Ready to start a vegetable garden? We’re here to help. That’s why we’ve put together this Ultimate Guide to Vegetable Gardening for Beginners. In it, we’ll help you figure out which type of garden you want to plant, what you want to grow, and how to take care of those plants so that you get a great vegetable harvest at the end.
We’ve included lists of the supplies you’ll need and timetables for planting the most popular veggies, either in spring or winter. Whatever your level of experience with growing your own vegetables and gardening in general, this ultimate guide to vegetable gardening will answer all of your questions (and a few you didn’t even know you had).
Selecting the Best Vegetable Gardening Style for You
When is container gardening best for vegetables?
Container gardening is a good choice when you don’t have any good spots in the ground, like when you’ll be gardening on an apartment balcony or patio. However, there are some other circumstances that can make container gardening a smart choice.
HOAs, or homeowners associations, may allow container gardening in communities where other types of gardening aren’t allowed. HOAs are notorious for their love of the rulebook, and restrictions on gardening are no exception. That’s why if you live in a development where residents belong to a homeowners association, you’ll want to review the guidelines carefully to look for how they’ll impact your gardening plans.
Container gardens can save you some of the backbreaking work of traditional gardening. Container gardening also comes without some of the manual labor needed to maintain a garden with in-ground beds, such as tilling and weeding. Because of the reduced exertion a container gardening requires, people who experience chronic pain or find it difficult to stoop and bend for hours at a stretch may find this technique is the perfect way to remain comfortable and still enjoy all the benefits of a vegetable garden. If you don’t have enough time to devote to in-ground beds or a raised bed operation, container gardening can save precious minutes on these chores and make vegetable gardening possible for you as well.
Container gardens let you work with less than optimal soil conditions. Some would-be gardeners may find that the soil on their properties would require lots of treatment to be suitable for growing. Others may have land that’s hilly or lack the flat ground required to ensure their garden gets enough water. Or perhaps when you called 811 before digging, you learned that the spots on your property most suited for gardening have utility lines buried underneath them. In these cases, container gardening can be an excellent way to bypass the intensive labor that would be required to make other types of vegetable gardening work for you.
Container gardens let you move your plants whenever you please. The best thing about gardening in containers is that your plants are portable and can be rearranged or moved indoors whenever you wish. If you live in an extreme climate and may need to shelter your plants from inclement conditions, or if you will be moving during the growing season and want to take your plants with you, container gardening is a way to make vegetable gardening possible.
When should raised beds be used for vegetable gardening?
Raised beds are constructed above the ground, then filled with the perfect mix of soil for whatever you’re planting. That means that raised beds don’t depend on the quality of the soil in the ground like a standard garden. Raised beds offer more permanence and a more traditional look than container gardening while sharing many of the same benefits. Some gardeners choose raised beds simply because they like the neat appearance or the level of control they get over how their plants are raised.
Get a longer growing season for your vegetables with raised beds. Because they’re situated up out of the ground, the soil in raised beds warms up sooner in the spring than an in-the-ground plot would. That means using raised beds will sometimes let you plant your crops a little sooner than you’d otherwise be able to.
Calibrate growing conditions for your vegetables perfectly using raised beds. In addition to preventing the compacted soil that happens as the years go on when you have foot traffic in your garden, raised beds give you control over several other factors. Especially in warm areas such as the Southern United States, plants cultivated in raised beds will be healthier than those in traditional gardens as a result of the extra air circulation their root systems get in raised beds. Building your beds up off the ground and filling them with the soil mix of your choice will also allow you to raise crops that thrive in specific soil conditions that might not work for you if you planted directly into the ground because the soil is too sandy or has too much clay, etc.
Bypass problems with soil, such as drainage or pH, using raised beds. Because raised beds let you garden in a self-contained zone with clearly established borders, it’s a much simpler process to amend the soil where your veggies will grow (or simply aerate, mix, mulch, and level it to perfection if no amendment is needed).
Raised beds also drain more easily than in-the-ground beds if designed correctly, allowing gardeners to grow vegetables in locations that stay too moist to support a healthy garden with other types of beds. Raised beds can also help you make a home for a crop of delicious vegetables in places where gardening wouldn’t otherwise be possible, such as in a parking lot or on a steep incline.
Sometimes raised beds are simply the most convenient system possible. Gardeners who want to avoid the bending and stooping that’s part of life with in-ground beds often find that a garden in raised beds is easier to maintain control of—not to mention less of a chore.
