Are you starting a vegetable or kitchen garden for the first time? Are you looking for ideas on the best vegetables to grow in your backyard vegetable garden? We’re here to help you grow your own vegetables and create a beautiful kitchen garden bursting with food for you and your family with an overview of vegetable gardening, suggestions on how to layout your garden plan, and suggestions on the best vegetable plants to grow to get you started.
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Preparing for Your Kitchen Garden
There are many ways to grow vegetables in your backyard – you can incorporate them into your existing gardens, you can create a vegetable garden plot or a series of raised beds, or you can even start your vegetable garden by growing veggies in pots on your deck or patio. For most purposes, a vegetable and kitchen garden are the same thing, although you can think of a kitchen garden as being close to your house where you can run out and grab something for dinner, versus a vegetable garden that may be harvested occasionally and is further from your home.
If you can, grow your vegetable in a kitchen garden as close as you can to your house and you are more likely to run out and grab that herb you need when you are partway through a recipe. You can even grow a smaller kitchen garden near your house and a larger vegetable garden for other crops that you visit less often.
If you are brand new to backyard vegetable gardening, I suggest you start by reading How to Start Your Homestead Garden as this covers some suggestions around preparing your soil, setting up a watering system and tools you will need to get started.
Create a Kitchen Garden Plan
Laying out a kitchen garden design is important for the success of your garden. There are many methods for vegetable gardening and ways to get creative about building healthy soil, companion planting, permaculture, and more. If this is your first kitchen garden, it’s important to start small and simple. You will be most successful with your crop the first year if you keep your garden size manageable. Here are some general guidelines:
- If you are starting a vegetable plot, make your garden less than 12 x 12 feet. This gives you enough space to try out some fun crops, but not so much you can’t manage it.
- If you are building raised beds – try 2 4×8 foot beds. This ensures you can reach the vegetables in the center of your garden and gives you enough space to get started.
- Plan your vegetable garden with enough rows so you don’t need to step into the garden to weed, water, plant and harvest.
- Make sure you position your kitchen garden close to your house and in an area with as much sun as possible.
When and What to Grow in Your Kitchen Garden
Once you have your garden plot layed out, you will want to start planning what vegetables to grow in your kitchen garden and when to plant them. You can draw out your garden plans on paper and plan how much space each plant needs and when to plant it. Here are 5 things to keep in mind when you’re drawing out your kitchen garden plan.
- Grow what you like to eat. If you don’t like radishes, don’t plant radishes!
- You will want to consider how tall your plants will get. Vegetables like pole beans, corn, and even tomatoes can get tall and will shade what is behind them. Plant tall vegetables in the back of your garden.
- Cool season vegetables are planted in the early season, while other vegetables (like tomatoes) can’t be planted until well after the frost date. It’s important to note each plant’s growing needs when you get ready to plant.
- Consider the time until harvest. Some plants (like lettuce) grow quickly so you will want to stagger plantings so you get a continuous harvest.
- Some vegetables are annuals (grow from scratch every year) and some are perennials (asparagus, some herbs, etc). You will want to ensure you give each plant the recommended spacing and account for perennials that come back every year. I generally space slightly closer that what is recommended to help suppress weeds in what is considered intensive plant spacing.
Plant Your Kitchen Garden
There are several ways to start your kitchen garden, and generally a combination of starting seeds indoors, direct sowing and purchasing seedlings is best. If this is your first year, I suggest skipping starting seeds indoors and just buying seedings directly from a garden center, as this involves more equipment. Some vegetables benefit from direct sowing in the backyard vegetable garden. This is generally cool-season plants or crops that don’t like to have their roots distrubed (like carrots). Other vegetables (like tomatoes) benefit from getting an early start and then transplanting into the garden.
You can always go to your local gardening center to purchase seeds, but it’s also fun to spend some winter months pouring over seed catalogs and picking out fun varieties. Here are a few of our favorite places to order seeds:
Direct Planting your Vegetable Seeds
To get the best results from direct seeding (planting your seeds directly in your kitchen garden) here are some tips:
- Follow the directions on the seed packets
- Don’t let your seeds dry out, especially when they are just starting
- Don’t sow you vegetable seeds too thickly or you will need to spend lots of time thinning
Whether you’ve started seeds on your own or purchased seedlings from a garden center, it’s important that you follow a few simple guidelines for transplanting your seedlings.
- Handle your seedlings carefully to avoid damaging the roots and especially stems
- Follow the directions and don’t plant outside until the right time for your region (see more about the importance of climate in your backyard farm)
- Harden off your seedling before planting – before you plant your new seedlings outside you will want to gradually expose them to wind, sun and the outdoors. Gradually give them more and more time outside each day for at least 3 days before planting them in the kitchen garden.
- Plant your seedlings outside on a day with gentle weather and no extremes for the next few days. Make sure to water your plants especially well for the first few days.
The Best Vegetables to Grow in Your Kitchen Garden
There is so much information available about growing specific crops and vegetables in your kitchen garden. The information below is an overview of the most common options when selecting easy to grow vegetables, but you can find lots more specifics by searching for each vegetable or looking through some of the recommended homesteading books.
I also recommend using this vegetable cheat sheet for spacing, planting times and more from High Mowing Seeds.
