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Back 40: 5 tips to get your garden started



By Kareen Erbe EBS Contributor

Spring has finally arrived in Montana, which means that gardening season is underway. If you don’t already have a garden and want fresh food for yourself and your family, I’d highly recommend you give it a try this season.

Gardening has many benefits. In addition to eating homegrown nutritious vegetables, you cut down on your grocery bill, spend more time outdoors, get exercise, and when the vegetables you’ve grown are on your dinner plate, you’ll feel an indescribable sense of accomplishment! Plus, if you have kids, it’s a great way to get them involved and eating their veggies.

Having taught people how to garden for several years, here are my top five tips to get your garden started this spring:


Choose a south-facing spot in your yard that gets at least six to eight hours of sunlight per day. Fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers need a minimum of eight hours and rooting vegetables (e.g., carrots and beets) require a minimum of six. Leafy vegetables like lettuce, spinach and kale can be planted in more shaded areas of your yard as they only need four hours of sunlight.

Design and plant according to sun and shade patterns in your yard, keeping in mind that they change with the season. In addition, observe what microclimates exist in your yard—can you use reflective walls or create sun traps to enhance your growing space?

Cherry tomatoes are a great garden treat and are fairly easy to grow, even with our short growing season. PHOTO BY MARY SCHAAD


Your soil is the foundation of your garden. A healthy soil is a living soil full of microorganisms that protect your plants from disease and give it nutrients. Yet growing vegetables draw a significant amount of nutrients out of the soil. These nutrients can be replaced by adding compost and manure every spring, but can also be supplemented by introducing nitrogen-fixing elements like peas, legumes and clover and mineral-accumulating plants like comfrey, borage and lupine. Don’t use synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides in your garden—these products will destroy the living microorganisms in your soil.


Grow what you and your family eat on a regular basis and what can mature during our shorter growing season. Cool season crops like peas, lettuce, spinach, kale and broccoli do really well in our climate, whereas warm season crops like tomatoes and peppers are a little more challenging. However, since my family loves fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes, these obviously figure prominently in our garden.

I also consider my budget for groceries. A pound of potatoes or onions from my local farmer is a lot less expensive then a pound of tomatoes. If I’m limited on space, I’ll dedicate more garden space to tomatoes and other high value crops like lettuce mix, spinach, basil and cilantro.

Take seasons into consideration, too. Do you want your garden to supply just summer food or winter storage crops as well? Potatoes, onions, carrots and winter squash are good options if you intend to continue enjoying your bounty through the fall and winter.

Stay close

The proximity of your garden to your house will ensure that you maintain it. We are far more likely to care for what we see every day.

Make watering easy and site your garden as close to the water spigot as you can. Alternatively, think about installing an automatic irrigation system if your lifestyle doesn’t lend itself to getting in the garden every couple of days. Brainstorm ways to set up a rainwater collection system or divert water from your downspouts into a rain barrel or perennial beds.

Keep your garden well mulched during the summer with straw or leaves. Placing a layer of leaves between your plants, for example, will maintain more consistent soil moisture and cut down on how often you water.

Start small

If you are new to gardening, it’s always good to start with a small garden that’s close to your house. A 4-foot by 8-foot bed is a great size for a beginning gardener. This will give you a sense of the time and energy involved in maintaining it. A lot of food can be grown in a small space if you put some time into soil building and path design. Remember, aim for small successes rather than large failures. You can always expand as your experience and appetite for garden-fresh food grows.

The field of gardening is vast and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. However, like anything new, the best thing to do is to go ahead and try. Just know that seeds want to sprout and plants want to grow. I recommend you start with three to five vegetables this season and see how it goes. Plant a seed and watch it grow. Best of luck!

Kareen Erbe is the owner of Broken Ground, a Bozeman-based business that teaches gardening and permaculture workshops and offers garden consultations and edible garden design services for clients. For more information, visit

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