Starting a garden can be both harder and easier than you think. Between planning what to grow, where to grow it, and getting your plants into the ground, there are a lot of important decisions to make and actions to take. If you’re starting your first garden, here are some tips for how to start a vegetable garden from scratch.
Decide What You Want to Grow
First, decide what you want to grow.
Will They Eat It?
Plant vegetables that you know your family will eat. It’s easy to get tempted by full-color seed catalogs and the wide array of seedlings at your local nursery.
Few of us can resist trying new, exotic plants. Before you plant that full packet of cucumber seeds, ask yourself if you and your family will even eat them.
Focus On Taste
Some vegetables just taste better fresh. Heirloom tomatoes and sweet corn fresh from your backyard will beat out standard grocery produce any day.
Cut Your Grocery Bill
Fresh lettuces, tomatoes, and peppers can be grown much cheaper than you can buy them. If you have a favorite, hard to find (and expensive) vegetable, consider growing it at home.
Explore Native Varieties
Look for vegetable varieties that grow well in your area. Talk to local gardeners and look into local heirloom varieties. Who knows? You may find a few new favorites.
Choose Your Location
Take a look at your available space. Plants need sunlight, good soil, and water to grow.
Let the Sun Shine In
The amount of sunlight in your garden changes with the seasons. The sun is at its highest arc at the summer solstice (in the northern hemisphere). It reaches its lowest arc at the winter solstice.
Keep this in mind if you’re planning your garden in the spring. Some areas that are currently shady may be in full sun as the season progresses.
If you want to learn more about sun mapping, Ravindra Krishnamurthy with the Permaculture Research Institute gives a detailed explanation in his article Charting the Suns Motion which includes numerous charts and graphs.
Does It Drain?
Plants need good drainage. Avoid areas with standing water or places that remain damp in dryer weather.
Location, Location, Location
Learn the patterns in your yard. Avoid areas that are well-traveled. Is that sunny corner the dog’s favorite digging place? Do the kids use it as a shortcut?
Was the area once a gravel drive? Are there other materials in the ground that won’t work well with a garden?
Know where your septic lines are located. Never plant vegetables (or trees) over your septic lines.
Is it close to a water source? Will you have to drag a hose across the yard to reach it? Do you have a long enough hose?
Is it convenient? The closer it is to your kitchen, the easier it is to pick fresh vegetables for dinner. If it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind.
What kind of soil do you have? Dig up a shovel full and take a look. Grab a handful of soil and make a ball. Good garden soil should crumble easily and have a nice mixture of organic material.
Too much clay and the soil will hold water. Too much sand and it won’t hold enough water. Adding organic matter such as compost will improve the soil.
Get a Soil Test
Check out your local county extension office or co-op to get a soil test. For a small fee, they will test your soil and give you an idea of what nutrients your soil may need.
There are many ways to improve your soil.
You can add compost or create your own. Manure must be composted first to prevent burning tender plants.
A green manure can be created by growing a cover crop such as rye, oats, and clover, then tilling it into the soil.
Peat moss, sawdust, and straw can be added to the soil. According to Jeff Schalau, with the Arizona Cooperative Extension, these “and other “brown” materials are low in nitrogen and should be composted with other “green” wastes or with nitrogen fertilizer before being added to the garden.”
How to Start a Vegetable Garden From Scratch: Planning Your Garden
How Big is Too Big?
If you’re new to gardening, start small. Like anything else, gardening will expand to fill the time you have available.
Until you’ve tended your first garden patch, you won’t know what type of gardener you are.
Are you a laid-back gardener, who can tolerate a few weeds (and bugs) as long as you get a good crop? Are you a picture perfect gardener who loves perfectly formed rows without a weed in sight? Or are you somewhere in between?
Gardening takes time. It’s an adventure.
You never know what the weather will be, what insect invasions are on their way or what vegetable is going to produce so much that you’ll spend weeks canning, freezing and donating just to keep your head above water.
How Many Are Too Many?
Plan how many plants you will need. Just because you have a full package of seeds doesn’t mean that you have to plant all of them.
Consider your garden space. How much room do you have?
How many people are you planning to feed?
Are you planning to preserve your harvest? Or do you just want enough to provide food for the growing season?
Do you enjoy cooking?
When first starting out, start small. You can always make a larger garden next year.
Plan Your Rotation
Crop rotation is an ancient farming technique. Different plants draw different nutrients from the soil. When you plant the same plant in the same place year after year, it can deplete the soil. This leads to crop failure, pests, and disease.
A way to prevent this is to routinely add organic compost and other nutrients to your garden soil. Crop rotation also helps.