Raised bed gardens almost never need to be tilled, and the enclosed area doesn’t require nearly as much weeding as a garden where plants are grown directly in the ground. Working within the restricted space also means your raised bed garden will be more efficient than other styles.
When are in-ground beds the best option for vegetable gardening?
Planting your vegetables right in the ground is the traditional option, and it’s what most people think of first when they consider starting a garden of their own. In-ground beds also don’t require the equipment and setup you may need to contend with before you can get started with a garden when you choose container gardening or raised beds. Let’s take a look at the conditions that mean in-the-ground beds will bring you a bountiful crop.
Planting in the ground makes use of rich soil that drains well. You may be one of those lucky gardeners whose property was blessed to come along with plenty of soil that’s perfectly suited to vegetable gardening. If the soil where you’ve planned your garden is flat, drains well, receives plenty of sun, and has the right pH balance and texture, there’s no reason not to put it to use.
It’s simple to keep plants hydrated when you opt for in-the-ground vegetable gardens. Sprinklers and other simple, cost effective irrigation systems work great for watering an in-the-ground vegetable garden. Freedom from complicated, pricey watering systems is a wonderful benefit. Raising your plants in a traditional garden also lets you avoid lugging around a watering can or hauling out the garden hose (followed, of course, by tangling, then untangling the garden hose) like you may need to on a regular basis if you plant some other types of gardens.
Planting vegetables in the ground can save you money. Put simply, using the soil that’s already on your property means you won’t need to purchase a soil mix like you will if you go with containers or raised beds. After testing your soil, you may find it’s simpler to amend or treat what you have than to bring in completely new material to plant in. Your garden will also dry out more slowly than the soil in containers or raised beds, meaning you’ll need less irrigation, subsequently saving on your water bill.
Choosing Your Vegetable Gardening Location
What do you want to plant?
Different plants have different requirements for direct sunlight and care. So you’ll want to plan your garden around the needs of the plants that you want to grow.
Beans, cucumbers, corn, eggplant, garlic, melons, peas, peppers, squash, and tomatoes do best in areas that get plenty of sunlight. While it’s possible to grow these vegetables in a spot that gets as few as six or seven hours of sun each day, if you want your plants to yield the best possible harvest, choose a location that gets eight to 10 hours of direct sunlight daily. (Basically, any fruiting vegetable needs this level of sun exposure so that the plants will be able to set fruit.)
Most non-fruiting crops, such as beets, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, collards, leeks, kale, lettuce, mustard greens, onions, spinach, Swiss chard, turnips, radishes, and rutabagas will do well in areas that get sun in the morning but enjoy an afternoon reprieve in the shade. As long as a place gets four or five hours of direct sun, you’re set up for success laying out your garden with these root vegetables, brassicas, or leafy green crops in that spot, although more sun will net you higher yields if you’re growing root vegetables.
In shady areas, your options for vegetable gardening are more limited. Your shade-loving options, luckily, are a delicious group that includes all kinds of leafy salad greens and a few other types of vegetables. You can turn areas that get just two to four hours of sun a day into your own produce section and see good results if you use them to grow arugula, Brussels sprouts, endive, kale, lettuce, mustard greens, spinach, and Swiss chard.
Now that you know how much sun your favorite veggies will require to flourish, you can start taking a look at the land you have available so you can decide where to place your garden. Some gardeners find it helpful to observe the area several times in the course of one day then map out a diagram of which areas of the yard are receiving sun at which times.
The sunniest spots will be those that are free of fences, trees, shrubs, or buildings nearby to block sunlight from reaching the soil. You’ll want to plant your vegetable garden at least 10 feet away from your house and anything else that would block the sun’s rays.
If you don’t wish to go that in-depth, there’s a lot you can tell just by making a quick visual assessment of your yard. You can trace the course of the sun over your property by standing facing south, with your left hand pointing east and right hand pointing west. Use your left hand to trace the sun’s arc up to its height at noon, then switch to use your right hand and trace its path to where it sets in the west. This trick lets you see any obstacles that will block the sun (by literally pointing them out with your finger).
If your garden doesn’t get enough sun, your vegetable plants will fail to thrive and produce a harvest. Plants use the sunlight to make the food that nourishes their cells and allows them to continue growing, so the fastest-growing crops need more light than those that are slower to yield results.
