How to Save Money Gardening

There are many great reasons to start a garden, but one of the most common is to save money on food costs.

gardening tools in soil

Unfortunately a lot of first time gardeners quickly become overwhelmed with the initial costs of gardening — building raised bed, filling them with soil, buying all the pots and tools, and then buying seeds and new plants. It can quickly become a very expensive hobby, costing far more than your grocery bill.

But it IS possible to have a garden and save money. We’ve got some important tips below to help you keep costs down and maximize your investment for a bountiful harvest.

Start Small to Save Money

The best way to save money gardening is to start out small.

If this is your first garden, it might be tempting to go all in building beautiful raised beds for all your favorite vegetables. Even if you can afford the materials to build the beds, keep in mind that growing a lot of different kinds of vegetables in a large space can be overwhelming for new gardeners. Each plant has different needs, and it’s easy to get behind on tasks when life gets busy with summer activities. Before you know it, your lovely beds are choked with weeds and half dead plants.

It’s better to start out small until you get an idea of what you can handle. That way, you can build your confidence and your garden as you go.

raised bed gardens with greens and other vegetables growing
Plan Ahead to Save Money

It’s easy to go overboard buying seeds before you’re even ready to plant. And who among us hasn’t been known to leave the garden center with more plants than we had room for?

With a garden plan, you know exactly what you need to buy and when you need to plant it. Whether you’re buying seed or starts, you can plan ahead and look for plant sales and seed swaps to save money.

And you’ll know the right time to plant for the best harvest. One of the most common mistakes new gardeners make is planting at the wrong time for their climate. They plant summer plants too early and lose them to frost, or plant cool season plants too late and they die in the heat.

Grow the Right Things to Save Money

To save money gardening, maximize your space, time, and money by focusing on growing things that will give you the most bang for your buck. Growing vegetables that are expensive to buy, like melons and tomatoes, will help you cut your grocery bill for very little investment. So will growing some of the vegetables you regularly buy, like green beans, broccoli, and zucchini.

Growing vegetables that can be harvested over the course of the season can help you save money gardening. Cut-and-come-again harvesting means you take a small part of the plant while leaving it to continue growing. Lettuce and other leafy greens like kale or Swiss chard are great garden plants for this. As are many herbs like basil and oregano.

Perhaps the most obvious way to save money gardening is to grow vegetables that can be stored, canned or frozen. Potatoes and winter squash can easily last several months when stored properly. Vegetables like tomatoes, beets, and cucumbers can be preserved by canning. And if you have a larger freezer, you can save almost anything to stretch your savings all year long.

garden bed with different plants growing in rows
Reuse and Recycle to Save Money

Starting your own seeds can help you save money, but you will still need to invest in a few tools and materials to get started planting seeds. If you’re careful, you can turn that investment into big savings down the road. You can often find grow lights on sale in the off season, or buy them used from gardeners who are upgrading their equipment.

Whether you’re using planting trays or soil blocks, you can reuse them for years to come. If you’re really frugal, you can even use items you may already have. Sprouting seeds in egg cartons, or in compostable trays made from toilet paper rolls or rolled up newspaper, is a great way to save money. You can also use containers that you would otherwise throw out, like milk cartons, yogurt containers, and takeout boxes. Make sure they’re clean, and poke a few holes in the bottom, and voila! Free planting tray!

When it comes to building your raised beds, you don’t have to use brand new lumber. You can find scrap wood from hardware stores, get old lumber from houses being remodeled, and even use old pallets. Just make sure the wood isn’t pressure treated, and you’re good to go.

And you don’t need to fill the whole thing with top quality soil. The bottom of deep beds can be filled with limbs, leaves, grass clippings and other natural materials that will break down over time. In fact, the entire hugelkulture movement is based on this method. You will just need to top off the last foot with good soil and compost for planting.

You can even skip building raised beds, and either grow your garden directly in the soil in your yard, in strawbales, or in containers. Many frugal gardeners grow in all kinds of containers. You can buy special grow bags or pots from the garden center, but some gardeners simply use five-gallon buckets. And some have even been known to use a kiddie pool.

Combine Your Efforts to Save Money

One of the easiest ways to save money gardening is to share the costs with other gardeners in your area. If your neighbor is also building a garden, consider going in together to buy soil, compost, and mulch in bulk. You may even be able to share the fee for delivery.

Some garden tools only need to be used once in a while, so consider forming a gardening group with friends and neighbors to share equipment. Or find a tool library where you can rent or ‘check out’ items.

Seed and plant swap meets are a great way to save money. Most seed packages come with far more seeds than you can use, so swapping your extras with someone else helps spread the cost out. Or maybe you have more tomato seedlings than you need? Swap with a friend for one of her extra cucumber starts.

close up of homemade potting soil
Make Your Own to Save Money

Buying compost can be expensive. But it’s very easy to make at home from you kitchen scraps, garden cuttings, and shredded paper. If you have the space, building a compost system is a great way to save money when it comes time to add compost to your garden. And it helps reduce the amount of green waste that gets sent to the landfill.

You can also make your own fertilizer mix, saving yourself quite a bit of money! And making your own gives you greater flexibility to customize your mix to fit your garden’s specific needs.

And finally, saving seeds from your garden this year will help save money on next year’s garden.

Smart Gardener Can Help You Save Money

Smart Gardener makes it easy to start a garden. We can help you decide which plants will work best in your garden, give you the advice you need to get started, and send you weekly reminders to keep you on track all season long!

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How to Make Your Own Potting Soil

Making your own potting soil is easy and can save you a ton of money! Here are several of our favorite recipes for you to help you get started with your spring planting!

