Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
Starting a vegetable garden can be a daunting task. There is so much to consider. Here some tips to ensure that your new vegetable garden will be a success both this growing season and in the growing seasons to come.
Choose a Sunny Location
Just like in real estate, location is the most important factor when starting a garden. Vegetables require full sun which means a minimum of 8 to 10 hours of sun each day. Choose a spot in your yard that is consistently sunny all day. Unlike flowers or shrubs which just stay small when they don't get enough sunlight, vegetable plants will not produce at all if they do not receive enough sunlight each day.
Check for Good Drainage
Once you have determined which part or parts of your yard gets a minimum of 8 to 10 hours of sun each day, you need to consider drainage. Vegetables do not like wet feet. They will rot and die if there is too much moisture in the soil. Make sure that the site you have chosen for your vegetable garden is not in a low-lying area or an area that collects water after a rainstorm.
Consider Raised Beds
Raised beds are a big help if your yard is wet or your soil is mostly clay or sand. A raised bed is simply a bed that is created by using lumber or stones to outline a growing area and then filling that area with rich soil. Most vegetables have shallow roots so the raised bed doesn't need to be very deep.
Raised beds have the added advantage that the soil warms up sooner in the spring so your cool season crops will have a head start in the spring.
A Soil Test is a Must
Before you plant anything,do a soil test. The best time to do this is in the fall. By adding amendments to the soil in the fall rather than in the spring right before you plant, you are giving them a chance to spread throughout the area so that the nutrients are easily accesssible to all of the plants in your garden.
Don't waste your money on the cheap soil test kits offered for sale in the big box stores. They are not accurate and only test for a very few minerals. Purchase a soil test kit from your local agricultural extension office or through your local Master Gardener organization. These kits come with instructions on how to properly sample your soil. You will then be sending your kit off to a soil lab.
The soil lab will analyze your soil and send you a report detailing the nutrients and minerals present or absent in your soil and recommend the appropriate amendments to optimize your soil for whatever type of garden you are planning. You won't get that from a store bought kit!
After you have chosen the area of your yard that will become your vegetable garden, it’s time to consider size. Remember, the larger your garden the more time and effort you will have to devote to weeding, harvesting and other maintenance.
If you are a first time vegetable gardener, it is better to start out small and gradually expand your garden each year. If you start out with a large garden, the upkeep may be overwhelming and discourage you from growing vegetables again. In a smaller garden, it is easier to keep up with weeding and harvesting.
I recommend that you just plant 2 to 3 small beds the first year. Then each subsequent year, add 1 or 2 more beds until your garden reaches the maximum size that you can comfortably maintain. Helpful hint: it will never be big enough for everything that you want to grow. It happens to me every year.
Spacing is Important
Now it’s time to get out your seed catalogs. What do you want to grow? Make a list of everything you want in your dream garden and then get ready to pare your wish list down. How many of each plant do you want to grow? How much space does each of those plants require?
Pay close attention to spacing between your plants. Too little space will prevent them from growing and bearing fruit. It can also prevent good air circulation which can lead to insect infestation and disease such as downy mildew.
Too much space will allow weeds to take hold. Weeds compete with your crops for water, nutrients and sunlight. You can keep down the number of weeds using a thick layer of mulch, but the larger your garden, the more mulch you will need to purchase and spread throughout the garden. It can become very expensive and time consuming.
Don’t get discouraged if your wish list exceeds the amount of space you feel is reasonable to start. You can create more space in your garden by growing upwards. Peas, beans, cucumbers, small gourds and pumpkins can be grown on trellises or tepees. The foot print of the supports will be much smaller than if you grew those sprawling vines on the ground.
Don’t forget to leave space for paths so that you can get into your garden to weed and harvest. Paths should be a minimum width of 18 to 24 inches or wide enough to get a wheelbarrow through. They can be paved or unpaved.