Deciding What to Grow in Your Vegetable Garden
For maximum success in vegetable gardening, you’ll need to choose the vegetables that are right for your garden plot. That means considering the type of garden you’ll have (in-ground, container, or raised beds), what flourishes in the type of soil your garden has, and which vegetables are hardy in your USDA growing zone.
You can determine your growing zone by checking the USDA map if you aren’t sure which zone you’re in. Then you’ll want to think about what vegetables your family enjoys eating. There’s no reason to put time and energy into a bumper crop of turnips if your family will be turning up their noses when they appear on the dinner table.
The Best Vegetables to Grow in Your Garden
Container gardening is suited to certain vegetables more than others, and you’ll see the most success in a container garden if you select vegetables that thrive in the small space of a container. Veggies that tend to do well in container gardens include artichokes, asparagus, pole beans or bush beans, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, celery, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, fennel, garlic, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, all types of lettuces and greens, okra, onions, lemongrass, parsnips, peas, peppers, potatoes, quinoa, radishes, shallots, spinach, squash, cherry and bush tomatoes, turnips, and zucchini.
Any vegetable that’s labeled as a space saver or has “bush” or “dwarf” in its name should be well suited for a container garden. Herbs of all kinds do well in containers as well, and a selection of herbs makes a practical addition to a container veggie garden. Mushrooms are grown in containers and make a fun and unique addition to the garden, producing tasty results that will be welcome in the kitchen alongside your homegrown vegetables.
Some crops are just easier than others to raise—they’re not as fussy and don’t require as much hands-on care. If you’re just trying your hand at vegetable gardening, choosing from this list of veggies we recommend for beginners is a simple way to amp up the results you’ll see from your garden. The easiest vegetables for beginners to work with include bush or pole beans, carrots, cucumber, garlic, lettuces and greens of all kinds, onions, radishes, shallots, spinach, summer squash, tomatoes, and zucchini. Grouping your plants and growing those with similar preferences in the same containers, as we describe in the next section on companion planting, will also help you make the most of your space.
Using Companion Planting in Your Vegetable Garden
Companion planting strategically groups your crops together for the benefit of the whole garden. Sometimes companion plants are placed together because as a team they maximize the nutrient mix in the soil, some partners make one another taste better or grow faster, sometimes companions are chosen because they ward off diseases neighbors are prone to, and sometimes they’re positioned to help attract beneficial insects to the garden or ward off pesky ones.
In short, plants make good companions when they balance one another’s strengths and weaknesses. The most example most of us are familiar with is “Three Sisters” planting, which combines squash, beans, and corn to maximize harvests. The information listed below covers the basics you should consider when you’re planning how to arrange the plants in your garden.
- Pair asparagus with tomatoes, parsley, and basil. Keep onions away from asparagus plants.
- Beans make good bedfellows with most other vegetables as well as herbs. Some gardeners recommend grouping them with carrots and squash. Bush and pole beans do especially well next to potatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, and cauliflower. Potatoes will help the beans by repelling Mexican bean beetles. Sunflowers planted with beans attract pollinating insects and provide some shade as well as giving the beans a vertical support to climb in search of the sun. Petunias, marigold, nasturtium, and rosemary make the garden pretty as well as warding off the insects that commonly plague beans. Pole beans should be planted well away from beets, cabbage, and tomatoes. Beware of alliums, such as fennel, garlic, leeks, onion, and shallot, as growing them too close can stunt the growth of both types of bean plants (as do beets for pole beans).
- Plant beets near onions or kohlrabi. Garlic grown by beets will improve their taste, but keep them away from pole beans, as the two plants stunt one another’s growth. Bush beans make good buddies for beets, though, as do lettuce and radishes.
- Plants in the brassica family, such as broccoli, kale, or cabbage, benefit from being planted near species that ward off cabbage worms. Those that fit the bill include chamomile, dill, mint, rosemary, sage, tansy, and thyme. Catnip, hyssop, rosemary, and sage can act as a repellent for the white cabbage moth. Chamomile and garlic as companions help make the most of brassicas’ growth and flavor. Corn, celery, cucumber, lettuce, and onions also grow well near brassicas. Cauliflower in particular enjoys the company of spinach but prefers not to grow near cabbage. Dill should also be kept well away from cabbage plants, and tomatoes or pole beans should not be grown near brassica crops. Onions planted near broccoli can help improve the broccoli’s flavor.