Despite having soil in its name, potting soil is actually a soil-less mixture crafted for growing plants in pots. Also referred to as potting mix, most commercial mixes generally contain a blend of lightweight and fast draining materials that can include things like peat moss, sand, perlite, vermiculite, limestone, compost, wood chips, and fertilizers, depending on what they’re being used for.

close up of potting soil with vermiculite and compost

Potting soil is ideal for all the stages of growing plants in pots, whether its starting seeds, transplanting seedlings, or growing vegetables on your patio. Each application can have a slight variation in mixture, but they all have the same basic characteristics. High quality potting soil should be light, loose, and have a consistent mixture of materials.

The good news is that it is very easy to make your own potting soil for each stage of growing.

Basic Potting Soil Ingredients
  • Coconut coir or other peat moss alternatives
  • Sand
  • Perlite
  • Vermiculite
  • Limestone
  • Compost
  • Composted wood chips
  • Fertilizer
close up of coconut coir used as an ingredient in potting soil
Peat Moss or Coconut Coir?

Peat moss is harvested from peat bogs, and while it is an excellent growing medium, it is environmentally destructive. These ancient peat bogs have captured large amounts of greenhouse gasses, and the harvesting process involves not only draining the bogs (which is terrible for the wildlife that rely on it), but releases tons of that carbon into the atmosphere. Countries like England and Wales are in the process of banning sales of peat, with other countries set to follow suit.

We recommend using coconut coir, or coco peat, in your homemade potting soil instead. Made from the fibers between the shell and outer covering of coconuts, coconut coir has excellent water-retention, has an ideal pH of 6.0, and has natural antifungal properties.

close up of vermiculite granules
Perlite or Vermiculite?

Perlite is made from mined volcanic rock, and is mostly silicon dioxide, while vermiculite is made from aluminum-silicate. Both are heated to high temperatures to create a light porous material ideal for improving aeration and water retention.

Both have neutral pH levels and retain water well, but work better in different applications. Perlite is more commonly used for succulents and other dry-climate plants, as it doesn’t hold as much water as vermiculite.

We generally recommend vermiculite for vegetable seed starting and seedlings because of its ability to hold more water, but perlite will work well in larger containers with established plants.

compostable pots for seed starting, with potting soil
Potting Soil for Seed Starting

A common mistake new gardeners make is trying to start seeds indoors using regular garden soil, which is often full of weed seeds, insect larva, and fugal spores. All of which can damage the fragile seedlings as they emerge.

Instead, look for a light, finely textured potting mix comprised mainly of coconut coir, sand, and vermiculite. Or you can make your own:

  • 2 parts coconut coir fiber (or other peat alternative)
  • 2 parts vermiculite
  • 1 part coarse sand
Potting Soil for Transplanting

Once your seedlings are established and have grown enough to need transplanting, it is time to switch to a potting mix with a little organic compost and a small amount of fertilizer to help them continue growing strong. A good recipe to make your own:

  • 2 parts coconut coir fiber (or other peat alternative)
  • 2 parts vermiculite
  • 1 part finely screened compost
  • fertilizer
Potting Soil for Container Growing

For smaller containers, and especially those placed indoors, potting soil is still preferred as it is less likely to contain insect larva or other microorganisms that can harm your plants. You can make a large batch of your own:

  • 3 parts coconut coir fiber
  • 2 parts perlite or vermiculite
  • 3 parts compost
  • fertilizer

For very larger containers, it may be more economical to use a blend of potting soil and garden soil to get the benefits of water retention and aeration from the vermiculite and coconut fiber.

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Smart Tips for Growing Broccoli

Broccoli is a wonderful vegetable to grow in your garden. It’s hard to beat the tender sweetness of a head of broccoli cooked just minutes after being harvested.

It’s one of the easiest plants to put in for an early spring garden, and does well as a late season crop. It grows quickly, doesn’t require much tending, and is nutritious and delicious!

The good news is that growing broccoli is quite easy. We’ve got some smart tips on getting started and how to care for and protect your plants to ensure a hearty harvest of broccoli all summer long.

Selecting Which Varieties to Grow

There are four types of broccoli you can grow, each with their own characteristics that make them appealing to different gardeners and home cooks: Calabrese, Purple Broccoli, Broccoli Raab, and Romanesco.

Purple broccoli is as beautiful as it is delicious.

Calabrese Broccoli is known for its large-headed edible flower stalk, which consists of clusters of small green flower buds. This is not only tasty but also highly nutritious. De Cicco, Calabrese, and Waltham 29 are several of our favorites for the best tasting compact heads.

Purple Cauliflower is a type of broccoli sold in southern Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom. It has a head shaped like cauliflower, but consists of tiny flower buds. It sometimes has a purple cast to the tips of the flower buds. Early Purple Sprouting is one of our faves for an overwintering variety that gives lots of little purple sprouts in the spring.

Although it looks looks like a broccoli, this plant is actually a turnip! Broccoli Raab is grown for its leaves and stems, unlike heading broccoli. It’s tasty and also highly nutritious. Cima di Rapa or Sorrento are two great options for these quick-growing Italian heirloom greens.

Romanesco Cauliflower (also known as Romanesco Broccoli or Roman Cauliflower) has a distinctive fractal appearance of its heads, and is yellow-green in color. Not only are they easy to grow and very delicious, they’re a stunning plant to grow and harvest! Romanesco Italia is the most common variety.

Tips for Growing Delicious and Hearty Broccoli

Broccoli likes full sun, especially when growing in cool weather. It will tolerate some shade, but this slows maturation. In warm weather it will grow in light shade.

Romanesco broccoli showing off its swirling fractals.

You generally don’t want a large amount of broccoli to mature at one time (unless you are going to freeze it). For this reason it is usually sown in small quantities in succession every 3 to 4 weeks.

Soil Preparation
Broccoli needs to grow fast for best quality. To do this it needs a rich, moist, well-drained soil, with lots of available nutrients and organic matter. Like most Brassicas it doesn’t like acid soil, so add lime if necessary. The quantity will depend upon your soil, but 5 pounds of dolomitic limestone per 100 square foot would be a good start.

