Whether it is about saving money, being self sufficient, or simply the love of delicious, fresh from the garden, home grown food, growing a successful vegetable gardening is one of the most satisfying things you can do as a hobby. It’s an investment of time, energy and ‘elbow grease’ that pays delicious dividends. Using the following guide, you can plant your first vegetable garden and be feeding your family healthy, delicious, and home-grown veggies in just a few weeks.
Choosing and Preparing Your Vegetable Garden Location
When deciding where to put your garden you need to make sure it will be located on level ground, receive full sun for most of the day and be within reach of a garden hose. The size and layout of your garden will be dictated by a) how much space you have available b) how much time you have to devote to a garden and c) what vegetables you wish to grow (see next section) because different vegetables have very different space needs. We recommend starting out small, and adding on as you feel more confident. Here are some ideas for layouts to get you started. There are also some online garden planning tools, such as PlanGarden.com and GrowVeg.com, that can help you draw your plan and determine how much space you need, which can be a big help for the beginning gardener.
Preparing your site depends largely on what is there to begin with. The University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture has great instructions for starting your garden spot from ‘scratch’ at Growit.umd.edu. If you don’t want to go to the trouble of breaking ground, or if your location is just too rocky, you can opt for raised beds. This is done by building your garden beds out of landscape timbers or stone blocks, and filling them with soil. The Texas Extension service has an excellent step-by-step guide to building a raised bed garden. And here is a good video on building a raised bed as well. About.com also has a quick overview of raised beds. Caution: Many online resources do not differentiate between starting flower beds and starting vegetable beds. The big difference is that you are going to eat the produce from a vegetable garden, so avoid putting chemicals into your soil or building raised beds with materials that can leach into the soil!
Once you’ve got your garden plot started, you’ll need to test and amend the soil with nutrients. Contact your local Cooperative Extension Service for soil testing. This is worth spending time on. Poor soil results in plants that do not thrive — they produce poorly and are vulnerable to disease, pests and drought. Gardens with strong, healthy plants are a lot less work. UrbanGardenSolutions has an article with some good ideas for organic soil enrichment.
One last item to think about: Do you need a fence, and if so, how high? Take a look at the other gardens in your neighborhood and see what kind of fence they have, or ask at your local garden center. There is nothing more frustrating than having your plants destroyed by deer or woodchucks before you ever pick a vegetable. Here’s a good primer on fencing options.
Deciding What to Grow in your Vegetable Garden
Grow vegetables your family will eat. It’s easy to get over zealous when looking at all those little packages of seeds at the garden center or browsing through a seed catalog. But don’t waste your ground, your money or your time growing something no one will eat. For those veggies you’re not sure about, buy some from the farmer’s market, try them out, and if you like them, well, there’s always next year.
Grow what grows well in your area. The growing seasons, summer heat and humidity (or lack of) and altitude all come into play. To determine what growing zone you live in visit PlantMaps.com. If the only plot you have available is partly shaded, check out our article: Shade Vegetables: Try These 10 Options.
Keep it simple in the beginning. Some vegetables are much easier to grow than others. Radishes, peas, beans, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce are great ‘starter veggies.’ Zucchini is prolific and easy to grow, but extremely prone to squash bugs and has to be watched carefully. Okra isn’t difficult to grow but must be harvested at just the right time to avoid waste. Broccoli, cauliflower and eggplant will be overcome with insects and/or disease if careful attention isn’t given to them. Corn, while easy enough to grow, requires more room than the average hobby gardener has and requires regular treatment for corn worms and other bugs (and is a favorite of raccoons).
Once you decide which kind of vegetables, then you need to decide which varieties. Many vegetables literally have dozens of varieties available, each with differences in flavor, color, size, disease-resistance and climate preference. When possible, buy seeds from seed companies that specialize in your area — their seeds will be selected for your climate’s particular challenges. MotherEarthNews.com has a list of seed companies by state. Your local Cooperative Extension Service is also a good source for seed variety recommendations. When making your selections, pay attention to the number of days until harvest — you’ll want to spread your harvest out so you are picking vegetables throughout the season. If you only pick tomatoes with a 100-day harvest time, your summer will be almost over before you eat any.
Still can’t decide? Take a look at this list of the most popular vegetables for gardeners.
How to Plant A Vegetable Garden
Don’t get in a hurry. If your ground is too cold your seeds will just sit in the ground and rot. The inside of the seed (embryo) is covered by a seed coat. This coat needs the warm wetness of good soil to swell and break open to allow the embryo to sprout and grow. Follow the instructions on the back of the seed packet as far as when to plant, and how deep and how far apart to place each seed. There are a few vegetables, like peas, that thrive in the cold wet conditions of early spring and are frost hardy — the seed packet will say something along the lines of “plant as soon as the ground can be worked”.