- Lots of companion plants help optimize the growth of carrots, such as chives, leeks, lettuce, onions, peas, rosemary, and sage. Chives also improve flavor, while rosemary, onions, and sage will fight the carrot fly. Tomato plants provide carrots with some much-appreciated shade since they’re sensitive to heat. Tomatoes also create solanine, which fights the insects that often affect carrot crops. Coriander, dill, and fennel create compounds that have a negative impact on carrots, so plant them a good distance away. Parsnips shouldn’t be planted too close, either, or they can fall prey to disease.
- To keep celery plants happy, add chives and garlic to keep away aphids. Nasturtium planted close by will also fend off aphids as well as other bugs. Other recommended bedfellows include bush beans, cabbage, onions, peas, spinach, and tomatoes. Do not plant celery near carrots or parsley.
- Corn needs plenty of nitrogen, so partner it up with peas, beans, and other nitrogen fixers. Marigold, rosemary, and white nasturtium will fight Japanese beetles. Summer savory keeps beetles at bay while also working to improve flavor and growth. Add pigweed to the mix to help pull nutrients up from the subsoil for corn plants to use. The traditional “three sisters” planting group partners up corn, beans, and squash, but really any shade-seeking plant makes a good companion for corn. Sunflowers, potatoes, or leafy greens will really benefit from the shade the corn plants provide. Avoid planting corn near beets and onions, which will impede its growth. Tomatoes should be avoided, too, as they can fall victim to corn earworms.
- Cucumber enjoys growing next to tall plants to give vines some room to spread out, so plant it next to corn or sunflowers. Marigold and radishes will help fight off beetles, while nasturtium fights bugs as well as improving size and taste. Oregano is a general pest repellent, and tansy will help fend off ants, beetles, and other flying insects. Aromatic herbs, such as sage, should be avoided as they will stunt the growth of cucumber plants nearby. Peas will amp up the nitrogen in the soil, which the cucumbers need. Don’t plant cucumber near squash plants, or you risk tempting pickleworms to invade your garden.
- When you grow eggplant, consider keeping marigold close by to fight nematodes. Gardeners recommend pairing eggplant with any kind of bush or pole beans in the garden. Plant eggplant away from potatoes.
- Lettuce can fall prey to slug infestations, but planting next to onions or mint can help keep slugs at bay. If you have trouble with aphids, try partnering lettuce with chives or garlic. You may also choose to pair lettuce with a leafy green that has a longer growing period, such as cabbage. Most herbs are good neighbors to lettuce plants. However, avoid parsley as a partner, or it may crowd lettuce plants too much.
- Peas are often called on to add nitrogen to the soil for plants that need lots of it. Adding some radishes to your pea plots will help keep bugs away, while chives fight aphids. Mint next to pea plants improves their taste and their wellness. Other companions for peas include spinach, beans, carrots, corn, and celery. Keep pea plants away from potatoes and allium plants, such as fennel, garlic, leeks, onion, and shallot, which can stunt their growth.
- Melons benefit from the pest protection of companion plants like nasturtium, marigold, and oregano.
- To maximize the growth and taste of onion crops, grow them near chamomile, sow thistle, and summer savory. Some gardeners recommend pairing onions with beets, tomatoes, squash, pepper, radishes, or carrots. Onions also do well interspersed with pigweed to help pull nutrients from the subsoil and make them accessible. Avoid planting them near asparagus, beans, or peas.
- Many gardeners grow peppers next to basil because basil fights off bugs and is also thought to improve the peppers’ flavor. Don’t plant peppers near beans to avoid vines creeping among your pepper plants.
- When you grow potatoes, plant horseradish at the corners of your potato patch as a repellent for potato bugs. Flax can also help reduce the potato bug population in the area. Don’t grow potatoes next to squash or tomatoes. Choosing beans as a partner helps out the potatoes by repelling Colorado potato beetles. Avoid planting squash near potatoes, which can incite a battle for resources.
- Pumpkins do well with insect repellent companions, such as nasturtium, oregano, and marigold.
- If you like your radishes on the spicy side, add chervil to increase their zippy flavor. Nasturtium is also a good companion for bountiful yield and improved taste. Beware of hyssop, which doesn’t make a good partner for radishes. You may choose to sprinkle your radish plants throughout the garden bed, because they’ll attract flea beetles, which will cause cosmetic damage to the leaves but leave the radish root unharmed.