Also like most members of the cabbage family, broccoli is a hungry plant and needs plenty of nutrients for good growth. Prepare the soil by incorporating 2 to 3″ of aged manure, fertilizer, or compost, into the top 6 to 8″ of soil (which is where most of the plants feeder roots are found).

If your ground is still cold in the early spring, you can lay down a layer of plastic to warm the soil before planting to speed up seed germination.

Broccoli Raab looks like broccoli but is actually a type of turnip!

Plant Care
Broccoli germinates readily, but you should still plant twice as many seeds as the number of plants you want, at a depth of 1/2″. Once the seedlings have their first set of true leaves, thin them to the proper spacing.

The large plants take up quite a bit of space, but this usually isn’t an issue in cooler weather, as the garden is often half empty anyway. The spacing you use depends on the fertility of the soil and how large you want the heads to grow. The wider the spacing, the larger the individual plants, (and their heads) can get. At 18″ spacing, the heads may grow to be 6″ in diameter. Closely spaced plants do not produce as many side shoots either.

  • 12-18″: Excellent soil or for small heads.
  • 18″: Good soil or for medium heads.
  • 18-24″: Poor soil or for large heads.

By the time it goes outside, the plant should be 3″ to 4″ high, with 3 to 5 leaves and a stem diameter of about 1/8″. Plant hem out slightly deeper than they grew in the flats, to the depth of their first true leaves.

This healthy broccoli seedling is ready to go in the garden.

The plants need looking after carefully. If there is a slow down or interruption in growth they may bolt prematurely.

Broccoli transpires quite a lot of water and for optimal growth the soil should be moist at all times. In dry conditions or hot weather it is critical that the plants receive sufficient moisture. A lack of water may cause the plants to bolt. The best way to know how much moisture is in your soil is to feel 2″ below the soil line. If it’s dry, water.

All plants of the cabbage family are susceptible to boron deficiency, which manifests itself as hollow stems. Adding matured compost to the soil should supply the plants with all the boron they need.

Plant Protection
You can avoid the most serious broccoli pests by covering the young plants with row cover. This is a lot of work though, so don’t do it unless they become a problem.

Broccoli is edible after the florets have separated and even when some of the flowers have opened, but it’s not as good. Use shade fabric to extend summer harvests. Broccoli’s flavor improves with cooler temperatures.

The perfect time to harvest broccoli is when the individual flower buds are visible and somewhat swollen. If you harvest earlier than this it will still taste good, but you won’t get as big a harvest. As the head gets over-mature, the individual florets start to separate and the yellow petals become visible. Broccoli is edible after the florets have separated and even when some of the flowers have opened, but it’s not as good.

Broccoli is still edible once it has begun to flower.

If you miss the optimal harvest time you should still cut off the heads, as this will stimulate the plants to produce new side shoots. Once the main head has been removed, smaller broccoli heads will grow to the sides. On large healthy plants these can be 5″ in diameter.

In warm weather the plants may produce side shoots every few days, so keep on top of harvesting. These side shoots greatly increase the size and duration of the harvest. After the side shoots are finished, you might try cutting the plant right back, almost to the ground. This sometimes stimulates it to send up a new stem.

Seed Saving
Saving your own broccoli seeds is easy to do, but takes some preparation. Broccoli usually self-incompatible and must be cross-pollinated by insects. This means there must be a number of plants flowering at the same time. All of the Brassica oleracea crops are the same species and will cross with each other. To maintain purity you have to ensure that only one type flowers at once. The alternative is to isolate them, either by distance (1000 yards for different varieties, 1500 yards for different crops), or by caging them (don’t forget they need insects for pollination). Save the seed from at least 5 plants to maintain some genetic diversity.

Seed is produced in long pods and should be gathered when the older bottom pods first start to split open. Watch them carefully as they shatter easily when they are fully ripe. Cut the seedpod bearing stems and dry them in a warm place. You can place them in a paper bag to ensure you don’t lose any. The large seeds are easily handled and cleaned. Of course it is essential that they are thoroughly dry before storage.

Broccoli Raab will cross with Chinese cabbage, turnips, some rapeseed (canola) and other plants in the same species. Be sure to isolate by at least 1/8 mile for home use. For pure seed of small plantings isolate by 1/4 to 1/2 mile.

Alternative Options for Growing Broccoli

Growing broccoli in large containers in quite easy.

Container Gardens
For one broccoli plant, you’ll need a pot that is at least 10″ deep and 12″ wide, but the deeper the better. Fill with a mixture of potting soil and compost and keep the soil moist but not overly wet. If you are using a larger container, be sure to space your broccoli plants at least 18 to 24″ apart. Although broccoli is a cool weather plant, it loves sunshine so be sure to place the container in an area with access to at least 3 hours of full sun a day.

Fall Garden
Broccoli prefers cooler temperatures and does well as a fall crop, growing and heading up best at about 65˚ F. It is also less bothered by pests in cool weather and the heads stay in peak condition for longer. Mature plants can sit in the garden, ready to harvest, for weeks. They are fairly hardy and can survive frost as low as 20˚ F. And with proper protection, they can withstand even lower temperatures.

Autumn broccoli should be transplanted 9 weeks before the first fall frost date, so it is close to maturity by the time cold weather hits. If you are growing a lot of broccoli for freezing, you should plant it all at once at the optimal time, which is late summer. This also means you won’t have to keep it frozen all summer.

If a severe frost threatens, you should harvest any remaining heads and eat or freeze them. If you need to, you can protect them from extreme cold to extend your harvest.

Smart Gardener Can Help

Smart Gardener makes it easy to start a garden. We can help you decide which varieties of broccoli will work best in your garden and give you the advice you need to get started, and then send you weekly to-dos to keep you on track all season long!

