I am a very beginner gardener with a first-year vegetable and herb garden, and WHOO BOY do I have a lot to say about it. Now that we’re about halfway through the season, my cinder block raised garden bed and container garden are blooming, flowering, and producing vegetables. They are also filled with tons of beginner gardener mistakes. If you’re interested in easy and inexpensive DIY raised garden beds, which plants did and did not work for me, and why understanding the size of full grown plants is important, stick around. Or if you’re an accomplished gardener who wants to laugh along with me, that’s cool too!
We are fortunate to have a very big backyard, and about half of it is perfect for gardening – a quarter acre of land that is relatively flat and in full sun, away from any leech fields, and made up of soil that’s absolutely teeming with worms. I have big plans for backyard food production over the next several years, including several large garden beds, a mini fruit orchard, and enormous berry patches that border on excessive. We’ve lived here for a few years but this is the first year I’ve had the opportunity to get started.
My experience with gardening is limited to a few pots of tomatoes and strawberries that all died well before their time, making the three strawberries and two tomatoes I harvested inordinately expensive. My plan this year was to grow a few vegetables and herbs in containers to get a feel for keeping things alive before I made a bigger commitment.
Which is all well and good, aside from the fact that “dipping my toes” in something is not how I operate. I’m either full-blown obsessed or not remotely interested (see also: the entire premise of this blog is to learn to make every single thing you would find in a general store). Add to that Covid and lockdown, and everyone posting photos of their newly started Victory Gardens, and it felt like there was no better time to learn about growing our own food on a bigger scale.
After planting all the containers I initially planned for, I grabbed my husband, a spade, and as much dirt, compost, and cinder blocks as my car could carry, and we built a small raised bed. (My Suburu Outback is preowned, and in its past life was leased to a business that put very few miles on it. I ruined its life of leisure by basically turning it into a farm truck. Not to mention all the Cheerios and dog hair it’s subjected to. I almost feel bad for it.)
As soon as we built this bed, I started daydreaming about more gardening space for next spring, and now I’m in the middle of constructing another, much bigger bed, which will allow me to plant a great deal of food next year.
Building an easy and inexpensive cinder block raised garden bed
The first bed we built is 4×4’, and bordered by cinder blocks. It’s certainly not the prettiest bed, but it was inexpensive and didn’t require any actual construction, which were both big factors in choosing it. I also wanted to have the space to plant herbs and flowers in the holes in the blocks.
We used a spade to dig up the sod in a 4×4′ area in the middle of our yard, and then used a garden fork to loosen the soil underneath. The blocks went around the edge, and we filled the area with a purchased mix of soil and compost. I originally planned to have soil from my local farm supply store, but because of Covid they weren’t delivering at that time. Instead, I got 8 bags of cheap topsoil from a big box home improvement store, and 4 bags of high quality compost from my local nursery. I mixed these with a bag of potting soil I had leftover from filling the containers.
The bigger bed that I’m preparing for next year will be a U-shape: 12’ long across the back, 8’ long on the sides, with a 4’ square indent to make it a U, totaling 80 square feet of planting space. Rather than tilling (because in addition to the amount of work it took to loosen the soil, I was also uncomfortable with the amount of worms we displaced), I chose to go with the No-Dig method by laying cardboard down on the ground to kill the grass. I’m bordering this again with cinder blocks, but it’s slow going because I need a lot of them and can only carry so many in my car at a time. To hold the cardboard in place until it breaks down enough to stay put, I put the container plants on top of it.
What I planted in my beginner, first-year vegetable and herb garden
Before I start, I want to note that I live in Zone 6b.
I tried to start most of my plants from seed inside, but my propagation set up was terrible and none of them survived except for a few marigolds. So everything I planted was either direct sown or I bought the seedlings from a local nursery and transplanted them.
4×4’ raised garden bed
I used the square foot gardening method which means I have sixteen spots in this bed.