- Spinach plants do well grouped together with chard and onions as well as slow-growing crops like tomatoes and peppers. Spinach especially benefits from the propensity of radish plants to attract leafminers to themselves and away from the spinach.
- See more success with squash plants when you add companions like marigold, nasturtium, and oregano to fend off insect infestations. Borage hones in to fight worms and also amps up the growth and taste of squash. Of course, the three sisters trifecta of corn, beans, and squash is a proven winner. Zucchini, eggplant, radishes, onion, and summer squash are proven partners.
- Tomatoes experience benefits in both growth and taste when they’re planted next to bee balm or basil. Onions are another good bedfellow for tomatoes. Borage will keep worms off tomato plants while simultaneously attracting insects to pollinate the tomato flowers. (Do note that borage can spread a little overzealously, so contain it well.) Bee balm, chives, mint, marigolds, radishes, and spinach are other recommended bedfellows. All types of herbs and lettuces do well when planted with tomatoes, and chives will prevent aphids. However, mature dill and kohlrabi should not be kept near tomato plants, as they will slow the plants’ growth. Planting tomatoes too near corn or potatoes can invite disease, and it’s also recommended that tomatoes keep their distance from cabbage, beets, fennel, peas, potatoes, and rosemary.
Which direction should your garden face?
Not all hours of sunlight are created equal when it comes to vegetable gardening. Morning sun will be better for your plants than afternoon sun, which can scorch and burn them before they produce. That’s why it’s also important to consider the direction your garden will face. The best spots for gardening will get their sun in the morning, receiving partial shade or some dappled shadows as the afternoon progresses.
In the Northern Hemisphere (that’s everywhere north of the equator), vegetable gardens should face south for best results. When that’s not an option, east- or west-facing gardens can also be successful when nothing blocks the light to the garden. Typically, plots of land that face north do not get enough sun to yield bountiful harvests. Make sure your plants receive the maximum sunlight available by setting their rows to run from north to south.
What about convenience?
After the major factors of sun, soil, and direction, there are a few other considerations that may come into play when you’re choosing the best spot for your garden. For example, how close is that spot you’re considering to the water hose? Dragging a water source across the yard may seem like no big deal now, but when you’re doing it for the hundredth time in the heat of summer, you may feel differently.
Your individual lifestyle will determine other convenience factors for you. If you have children who require supervision outdoors, can you see their play area from where you’ll tend your garden? Will the vegetables be close to the kitchen so it will be quick and easy to pop outside and grab a few as you’re cooking?
Some yards have their own quirks, such as steep inclines, tendency to flood, or water features. Those will mean you need to do a little extra research to learn how your vegetable garden will work best. However, as a general rule, a flat area with well-draining soil is required for vegetable gardening.
Is your selected garden spot safe?
One final thing to check before you start digging in your selected spot is whether or not it’s safe to do so. As the Common Ground Alliance Initiative explains, “There are millions of miles of buried utilities beneath the surface of the earth that are vital to everyday living, like water, electricity, and natural gas.” You want to ensure that digging for your garden won’t disturb one of those vital utilities for you or your neighbors by calling 811 during your planning stag to make sure your gardening plot is safe to dig in. It will also prevent potential damage to your property and keep you from having to pay fines associated with damaging these utilities.
Testing and Amending Your Soil
Once you’ve figured out how much sunlight your crops require, the other major element to consider is soil quality. You can do a simple test to determine the alkalinity, or acidity, of your soil, also called its pH level. Make sure to test all the different spots you’re considering for vegetable gardening, as the pH balance can span a wide spectrum even in a small area.
While home testing kits are available, your best bet is to contact your county extension office for information on testing pH balance in your soil. They’ll be able to tell you how to collect samples and how to get the testing process started. This professional testing will be more accurate than what you could do with home testing kits, so it’s especially important when you’re first testing an area. After you get the official readings, you can always use storebought testing kits to check in on your soil between harvests or after treatments.
The cooperative extension office will connect you with university experts who provide soil testing services either for free for for a small charge. There are 3,000 offices across the United States—in some areas, the county services are provided by consolidated regional offices. You can find the contact information for the cooperative extension service in your area either by checking the government section of your phone book, usually marked in blue. You may also use the directory on this National Institute of Food and Agriculture website to find your local office.