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Gardening is Good for the Environment

We already know gardens are good for our health: growing your healthy food, spending time in nature, and getting some exercise, to name just a few benefits. But did you know gardening is good for the environment?

carrots and peas or beans growing in the soil, with a metal watering can, and several harvested carrots in the foreground

We’ve come up with eight great reasons to plant a garden for the environment:

Gardens improve air quality.

You probably already know that plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air, and release oxygen. But they also absorb bacteria and other pollutants from the air, making the air in your cleaner and better for you and your neighbors.

Gardens improve soil health.

The roots of some plants can filter harmful chemicals and heavy metals from polluted soils. And in the garden, when you leave the roots from harvested plants, they feed the beneficial microbes in the soil. They turn those old roots into fertile soil for your future plants.

someone using a knife to cut a cabbage head from its stem, leaving the roots in the soil
Leaving the roots when you harvest can help improve soil health
Gardens reduce greenhouse gases.

As part of photosynthesis, plants absorb carbon dioxide. They use that carbon to grow stems and leaves, and roots and fruits. That carbon is ‘stored’ in these plants, and when we garden responsibly, it stays there. This is especially important when that carbon is stored in the roots. In addition to feeding the plant while it’s alive, once the plant has been harvested, these roots become organic matter that feeds the microorganisms that live in soil. This process can actually store a great deal of carbon when the soil is properly managed.

Gardens protect wildlife and pollinators.

A healthy garden is one that provides food and shelter for a wide range of beneficial insects and wildlife. Many beneficial insects lay their eggs on leaves or in the soil, while birds and reptiles use the garden for shelter.

a ladybug nymph walking on a leaf
This ladybug nymph hatched from an egg laid underneath a leaf, and is looking for aphids to eat
Growing your own food lowers your carbon footprint.

In addition to the benefits of storing carbon and improving soil and air quality, growing your own food reduces the amount of food you need to purchase. Many of these are grown using destructive agricultural practices, and then shipped long distances, racking up a hefty carbon cost. Also, by growing them organically, you won’t be buying chemical fertilizers and pesticides, reducing their negative impacts on the environment.

Gardens can reduce your cooling costs.

Planting trees and other plants near your home can create shade which will help keep it coolers during hot weather.

two large yellow circular containers with different vegetable plants growing in them, on a rooftop looking out at other buildings
Even small rooftop gardens can help reduce the temperatures in cities
Gardens reduce heat islands.

During summer, buildings, pavement and other human-built structures reflect the sun’s heat back into the local environment, creating dangerous heat islands. Plants can help mitigate this. Living roofs and walls on buildings are one way to reduce the surrounding temperature, but can be expensive to install on a grand scale. Instead, small rooftop gardens, balcony gardens, and sidewalk gardens can work together to create green patches that will add up to a big difference in city-wide temperature.

Rain gardens protect waterways.

Plant roots provide soil stability, reducing how much soil gets washed away in heavy rains. But they also help store water in the soil, as it moves slowly through the roots and organic materials in the soil. This process also filters out many chemicals that are harmful to streams and the plants and animals that live in them.

a hand with a garden glove adding kitchen scraps (egg shells, watermelon rind, lettuce leaves, tea bags, etc.) to a compost bin with other plant cuttings and straw
Composting helps reduce methane in landfills

And a bonus:

Composting slows climate change.

Composting at home is a great way to get free fertilizer for your garden. But it also helps prevent food scraps and yard waste from going into landfill, where they emit methane as they break down inorganically. (Methane is a dangerous greenhouse gas that is is more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.) Healthy compost systems break down the plant matter organically, which doesn’t give off methane, and instead traps carbon dioxide in the soil when you add it to your garden.

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Two Methods For Testing Seed Viability

For this post in our Ask a Gardener series, Allan N. has asked us about testing seed viability:

Q. I have a bunch of old seeds from years ago. Can I use them in my garden this year? How do I know if they’re still good?

A. Great question! As gardeners across the country are getting ready for their spring planting, and digging out their seeds from last year (or years ago) many are asking the same thing. There are a couple of to test the viability of your seeds before planting.

a collection of opened seed packets stored in a metal tin
Who doesn’t have a stash of old seeds in a box?

Did you know that seeds are actually alive? While seeds are not actively growing, they’re still going through the process of respiration. That means they are slowly converting their stored energy to keep themselves ready for growth as soon as the conditions are right. Seeds uses that energy throughout the germination process, with photosynthesis only taking over after the creation of the plant’s first true leaves.

They can go a long time in this state, but after a few years, they may not have enough energy stored in their endosperm for a good germination and vigorous leaf development. But how long does that take?

Some seeds evolved to stay in this waiting state for a very long time. Many so-called weeds can wait decades (or longer!) to germinate. While other seeds only last a few years at most. Many of the more common garden plants fall into this second group.

vegetable seeds of various types: peas, beans, pumpkin, corn, etc.
Seeds may not look like it, but they’re actually alive

There are a couple of methods for testing seed viability. The two best are the water test, and the germination test.

The Water Test

The quickest way of testing seed viability is to dunk them in a glass of water.

The seeds in question are placed in water for about 15 minutes. After that, you should see some seeds still on the surface and others at the bottom of the glass. The good seeds will sink, while the bad seeds float.

You can then scoop out and throw out the bad seeds, and then confidently plant the good ones. If you’re not planning on planting them right away, just dry them off before storing them again until you are ready.

The Germination Test

This is the preferred method of testing seed viability for most experienced gardeners, as it gives you a good idea of how likely you are to get good seedlings from your old seeds.

cantaloupe seeds on a damp paper towel inside a plastic bag to test if they sprout
Using the germination method for cantaloupe seeds (image source: Downtowngal, Wiki Commons)

It’s pretty simple. Place 10 or more seeds on one side of a slightly damp paper towel, and fold the rest of the towel over the seeds. You can then place the towel in a clear plastic bag and seal it, or put it on a plate and cover it with plastic wrap, depending on how many different types of seeds you’re working with.

