There’s no better way to perpetuate the eating local, sustainable foods trend than by growing your own fruits, vegetables, herbs and beans—either in your own yard or at a community garden. Just like cooking from scratch at home, maintaining a fruitful, sustainable home garden provides a sense of empowerment because you’re in complete control of what you’ll consume. Not only do you know exactly where your food comes from, but you also control how it’s grown (100 percent organic, without pesticides, for example).

If you’re one of those people who claim to kill every plant that crosses your path, take heart: Initiating your own sustainable home garden doesn’t have to be complicated, expensive or time-consuming. In fact, starting small is the key to success for beginning gardeners. The following tips will help you blossom from a timid first-timer into a full-fledged home gardener.

Start Small With Square-Foot Gardening

If you have limited outdoor space, or big reservations about your abilities, begin with one or two potted tomato plants and hearty herbs like rosemary. When you’re ready to tackle something more ambitious, Mel Bartholomew, author of All New Square Foot Gardeningand founder of the Square Foot Gardening Foundation, recommends planting small beds in squares, not rows, and using a 12-inch by 12-inch grid system. He recommends that new gardeners pick a spot for the beds that doesn’t puddle after rain that’s free of tree roots and gets at least six to eight hours of sunlight a day. Don’t worry about the quality of the soil or dirt in your yard, because you won’t be using it in your garden beds (Bartholomew recommends “Mel’s Mix,” which is 1/3 blended compost, 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 coarse vermiculte mix).

The square-foot gardening method is not only manageable for beginning home gardeners, but it’s also time and cost-effective. The Mel’s Mix blend doesn’t need to be replaced, so gardeners don’t have to spend back-breaking hours improving their soil every spring. Bartholomew advocates planting a few seeds in each box, and while it might take longer for the seeds to bear fruit (or vegetables), a package of seeds at a dollar or less is far more economical than a $3 to $5 plant.

What Should I Plant First?

“Peppers and beets are really easy, and they grow fast. Every time I’ve planted beets, it makes me feel like a really good gardener. Eggplants are easy, too,” says Rachel Hiner, a home gardener and community agriculture advocate who lives in San Diego, California

In early spring, Hiner’s sustainable home garden bears micro greens, tomatoes, eggplant, tomatillos, garlic, onions, beets, celery, beans, broccoli, lettuce, dill and other herbs. Although Hiner’s been a home gardener for a few years, it took less than a year for her backyard garden to bloom in its current location. She’s moved three times in the last three years, and plans to move again soon, so Hiner is proof that it doesn’t have to take a long time to enjoy sustainable produce grown at home.

Once her home garden is organized and planted, Hiner spends about 30 minutes each morning tending to it, and a few sporadic hours on the weekend when she pulls out old crops, puts down compost, and gets new seeds started. She’s built an irrigation system that helps cut down on watering time, but also harvests rainwater that she uses during the rainy season to hand-water her plants.

The pride of Hiner’s garden: her heirloom tomatoes, which can cost $5 at the market. “The tomatoes are the best I’ve ever tasted,” Hiner says. “And potatoes just out of the garden are awesome—you can almost get them as fresh from the farmer’s market, but there’s nothing quite like pulling the potatoes straight from the ground and then cooking them.”

How Much Does a Home Garden Cost?

Cost really depends on how big and elaborate you want to make your home garden, but it is possible to grow your own organic fruits, vegetables and herbs for a relatively small up-front investment of $350 to $500 (possibly more if you decide to get an irrigation system installed) or so. Costs include: dirt or planting mix and any fertilizer, beds, seeds or plants, gardening tools, a hose or irrigation system (having an irrigation system installed can cost between $1,000 and $2,000, depending on the space involved; you can also install a system yourself).

Because Hiner’s set up with her plant beds and irrigation system, she has the once-in-a-while cost of dirt delivery to her home, which is $300 for a large area, and the cost of seeds, which she buys online at groworganic.com from a company called Peaceful Valley.

“Starting from seeds is a lot cheaper,” advises Hiner. “You can plant your whole garden with $20. But, if you want to start from plants, then you pay about $3 for one plant. If you buy a $3 broccoli plant then wait six months for it to give you one head of broccoli, that’s not really cost-effective. But, if you buy a whole packet and grow a whole bed, then you get your money’s worth.”

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