Tag Archives: beginner garden

Top 10 Tips for Growing Heirloom Vegetables

Heirloom vegetables are favorite crops for many gardeners and farmers. We value them for their flavor, stories, diversity, and beauty. While some heirlooms can be tricky, many heirloom vegetables are as easy to grow as their hybrid counterparts. Many gardeners get started with hybrids because that’s what’s often available at local hardware stores and garden centers, but that doesn’t mean those beginners can’t grow heirlooms. Here are a few tips to ensure you have success growing heirloom vegetables. 

So What is an Heirloom Vegetable?

There’s no official definition of an heirloom. Heirlooms are just open-pollinated varieties that farmers and gardeners have saved for generations. At Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, we consider heirlooms to be open-pollinated varieties bred before 1940. Read more about why we grow heirloom seeds.

1. Select Varieties Carefully

You may find heirloom vegetables that are particularly well-suited to your gardening conditions. Growers carefully selected heirloom varieties over generations for specific traits. Sometimes these were traits like appearance and flavor, but often, these included good adaptation to local climatic conditions, disease resistance, drought tolerance, and other handy characteristics. 

2. Be Vigilant About Disease

No crop is resistant to all diseases, and heirloom vegetables are no different. Careful crop rotation, soil management, and cover cropping can help prevent a myriad of diseases. You should also practice good garden hygiene, removing diseased plant material and sterilizing tools that may have come into contact with diseased plants or soil.

3. Water Consistently

Avoiding over or under-watering can significantly improve your yields. Overwatering can lead to tomato splitting issues, increased fungal diseases, and poor-quality produce. Underwatering can lead to poor germination, failure to thrive, increased disease pressure, and other problems. Learn how to water correctly and consistently. Use a timer and drip tape if necessary.

4. Get Your Soil Tested

What seeds you bought doesn’t matter if your soil isn’t healthy. The best way to build good soil is to understand what you’re starting with. Getting your soil tested is quite affordable and well worth the effort.

Tomato trellis of string weaving at Twin Oaks Community Farm

5. Prune and Trellis Heirloom Vegetables

Especially in the hot and humid midsummer months in the south, good circulation is vital in helping prevent fungal disease, so prune and trellis your plants as needed. Trellises may also be necessary to avoid lodging on plants with heavy crops like larger pepper varieties. Crops you can trellis include tomatoes, peppers, winter squash, cucumbers, peas, pole beans, and more.

6. Space and Thin Generously

It can be tempting to cram more than is advised into your garden, but it may not be worth it! Follow spacing recommendations for larger plants like watermelons and tomatoes and thin smaller crops like carrots and beets as needed. A few appropriately spaced plants will be healthier and produce more than many tightly-packed unhealthy ones.

7. Use Mulch Around Heirloom Vegetables

We recommend mulching around any heirloom vegetable crop as soon as possible. Mulch helps prevent soil splash during watering or heavy rain, conserves moisture, surpasses weeds, adds organic matter, and helps regulate soil temperatures. 

8. Harvest When You’re Ready to Eat

While it’s not always possible, many heirloom vegetables especially tender crops like lettuce and sugary crops like sweet corn, are tastiest when prepared quickly after being harvested. If possible, try to eat, cook, or preserve produce soon after harvesting.

9. Get Transplants Off to a Good Start

If you’re starting heirloom vegetables like peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, and onions indoors, it’s essential to do it properly and ensure you grow healthy, productive transplants. Provide supplemental light, adequate water and drainage, proper temperatures, and pot them up as needed.

10. Save Seed

Saving seeds from your heirloom vegetables can help adapt a variety to your local conditions over time. You’re also helping to preserve a variety with future generations, saving a little money, and developing a new skill. Beans like those pictured above are a great crop to start with! Check out this post to learn to save bean seeds.

Growing heirloom vegetables is well worth the effort. They add incredible diversity, flavor, and beauty to your garden. If you’re growing heirlooms this year, follow these tips to help you succeed.

10 Beginner Crops

“To grow your own food gives you a sort of power, and it gives people dignity. You know exactly what you’re eating because you grew it. It’s good, it’s nourishing and you did this for yourself, your family, and your community.” ~Karen Washington

Gardening is a great way to connect with nature and food. It’s good for your body and good for your soul. We hope many of you join us on this journey this season. Here are a few of our favorite beginner crops to get started with.


