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How to Plant Your First Vegetable Garden

I've been growing vegetables for over 50 years now. I love sharing my advice and experience with others.

Learn everything you need to know about planting your first vegetable garden, including info on caring, feeding, pests, and diseases.

Learn everything you need to know about planting your first vegetable garden, including info on caring, feeding, pests, and diseases.

Vegetable Gardening for Beginners

Few experiences can match the pleasure of savoring a homegrown vegetable, especially if you raised it yourself from a seed or seedling. In almost every case, the flavor and texture of food you grow far exceeds the best grocery store produce.

Tending a garden is also a pleasurable activity in its own right, giving you an excuse to spend time outdoors in the sun.

Your first garden! Filled with excitement, the impulse to run out to the nearest nursery, load the minvan with plants, and just dig in is downright irresistible! But there are things you need to know before your get started. It doesn't have to be difficult or expensive or time-consuming, especially if you follow the advice in this guide. You'll soon discover, however, that experience really is the best teacher. As your knowledge grows, so will the rewards of this productive pastime.

This article covers the following topics to help you plan, plant, and care for your very first vegetable garden:

  1. Picking a site
  2. All about sun and shade
  3. Deciding what to grow
  4. Laying out your garden
  5. Digging your beds
  6. Seeds or seedlings?
  7. Care and feeding
  8. Pests and diseases
  9. Harvesting
  10. What you need to know when buying vegetable seeds
  11. Planting
  12. Everything you need to know about preparing the soil

1. Picking a Site

You don't need a large space. If you choose to grow in containers, you don't even need a yard. But you do need three critical elements to grow good vegetables:

  1. Sunshine: Choose a spot that gets at least six hours per day.
  2. Water: The closer your garden is to a source of water, the better it will be.
  3. Good soil (something between rock-hard clay and loose sand): Luckily, fixing bad soil isn't hard, as you'll read below.

2. All About Sun and Shade

All growing things, including shade-loving varieties, are dependent upon light. Sunlight is a critical component of the photosynthesis of the plant structure.

When designing your first garden, an awareness of where sunlight falls is a key factor in deciding which plants to select. Some thrive in full sun but others need partial shade to succeed.

So. the first step is to discover what exposure you have on your lot. This can be done very easily. Try waking up just before dawn one morning. Look out your windows and look for the direction the sun is rising in relation to your home. Since the sun always rises in the east, wherever the sun is is the eastern side of your yard. The western, or opposing side, will be the hottest area of your garden.

If you are still uncertain of your exact orientation, a compass can help you "map" out each area. In order to plan your garden wisely, this needs to be done before the next steps can be completed.

A northern exposure is generally the coolest or shadiest side of your lot. But, in hot climates, this doesn't mean you should just select any shade-loving plants. There are degrees of shade: dappled, partial, and deep shade, as well as "warm" shade. A hot climate would call for "warm shade" plantings.

Understanding the light elements of your new garden will increase your chances of creating a place of beauty and healthy growing life.

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Tomatoes are a great and easy-to-grow vegetable for your garden. Nothing really beats homegrown tomatoes!

Tomatoes are a great and easy-to-grow vegetable for your garden. Nothing really beats homegrown tomatoes!

3. Deciding What to Grow

It's tempting to try growing a large variety of vegetables. A better approach for a first-timer is to consider what you most like to eat, then narrow the list down to the easiest and most productive crops. Some of the most commonly grown vegetables include tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, peppers, snap peas, green onions, summer squash, and green beans. Vegetables that don't make the list include corn (too much room, too few ears), asparagus (requires waiting a couple of years for the first harvest), and green peas (too limited a growing season).

Garden catalogs are your best source of ideas. Once you choose which types of vegetables, pick two or three varieties that seem promising; by growing more than one variety of lettuce, for example, you won't be so disappointed if one doesn't perform well. Then next year, grow the best performer again, and choose another to try.

When selecting varieties, pay close attention to the description. Some varieties produce smaller plants that are ideal for small gardens or containers. Also look for varieties that are described as disease-resistant.

Great homegrown vegetables.

Great homegrown vegetables.

4. Laying Out Your Garden

There are two basic approaches to planning a layout:

Row Cropping

This means planting in single file with a walking path between each row. Row cropping works best for large gardens, and it makes it easier to use mechanical equipment like hoes and tillers to battle weeds. The downside is that it is a very inefficient use of land. Much of the soil area is used for footpaths rather than plants.

Intensive Cropping

This means planting in wide bands, generally 1 to 4 feet across and as long as you like. This approach reduces the amount of area needed for paths, but the closer spacing of the plants means that they must be cared for by hand. This isn't a problem with most home-sized gardens. Because of the handwork required, it is important not to make the bands wider than you can comfortably reach.