Place the wrapped seeds in a warm area (preferably 70 degrees or warmer). On top of the fridge or on a warm windowsill are great spots. Check them every few days to see if any have sprouted. After about 10 days, you should be able to see how many of your original 10 seeds have germinated. This will give you a good estimate of how many of the remaining seeds will sprout as well.

If only 50% of your test seeds sprout, then you’ll know to plant twice as many seeds to make sure you get enough good seedlings for your garden.

Once you’ve figured out which seeds are still good, you’re ready to get started planting! And for those that are past their prime, you’ll know it’s time to buy some new seeds.

Smart Gardener can help

Smart Gardener helps you every step of the way, by creating a personalized garden plan just for you, giving you detailed guidance for planting and tending your garden, and tracking your progress all season long.

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Smart Tips for Buying Seeds for Your Garden

Buying seeds is one of the most exciting parts of planning a new garden. It can also be one of the most confusing for new gardeners. Here are some tips to help you figure out what seeds to buy, when to buy them, and how many you’ll need.

a hand wearing a red gardening glove holding three seed packets - beets, tomatoes, and broccoli
Buying seeds can be confusing for new gardeners who are unsure of what seeds to buy and when to buy them.


Often new gardeners aren’t sure about what they’re going to grow, and thus they have no idea what seeds they need to buy. The easiest way to figure this out is to answer three questions:

How much space do you have in your garden?

This is simply a matter of how much growing space you have to work with. It’s helpful to measure out your garden area, so you know exactly how much room you have for your garden. Once you have that info, Smart Gardener’s unique garden layout tool will let you create a map of your garden area, showing the size of your beds and their placement in your yard.

With that information, now it’s time to narrow down what plants you can grow in that space.

What kinds of vegetables and fruits do you enjoy?

Once you know how much space you have, you can start to think about what plants you want to grow and where they will go. A great place to start is to think about what vegetables and fruits you enjoy eating. If your family enjoys veggie-packed salads all summer long, you can’t go wrong with homegrown lettuce, peppers, and tomatoes for an easy dinner straight from the garden!

It’s important to keep in mind that different plants take up more space than others. Some plants like corn and pumpkins take up a lot of space for the number of vegetables you’ll get to harvest. Other plants take a long time to mature, locking up that space for the entire season. That’s not bad if you have a lot of space to use and a long growing season.

If your garden growing area is small, you may want to focus on smaller vegetables that mature faster and give you more bang for your buck. Plants like greens, radishes, peppers, and tomatoes will help you maximize your growing space and time.

Smart Gardener has thousands of varieties of vegetables, fruits, and herbs in our database to choose from. For each variety, we include in-depth info about everything you’ll need to know — spacing, ideal growing conditions, growing season, and time to maturity.

Which varieties work best in your climate?

The last step is figuring our what variety you want to grow. Many vegetables have been bred to work better in different climates. Some varieties are cold tolerant and work well in northern areas, while a different variety of the same plant works better in the hot and humid conditions of the south. You’ll need to select the right plants for your garden.

screenshot of Smart Gardener app showing the plant selection screen, and the ability to filter by "recommended for your region"
Smart Gardener can help you find varieties that will work in your region

Smart Gardener allows you to filter the plant database by “recommended for your region” showing you only those varieties that will work with your climate and growing season, taking the guesswork out of choosing the best varieties for your garden.

Alternatively, you can see the detailed plant information for each variety, showing its growing season (short or long) and ideal growing conditions (cold, cool, warm, and hot) for each variety. This can help you decide which variety is suited for your area.

Now that you know varieties you want to grow, and where you’ll put them, you’re ready to place your seed order.


The best time for buying seeds is the dead of winter. The second best time is whenever you’re ready to begin planting your garden.

Seed Catalogs

Most seed companies send out their annual catalogs in November and December, and see their biggest sales of seeds in January. Many gardeners enjoy leafing through the catalogs on cold winter evenings, dreaming of (and planning for) their summer gardens.

But it’s more than wishful winter daydreaming. Ordering seeds in the winter is the best way to be sure to get the seeds they want in time for spring planting.

copies of the Baker Creek heirloom seeds catalogs, three closed and one open showing the layout of plants and text
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds annual seed catalog

Gardening begins long before the last frost of the season. Especially for gardeners living in colder climates, where the growing season is short. To maximize the growing season, many gardeners begin planting seeds weeks or months before it’s warm enough outside for growing. This gives their seedlings a head start indoors while it’s still cold and snowy out.

Most major seed companies have catalogs they will happily mail to you in the late fall or early winter. Some of our favorites are:

Keep in mind that they often run out of catalogs by early spring.

Online Seed Ordering

If seed catalogues are no longer available, there are other options for buying seeds. While many gardeners enjoy browsing through a paper catalog, you can just as easily browse online.

a screenshot of the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange digital seed catalog, showing two pages of orange and red carrots
The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange digital seed catalog

In fact, most seed retailers offer online seed catalogs. Some of our favorites are:

You can also purchase seeds from smaller seed sellers, such as Snake River Seed Cooperative, NE Seed, and Seeds for the South. These companies often offer specialized seeds for the regions they grow in, but don’t have the resources to put out a printed catalog.

Local Retailers and Community Groups

And of course, you can buy seeds in person from your local garden center. This is especially helpful if you’re impatient and don’t want to wait for your seeds to arrive in the mail.

Finally, there are many great options for getting seeds from your local community. Seed libraries are popping up all across the country, with regular events where gardeners get together to swap seeds and share information about what they are growing and tips and advice for new gardeners.


How many seeds you need to buy really depends on how many plants you want to grow. For most gardeners, one packet of seeds will be more than enough. When starting plants from seed, you always plant more seeds than you need. This ensures you will have enough healthy seedlings to transplant. Even so, for most plants, you will have plenty of seeds leftover.

