How to Grow Great Food in Your Backyard

summer vegetable harvest

The Spruce / Margot Cavin

Nothing tastes as good as homegrown, fresh-picked fruits and vegetables. It doesn't take a lot of skill or space to grow something delicious in your backyard. You may have a large plot or choose to plant a small selection in containers on the patio. Either way, growing your own food is a rewarding experience.

Whether you are starting your first garden or looking for tips to make what you have just a little better, let's take a look at the essential gardening tips you need to know. This summer may just be your best harvest yet.

Choosing What and How Much to Plant

Everyone has their favorite fruits and vegetables. Your family may enjoy tomatoes and shy away from eggplant. Maybe you'd like to add more beans to your diet or want to try a new variety of squash this year. Ask yourself, are there any good companion plants for your favorites that you might want to plant as well?

The first key to plant selection is to think about what you're actually going to eat. There is no point in putting hours of work into growing food that goes to waste.

At the same time, think about the scale of each type of food you're going to grow. A family of two probably doesn't need ten tomato plants unless you're canning them or giving them away. On the other hand, ten plants may be perfect for a five-person household.

Deciding how many plants to grow of each variety is most important if you're limited on space and the time required to maintain those plants. Keep it manageable and realistic.

Not all plants thrive in the heat of the summer, either. You may also want to consider a few cool-season vegetables like salad greens and Brussel sprouts.

Mother and daughter gardening

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Maintaining a Bountiful Harvest

Gardening is a commitment and you need to be ready to care for your plants in order to get a great harvest. Some plants require very little attention while others are a little needy.

It is easy to become complacent mid-summer once the plants get good growth on them, but you still need to give them attention. Quite often it's the small steps that lead to a long harvest season. Picking fruits once they're ripe, watering regularly, keeping an eye on garden pests, and pulling those pesky weeds are common chores every gardener must do.

You will also want to know when is the right time to pick a particular vegetable. For instance, eggplant is best when slightly immature while peas are sweetest when they're full, but not too plump. Pay attention to your plants and after a while, you will recognize the signs of harvest time.

People taking care of plants in community garden

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Organic Gardening

Many gardeners are put off by the phrase "organic gardening" because they think it means they'll have to settle for worm-filled vegetables and fruits. Even worse, there's the thought that you have to do a lot more work for less reward.

While it may be true that organic gardening takes a little more work up front, for the most part, it's just common sense. Once you get your garden in harmony with nature, there's less work and worry all around.

The advantage of organic gardening is that you're not feeding your plants with chemicals. These are, after all, things you're going to eat, so many gardeners make the choice to use natural alternatives.

Making decisions about your soil, choosing natural fertilizers, and dealing with pests without chemical insecticides are the main elements of organic gardening. Once you develop a few good habits, your plants will be just as healthy and you can rest a little easier knowing what your family is eating.

Ready for harvest!

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Growing Tomatoes

Tomatoes are the most popular plants in the vegetable garden (even though they are technically a fruit). They are relatively easy to grow and you will have many varieties to choose from at the nursery.

Tomatoes can easily be started from seed or you can begin with healthy plants. To get the best tomatoes from your garden, be sure to follow common tips like giving each plant enough space, planting them deep enough, watering deeply, and knowing when to prune.

You should also be aware of common diseases that affect tomatoes. Quite often, if you know what to look for and spot the issues soon enough, you can save the plant.

Did you find the ideal tomato variety for you? You can easily save the seeds and plant the same tomato again next year.

tomatoes growing on a vine
The Spruce / Margot Cavin 

Adding Herbs

A vegetable garden can easily be enhanced with a selection of culinary herbs. You may choose to integrate them into your main garden, design a dedicated herb garden, use containers for your herbs, or a combination of any of these.

No matter which approach you take, growing your own herbs is a fantastic way to turn your kitchen garden into a gourmet delight. Herbs will also add texture and scent to the garden and they're relatively easy to maintain.

Many of our favorite herbs are also the most versatile when it comes to food pairings. Basil, oregano, sage, thyme, parsley, and chives are among the top picks that can be used with a variety of foods.

Some are herbs are annuals and some perennials or biennials and most are relatively easy to grow. Your woody herbs like rosemary and lavender will require pruning.

Beyond growing herbs outside, you can also plant edible flowers or start a windowsill garden for fresh use during the winter. 

Woman planting herbs in herb garden, high angle

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Adding Fruits and Berries

Growing fruits and berries is an investment in time and effort, but it's worth it. Some fruits require more labor than others and they may take a few years to establish and begin fruiting. Yet, few experiences can beat the taste of that first juicy fruit from your own backyard.

Fruit-bearing plants come in many shapes and sizes. You might have room for a full apple tree out back or choose a bushy berry. Dwarf trees make it possible to grow fruit trees in containers and enjoy citrus in northern climates (though the harvest is often small). Plus, there's always room for a strawberry pot

You will need to pick berries almost daily once they start fruiting in order to save them from bugs and birds. Raspberries and blackberries require pruning and they create runners that need to be pulled out of places they aren't wanted.

Fruit belongs in every backyard garden, even if it's only going to feed the birds.

strawberry growing in a garden
The Spruce / Margot Cavin

Preserving Your Harvest

You have a great garden that's producing beautiful fruits, vegetables, and herbs, but how do you preserve them? Gardening does not end with the harvest and if you want to enjoy your hard work into the colder seasons, you need to take a few extra steps.

Preserving your harvest begins with choosing the right method for that particular food and how you'll use them. Many fruits and vegetables can be frozen while some should be canned. Pickling is another option, as is making your own jams and jellies.

Many herbs can be dried and stored in spice jars. Freezing is another option and you might have better luck with that method.

If you simply have too much produce, give the excess away to family, friends, or neighbors. Also, local food pantries are often happy to take gardener's leftovers.

Fermented carrots in preserving jar

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