A specialized version of intensive cropping is the "square foot method" developed by Mel Bartholomew. This well-thought-out system divides the garden into small beds (typically 4 x 4 feet), that are further subdivided into one-foot squares. Each one-foot square is planted with one, four, eight, or 16 plants, depending on the size the plant will be when it's mature. Bartholomew's book, Square Foot Gardening, is the Bible for this method of gardening.

Whichever method you choose, start small. A 10 x 10 foot space is a good size for a first garden. Plan your garden on paper before you put shovel to earth. Allow at least 18 inches between rows or beds for easy access. As you sketch out your plan, place taller vegetables at the north side of the garden. This includes naturally tall plants— like standard-size tomatoes— and plants that can be grown on vertical supports, like snap peas, cucumbers, and pole beans.

It also makes sense to leave some areas unplanted at first. This allows you to plant a second crop to harvest later in the season. Lettuce, radishes, green onions, carrots, and bush beans are commonly planted several times during the season.

5. Digging Your Beds

If you choose to plant in the ground rather than in raised beds, you'll need to loosen (till) the top 6 to 12 inches of soil. Large power tillers can grind the sod into the soil. If you choose to dig by hand, you'll need to remove the sod instead. Use a sharp, straight-edged shovel to score the turf then pry up the sod. After the sod is removed, begin loosening the soil by digging and turning. Work small sections, breaking up large clods as you work.

Once the soil has been loosened—either with a tiller or by hand—spread your amendments (fertilizer, compost, etc.) and work them into the soil. This can be tough work if you do it by hand, but the more thoroughly you work the soil, the better your results will be. Avoid stepping on freshly tilled soil as much as possible. If you must cross a tilled area, use planks or pieces of plywood to distribute your weight. Otherwise, you'll be compacting the soil and undoing all your hard work.

When you're done digging, smooth the surface with an iron rake, then water thoroughly. Allow the bed to "rest" for several days before you begin planting.

6. Seeds or Seedlings?

Some vegetables can be grown only by putting seeds into the soil. Carrots and beans are two vegetables that require "directed seeding." You place the seeds at the recommended depth, water thoroughly, then wait for the plants to emerge. In most cases, you'll plant extra seeds to account for some not germinating, then thin out any extras after the plants are up and growing.

Many vegetables can be started early indoors or purchased already started from a garden center. The benefit of this approach is that you can have a crop ready to harvest several weeks earlier than if you start with seeds in the ground. Starting vegetables indoors is not difficult, but it does require some time and attention. Seed packages list the options you have for planting that particular seed.

Choose seeds or seedlings based on your growing preferences.

Choose seeds or seedlings based on your growing preferences.

7. Care and Feeding

Most vegetables like a steady supply of moisture, but not so much that they are standing in water. About an inch of water per week is usually sufficient, provided by you if Mother Nature fails to come through. Water when the top inch of soil is dry. For in-ground crops, that may mean watering once or twice a week; raised beds drain faster and may require watering every other day.

Weeds compete with your vegetables for water and nutrients, so it's important to keep them to a minimum. Use a hoe or hand fork to lightly stir the top inch of soil (cultivate) regularly to discourage weed seedlings. A mulch of clean straw, compost, or plastic can keep weeds at bay around larger plants like tomatoes.

Fertilizing your crops is critical to maximizing yields. Organic gardeners often find that using high quality compost at planting time is all their vegetables need. Most gardeners, however, should consider applying a packaged vegetable fertilizer, following the directions on the box or bag. Don't apply more than recommended, as this can actually decrease yield.

8. Pests and Diseases

Pests and disease are ongoing problems for most vegetable gardeners. Although specific problems may require special solutions, there are some general principles you can follow:

  • Use fences to deter rabbits. Make sure the bottom of the fence is firmly attached to the ground, or even buried a few inches into the soil.
  • Row covers—lightweight sheets of translucent plastic—can protect young crops against some insects. Row covers are also helpful to prevent damage from light frosts.
  • To reduce fungal diseases, water the soil but not the leaves of plants. If you must use a sprinkler, do it early in the day so the leaves will dry by nightfall. If a plant does fall prey to a fungus, remove it promptly and throw it in the trash; don't add sick plants to your compost pile.
  • Grow varieties that are listed as disease-resistant. Garden catalogs and websites should tell you which varieties are the most immune.
  • Pick larger insects and caterpillars by hand. Once you get over the "yuck!" factor, this is a safe and effective way to deal with small infestations.
  • Use insecticidal soap sprays to provide safe control of listed pests. Most garden centers carry these products. Whatever pest control chemicals you use, read the label carefully and follow the directions to the letter.
  • Finally, make it a habit to change the location of crops each year. In other words, if you grew tomatoes in the northwest corner of your garden this year, put them in the northeast corner next year. This practice, called crop rotation, reduces the chance that pests will gain a permanent foothold in your garden.