If you will be succession sowing, you will need to factor that in to your seed purchase. Especially for plants like baby greens and lettuces, radishes, and other quick-harvesting veggies, you may want to consider buying extra seeds to ensure you have enough for the entire growing season.

Smart Gardener Can Help

There are a lot of variables that go into planning a garden. Smart Gardener does all the work for you by creating a smart personal profile of your garden. This personalized profile is designed to guide you every step of the way, from selecting plants for your garden and creating a planting schedule, to sending weekly reminders for gardening tasks to keep you on track for a bountiful harvest.

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Smart Tips for Growing Kale

Growing Kale: Leaves of kale in a garden, with text "Growing: Kale" and the Smart Gardener logoKale is a hearty, nutritious plant that is easy to grow and perfect for every garden.

There’s a reason kale is so popular with the health food crowd: It’s chock full of nutrients. Whether you’re putting it in smoothies, making chips, cooking it in stews or massaging it salads, the uses for kale are nearly endless.

But did you know it’s also one of the easiest plants to grow? And kale fresh from the garden is crispy and sweet and will win over even the pickiest of eaters.

Growing Kale: curly kale leaves on a brown and white gingham tea towelKale is considered closer to wild cabbage than most of the other domesticated forms of Brassica oleracea. There are three basic types of kale, with slightly different growing requirements, so finding one that’s perfect your garden is easy!

Below you’ll find our smart tips and advice on growing kale.

Portuguese Kale
This loose leaf variety, Couve tronchuda, originated in Portugal and is almost more like collards (another Brassica) in appearance as well as being more tolerant of warmer temperatures than other varieties. Tender with thick succulent midribs, Tronchuda Beira is milder and sweeter than other Brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, etc.).

Scotch Kale
Scotch kale, Brassica oleracea var acephala, is the most primitive of all the Brassicas and closest to the wild plant. It is famous for its cold tolerance and high nutritional value and was once an important staple food for European peasants. Lacinato (also known as dinosaur kale for its bumpy texture) is a stunning garden plant as well.

Siberian Kale
Siberian kale varieties are more tender and better flavored than the Scotch kales. They aren’t as hardy, however. Red Russian is a delicious heirloom variety with attractive red stems, and very young leaves can be used raw in salads.

Tips for Growing Delicious and Hearty Kale

Soil Preparation
Kale is more tolerant of poor soil than any of the other Brassicas, but the most palatable leaves are produced by rapid uninterrupted growth. For this the soil must be rich and moisture retentive. Kale likes organic matter, so amend the soil by digging in 2″ of compost or aged manure. It also performs best in soil with a neutral pH, so add lime if necessary.

Plant Care
Kale is the easiest of the Brassica family to grow (as well as one of the most nutritious and productive) and is extremely productive for a little work. Its large leaves can lose a lot of water in warm weather, so be sure water the plants regularly and thoroughly for maximum production and best quality.

Once it is established, kale is pretty independent. You only really need to worry about weeds while it is young. Start harvest thinnings when all the seedlings have emerged, and gradually thin them to the recommended spacing to give each plant enough room to spread out. Use a mulch in summer to suppress weeds, keep the soil cool and conserve soil moisture.

Growing Kale: purple/red curly kale in a gardenPlant Protection
In warm weather, aphids are one of the most common pests on most Brassicas. You can spray plants with a soapy mixture, but honestly the simplest way to deal with them is to blast them off the plants with a strong jet of water.

Downy mildew can also affect kale, especially in humid areas, appearing on the underside of leaves. You can control it by improving air circulation and keeping the leaves dry when watering. If you must use overhead sprinklers, then water in the morning or early evening, so plants don’t stay wet all night. Spores overwinter on crop debris, so clean up the beds between crops, and rotate plants seasonally.

As for other pests, there are several types of caterpillars that live only on Brassicas. Many of these can strip a young plant almost overnight. Additionally, some birds, especially quail, seem to have a particular affection for kale. In winter they will eat all of the leaves. In both cases you may have to place nets over the plants to get a decent harvest.

Pollination and Seed Saving
Plants overwintered in the ground will flower the following spring, which gives you a good opportunity to save seed. Kale is usually self-incompatible and must be cross-pollinated by insects. It will cross-pollinate with any other Brassica crop (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.), so only one variety should be flowering at one time.

The plants produce an abundance of seed and can sometimes get so top heavy they need staking to stop them falling over. The seed is produced in long pods and should be gathered when the older bottom pods begin to split open.

If you save kale seed (and you should!) you will end up with a lot. Since you need seed from at least 5 plants to maintain genetic variability, and each plant makes thousands of seeds, you will have far more than you will ever need for planting. Fortunately, you can sprout some of it like alfalfa, or use it to grow micro-greens.

Alternative Growing Options

Growing Kale: Portuguese kale plants in the garden, covered with frostCover crop
Kale is sometimes planted as a green manure or winter cover crop. In areas with mild winters it will produce a lot of foliage over the winter with the bonus that you can eat it! In spring the flower buds can be eaten like broccoli before incorporating the plants into the soil.

Ornamental use
Some kale varieties have very attractive foliage and would be at home in the flower garden. The specially-bred ornamental kales are technically edible, but they are more beautiful than they are tasty.

Winter garden
In mild climates, you can grow kale in a winter garden. In areas with hard freezes, though, it will need some protection. It can be grown in a greenhouse or cold frame, and can even be grown as a houseplant.

Smart Gardener makes it easy to start a garden. We can help you decide which type of kale will work best in your garden and give you the advice you need to get started, and then send you weekly to-dos to keep you on track!

Smart Gardener Tips for Growing Kale

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Tips for Growing Spinach

Tips for Growing Spinach - header

Spinach is an easy and fast plant to grow for garden-fresh salads.