Attract Beneficial Insects
Vegetables aren’t the only things you will be growing in your garden. Make sure you have space for herbs and flowers to attract beneficial insects. Beneficial insects fall into two categories. Pollinators, like bees, are critical to the success of your vegetable garden. Without pollination, you will have no vegetables. The second kind of beneficial insects are insects that prey on other insects that damage or destroy your vegetables. Both kinds of beneficial insects love plants with tiny flowers such as those found on herbs which is why I grow my herbs in my vegetable garden rather than in a separate herb garden.
Birds eat large quantities of insects so you want to make your garden a welcoming place for them. A source of water such as a birdbath and nesting areas such birdhouses or nearby trees and shrubbery will make your garden and yard attractive places for birds.
Now that you have decided what vegetables, herbs and flowers you will be growing, it’s time to think about the layout of your garden. It’s best to think of it in terms of areas, rather than rows so that it will be easier for you to practice crop rotation. The same crops should not be grown in the same place each year. That will lead to disease specific to the crops grown in that area as well as harmful insects overwintering in that area that will awaken in the spring and destroy your crops.
You should divide your crops into families, legumes (peas and beans), cucurbits (squash and cucumbers), solenaceae (tomatoes and peppers), and everything else. Plant crops in the same family together and then rotate those areas each year. Making a map of your garden each year makes it easier to remember what you planted where the previous year so that you aren't planting the same family in the same place. Within each area be sure to plant the tallest plants or trellises on the north side to prevent them from shading the other plants.
Keeping Wildlife Out
The last consideration in planning your garden is wildlife. Deer are a huge problem here in New Jersey. All gardens must be fenced to prevent them from grazing. Deer can jump up to 8 feet from a standing start, so an effective deer fence must be at least 8 feet high. Woodchucks are another common problem. They will burrow under fences so it is recommended that a barrier of chicken wire or concrete blocks be sunk at least 2 feet into the ground to discourage them. Barrier methods are not effective against small rodents like chipmunks and squirrels. Most gardeners employ hot pepper sprays to discourage them from eating their crops.
If you are growing berries, investing in nets is a must. Cover your berry bushes with nets while the fruit is ripening to prevent birds from eating all of the fruit before you can harvest it.
Creating a garden plan may seem complex with so many elements to factor in, but a well-designed garden will reward you with fresh vegetables for years to come.
© 2014 Caren White
Caren White (author) on May 19, 2014:
Thanks, Patsybell! I find that I need a break once in a while from gardening to cool off, maybe get something to drink. Breaks are a great time to read hubs.
Patsy Bell Hobson from zone 6a, SEMO on May 19, 2014:
Great read. Gardeners everywhere are out gardening. I wonder who is reading our post. Helpful information. Up, Tweet, Pin.
Caren White (author) on May 19, 2014:
Trellises, tepees and hanging baskets all provide more space. Have fun!
Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on May 18, 2014:
I am doing a raised garden this year but thanks for the idea to grow things on trellises cause I have run out of room already! ^
Caren White (author) on May 18, 2014:
Thanks for reading!
Caren White (author) on May 18, 2014:
Purl, you don't have to wait until next spring. You can prepare your garden late in the summer and plant cool season crops like lettuce. Hmmmm...sounds like I need to write another hub!
Ashley Giddens on May 18, 2014:
Love it. Thanks for the post
Demas W Jasper from Today's America and The World Beyond on May 09, 2014:
Suggestion: Go to "Sproutit" on the web and see if you think that is as good a helpful site as I think it is.
Donna Herron from USA on May 09, 2014:
Thanks so much for all this information! I really would like to put a vegetable garden in our yard. But every spring, it slips down on the list of things to do. Pinning this for next year's WILL DO list :) Voted up! Great hub!
Caren White (author) on May 08, 2014:
Thanks for the suggestion, Perspycacious!
Demas W Jasper from Today's America and The World Beyond on May 08, 2014:
A quick read of good, basic points. There are garden planning tools available on the web, and you might add a few links of those to what you have presented here.