One of the best ways to slash your grocery bill is to grow your own food in a backyard vegetable garden.

During World War II the government called upon Americans to grow “victory gardens” to supplement the food supply on the home front. To aid the war effort, some 20 million people became part-time farmers, planting crops in backyards, in vacant lots, and on rooftops.

Victory gardens “helped introduce city dwellers to gardening,” says Marilyn Odneal, a clinical instructor of environmental plant science at Missouri State University. The victory garden concept can work today for people who are looking for ways to increase self-sufficiency and reduce their grocery bills.

Fresh produce is healthy. As a backyard farmer, you’ll know exactly what has gone into your homegrown food. You don’t need to worry about the type of pesticides that were used by commercial farmers. What follows are steps you can take to start your own vegetable garden.

1. Find the Right Space.

It’s helpful to locate your outdoor garden near your home and kitchen, says Susan Brandt, co-founder of the Blooming Secrets website. If the garden is nearby, you’ll be more likely to harvest your crops in a timely way. Be sure to pick a spot with plenty of sunlight and a nearby water source. Make sure you have fertile soil that drains well. Plant roots penetrate more easily if it is soft. A garden that’s 16 feet by 10 feet is a good size for beginners, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

2. Choose Your Vegetables.

What you should plant depends on what you and your family like to eat, says Stan Miklis, a horticulturist from Texas. Radishes are easy to grow, but it makes no sense to plant them don’t like eating radishes, he adds.

“I always recommend planting the vegetables that you enjoy the most,” Miklis says.

Most counties within the United States have a cooperative extension service that aids farmers. These services provide information about which vegetables grow best locally. They can assist with any problems you encounter and tell you when your crops need to be harvested.

“There’s a lot of help out there,” says Odneal.

3. Gather Your Tools.

Make sure you have the right tools to tend your garden. To be properly prepared,  you’ll need:

You can make gardening easier on your knees by buying a protective kneeling pad. If you keep your tools and fertilizer handy, you’ll be more likely to use them whenever you visit your garden. A small storage shed or some space in your garage is all you’ll need.

4. Prepare the Soil.

You shouldn’t prepare your soil for planting when it’s dried out or soggy from rain, advises the University of Minnesota Extension. When the moisture is right for planting, soil will crumble and break into small clumps when you press a small amount of dirt into your hand. You should rake the planting area after tilling or spading the soil. Compost can enrich your soil with nutrients that will encourage plant growth.

5. Plant Your Crops.

Be sure to space out your rows of crops properly. Plants cultivated too close together may compete for sunlight, water, and nutrition. Make sure there are no roots from nearby plants that will interfere with your crops.

“Don’t plant by trees or tree roots that will compete with your plants,” says Odneal.

Each vegetable has its own planting cycle. Look for planting guidance from seed packets. Always be sure to use high-quality seeds. The extra expense will be worth it when you’re ready to harvest your crops.

6. Tend Your Crops.

A garden isn’t something you can plant and forget about. A backyard farmer must be vigilant. You’ll need to stay alert to protect your modern-day victory garden from pests, blight, and weeds, which can appear suddenly.

“Weeds can take over within a week following a rain storm,” says Miklis.

Depending on what needs to be done, the time you spend outside in your garden can vary from five to 50 minutes each day, says Brandt. “The more effort and time you put in, the greater the rewards and harvests.”

7. Declare Victory!

You’ve successfully harvested an abundance of food, perhaps more than you can eat before it starts to spoil. Be sure to get the most out of your valuable harvest through proper food storage techniques, pickling, fermentation and canning. With proper preparation you can continue to shave dollars and cents from your grocery bill all year long.

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Emmet Pierce