How to Plant Your First Vegetable Garden
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.
Your First Vegetable Garden
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:
- Sunshine: Choose a spot that gets at least six hours per day.
- Water: The closer your garden is to a source of water, the better it will be.
- Good soil (something between rock-hard clay and loose sand): Luckily, fixing bad soil isn't hard, as you'll read below.
Let's Learn 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.
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.
Laying Out Your Garden
There are two basic approaches to planning a layout:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With many vegetables, the more you pick, the more the plant will produce.
This is what it's all about, so don't be shy about picking your produce! Many vegetables can be harvested at several stages. Leaf lettuce, for example, can be picked as young as you like; snip some leaves and it will continue to grow and produce. Summer squash (zucchini) and cucumbers can be harvested when the fruit is just a few inches long, or allowed to grow to full size. The general rule: if it looks good enough to eat, it probably is. Give it a try. With many vegetables, the more you pick, the more the plant will produce.
What You Need to Know When Buying Vegetable Seeds
There are so many seed options, it can be hard to know what to choose and from whom to purchase. Because there are so many online vegetable seed companies to pick from, the choices can be overwhelming.
And if the snow is piling up outside, it may be hard to believe that spring is coming, but trust me it is. Here in North Carolina, I have greenhouses so I'm planting almost year round. Even in winter, you can be going through seed catalogs and picking out what you want to plant the coming year. If the ground can be worked, you can be preparing the soil for the coming planting season.
Buying vegetable seeds online can be a very good choice. Many companies do not package their product ahead of time, which helps the seeds stay fresh longer. Likewise, many stores will ship the next day so you are guaranteed quick and fresh delivery. Online, you will find a very large selection of seeds that you may not be able to find at your local store. Even greenhouses or nurseries cannot provide a comprehensive array of options. If you are looking for that rare organic tomato seed, chances are you can find it online.
Most online vegetable seed companies offer some type of warranty. Some say that if a seed does not produce within a certain time frame, they will refund your purchase price or replace the item. This is the most common type of warranty you will come across. Other guarantees say that they will refund your money if you are not satisfied for any reason. Regardless, make sure you understand the terms before you buy.
Prices are usually fairly comparable, but check a few things before you purchase. See how much you are really getting. Some sites may be cheaper, but they may be selling a lighter weight. Also be aware of the quality of the seeds. For example, heirloom seeds produce the best-tasting tomatoes. There are a lot of different types of the same vegetable. Be sure you are comparing the exact same vegetable or you will not be making an accurate comparison.
Have an idea of the type of vegetables you would like to plant. Do you want an eclectic collection of classics and exotics? Are all organic vegetables your thing? Or do you just want an old fashioned vegetable garden with the cooking staples? Whatever you choose, you can find a company that will cater to your preferences. Just go on the internet and search for seed catalogs.
Make sure that you patronize a reputable vegetable seed company. If you are unsure about where to start, ask your friends where they get theirs. If you know someone in the neighborhood who has a great garden, ask them if they have any recommendations. Another way to get tips is to join an online gardener's chat group. Gardeners are always willing to help someone who is looking for advice.
Starting a vegetable garden can be an immensely rewarding experience. Have fun with yours, but don't forget the things we talked about. They can save you time and frustration later on.
Planting your first vegetable garden is always an exciting event. Visions of red, ripe tomatoes, crunchy green peppers, and sweet, sweet corn dance through your imagination. And nothing tastes better than hot, buttered summer squash with a dash of salt and pepper.
- Sun: In order to fulfill the promise of each tiny seedling, a little planning is necessary. Vegetables have very particular sun/shade needs, along with individual soil conditions. The first thing you need to learn is how much sun each veggie requires.
- Growth habits: Some vegetables are indeterminate and sprawl all over the place, bearing multiple crops. Cucumbers, squash, melon, and vining tomatoes fit this category. The indeterminates can be staked or trained up fences and trellises to save room. Under ideal conditions, they can be prolific bearers, so it’s important not to overplant. Determinate plants are much bushier in their growth habit and only bear one crop. This makes them ideal for small spaces or containers. Bush tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and certain melons fit this class of plant.
- Soil requirements: Prepare the soil in the beds ahead of time. Be certain all rocks, debris, and weeds are removed. Using black plastic as a mulch around cucumbers and melons helps keep wet soil away from leaves and helps speed ripening. Once the bed is prepared, lay the plastic down and cut openings to place the plants in. Cucumbers are very prone to mildew from wet leaves, so this method really helps. See the section below about preparing the soil.
- Water needs: Always water new starts as soon as they are all planted to get them off to a healthy start. I recommend feeding them with fish emulsion to help them establish better. If you don't let them dry out or become weed-choked, you will have bigger, healthier plants.
Everything You Need to Know About Preparing the Soil
Here, we'll cover all aspects of building great garden soil, from understanding pH to learning about different soil types, amending, composting, and side dressing.
This is the true key to having a great garden. Taking the time to analyze and understand your soil composition will give you valuable tools four maximizing your production. If you are a new homeowner, facing a bare lot, this becomes especially crucial. Think of the lot as an empty palette, just waiting to be filled with bright color and texture.
- Before doing anything else, remove all debris and rake smooth.