Seedlings also need warm soil temperatures. The roots of these tender young plants will become stunted and never really grow to their full potential if it is too cool. And if damaged by frost, the seedlings will die.
By waiting until all danger of frost is past and the soil temperature is warm enough to feel comfortable in your hand you’ll save yourself time and money. Your planting zone map at PlantMaps.com will tell you when to expect the last frost. Here is a good article on how to plant and thin your vegetables from the MSU Extension Service. For those of you that like to learn visually, here is a video on how to plant peas from seed, and another video on how to plant tomato seedlings.
Don’t crowd seeds or seedlings. Fewer plants will result in healthier plants that produce larger healthier vegetables than a lot of spindly plants that produce miniature veggies.
Watering your vegetable garden
When at all possible, watering should be done in the morning. This prevents fungus and mildew growth on the leaves by allowing the sun to dry the leaves off. Watering can sometimes be done in the cool of the evening, but care should be given not to soak the leaves of plants. You can buy a water timer to ensure that your garden is watered at the right time. Check out our article on Watering the Vegetable Garden to learn more.
Don’t over-water. Over-watering is one of the hardest mistakes to correct. Plants are made up of eighty to ninety percent water, so they need a lot of it, but your soil, humidity levels, sunshine and natural precipitation will all be deciding factors in how often and how much you need to water your garden. If you use a water timer, be sure to turn it off during times of frequent rain. Standing water is never a good thing.
Fertilizing a vegetable garden
Fertilizing your garden puts food on your table. You have to feed your soil and your plants in order for them to be able to feed you.
The most prevalent component of fertilizer is nitrogen. Soil and plants need the nitrogen to make protein and as part of photosynthesis. The nitrogen gas in our atmosphere isn’t adequate for making plant protein, though, so adding it to the soil through manure and other organic matter is usually necessary. The Virginia Cooperative Extension provides a good overview on fertilizing your vegetable garden and what your options are. Good sources for organic fertilizers include Gardens Alive and Gardeners Supply. And don’t forget that your local farm can also be a good source of fertilizer — check out our article on Using Manure Fertilizer for the Garden.
Managing Pests, Diseases and Weeds in the Vegetable Garden
The old wives saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” goes a long way in gardening. Whether you’re talking about weeds, insects, or diseases that affect plants, it is much easier to prevent them from entering your garden than it is to get rid of them once they’re there. There are plenty of options for organic and non-organic pest control — find a knowledgeable local garden center or contact your local Cooperative Extension Service for advice on your options.
One of the best ways to guard against bad insects is to physically check your plants for bugs. If you see them, pick them off and squish them dead! Notice we said ‘bad’ insects… there are bugs that are actually beneficial for plants. To identify what’s attacking your plants, there are quite a few pest identification guides online. Here is a round-up of those guides from Gardening.about.com. Another helpful site is Naturescontrol.com that helps you identify pests and sells various natural pest controls. Cornell University’s “Vegetable MD Online” is a great source for identifying plant diseases, with photos and diagnostic keys.
Many people try to reduce or eliminate the amount of weeding their garden requires by placing mulch, black plastic, or straw between the rows. You can find a good overview of mulch choices on Savvygardener.com. You may not want to hear this, but the best way to keep the weeds out of your garden is to pull them by the roots with your own two little hands (of the hands of your children).
Harvesting the vegetables that you grow
For a quick overview of when your veggies are ready to harvest, check out this chart from the Iowa Extension Service. This is just a general guide though, since each variety is different. The back of your seed packet will give you the most accurate information on harvesting.
Chances are, you’ll eat what you grow as soon as it’s ready to pick. That’s why you planted, it, right? But if your garden is large enough to grow more than you will eat during the season, invest in a small pressure cooker and learn to preserve your vegetables for eating during the winter months. Pressure cooking isn’t difficult, but does require proper knowledge to be done safely. Freezing is also another method of preserving your extra produce. It is important, however, to invest in quality freezer bags or containers to prevent freezer burn. For details on canning or freezing your vegetables, PickYourOwn.com is a great resource.
Finally, buy a few books for your gardening library. The computer is great, but it’s hard to bring out to the field. The Joy of Gardening by Dick Raymond is a great one to start with. Square Foot Gardening
is also a game changer for gardeners who have had trouble in the past.
A few video guides to starting a vegetable garden
Are you more of a video or audio based learner? No problem. Here are a couple of good videos about starting a vegetable garden. One is very short-but-informative, and the other is very comprehensive, depending on how much time you have.
Did we miss anything with this guide? Did you find it helpful? Leave a comment and let us know!