First up is a major beginner’s mistake. I transplanted four broccoli seedlings (one per square foot). While they have already proven to be prolific (I’ve harvested one big head of broccoli off of each of them, as well as several smaller ones), I was NOT prepared for how big broccoli foliage gets. If I put any amount of research into it, I would have planted them along the back on the north side of the garden, but since they’re on the south side, they’re shading out several other crops.
I bought Yukon Gold seed potatoes from the nursery and planted them in one square foot. This is another plant with enormous foliage that I didn’t plan for, although I am surprised by how gorgeous it is. “Potatoes” and “aesthetically pleasing” weren’t things I associated with each other.
Under the potatoes is a square foot of bulb onions, planted from sets from the nursery. My two seed survivors, these marigolds, are hanging out next to them in the cinder block holes.
I dedicated two square feet in the bed to carrots, and another to heads of lettuce, all sown directly into the garden from seed. But because I didn’t know how tall broccoli and potatoes get, the carrots got shaded out and aren’t doing particularly well. To their credit, they’re certainly trying their hardest. I planted lettuce in four spots within the square foot, but only two germinated. Of those, only one was harvestable. Next year, both of these crops will go in the very front of the garden.
Another two square feet went to peas with a makeshift trellis. These were direct sown. Half of them were shaded out by the broccoli, but the other half are producing really well.
Henry loves eating peas straight from the garden. He calls them “treats” which is usually reserved for Hershey Kisses and ice cream. He’s eaten more peas this week than he’s eaten in his whole life.
Another square foot is planted with green beans, also direct sown. These ones are bush beans so they don’t need supports. The germination rate for these seeds was only about 50%, so next year I’ll be planting extras.
Along the back of the bed, a zucchini plant takes up two of the square feet (luckily I knew these get pretty big and put them on this end of the garden intentionally). This plant was direct sown from seed and sprouted and grew so fast!
A transplanted eggplant accounts for another square foot. I had no idea what a growing eggplant looks like, and this weird looking fruit cracks me up every time I look at it.
The last spot was meant for leeks. I started them as seeds inside, but, like the others, they didn’t make it. I direct sowed a few seeds in the garden, but they didn’t take off. Instead, a weed starting growing there. Because I’m so new at this, I assumed that weed was a leek, and gave that weed a great deal of water and attention. I was not sorry when I pulled up that betrayal of a weed, but it did leave an empty spot where I could be growing food. So the other day I stuck a few glass gem corn seeds in that spot, and they’re already sprouting. I’m not sure if it’s too late in the season to start them, and maybe they won’t amount to much, but since the space was empty anyway, I figured it couldn’t hurt to try.
Around the garden, I filled the cinder block holes with potting soil. I transplanted the marigolds, and direct sowed herb seeds in all the others. I have herbs growing in containers as well, so this was mainly an experiment to see what would grow. The results:
Never sprouted – lavender, chives, oregano, thyme
Sprouted but quickly died off – basil
Sprouted and are growing pretty well- parsley, cilantro, dill
I was trying to keep the cost of containers down when I was purchasing them because I didn’t know if I would be able to keep anything alive based on my track record. I didn’t want to sink a ton of money into it. Traditional pots for plants can get crazy expensive, so I found several alternatives. I bought a set of ten 3-gallon grow bags, and had a few small containers hanging around (as well as a half whiskey barrel planter and a strawberry tower from past failed gardening attempts). I got two 20-gallon plastic storage totes on sale, as well as two 5-gallon buckets. I drilled holes in all the plastic containers, and filled everything with potting soil from Costco.
There are definite pros and cons to growing in containers vs. raised garden beds. Plants in containers need more frequent watering than those in beds, and the resulting fruit is often smaller. Some things don’t do well in containers at all, and it is slightly more difficult to add supports and trellises. However, container plants offer the advantage of being able to plant anywhere, even if you have very little outdoor space or if your soil is poor quality. It does not alter your landscape, which is great if you aren’t ready to commit or if you rent.
I’m having a lot of luck growing in containers, some of which is because they’re not being shaded out by broccoli (eyeroll). But there are definitely a few things that I would rather plant in the beds going forward.