The pH balance in a garden can range from 1.0 (the most acidic) to 14.0 (the most alkaline), with 7.0 being the middle of the road, balanced between acidic and alkaline. A pH balance between 6.0 and 6.5 is best for growing vegetables, but you can see successful harvests with anywhere from 5.5 to 7.5.
Soil that is too acidic can be remedied with garden lime or calcium carbonate. You’ll want to add five to 10 pounds per 100 square feet, worked into the top few inches of soil at least a few months before planting. Soil that is too alkaline can be treated with aluminum sulphate, calcium sulphate, iron sulphate, garden gypsum, ground sulfur, or compost and other organic matter.
In addition to the numeric pH balance, most pH testing results will recommend soil amendment in the areas of nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium. You can add nitrogen to your soil with fresh manure in the fall or blood/blood meal, alfalfa, cottonseed, or soybean meal in spring. Rock powders such as rock phosphate, bone char, or bone meal add phosphorus to soil. Gardeners can add potassium with wood ash, granite dust, or greensand (glauconite) treatments.
Aside from your soil’s pH balance, you’ll also want to keep its texture at the optimum mix of sand, silt, and clay for vegetable gardening. The best mix to aim for is 20 percent clay, 40 percent silt, and 40 percent sand loam. There’s a simple test you can do with a mason jar to determine how your property’s soil scores. If you learn that your soil is overly silty or sandy, or that it has too much clay, you can select treatments to resolve those issues as well.
Preparing Your Vegetable Gardening Location
After learning about different types of gardens in the previous section, you should have an idea of whether raised beds, beds dug into the ground, or container gardening will suit your needs best. Depending on which setup your garden will follow, your next steps will vary.
For an in-ground garden, the most diligent gardeners begin their prep years ahead of time, but if you’re preparing for a garden this year, there’s plenty you can do to get your soil in good shape for growing vegetables. Though experts recommend preparing the soil and adding compost two years before you plan to grow vegetables, you’ll still see benefits from prepping your soil just a month before planting. However, keep in mind that an earlier start is bound to translate to better production for your vegetable crops.
For a spring planting, you can work your beds in the fall, or you can wait until spring. For springtime soil work, choose a time when the ground is moist but not muddy or wet. If you make a ball of soil in your hand and drop it from chest height, it should break apart when it hits the ground below.
Once you’ve selected the area for your garden, dig around the perimeter of where your beds will be. Use a shovel to create a six-inch-deep trench around the edge of the garden. Remove the top layer of dirt, and while you’re at it, remove any weeds, rocks, or other debris you find. If weeds have deep roots, you may need to pull them up by hand. You can compost weeds that have not gone to seed, but dispose of the rest far from your planting area. Now is also the time to use pH testing to check whether your soil is at the optimal level so you can make any needed amendments.
Using a rototiller, aerate the soil to a depth of 12 inches. You’ll want to use the rototiller inside the entire area you’ve outlined. While a rototiller makes this job quicker and easier, you can also use a shovel or garden fork to do this step by hand. Continue removing any rocks, weeds, or debris you find as you’re working the soil for your garden. Aerating the soil this way breaks it up so that the roots of your plants will be able to spread out more easily.
After your garden plot is aerated, now’s the time to add amendments such as compost, humus, or manure. Just position your bags of fertilizer over the newly aerated soil, evenly spaced. Then open the bags and spread it, using your rake. Work any amendments into the soil by using your shovel to break through the surface, going six inches deep, then turn the soil over to mix the fertilizer in.
Next, add your topsoil over the entire area where you’ll be growing vegetables. Follow the same process you used to incorporate the fertilizer into the plot you’re preparing. Make sure the ground in your new garden plot will be level. Then wait a few days to allow the soil to rest. Optionally, you may choose to turn the soil each day, but you do not need to do this if you’ve done a thorough job of mixing the soil already.
Right before planting, give your garden plot a deep watering. You want the top six inches of the soil you’ve prepared to feel moist, but don’t go overboard—you don’t want it to be saturated.
Container gardens require different soil depths depending on what you’ll grow there. For maximum success, use the following guide.