Other greens may get all the attention, but spinach is more than just a cartoon gimmick. It’s full of iron and calcium, as well as a wealth of antioxidants. And it’s super easy to grow! Below we have some tips for growing spinach that will make it easy even for first time gardeners.

Selecting Which Varieties to Grow
Tips for Growing Spinach - mature spinach plants

There are two types of spinach (Spinacia oleracea) you can grown, each with its own characteristics that make it better suited to different gardens. When selecting which variety of spinach to include in your garden, keep in mind your climate and how you would like to eat it.

Smooth Leaf Spinach is the most popular type of spinach on the West Coast. It is smooth and easy to clean. Under good growing conditions, Smooth Leaf Spinach can be one of the fastest growing crops. Delicious in salads, these smooth-leaved varieties like Catalina, Merlo Nero, and the French heirloom Monstrueux De Viroflay are considered superior for this, as the leaves are also easier to clean.

Savoyed Leaf Spinach is gaining popularity throughout the U.S. The leaf shape is curled making it a bit more difficult to clean, but it makes up for the extra work with flavor, and varieties like Summer Perfection, Tyee, and Bloomsdale have been bred to be slow-bolting. Plus, Savoyed Leaf Spinach is one of the fastest growing crops under good growing conditions, with harvest starting at just under 40 days.

Tips for Growing Spinach

Location & Soil Preparation
Spinach needs full sun for good growth, particularly for a fall or over-wintering crop. Spinach doesn’t like heat and in warmer areas it should be planted in a shady site.

Tips for Growing Spinach - spinach in the garden

A light, well-drained soil works best because spinach is grown in cool weather and such soils warm up faster. Spinach likes organic matter, so it’s important to prepare your soil before planting. Incorporate 2″ of compost or aged manure into the top 6″ of soil (where most feeder roots are found). The ideal soil is rich in humus, moisture retentive, and contains lots of nitrogen and potassium. In fact, spinach loves manure and will even thrive in soil containing fresh manure (though ideally this should be incorporated into the soil the previous autumn).

This plant is quite sensitive to pH, and prefers a pH of 6.0-7.0, with 6.3-6.8 as ideal. Both extremes may cause problems, so for the best crop it’s important to adjust your soil’s pH if it’s outside this range.

Spinach is quite tolerant of saline soils.

Sowing & Thinning
Each plant doesn’t produce very much, so it is usually grown in wide intensive beds. Raised beds are good because they warm up quickly in spring and tend to be well drained.

This fast growing plant makes an excellent salad mix crop, sown 1/2″ to 1″ apart. Spinach can bolt if overcrowded, so thin the plants carefully to 2″ to 4″ apart when they have all emerged.

Plant Care
Spinach must grow quickly to produce the highest quality food. This means giving it optimal conditions; as much water and nutrients as it requires and no competition from weeds or crowding neighbors (all these factors can contribute to bolting).

Pinching out the leaves encourages new growth, so keep it cropped even if you don’t need it. If the leaves get tough, try cutting the whole top off of the plant, leaving about 3″ to re-sprout.

Plant Protection
Spinach is commonly attacked by leaf miners. If they become very bad you may have to protect them by covering with a layer of row cover.

Pollination & Seed Saving
Spinach is wind pollinated and to keep it pure it must be isolated from other varieties by at least a 1/2 mile. Female plants may grow to 4 feet in height and produce a lot of seed.

Spinach plants are dioecious (there are separate male and female plants) so all plants don’t produce seed. Saving seed is fairly straightforward, you just allow a patch of plants to bolt, which they will eventually do anyway. The first plants to bolt are males, which have smaller leaves. You don’t need a lot of males, but some are necessary for fertilization (keep 1 male for every 2 females). Don’t gather seed from the first females to appear, as you don’t want to create an early flowering strain.

Alternative Growing Options

When grown in ideal conditions, spinach is very fast growing and makes a useful catch crop for interplanting between slower growing crops.

Tips for growing spinach - washing spinach

In milder areas spinach will continue to grow right through the winter and doesn’t bolt in the short cool days. As a result the plants stay productive for much longer, so it’s usually better to harvest individual leaves. Individual leaves are gathered as they reach a useful size, anywhere from 2″ to 5″ depending on your preference. Just don’t let them get much bigger than about 6″ as they get tough and would need to be cooked.

Harvest individual leaves regularly by carefully pinching off or snipping each leaf. Be sure not to take too many leaves from any one plant. Always leave at least 6 leaves on the plant, which is enough to enable the plant to regenerate. Spinach works very well when grown in this way, as bolting isn’t as much of a problem when you are continuously harvesting smaller leaves.

Container Gardens
Spinach can work well in containers, though they need to be sufficiently large (ideally a two gallon pot for each plant). In larger containers allow 12″ between the plants for best growth. In warmer areas you should use light colored pots to keep the soil from getting too warm.

Winter Gardens

In areas with mild winters, you can grow some varieties of spinach as a winter crop. They are hardy down to 25˚ F and don’t bolt in the cool, short days. In colder climates, it can be grown under the cover of cloches or cold frames.

The key to success as a winter crop is for the plants to get big enough before cool weather hits. They will then continue to grow throughout the winter.

Smart Gardener makes it easy to start a garden. We can help you decide which varieties of spinach will work best in your garden and give you the advice you need to get started, and then send you weekly to-dos to keep you on track!

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What can I grow now? It’s not too late to plant a garden this summer. There are several vegetables you can plant today and harvest before the first frosts!

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What Can I Grow Now?

“What can I grow now?” That’s one of the question we get asked the most often. The good news is that no matter what time of year it is, there’s is always something you can plant in your garden.

Summer is in full swing in the northern hemisphere, and for most gardeners the harvest is already starting. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up on the whole summer. There are several vegetables you can plant in the middle of summer and harvest before the first frosts!

what can I grow now image of lettuce plants in a garden bedAs long as it’s warm and sunny, most crops you plant today will begin to grow more quickly than they do in the spring. With a little extra TLC, they may even catch up to where they ought to be.