Basil is one of our favorite herbs for beginners because it’s easy to grow and delicious. Basil can be started indoors in flats for an earlier harvest, or you can direct seed it once the danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed. It’s a great companion plant for tomatoes and you can harvest it over a long period. Pruning your basil plants will encourage them to put on more growth.

Shop all of our basil varieties.

Bush Beans

Bush beans are one of the easiest vegetable crops to grow. You can get a decent harvest even in a tiny garden, and sowing a few every three weeks can keep you in a fresh supply of beans throughout the summer. 

Try our Tricolor Bean Mix to get three colors of organic bush snap beans in one packet! The packet includes Provider, Gold Rush, and Royalty Purple Pod.

Visit our Bush Beans Growing Guide for more information or see all our bush beans.

Cherry Tomatoes

Tomatoes are always a favorite in the garden, and cherries are some of the easiest to grow. Cherry tomatoes can be grown in containers or the field. They’re disease resistant, quick to mature, and produce over a long period. You can find cherry tomato varieties in red, pink, yellow, purple, or bi-colored.

Shop all of our cherry tomatoes, or check out our Tomato Growing Guide for more helpful advice.


If you have a small garden, it can be easy to pass over flowers, but we love adding a small patch or two! Flowers help attract beneficial insects, support wildlife, and look beautiful in the garden or as cut flowers.

Cosmos are easy to grow and an excellent choice for beginner flower gardens. They’re a fast-growing annual that will tolerate partial shade, poor soil, and drought once established. If you keep cosmos deadheaded, they produce blooms over a long season. Additionally, some cosmos, C. sulphureus, have edible petals that will add color to summer salads. 

Add a few bright spots to your garden with our selection of cosmos.


Cucumbers are another crowd favorite that’s an excellent choice for beginners. They’re generally easy to grow and even just a few plants will produce a large harvest. There are two basic types of cucumbers, slicing and pickling. Pickling cucumbers tend to be shorter and fatter and have been bred to hold up better when pickled. However, both pickling cucumbers and slicers can be eaten fresh or pickled. 

You can start cucumbers indoors, but it’s also okay to direct sow them one to two weeks after your last frost. If you’re dealing with a small garden, try growing your cucumbers vertically on a trellis to save space.

For more information, visit our Cucumber Growing Guide or shop all our varieties.


Lettuce is a great cool weather, beginner-friendly crop for spring or fall gardens. We carry a few different types of lettuce, including Romaine, Loose-Leaf, Bibb (Butterhead), and Crisphead and Batavian. 

Romaine forms upright elongated heads and is moderately tolerant of heat and shade. Loose-Leaf doesn’t form heads and is forgiving of poor soils, heat tolerant, and probably the easiest to grow. Bibb forms small loose heads and has soft textured leaves. Crisphead is harder to grow well but is a popular choice. It forms tight heads with crisp leaves and needs a long cool season.

You can sow lettuce in flats indoors and transplant it out or direct sow. If you direct sow, it is typically best to sow a bit thickly and thin seedlings as they grow. You can make a salad of baby greens with the lettuce you thin. 

For more lettuce-growing advice, visit our Lettuce Growing Guide or check out all our varieties.


Peas are another fast-maturing cool weather beginner crop. Snap peas, snow peas, and shelling (English) peas are all easy to grow and well-suited to spring’s cool temperatures. Direct sow your peas as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring. Be sure to grow them along a trellis or fence.

For more information, read our Pea Growing Guide or shop all peas.


Spring salad radishes are one of the first crops we can harvest each year. Like peas, you can sow them as soon as the soil can be worked. They germinate and grow with incredible speed. Some varieties, like Cherry Belle, are ready to harvest in as little as 24 days!

Visit our Radish Growing Guide or shop radishes.

Summer Squash & Zucchini

If you know a gardener, you’ve probably been offered some free summer squash or zucchini before. The productivity of summer squash and zucchini is nearly unmatched. Just a few plants will grow tons of produce; both are outstanding beginner crops. 

Summer squash and zucchini can be direct sown after the danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed. For tasty, tender squash, harvest them when they’re small. 

Learn more about these crops with our Squash Growing Guide, or shop our summer squash and zucchini.


A standard for cut flower gardens, zinnias are easy to grow, productive, and come in a wide range of colors. These annuals can be sown indoors for extra early blooms of direct sown after your last frost. They’re ideal for cut flowers because the plants will continue to produce when you cut some. Keeping them deadheaded can help extend their season. 