- Four to five inches: basil, coriander, chives, all kinds of greens or lettuces, radishes
- Six to seven inches: Asian greens, bush beans, garlic, kohlrabi, onions, mint, peas, thyme
- Eight to nine inches: carrots, chard, cucumbers, eggplant, fennel, leeks, parsley, peppers, pole beans, spinach, rosemary
- Ten to 12 inches: beets, broccoli, corn,dill, lemongrass, okra, potatoes, summer squash
- Up to 18 inches: Fruiting vegetables, such as peppers or zucchini, need plenty of room for their roots to stretch out to produce their best
The type of container you choose requires some consideration as well. Though popular, terra cotta pots are porous and dry out quickly, so they may require daily watering. Wooden containers can be a good choice if they’re available, but be sure they’ve been treated to be rot resistant. Metal can work well if you’re in a cool area, but in warmer climates, the metal can get too hot for plants to flourish. Synthetic materials, such as resin or fiberglass, tend to resist frost, keep in hydration, and are light and easy to move. Plastic, however, gets hot and dries out quickly. Hanging baskets are an option for some varieties of tomatoes and peppers.
Gathering the Recommended Tools and Equipment for a Vegetable Garden
Every gardener needs a set of tools to help them get the job done right. These are the basic tools that we recommend as well as other very useful additions you may want to include in your arsenal as needed. The first two lists (“the basics” and “the wish list”) apply to all types of vegetable gardens. If you’re using container gardening or raised beds in your vegetable garden, though, keep reading for equipment that’s specific to those methods after the first two lists.
The Basics—Tools Every Gardener Should Have in Their Arsenal
- Edging Spade
- Garden Rake
- Leaf Rake
- Digging Shovel
- Digging Fork
- Cobrahead Weeding Tool
- Clearing Tools
- Pruning Saw
- Hori Hori Digging Tool
- Garden Hose with a Multi-Pattern Sprayer
- Gardening Apron
- Gardening Journal
- Heavy-Duty Leather Gloves
- Washable Synthetic Gloves
- Latex-Coated Cotton Gloves
- Arm Protectors
For a container garden, you’ll need the following supplies at minimum.
- Containers of your choice: Ten-gallon containers or three- to seven-gallon containers are a good option.
- Potting Mix
- Slow Release Fertilizer
- Water Soluble Fertilizer
- Potting Mix
- Seeds or Seedlings for Your Plants
The Wish List—Other Useful Tools to Add as Needed
- EasyBloom Plant Sensor
- Compost Tumbler
- An Online Vegetable Gardening Planner
- Self-Watering Containers
Planting Your Vegetable Garden: A How-To
Deciding When to Plant Each Vegetable
A major component in raising a bumper crop of veggies is planning ahead and knowing exactly when to plant each type. The importance of sticking to the timeline is the reason people who plant their whole wish list of vegetables on a whim one Saturday in spring don’t see optimal results. Serious gardeners should have their calendars marked ahead of time with planting dates so they’ll be sure to sow seeds when the weather’s just right for delicate young plants. Not only that, but often each vegetable has a different schedule, so the best time to plant will vary by species. Make sure you’re prepared by reviewing the best timeline for planting—for each of the vegetables you’ll grow each season—with plenty of time to plan ahead.
Refer to this handy frost date calculator from The Old Farmer’s Almanac to forecast estimates for the first and last frosts expected in your location. All you need to do is enter your ZIP code in the search bar provided. Take note that there’s a 30 percent chance that the frost will arrive sooner in spring or later in fall than predicted by this tool. However, it’s based on the most up-to-date weather information possible, based on data collected at your nearest weather station that’s compiled by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.
Planting by the Moon
Some gardeners follow the practice of planting by the moon, which creates a timeline for when certain tasks should be done. They believe these practices work with the moon’s impact on moisture levels in the soil to result in more flavorful and bountiful harvests. Vegetables are divided into those that bear crops above ground and below the ground for this method, which is supported by plenty of anecdotal advice and folklore but has yet to be thoroughly tested by science.
Watering Plants in Your Vegetable Garden
Watering your garden sounds simple enough, but there is actually a right way to water—and doing it the wrong way can have serious consequences for your plants. Your vegetables need water to build their cells, make new growth possible, and provide stability. After all, plants are made of up to 90 percent water.
If you let your garden get too thirsty, your plants will wilt, fail to produce vegetables, and perhaps even die. Too much moisture can be equally detrimental, resulting in diseases such as root rot, promoting the snail and slug population, smothering the oxygen out of the soil, or causing vital nutrients to leach from your garden soil. You have to water your plants the correct amount, and you have to do it on a regular schedule—haphazard, erratic hydration will cause plants to bolt or produce a scanty harvest.