To rotate your vegetables, separate them into four different groups:
- legumes (beans, peas, lentils, peanuts)
- root vegetables (beets, carrots, potatoes, onions)
- leafy vegetables (lettuces, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower)
- fruit-bearing vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, corn)
Follow legumes with leafy vegetables the next year. Legumes fix nitrogen in the soil. Brassicas such as broccoli and cabbage love the nitrogen-rich soil.
For a simple rotation scheme, follow legumes with leafy vegetables, leafy vegetables with fruit-bearing plants, fruit-bearing plants with root vegetables and root vegetables with legumes.
Get In The Zone
Know your planting zone. Check out the United States Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Choose vegetable varieties that grow well in your zone.
Containers, Rows or Beds?
Gardens come in all shapes and sizes.
You can plant vegetables in containers or tuck them in with your landscaping. If space is at a premium, look into vertical gardening and hanging plants.
You can create traditional garden rows or raised beds. You might even want to try square foot gardening for a higher yield in less space.
Or a combination of all of the above. Create a garden that fits your space, your needs and your lifestyle.
Digging It Up
In order to plant, you first need to dig up the garden. There are three common ways to prepare your garden soil: digging by hand, tilling or cultivating.
Double digging is a popular form of preparing a new garden bed. Dig a narrow trench, usually the size of your shovel. Remove that soil and set it aside.
With a garden fork, loosen the soil at the bottom of the trench. Dig the next trench beside the first, using that soil to fill in the first trench. Loosen the soil at the bottom of the second trench and repeat until the entire bed is dug. Finish the last trench with the soil that was removed from the first one.
Double digging loosens up the soil and helps to increase drainage and aeration.
Tilling vs Cultivating
Tilling and cultivating are actually two different things. Cultivating is removing weeds and loosening the soil in your garden. Tilling is digging deeper down. It’s used for preparing new beds and mixing additional organic matter into the soil.
Choosing Your Plants
Plants can be grown from seeds, bulbs, roots, cuttings, and seedlings. It all depends on what type of vegetable you wish to grow.
You can grow most garden vegetables, such as salad items and squash, from seeds or seedlings.
Timing Is Everything
Different plants grow better in different seasons.
Some vegetables, such as lettuces, broccoli, and kale are cool weather crops. These can tolerate colder temperatures and even a light frost.
Warm weather crops such as tomatoes, peppers, and corn need warmer weather to grow.
Vegetable plants need room to grow. Check the recommended spacing for your plants and follow it.
Keep your end result in mind. While it may be hard to thin out a row of seedlings, it will help the remaining plants grow.
If using intensive gardening methods such as square foot gardening, you can plant them closer together.
Also, plant them at the proper depth. Some seeds light to germinate. According to Henry G. Taber with the Iowa State University Extension, “As a general rule, plant a seed to a depth of not more than three or four times its thickness.”
Most vegetable plants need at least 1-2 inches of water each week. Check your soil. It’s time to water when the soil is dry two inches below the ground.
Weed control may be one of the most frustrating aspects of starting a new garden. If you converted an area of grass or weeds into garden space, chances are the seeds and roots are still there.
It gets easier. By the second or third year, if you continue to tend to your garden and build up your soil, the weeds will decrease.
In the meantime, there are other solutions you can try. Weed control fabric and mulching help to keep the weeds at bay. Hoeing the rows and pulling weeds as they appear each week will also keep them under control.
Basic Garden Maintenance
Once your garden is growing, you can focus on maintenance.
Keep it clean. Remove any broken stems, leaves or rotten fruit. This helps to cut down on pests and disease.
Watch for weeds and pull them as they appear.
Watch for insects, too. Check the leaves and stems of your plants.
If it looks like something besides you is eating your garden, you’re probably right. Starting at the bite marks, check the rest of the plant. The culprit is usually nearby.
Remove any insect pests when you find them. A single tomato hornworm can wreak havoc on your tomato crop.
Keep an eye out for furred and feathered pests, as well. A variety of wildlife can appear even in an urban environment. Birds, squirrels, raccoons, rabbits and other hungry creatures may view your garden as an all-you-can-eat buffet.
All your hard work has paid off and now it’s time for the best part – the harvest.
Once your vegetables begin to ripen, make it a point to check them every day. It will seem as if they grow overnight. One day, you’ll pick five tomatoes and the next day twenty-five.
Take notes throughout the season. Keep a list of the varieties you planted. Write down what worked and what didn’t. Every season is different. Every garden is different.
Think of what you enjoyed this year and what you would like to try next.
Experiment with new things. And repeat what worked.
Try these tips on how to start a vegetable garden from scratch. Once you start, you’ll be well on your way to creating a garden full of your favorite vegetables.