If you live in an area where the summer growing season is long, and often extends well into September, you have some time to start some second crop plants, like beans and carrots. You may not get a smaller harvest, but that’s still worth it!

True, if you live in areas where summer is done closer to the end of August, you are running out of time to start summer vegetables, but it’s not too late quite yet. If you are careful to select plants that won’t take more than about 40 to 60 days to harvest, you should be able to get a couple of veggies from your garden this year. Plus, there are ways to eek out a couple more weeks by extending your growing season.

Vegetables you can plant mid-summer

what can I grow now image of green beansBeans:
Your best bet are fast-growing snap beans, like Blue Lake or Rolande.

Depending on how early your first frost is, you can pretty much plant most varieties and still get a good harvest. If you’re concerned about a very early frost, you can choose a smaller carrot, which matures more quickly, such as Little Finger or the delightful Tonda di Parigi.

If it’s not too hot, you can easily start some lettuce seeds now and get several good harvests before your first frost. Even if it is hot, you can start some in a container in the shade. Garden Babies and Sweetie Baby Romaine are great for quick harvests.

what can I grow now image of radish plants in soilRadishes:
Radishes are always a great idea for a fast harvest! If it’s hot where you are, you can just grow them in the shade of your other plants. My favorites are Easter Egg and French Breakfast, but you really can’t go wrong with any variety you choose.

Summer Squash:
Believe it or not, you can still start squash for this summer. They grow quickly in the warm sunshine. Little squashes like Ronde de Nice and Summer Dark Green will grow quickly and give you some nice squashes for your Labor Day weekend BBQ!

Consider a Fall/Winter Garden

And even if you think it is too late for your summer garden, this doesn’t mean you should give up. It just means it is time to start thinking about a fall/winter garden. Plants like kale, broccoli, swiss chard, or Brussels sprouts do quite well in the cooler temps of autumn anyway.

Whatever and whenever you are planting, Smart Gardener can help!

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Looking for the best way to water your vegetable garden? Climates may differ, but the essentials of how to properly water a garden are the same everywhere. There are four key things to keep in mind to keep your garden thriving all summer long.

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The best way to water your vegetable garden

Summer has arrived in California with record high temps, and in my garden we have already passed the point where the vegetables can get enough moisture from the soil. Until the rains start again in late October it is up to me to supply enough water to keep them alive. This is the most important summer gardening activity and if it isn’t done properly there really won’t be much of a vegetable garden to bother with.

Your climate may differ from mine, but the essentials of watering are the same everywhere. These are four things to keep in mind to make sure your garden thrives all summer long:

A close up image of a yellow sunflower with a small insect on the center, with green leaves behind itWatch your plants

If you know what to look for it is easy to tell when plants are suffering from lack of water. The first sign is that they lose the sheen on their leaves and start to sag slightly instead of standing rigidly upright. It is important to water immediately when you see this happening, as further stress will slow their growth.

More extreme signs of water stress include curling leaves, floppy growing tips, and dying leaves. All of these are signs the plant is severely distressed and has basically stopped growing, and is struggling to stay alive.

Simple wilting of leaves isn’t always a sign of stress however. Many plants (especially those with large leaves such as squash and cucumber) do it intentionally in hot sunny weather as a means of reducing water loss. They recover quickly when the temperature drops though, whereas water stressed plants recover more slowly. This is why you should check plants for water stress in the cool of early morning or evening and not in the midday heat.

Sunflowers are particularly prone to water stress. Because they wilt before almost anything else, they can be used as a living indicator of when the soil is starting to get dry before your other plants begin to suffer. Simply plant a few sunflowers in your garden bed and when they show signs of wilting, it is time to water the entire bed.

Image of a watering can watering plants in a garden. Photo source: Markus Spiske, UnsplashHow much to water

The general rule of watering says to give your plants 1″ of water per week in summer and about ½” in spring and fall. An inch of water means ⅔ gallon per square foot, or 66 gallons per 100 square feet, which should be enough water to penetrate 6″ to 12″ into the ground.

Though 1″ per week is a reasonable average to start with, it is only a guideline and will need to be adjusted to account for temperature, humidity, soil type, crop, and other factors.

It is better to look at the plants themselves and the soil they’re growing in to determine if you are watering enough, and then adjust accordingly. After watering, the soil should be evenly moist all the way down.

One of the most common mistakes beginner gardeners make is to water only until the surface of the soil looks wet and then move on. Appearances can be deceiving. While the top of the ground looks wet, an inch or so down the soil may still be completely dry. If your plants are wilting again within 24 hours you didn’t give them enough water.

Time of day to water

In hot weather you should avoid watering in the middle of the day, because any water that lands on the leaves, or that stays on the soil surface, will quickly evaporate and be wasted. It’s best to water either in the morning before the sun it too high, or early enough in the evening so that any wet leaves can dry out before nightfall.

How to apply water

Water should only be applied as fast as it can soak in. If you apply water faster than this it will puddle and the surface structure may break down. Excess water may also run off of the bed and be wasted, taking valuable soil with it.

The method you use to apply the water depends on your garden set up. Whether you choose to set up an irrigation system (soaker hose or drip irrigation), or if you prefer to hand water or use an overhead sprinkler system, it is important to keep in mind the water needs of the different plants in your garden, your climate and soil type, and what you find to work best for you.

Fortunately, all of that information is easy to find in the Crop Care tab in the Plant Guide for each plant in your garden plan. Smart Gardener makes it easy to keep track of each step of planning, growing, and harvesting your own food.

Two more things: compost and mulch!

To help conserve all that precious water you just put into the garden, it’s important make sure your soil is full of water-holding compost, and to cover it with a layer of mulch.

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