How To Start A Garden : The Salt : Life Kit Whether you have big plans for a vegetable garden or a tiny pot of windowsill herbs, this episode will help you get your green thumb. We cover the basics of hardiness zones, understanding good soil and building raised beds so you can turn garden dreams into reality.

5 tips for starting a healthy garden

5 tips for starting a healthy garden

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Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
Five tips for how to start a garden, from NPR&#039;s Life Kit.
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

My backyard used to be a junkyard, a tragic mix of rubble, tires, pipes, chew toys, glass shards. It felt hopeless.

But my perspective changed when I was standing in a long line to get into the grocery store at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and wondered: Why have I let all this dirt and sunlight and water go to waste?

Planting a garden is "a way to connect to something immediate here and now and watch it grow," says Dr. Rupa Marya, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco's medical school. She is also an avid gardener. "It's got a lot of great health benefits. People are outside. They're getting sun on their skin, generating vitamin D."

While it would be very difficult for me (or you) to grow everything we eat, this is a good time to get started on something. Think about how exciting it would be to eat a salad made of lettuce you grew! Here are five tips to help you break ground on a garden.

1. Create a vision based on your space.

Before you turn into Johnny Appleseed, think about the space you're cultivating. Is it a yard? A rooftop? A windowsill? A fire escape? How much sunlight does it get?

Before you make your garden plans, take a look at models like yours. Don't Google "Hawaii dream garden" if you're in Minnesota. Also, talk to neighbors about what grows well in your hardiness zone. These zones, based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, go from 1 (the coldest) to 13 (the hottest). The USDA has a map; you can just plug in your ZIP code to see your zone and figure out what plants grow.

(Note: It's not a perfect guide. If you're in the Northeast, it won't help you factor in how snow cover affects your veggies.)

2. Make sure you're working with healthy soil.

Making sure that your soil is healthy is one of the first things you should do when starting a garden. Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

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Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Making sure that your soil is healthy is one of the first things you should do when starting a garden.

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Benjamin Fahrer is a professional landscaper with Top Leaf Farms and Dr. Marya's husband. "Once you create the conditions conducive for life to grow, [it] grows," he says. "We just need to set up the stage."

Set the stage with soil. Healthy soil is full of billions of bacteria, fungi and other microbes. Plant roots are able to penetrate because it's the right texture and structure.

First, texture. Soil texture depends on how much clay, sand and silt is in the ground. Any soil is a combination of those three things. "The most ideal soil [is] right in the middle of those three," Fahrer says, "which is a sandy clay loam." This is true, on average, though what exactly a plant wants can vary. Carrots and beets want sandier soil, so their roots can more easily penetrate. Tomatoes want more clay, for water retention.

Structure is how the particles are grouped together. Are they porous, or cemented into an impenetrable layer? Soils with the same texture can have totally different structures.

The ideal structure is granular or crumbly. You can get that structure by buying your garden soil in bags at the hardware store or by composting at home. (Check out this Life Kit episode on composting.) You can also churn your soil using a rake or tiller. You don't want to churn at the wrong time, though, like right after heavy rainfall. If the soil is too wet, it clumps. Air can't penetrate, roots can't grow. "That could set your garden back for years," Fahrer says.

There's also pH level — how alkaline the soil is. To find the pH and other chemical properties (like if the soil has lead), you can send soil samples in zip-lock bags to a lab. The University of Massachusetts, Amherst charges $20 for a soil fertility test. Your local master gardener program can point you to other labs.

A note on lead. It can get into the soil in many ways, but Fahrer says: Do not stress! You can still grow fruits and vegetables. For the most part, plants do not absorb lead into their tissues. But it gets on their skin. This is one reason it's important to wash all your veggies, even organic ones from a farmers market.

3. Plant seeds or, if that's too hard, get transplants.

When you're starting a garden, think about whether you should use seeds or transplants. Starting plants from seed is more affordable but less predictable. Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

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Becky Harlan/NPR

When you're starting a garden, think about whether you should use seeds or transplants. Starting plants from seed is more affordable but less predictable.

