Vegetable Gardening Basics


start a vegetable garden

With the prices of produce going up each year, you may be ready to try growing some of your own by planting a vegetable garden. For gardeners, there is nothing quite like being able to enjoy the rewards of your hard work by going out to your own garden and picking and enjoying fresh, tasty vegetables all summer long. Taking the time to plan your garden will go a long way toward ensuring success and enjoying fresh tasty vegetables all year long. Use these planning tips to help you get started.

Pick your site carefully

The amount of sunlight, soil conditions, and other location factors will play a large role in whether or not your garden is a success.

When considering your garden site, keep these things in mind:


Try to locate your vegetable garden near a water supply and close to your home; it is less likely to get neglected and more convenient for you.


The size will depend on how many vegetables you want to grow, your level of gardening experience, time available to care for your garden, and the amount of land available. Generally a 10 ft. by 10ft. site is a good, manageable size, even for beginners. Although it’s tempting, if you are new to vegetable gardening don’t overwhelm yourself by planning a garden that is too large to care for properly. After planting, your garden will need consistent attention and maintenance such as weeding, fertilizing, watering and harvesting.

Soil conditions

Having healthy productive plants starts from the ground up. Vegetables grow most successfully in well-drained, fertile soil. The best way to determine your soil condition is to have it tested. One of the most convenient and cost-effective ways to have your soil analyzed is to contact your local university extension office.

They will give you directions on gathering and sending in a soil sample. Turn-around time is usually quick and the cost is reasonable. Here’s a link to locate an extension office closest to you. After submitting a soil sample, you will receive a detailed report in the mail telling you the elements (such as pH level) and physical characteristics (such as compactness) of your soil, among other things. From this evaluation you will be able to determine what elements may be lacking in the area you plan to put your vegetable garden. See this resource to learn more about soil testing.

If your test results reveal that your soil is compact, has poor drainage, lacks certain nutrients or is too high or low in Ph, you will need to amend it before planting your vegetable garden. Amending your soil simply means adding the elements it is lacking in. A simple example of this is tiling and working in organic matter (think manure or compost) or fertilizer to improve the nutrients in the soil. Click here to learn more about properly amending your garden soil before you plant a garden.

Sometimes soil is in such poor condition for growing vegetables that using a raised bed is the best option. The advantages of using a raised bed are being able to add your own soil with all the essential elements for a healthy vegetable garden and being able to put it in nearly any location. A raised bed can be built rather easily yourself, with the help of a carpenter, or you can buy a pre-built kit. Check out this step-by-step video of building your own raised bed.

Amount of sunlight

Vegetables need a full 6 hours of sunlight a day to produce a healthy crop. When selecting your site try to stay away from large buildings, trees or other structures that will shade your garden.
Stay away from Walnut trees

Black walnut trees produce a toxin that can kill some vegetables. Plant your garden away from any black walnut trees you may have on your property. Other large trees and shrubs will compete with the garden for water and nutrients, so it is best to plant away from these too.

Planning the Actual Garden

Taking the time to carefully plan out your garden can save you time, frustration (both now and later) as well as an increased harvest. Follow these steps for a well-planned garden:

Sketch it out

In late winter, (now is a good time) sketch out your garden. It doesnÕt need to be fancy, but the more detail the better. Include the plant varieties you want to use, placement (rows, hills), planting times and physical dimensions of the bed. Draw it to scale if you can. Although a square garden is probably the easiest design to care for, your garden doesn’t have to be square. If another design works better in your landscape, or just suits your fancy, use that shape. Just be sure to leave enough room between plantings to allow for weeding, watering and harvesting. Most seed packets will tell you how much space is needed between plants for optimal health. Try to place your garden in a level area of your yard for the best drainage.

Plant placement

Arrange your plants so that weeding, watering and harvesting can be done with the least amount of effort. Perennial crops (those that come back year after year on their own) should be planted grouped together on one side of the garden. Some examples of perennial plants are asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries and black berries. These plants can stay in the same location in your garden for years, unlike some annual plants that need to be rotated quite often. You can best maximize your space by using trellises and wire for vine plants. Some plants, such as cucumbers, will need a small mound to grow on.

Taller crops should be located north of shorter ones to prevent afternoon shading.

Here’s a resource to learn more about plant placement, spacing and layout of a vegetable garden.

Planting: cool season and warm season plants

Garden vegetables are divided into two groups: cool season and warm season vegetables.

Cool season vegetables
Cool season vegetables grow well in cooler temperatures, usually around 60-65 degrees. They are able to tolerate a light frost. In fact, in order to germinate and produce well, cool-season vegetables require cooler weather and do not tolerate the intense summer heat. They will perform poorly with little crop production if grown in these conditions. Some popular cool-season vegetables include radishes, lettuce, carrots, beats, beans and broccoli.

Many cool season crops can be harvested and enjoyed before warm season vegetables are even in the ground! You will need to plant cool season vegetables in the spring or fall when the weather is cooler. Different areas of the country have their own unique list of cool and warm season vegetables. You can find a list for your area by visiting your local university extension’s website. Cool season vegetables are usually planted directly from seed into your garden.

Warm season vegetables
Warm season vegetables, in contrast, do not tolerate prolonged cool temperatures and will perform poorly in these conditions. They require warm soil, high temperatures and little nighttime cooling to grow steadily and produce crops. Because frosts can kill warm season vegetables, you will want to cover your plants if there is danger of frost. Warm season vegetables are planted after the threat of frost is gone. The USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone determines the average date of the last frost in your area. Warm season vegetables include traditional summer crops such as snap beans, corn, cucumbers, melons, peppers, tomatoes, and squash.

Warm season vegetables can be grown directly from seed or from transplants that were started inside earlier in the season. If you decide to transplant seedlings you started indoors, make sure to acclimate them slowly to the outdoor weather to prevent transplant shock. Place them outside in their containers for a couple of hours the first day and gradually increase the length of time each day. Transplanting them into your garden should be done on a day that is cloudy, a bit cooler and at a time other than midday to avoid the intense heat.

Need more information on vegetable gardens? Check out these resources:

USDA plant hardiness zones
Average last frost dates
vegetable gardening
List of warm season vegetables


  1. Hi,
    I’m growing a few Brandywine tomato plants indoors from Burpee seeds (with large south-facing windows) as an experiment to see how well they do. It’s still early in May, but I’ve gotten a large percentage of flowers that are multiples in one. That is, what appears as a different-looking flower that has a thicker stem holding it, with as many as three stigmas in it, and more than the usual number of petals. I pollinated them and what got are ugly-looking tomatoes that look like several tomatoes fused into one, like conjoined twins or triplets. I’m wondering why I got so many of these multiple-stigma flowers. Is this normal for Brandywines? Should I just have cut them off when they first bloomed and kept just the normal flowers, or just keep the ugly-looking fused tomatoes and hope they taste good – assuming they ripen properly indoors?

    Thanks for your informative comments.

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