Which is why compost is the most important amendment you can add to your garden rows to feed and improve the soil.

If you’ve taken your time with the preceding steps and your own compost is ready to use, great! Otherwise, don’t feel bad about buying what you need; it’s an ingredient you can’t go without and one you will begin producing for yourself soon.

Laying compost is simple: add about an inch of compost on top of your soil, but only on the planting rows. Gently rake it out to keep the soil level even along the planting row (it’s fine for it to be slightly higher than the walkways though).

11. Lay Mulch Between Rows

A thick layer of mulch is the second most important ingredient to add to the garden. My preferred garden mulch is wood chips as they’re generally easy and cheap to acquire, look nice, and do a terrific job of retaining moisture while suppressing weeds.

While it’s definitely OK to add the wood chips in a consistent layer across the garden space, I find it’s a bit cleaner to pile them onto the space between planting rows (i.e. the walkways) and then gently fill in the space between plants later.

This way, you can easily plant both super high-density crops like lettuce where there won’t be much of any room between the stems for mulch to go as well as more spaced-out plants like tomatoes that will benefit from the wood chip layer extending onto the planting row. Plus, raking clean rows from a deep bed of mulch is not that easy.

12. Sow Seeds Directly in the Planting Rows

Some plants like cilantro don’t tolerate transplanting well. Others, like lettuce, yield larger harvests when planted directly in the garden simply because it’s easier to pack seeds together than seedlings. And some, like beans, outgrow a standard seed tray cell too quickly (although this last category can go either way).

Check if any of your seeds are recommended to go directly into the garden soil (the seed packet may specify) and do so at this point.

13. Install Irrigation (or another watering strategy)

In the beginning, watering your garden with a hose every few days as needed is a perfectly valid strategy. More than valid, it’s actually the best way to start because it forces you to get up close and personal with your plants and learn their watering needs.

At some point however, you will need an automated irrigation system. Our days get busy and we all need to be able to step away from the garden at times! On top of the convenience factor, plants in your food garden have deeper roots than a lawn and therefore prefer a slower, deeper style of watering that’s difficult to manage by hand.

Here are two popular options for the home gardener:

  1. Convert existing sprinkler head(s) into a flexible drip system
  2. Install an automated controller onto your hose bib with a soaker hose

Warning! Irrigation is a complicated topic unto itself and can be a major liability if done incorrectly. Take care and only attempt the implementation you’re comfortable with.

14. Transplant Seedlings from Trays into Garden

Seedlings are ready to be transplanted when they have three sets of true leaves (the first leaves that are present at germination are called cotyledon and are not true leaves). If you planted larger seeds like squash or beans, they’ll need to be transplanted much sooner or else risk becoming root bound and damaged in the small space.

The goal is to move the seedlings when they have enough root structure to be easy to transplant but have not yet become bound up in the plastic cell. Moving a seedling too late is harmful as the older roots have a harder time with the shock.

Here are a few tips to help the process go smoother:

  • Try to transplant when the weather is a little overcast or in the early morning so that the plant doesn’t have to immediately contend with a lot of sun.
  • Before committing to the process, test out removing one seedling plug first to see if the soil is too dry or too wet to stay together nicely. Add water or wait as necessary.
  • Remove a batch of seedling plugs and gently lay them on a flat tray ahead of time to make the transplanting more efficient. Just be careful to never leave them like this with the roots exposed for very long or in the direct sun.
  • If you’ve got a lot of seedlings, try not to baby them too much or worry about the perfect spacing. It’s more important to time the transplant step correctly.
  • Mark out your desired spacing ahead of time with a tape measure and a trowel to pre-dig the holes. You’ll absolutely fly through the planting this way.

And that’s it! I sincerely hope this guide proves useful to you and that you’re able to grow plenty of your favorite fruits and veggies. For the ambitious gardener, I’ve included a few “bonus” steps below to reflect the fact we’re never done learning.

Happy planting!

Bonus Tip 1: Plant Cover Crops in Down Periods

Consider rotating in a run of cover crops like this mix to restore nitrogen in your soil, keep weed pressure down throughout the year, generate lots of green material for your compost systems, and loosen the soil.

Bonus Tip 2: Setup Backyard Chicken Flock

Chickens are a major commitment and shouldn’t be taken on lightly. But if you know you want your own backyard flock, and your local regulations allow it, they make for a beautifully complementary addition to your hot compost and vermicompost for turning scraps into usable gardening inputs.

It’s worth reiterating: please don’t buy chicks if you’re not fully invested in their long term wellbeing.

Bonus Tip 3: Step Up Your Gardening Game with Books

A dizzying array of how-to books are out there for the eager gardener to consume. These two are my absolute favorites:

  1. The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming
  2. Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture

Bonus Tip 4: Don’t Give Up in Year 1

Talk to any gardener and they’ll probably tell you that their first season or even first full year was a bit of a disaster. Or at least that they didn’t produce anywhere near as much food as they planned.

And that’s OK. We’re in the midst of our first harvest in a new location and it will be nowhere near as productive as our last harvest in our established garden. The pests are different, the temperatures are different, the available sunlight is different, etc. But we’ll adjust to the new pests and plant new varieties to make next season better!

So don’t lose hope too early! Keep growing and you’ll get to a point where you can’t believe how much food is coming into the fridge direct from your garden.