Lettuce: Most kitchen gardens will have at least one type of lettuce including romaine or loose leaf crops. Make sure to stagger plantings since these are fast growing. Lettuce does well in the cool seasons and doesn’t like extreme heat. Plant about 6-12 inches apart depending on the variety.
Spinach: Spinach is a great crop to start early as it does well in the cold and can be planted multiple times for a longer harvest.
Kale: Kale is a larger leafy green crop to grow in your kitchen garden and does well in the cooler weather. Kale can be added to smoothies, soups, or eaten in salads and has tremendous health benefits. There are several varieties with a straight or curly leaf.
Greens: This includes mustard greens, collard greens, and turnip greens. These green are easy and fast to grow and are typically cooked well before eating.
Swiss Chard: Similar to spinach, swiss chard enjoys cool weather but tolerates heat. This is a beautiful plant to grow.
Cabbage: Cabbage is a beautiful plant and a great addition to soups and as the base for coleslaw. Cabbage can take up a large space, so follow the spacing instructions.
Carrots: sow carrots throughout the season for a steady supply. Carrot seeds should be direct seeded and take heat and time to germinate. Keep them well watered.
Potatoes: Potatoes are fun to grow and grow well in a variety of soils. You plant potatoes from seed potatoes in the spring and pile earth on them as they grow to encourage more potatoes. Harvest potatoes through the season or wait until the plants die back.
Beets: Beets are quick and easy to grow and do well sown in early spring. Serve them raw or steam them and add to salad
Parsnips, Turnips and Rutabaga: I’ve put these together since I consider them all relatively easy and fast growing and should all be direct sown into the garden in the spring.
Sweet Potatoes: Oddly enough, sweet potatoes are in the morning glory family and not related to potatoes. They are grown from slips and are difficult to grow in northern climates as they like the heat.
Other Root Veggies: Celeriac, Jerusalem Artichokes, Scorzonera
Onions and Shallots: You can grow onions from sets or seeds. Sets are easy and faster to mature but harder to find a wide variety. Harvest onions when they are young or wait until the stalks die back
Leeks: Grow leeks close together and these hardy plants will reward you with a delicious base for soups and stir fries. Leeks are a long season crop and can be harvested late in the year or even the following spring.
Garlic: I love growing garlic. Plant the individual garlic cloves in the fall and your garlic will come up in the spring and be ready to harvest in early summer. You can also enjoy the curly garlic scapes just before you harvest the garlic heads.
Tomatoes: A fresh tomato out of your kitchen garden is the definition of vegetable gardening success. Most tomatoes benefit from an early start and you can purchase seedlings at most garden centers. Choose some of the heirloom varieties for truly delicious tomatoes and select varieties with different maturation times to ensure a continued harvest.
Peppers: Both sweet and spicy pepper are fun warm season vegetables to grow. These are best grown from seedlings, especially in the northern climates and need lots of sun and heat.
Eggplant: Similar to the other fruiting vegetables, eggplants need heat and a long growing season. Start eggplants from seedlings and keep them warm.
Cucumbers: cucumbers love the heat and can be direct sown or raised from seedlings. These plants like to sprawl, so give them enough space or build them a vertical support. You can select either eating cucumbers or pickling cucumbers.
Zucchini and Summer Squash: These are great vegetables to stagger and just a few plants will be enough for your family. Plant 3-4 seeds in a hill and harvest when they are 4-6 inches long for the best taste.
Pumpkins and Winter Squash: These are so fun to grow and can usually be direct sown into the kitchen garden after all danger of frost. They can be large and sprawling, so if you are limited on space these are not the best choice and do better in a larger vegetable garden.
Pod and Seed Vegetables
Peas (sugar and snap): eat these delicious peas whole by sowing in early spring when it is still cool and continuing to sow every few weeks until early summer.
String Beans: These beans can be grown on tall vining plants or small bush sized plants in a small garden. Unlike peas, string beans don’t do well in the cold so plant later in the season and cover if there is a frost.
Corn: Corn is fun to grow, but a very heavy feeder and takes up a lot of garden space. Due to pollination, corn should be planted in a clump or several rows.
Asparagus: These early spring vegetables are perennials and take a few years to really establish. Once they are planted you can enjoy the harvest year after year. After harvesting them early in the spring, they will get large and leggy so need lots of space.
Cauliflower: These plants love good soil with lots of water and depending on the variety can be harvested in the late fall or even spring
Broccoli: These are fun plants to grow and get surprisingly large. This is a hardy plant and while we usually grow from seedlings we’ve also direct sown with success in zone 5a.
Brussel Sprouts:These hardy plants are great cool-weather plants that can be harvested well into the fall and even winter. They have a long time to maturity so make sure to sow early!
Artichokes, fennel, celery, rhubarb, Chinese cabbage, fava beans, Okra, Tomatillos, husk cherries
Garden Care and Harvesting
You’ve planned your kitchen garden and planted your seeds, now it’s time to help your seeds grow! Throughout the summer you will want to weed your garden and add mulch if needed, keep your plants watered, protect them from pests, prune, thin and support your growing plants, and of course harvest and cook the delicious food coming out of your vegetable garden.
If this is your 1st or your 40th year of gardening, I recommend keeping a journal or list of what you planted, what worked, what you didn’t like and what you want to try next year. If you are looking for ideas or inspiration, check out the other homesteads here on this site, and of course let us know how it went here in the comments!