5 Steps to Start Your Climate Victory Garden

aerial view four rows of plants coming up and two feet in white sandals
Photo by Jes Walton

Is this your year to start a garden? Make it a Climate Victory Garden! Get started and see results before you know it. 

Imagine it’s an early summer morning and you step outside to look at your garden just as the sun is evaporating the dew off the grass. You see new leaves on your herbs and some baby zucchinis starting to form under huge green leaves. You breathe in the fresh air and feel excited to see your garden thrive this year, and a sense of calm knowing it is doing important work for the Earth.

With a Climate Victory Garden, everyone can take meaningful action for soil health and emissions. This list for beginners is a jumping off point for learning the basics and starting on a path towards gardening for the planet. Start by asking yourself these important questions: 

Am I protecting the soil?

Soil puts "climate" in climate victory gardening by pulling the powerful greenhouse gas carbon dioxide out of the air and storing it underground where it feeds our plants and soil microbes. Avoiding tilling and keeping soils covered are examples of protecting the soil. 

Am I choosing climate-conscious products? 

When you choose what you put into your garden, you may make a climate impact in the wider world as well. Minimize those effects by making decisions that help reduce emissions. When possible, opt for natural and organic alternatives to synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Use sustainably harvested or repurposed materials whenever possible.

For example, instead if using synthetic chemical fertilizers—and their associated pollution and emissions from production and transportation—fertilize your garden with compost that supports soil life and keeps food and other organic waste out of the landfill where they produce the potent greenhouse gas, methane.

1. Set Gardening Goals

Think about your dream garden. What do you see, hear, and smell? Consider drawing or writing about it. Think about how much time you have to commit to your garden—be realistic and start small. If you have just a few minutes a day, consider a container garden—maybe just one pot. If it’s your first time ever gardening, consider a plot ten square feet or smaller, which requires two to three hours per week. 
While it will take some time to achieve a dream garden, your vision and goals will guide you through the process. What does success mean to you? Maybe your top priority is growing delicious food to save money on groceries, getting your kids outside, or creating a habitat for pollinators. 

2. Choose Your Plants

First things first—grow what you love! Here are some additional considerations for deciding what to grow: 

  • Look at your favorite recipes and grow the ingredients. 
  • Plant veggies and herbs that are expensive or hard to find at your grocery store. Veggie blossoms can also support pollinators!
  • Consider how much space you have and grow accordingly—herbs are great for small spaces, while squash need several square feet for each plant. 
  • Grow plants that are suited to your climate—find your area’s hardiness zone and match that to the zone to information on the back of your seed packet. 
  • Consider perennial plants that don’t have to be replanted each season because they’re great for supporting soil heath and are less work for you.

Choosing between seeds and transplants

Beginner gardeners will have the best luck with transplants, because they’ve been nurtured past their vulnerable seedling stage. Transplants are also quicker to mature because they’re several weeks old by the time you get them. Because of that, they’re also more expensive than starting from seed. When buying transplants from your local nursery or neighborhood farm, choose plants that were grown without the use of chemical pesticides or fertilizers. 

If you’d like to try to start some plants from seed, opt for the easy-to-grow plants like peas, beans, radishes, leafy greens, and sunflowers. 

3. Find the Perfect Place

Before you get too excited, be sure to check your zoning laws, any HOA requirements, and—if you’re a renter—talk to your landlord about starting a garden. If you don’t know the entire history of your property, consider getting your soil tested for toxic chemicals like lead paint. If your soil is permanently damaged, you can still grow food in raised beds and/or containers. 

When choosing a spot for your garden, the easier it is to see and access your garden, the more you’ll be reminded to care for it. Choose a site that’s visible from a room where you spend a lot of time. It’s also helpful to have a nearby water source, like a hose or spigot to fill your watering can.

If you have strict landscaping rules where you live, experiment with including beautiful edible plants in with your ornamentals. 

Think you’ve found the ideal spot? Take some time to observe the area to make sure it gets enough sun—most crops prefer 6-8 hours of direct sunlight every day. Look for other environmental factors like wind and drainage as well. 

No yard? No worries! 

If you don’t have a lot (or any) outdoor growing space, it’s time to get creative. Maybe you can grow along fence lines; in the parkways between sidewalks and curbs; at family’s, friend’s, or a neighbor’s house; or other open areas in your neighborhood. Or, you might be able to get a plot at a local farm or community garden. Have a balcony, sunny windowsill, or a little extra space on your counter-top? You can grow a Climate Victory Garden in containers indoors or outdoors. Read more about container gardening in “Your 15-Minute, $15 Garden,” at greenamerica.org/15garden. 

4. Time it Right

If you’ve purchased transplants, keep them indoors until the risk of frost has passed. When you’re ready to plant outside, help your seedlings adjust to their new home by hardening off—that is, placing them near their future planting site for a few hours each day and increasing the time gradually until they’ve spent a night outdoors in their pot. 

When planting, first water the ground thoroughly. Dig a hole twice as large as the pot, take the plant out of the pot and place in the ground, and lightly pack the soil around the roots. Water thoroughly again and maintain a consistent watering schedule to avoid shocking the plant. 

Planting from seed is more difficult, as they need regular watering and close attention. Look for seeds that can be direct-seeded right in the dirt of your garden or container, which will be on the back of the seed packet, along with seed depth, row spacing, and dates to plant. 
No matter what you plant, make sure you incorporate pathways into your layout and beds that you can reach the middle of for weeding and harvesting. 

5. Protect Your Soil

Soils are rich with life that supports nutritious crops and carbon capture. There are many ways to protect and build soil health, and these are a lifelong part of the gardening process. 

  • Avoid chemicals that reduce biodiversity 
  • Add compost to support soil life 
  • Mulch to protect soils from the elements 
  • Allow weeds to cover uncultivated soils 
  • Minimize digging to reduce disturbance of fungi and earthworms 
  • Keep old plants in the ground over the winter for pollinator habitat and to anchor soils 
  • When removing old plants to plant more, cut at the soil level, leaving the root underground 
  • Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned gardener, it’s all an experiment. There will be ups and downs. 

Looking for more information about how to do any of the above steps? Check out our Beginner Gardener’s Toolkit.

From Green American Magazine Issue