- Any weeding should be done before the soil adjusting gets started.
- Using a level, look for low spots. These need to be filled in to avoid swampy, boggy areas. Use only sterile topsoil for this purpose, because you don’t want to introduce soil-borne disease or pests.
- Once the leveling is done, and necessary drainage created, you can then begin to work your soil. A rototiller is a gardener's best friend. Even a small yard will benefit from the aerating and loosening these machines provide. The Troy Built or Mantis tillers are compact, easy to use, and help prevent back strain by doing the heavy work for you.
- Use the tiller in stages: The first week, make several passes through the soil to begin the loosening process. The following week, add your chosen amendments and till in again, making several passes. You will feel the soil resistance begin to lessen as you go through the garden over and over again.
- The third week, remove any large clods, stones and debris. Run the tiller through again. Stoop down and feel the soil. If it has reached a good, earthy texture, you are ready to begin planting. If it is still not right, go through the soil with the tiller again a few times. Rake the area smooth, water lightly to dampen, and you are ready to go.
Evaluating Your Soil
What type of soil do you have? Is it adobe? Too sandy? How can you tell? Pick up a handful in your hand and squeeze it lightly together. Feel the texture as you're doing this. Is it heavy and cold? Does it feel gritty or sandy? Now open your hand and release the soil. Does it fall apart completely? Does it remain in a hard cold clump? Answering these questions will tell you what type of soil you are dealing with.
Ideally, your soil should be slightly crumbly. It should hold together when gently squeezed but come apart easily. This is the good earth we all dream of and work so hard to achieve. Simply tossing bags of premixed soils on top of the underlying soil isn’t the solution.
Heavy clay soil is the bane of a gardener’s existence. With its tough, seemingly impenetrable nature and its tendency to compact and choke off roots, it can cause real problems in the garden. There are several degrees of clay, from the adobe-like concrete that is next to impossible to work with to a lighter clay, which benefits from amending. If you have a true concrete type clay that softens very little, even with watering, raised beds are the perfect solution.
Lighter clay soils benefit from products like GreenSand or gypsum that work to break it up. Using a rototiller and working it over and over again, then adding amendments like peat, compost, and garden sand will help bring it close to ideal. You can rent tillers from local equipment centers.
Is Your Soil Acid or Alkaline?
We expect a lot from our gardens, including beautiful, prolific blooms and bountiful harvests. Yet how many of us really stop to consider the soil? Do you know anything about your own dirt? Is it acid or alkaline? Peaty, sandy, or clay? Why are these questions important? Because a plant's growth depends on the health of your soil.
Understanding your soil pH will help you become a much more confident and successful gardener. How do you get this type of information? You can buy home soil testing kits. These are very reasonably priced, starting at under $20.00. Once you have one in your hot little hands, you need to take random samples from different areas of your property. Here is a quick overview of how you go about this:
- Remove any loose organic matter in the top one-inch of the soil.
- With a spade or hand trowel, take samples 6-7 inches deep.
- Do this in six locations for every 1000 to 2000 sq. ft.
- Mix these samples in a bucket and use about 1-2 cups for testing.
These kits generally consist of a test tube, some testing solution, and a color chart. You put a sample in the tube, add a few drops of test solution, shake it up, and leave it for an hour or so to settle. The solution changes color according to the pH of your soil. Compare the color of the sample with the color chart that came with the kit to determine the pH range of your sample. The better kits will also include advisory booklets about how to interpret your results.
Now that you have a fairly good idea of what the pH is, you can begin to amend the soil to suit your particular planting needs.
If your soil’s acidity is too high, adding dolomite or lime will bring it back into a more alkaline state.
To acidify alkaline soil will require adding garden sulfur to sour the soil. Plants that thrive in an acidic environment include gardenias, azaleas, rhododendrons, pines, raspberries, and many tropicals. They may also benefit by feedings with an acidifier like Miracid, at least once a month.
Sand is great for beaches and deserts, but in our gardens it can spell real trouble to plants. Soil that is too loose drains so fast that water never reaches the roots. As a result, the plants die off very quickly. So, unless you are a big fan of desert plantings, some adjusting needs to be done to correct this problem.
One way to tell if your soil is too sandy is by feel. It will have a gritty texture that is very different from the loamy, earthy feel of ordinary garden soil. It will not hold together after compacting, but immediately falls apart.
In order to provide a firm anchor for plants and create a moisture-retentive environment, certain elements will need to be added to firm up the earth. This recipe will give you a firm, healthy soil that will continue to improve over the next two to three years. For every 100 sq. feet of garden, add:
- 20 cubic feet of organic compost
- 2 lbs of bat or seabird guano
- 2 lbs of rock or superphosphate
- 10 lbs of gypsum or lime
- 2 lbs of Greensand
- 2 lbs of kelp meal
This should be spread over the garden or planting areas and tilled in 6" to 8". Once this is done, the garden is ready to plant. In about two to three months, add 3 lbs of alfalfa meal, digging it in to the first 6” of topsoil. You should begin to notice earthworms tunneling through the dirt. If not, buy them and release them to work their magic. You should see an improvement in your soil within the first year. By the third year, you will have the garden soil you want. The soil will be rich in texture, dark in color, and will hold moisture very well.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.