Becky Harlan/NPR

I want herbs and vegetables. Chives, parsley and cilantro are not fussy, so I'll plant them as seeds. But basil and tomato — those need more attention. So I'm going another route: seedlings or transplants.

Fahrer says, in general, a seed is like an infant. It needs tons of care, and not everyone knows how to get it to survive. Transplants, which are a few inches high and grown in small pots, are easier. "They still need your love," he says. "[But] they're not going to fall down and kill themselves."

(I've never had to keep a baby alive for any extended period of time, but I do know it's a lot of work.)

Though seeds are often more affordable than transplants, they are less predictable. It's hard to know how many of them will actually sprout. If too many end up sprouting, they'll overcrowd and compete with each other to survive. So you may need to thin them out (meaning, pull some out).

4. Make containers or raised beds.

You can start a garden in pots or containers, or you can build beds. The decision depends on your preferences, space, what you're growing and your budget. Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

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Becky Harlan/NPR

Just about anything can be a container for your plant: wooden wine boxes, milk crates, old pots or dresser drawers, so long as you drill holes in the bottom and don't let any paint touch the soil. Feel free to be a "roadside warrior" — grab anything that holds soil and "put lipstick on that pig, so to speak," says Yolanda Burrell, owner of Pollinate Farm & Garden in Oakland, Calif. Her main note of caution is: Stay away from anything that's had a toxic use (such as oil drums) and avoid plastics, which can leach chemicals into the soil as they break down from ultraviolet light.

You can also build your own containers from wood. Plain white wood, like the pine sold at Home Depot, is not ideal. "It will last probably for three years or so, but then it's going to start to break down," Burrell says. Ideally, you'd make boxes from cedar or redwood. But that's very expensive.

Reporter Aarti Shahani and her nephew Akshay Shahani prepare to make raised beds from pallets in Aarti's backyard in Oakland, Calif. Manu Gujrati for NPR hide caption

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Manu Gujrati for NPR

Reporter Aarti Shahani and her nephew Akshay Shahani prepare to make raised beds from pallets in Aarti's backyard in Oakland, Calif.

Manu Gujrati for NPR

Another source of wood that is totally free: pallets. If you look on Craigslist or pass by grocery stores, there are lots and lots of pallets lying around. Burrell says you want the ones that are stamped with the letters HT (for heat-treated). That's imperative, as they're rot-resistant and baked at high temperatures to get rid of invasive insects and larva. Pallets are built to not break apart. But with a saw, hammer and pry bar, you can grab the slats and repurpose them. The Internet has many how-to videos. Here's one of my favorites.

You can also use pallets to make a raised bed. That's a garden bed where the soil is elevated and/or aisles are dug down so you're not stepping on planting soil. "It stays nice and fluffy," Burrell explains, which is important to give space for roots to grow and not disrupt the microorganisms that are hard at work. In addition to preventing soil compaction, raised beds can solve problems like drainage and weeds, as well as serve as a barrier to pests.

5. Understand how much sunlight your plants need.

Plants that have fruit, like tomatoes, often require more sunlight than leafy greens like kale. Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

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Becky Harlan/NPR

Not every plant needs a ton of sun. Burrell has a really simple rule of thumb for sunlight: "If you pick the fruit off of the plant, then it needs more sun. If you're just eating the leaves, then you need less sun."

So tomatoes, squash and cucumbers need sun to ripen. Leafy greens, not so much. Also, a corollary: The smaller the fruit, the less sun it needs. You may not have the sunlight needed to grow a beefsteak tomato. But you may be able to pull off sun gold tomatoes, which can be as small as half an inch in diameter ... and really delicious!

Additional Reading

One of Burrell's favorite books on home gardening is Food Grown Right, in Your Backyard. "It's the right level of detail, not dumbed down too much," she says. (Though it is written for a Pacific Northwest audience.)

Fahrer recommends The New Seed-Starters Handbook (which is free online).

The audio portion of this story was produced by Audrey Nguyen.