Shop all of our zinnias.


Every gardener will experience challenges; it’s part of the joy of growing! These beginner crops can help ensure you have success with vegetables, flowers, and herbs in your first season, even if you don’t think you have a green thumb. 

How to Prepare Garden Beds

The weather is starting to feel like spring! While we’re not quite there yet, it is an excellent time to start preparing beds. Before long, we’ll be transplanting cold hardy crops like onions, broccoli, cabbages, and cauliflower and direct sowing peas, parsnips, spring greens, and more. Whether starting from scratch or taking care of an existing garden, follow this guide to prepare garden beds for planting season.

Plan and Mark Out the Bed

New Beds

If you’re starting a new bed, it’s a good idea to start with a plan. You’ll need to consider the dimensions before gathering materials for raised beds. For beds in the ground, I like to use wood or old tent stakes and string to create a layout. This can be especially to ensure you leave enough room for pathways between beds.

Existing Beds

When preparing existing beds, it’s a good time to think about what was planted there last year and what will work well there this year. Proper crop rotation is vital to a healthy garden.

Remove the Vegetation

This is the first step major step in preparing a bed for planting. It’s best to remove the vegetation and complete the following steps when the bed is moist but not wet. Working with soggy soil is more difficult and can lead to compaction. 

New Beds

If you have access to a rototiller, simply tilling in the sod is a common choice. You’ll probably want to till early and then again as new growth comes up. This will help with weed issues down the road. 

If you don’t have a rototiller or don’t want to use one, a common choice for larger beds is to solarize the soil. Stretch clear plastic, like the kind for hoop houses, over the garden bed as tightly as possible and weigh it down. After a few weeks, depending on the weather, this will kill the vegetation. It’s tough, but you can also remove sod by hand with a shovel if necessary.

If you’re building a raised bed, hugelkultur mound, or lasagna garden, you can put down a layer of cardboard that will kill the grass.

Existing Beds

This process should be easier in existing beds. If you’ve planted cover crops into your beds, you can use a scythe or mower to kill them or till them into the soil, depending on the cover crop variety. Many gardens use their cover crop residue as mulch and plant directly into it.

If your beds are weedy, you have different options depending on the size of the beds and weed growth. For smaller beds or those with minimal weed growth, you may want to grow through with a stirrup hoe or similar tool and kill the weeds by hand.  You can also solarize the bed like I mentioned for new beds above or lay down cardboard or newspaper to smother the weeds.

Loosen the Soil

If you’ve just tilled your garden, this step may be unnecessary. However, loosening the soil in no-till gardens or existing beds is a good idea. I like to use a broad fork. Broad forking the soil essentially lifts it without turning it over. It doesn’t destroy beneficial bacteria or fungi like tilling, but it creates space for water and air in the soil and a softer bed for roots to grow into. 

Another option is double digging. This process is hard work, but many gardeners swear by it. To double dig, you remove the layer of topsoil and set it aside. Then break up the layer of subsoil and mix it with organic matter. Finally, you replace the layer of topsoil. Though it’s hard work, all you need is a spade, and it creates great fertile, well-draining soil. Fine Gardening has a more in-depth piece on double-digging available here

Amend the Soil

Before planting, you’ll also want to amend your soil as needed. I recommend adding 2 to 3 inches of finished compost to new and existing beds before planting. It adds fertility and improves drainage. 

Ideally, you’ll also have had a soil test done and will know whether your soil needs other amendments. If your soil is too acidic, you may need to add lime or amend for specific nutrients.

Set Up Your Watering System

It’s also important to consider how you will keep your garden watered before planting. Drip irrigation is an increasingly popular choice, even for home gardeners, because it’s highly efficient and less labor intensive. If you’re going to set up a watering system, it’s often easiest to do so before planting. Lay out your drip irrigation or sprinklers and set up timers for a low-maintenance watering plan.

Mulching and Keeping Beds Weed Free

It may seem odd to mulch before planting, but it can save you from weeding later. Add 3 to 4 inches of mulch to your beds to prevent weeds from germinating. Transplants can easily be planted through the mulch, or you can rake it aside to direct seed rows and pull it back once plants get established.

Spring will be here soon! Follow this guide to prepare your garden beds for planting. Stay tuned and follow us on social media for a future post on transplanting or check out our older posts covering the basics of when and how to start seedlings indoors.