The hotter your area gets in the summer months, the more quickly you’ll see the effects of dehydration, and the more vital watering will be for your garden to thrive. In fact, if you water your plants in the heat of the day, the sun can heat the water until it scalds and damages your crops. Using water that’s too cool can shock plants and lead to damage as well, so let water sit a while so it’s lukewarm before you use it.
Watering during the hottest part of the day also encourages the moisture to evaporate, making more work for you and causing a higher water bill. That’s why the best time to water your vegetable garden is in the early morning. Watering after the sun goes down may intuitively make sense, but realistically, it can provoke diseases such as mildew and rust when the water sits against plants in the cool night air.
Many beginning gardeners are surprised at just how thirsty their vegetable gardens are. You want your plants to feel comfortable growing strong roots that plunge deep into the soil, not turning their roots upward to catch water that’s only available near the surface. Shallow watering leads to shallow root systems, and plants with shallow root systems require lots more watering and can even blow away in a forceful wind.
When you water your vegetable garden, the soil should be well hydrated to a depth of at least one foot. If you’ve skimped on preparing soil for your crops, it will be evident when you water. A soil that’s too sandy is prone to let moisture escape, causing plants to shrivel away. Soil with too much clay easily becomes waterlogged, which promotes other diseases and challenges.
Don’t simply set out a sprinkler and treat all the plants in your veggie plot equally, either. Refer to each plant’s care instructions for specifics on how much water they need. Some plants have varying hydration needs at different points in the season, such as beans, corn, peas, and potatoes, which crave moisture when they flower. Squash and tomato plants benefit from extra watering while they’re producing fruit. Leafy vegetables like lettuces and root vegetables, however, have the same moisture requirements all season long.
Container gardens will need to be watered on a more frequent schedule than in-ground beds, especially if your climate is particularly warm or windy. Make sure your plants are in containers that provide their roots enough room to do well. Choosing a container material that holds in moisture, like light synthetic pots, will keep your garden’s watering needs to a manageable level. Though they can be pricey, self-watering pots, watering mats, and drip watering systems can also make container gardening easier.
Whatever you’ve chosen to plant in, check the water level in your container garden daily by sticking a finger into the soil. If it feels at all dry, the plants need to be watered. Those in very hot places may find their container gardens need watering more than once a day.
Harvesting the Vegetables You Grow
The best part of planting a vegetable garden is when you finally get to use the fruits (er, veggies) of your labor. After the long wait between first choosing your plants and finally getting to harvest them, it’s an exciting feeling the first time you eat a salad made with plants you grew yourself or smell herbs percolating into a beauty product. Even cleaning and doing other chores is more fun and rewarding when you’re using cleaning products made from plants you grew yourself.
Before all the time and energy you’ve put into your vegetable garden starts to pay off in produce, though, you’ll need to harvest those veggies. Like anything else, there’s an art to plucking a tomato from the vine when it’s perfectly ripened in the sun or snapping an ear of corn off the stalk. Keep reading to learn when and how to harvest vegetables from your garden so you can make the most of all the work you’ve done so far this season.
When to Harvest Vegetables from Your Garden
Every variety of vegetable is different, so for the most reliable estimate of when you can expect a certain plant to bear produce, check the seed packet, (or, in plants purchased from a nursery or store, look at the label tag). Some gardeners keep a list on paper, mark a calendar, or make a chart to tell them how long each crop they’re growing takes to develop and when their vegetables were planted.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with these hard-copy references, but other gardeners prefer to use online tools or apps for their smartphone to track their harvest dates. Whether you download a gardening app, create a spreadsheet, or set alerts using Google Calendar, all that really matters is that you have a record of harvesting information.
And if you’re scratching your head over when to collect a harvest from a sandwich bag of mystery seeds you got in a swap or an envelope of heirloom seeds your grandmother tucked into an envelope for you, fear not. Gardening Channel has you covered with the list below. These are general rules for each type of vegetable you can use to estimate harvest times when your plants don’t come with information or you aren’t sure which variety you have.
Becoming an Expert: Additional Resources
This guide should have given you all the information you need to plan your garden and grow a harvest that would make any green thumb gardener proud. We’ve also given you guidance on how to best put the produce you grow to use. However, there’s always more to learn and more resources you can refer to if you want to really make the most of your hobby. Let’s take a look at some of the best resources out there and how they can work for you.