EVERY TIME we bite into a fresh–picked strawberry or slice up a homegrown tomato and savor the vibrant taste we rarely experience at the grocery store, we renew our vow to grow our own produce. But then another summer passes with us making trips to the farmer's market instead of the backyard or windowsill. This time it's going to be different. We asked the experts for some guidance and were surprised to learn how easy it is. First of all, you don't need gardening experience–or even a garden. All you need is a sunny windowsill or a small space on your balcony or in your yard (many herbs and leafy greens need only six inches of depth). Then you plant a few of your favorite foods in pots of store–bought organic soil or dirt from your yard.
The benefits go beyond tasty food and a rewarding sense of accomplishment. "Growing your own food is as local as it gets," says Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (Penguin Press, 2008), who grows things like carrots, potatoes, and kale with his family in a small garden at their Berkeley, Calif., home. "It goes from the soil to your plate with no carbon emissions or unnatural pesticides and fertilizers." Plus, produce fresh off the plant contains the highest levels of vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants. (Nutrients start to diminish at the moment of picking.) Homegrown fruits and veggies may be more varied in color and shape than those you'll find at the supermarket, according to our cover model Monica Gambee, who grows herbs, tomatoes, and lemons in the backyard of her Los Angeles home from plants she bought at a garden store. "The flavors are unbelievable. I start every day with warm water, honey, and ripe lemons from the garden," she says, "And I can make the freshest, most incredible lemon meringue pies." Pick up a trowel and some potting soil and get ready to create your own farmer's market.
STEP 1. Pick easy–to–grow fruits and veggies
Focus on produce you like, then throw in one you're less familiar with, like Chinese eggplant or yellow carrots. "It will inspire you to get creative in the kitchen," says gardener Rose Marie Nichols McGee, author of The Bountiful Container (Workman, 2002). Make sure your growing space can accommodate the plants you choose: Smaller foods like radishes and herbs generally won't need more than 10 inches to grow, but larger ones such as tomatoes and potatoes may need up to 25 inches.
STEP 2. Shop for the right equipment
You don't need an elaborate tool shed–just a small trowel and a basic organic fertilizer. If you're growing indoors or in containers outdoors, pick up pots for your plants–or use any deep container like a bucket, serving bowl, or colander that has a hole for drainage, says Nichols McGee. Fill them with organic potting soil, which drains much better than dirt imported from your yard.
STEP 3. Choose between seeds and seedlings
Seedlings, which have already sprouted a few leaves, will start producing food more quickly than seeds, but some plants like beans, squash, and cucumbers won't flourish when you transplant them to your garden and are best planted using seeds. Seeds that are older than a year may not germinate, so check the packet for a use–by date.
STEP 4. Set fertilizing and watering schedules
Research the best times to fertilize your plants–most will require fertilizer when first planted, and some will call for replenishing fertilizer as they grow. "Beware of overfertilizing, which can burn plants or force them into the flowering stage too early," says Nichols McGee. This can result in bitter tasting and less abundant produce. Water plants well once or twice a day, preferably in the morning and evening, when they're out of the strongest sunlight. Midday watering can give leafy plants brown spots.