My herbs are all kicking ass, aside from a dead lavender plant that I paid too much money for and that never even made it to the garden and that I don’t want to talk about THANK YOU VERY MUCH. Also a pot of chives that never materialized because Henry took a liking to it and went way overboard on the watering.
This mint was looking rough when I put it outside. I actually thought it was dead, but now it’s flourishing. It’s in a window box style planter because mint needs space to sprawl. This basil looks deceptively small because I just harvested about half of its leaves to make pesto. Basil produces more leaves the more you harvest them.
Holding down the cardboard on the other side of the big bed is a large container of rosemary, and two small pots for thyme and oregano. I have these separated from the basil and mint because these three need less water than the first two. All five of my herb plants came from nursery transplants.
The other 5-gallon bucket houses kale. This is lacinato kale, and I’ve harvested some leaves off of it for salad. I don’t love how it tastes raw; it’s very intense. I’m going to try it in soup, but next year I think I’ll try planting a different variety.
Two grow bags had spinach and leaf lettuce in them, both of which grew amazingly well and I harvested from them several times. It’s getting hot here though, and they recently bolted. I pulled them out and put corn seeds in their place, much like the space where the leek/betrayal weed was in the raised bed.
I also tried to grow peas in a grow bag. They’re doing okay and I got a few peas off of them, but these ones aren’t nearly as prolific as the ones in the bed (to be expected). If I only had a container garden in the future, I think I would still plant them, but since I have a ton of bed space for next year I’m not going to bother with them in containers again.
I put bush beans in a grow bag as well, and these ones are actually doing just as well as the ones in the bed. I’m interested if there will be a difference once they start producing.
The carrots in the grow bag look much better than the shaded-out ones in the bed. But I also know they’ll be very small when they’re harvested, so I won’t be planting them in containers next year. I’ll have to do a better job of choosing where to put them in the bed.
I have two grow bags of cucumbers, which are starting to flower. The leaves are growing like crazy and almost every day I need to move them up on the trellis.
Peppers are in three grow bags: one California Wonder, one Big Bertha, and one jalapeño. These were all transplants from the nursery. The bigger peppers are doing well (I even had to stake one of them because it got so tall), but the peppers would be bigger if they were in the bed. That being said, I actually think the jalapeño is very well suited for container gardening, and I may keep growing hot peppers in containers next year to open up bed space for bigger plants.
I planted four tomato transplants in one of the 20-gallon totes. They are all determinate varieties, so they should be okay in this size container.
Finally, I have a few containers of berries. None of them will produce much, if any, fruit this year, but they’re getting ready for next year.
This blueberry bush will be planted in the ground this fall, as well as several others. The plan is to line the back of our yard near the woods with a row of blueberry bushes. Berries are so expensive to buy in the store, so I feel like we can’t plant too many of them (famous last words?).
I have strawberries in a hanging pot, a tower, and a 20-gallon tote. I planted bare roots (about 35 total), some from the local nursery, some from the big box store. In the tote, the ones that were from the nursery are doing great, whereas the big box ones haven’t even turned green.
The hanging plant of strawberries is doing really well, and the plants at the top of the strawberry tower are as well. The ones further down haven’t taken off, though they are all from the nursery. I made my father a vertical stacking planter with strawberry bare roots for his birthday this year, and he found the same thing was true: only the ones on the top level are growing. Next year I plan to plant new ones in a large flat tub, in addition to seeing how all of these existing ones do in their second year.
There are a few berries starting on one of the plants, and I know that I should have clipped the flowers off when they started so they would produce more next year, but the temptation to let Henry eat a strawberry straight from the garden once they’re ready was too great.
The last thing I planted was a small bed of flowers. My husband dug this bed on a whim one day, and I had a pack of mixed flower seeds that I sprinkled in it. Next year I’m going to use it for tomatoes and asparagus, but for this year I’m excited to see how the flowers work out. It’s approximately 3×7’.