Growing your own vegetables is fun and educational for the whole family — and it can save you money, too. If you’re new to backyard farming, where do you begin? Follow our guide to the basics of starting, maintaining and harvesting a vegetable garden. You can feel confident in your potential results even if you think you have a black thumb. After all, who among us hasn’t killed a plant or two?
Choose your plot
Before you do anything else, you’ll need to select the piece of land where the vegetable garden bed will live. Ideally, it’ll be a sunny patch of your yard with some afternoon shade if you live in a particularly hot area of the country. Most veggies require six to eight hours of direct sunlight daily. (Don’t we all?)
Another factor is the condition of the soil. It should have good drainage and be free of rocks. That’s not necessarily a dealbreaker, though. You can simply remove any rocks and till the soil to resolve that issue. Does your soil consist of sand or clay? Add organic matter like compost or manure.
Finally, think about where your nearest water supply is. It could be a garden hose, sprinkler system or other irrigation source. Keep in mind that you might need to rearrange your sprinkler system or move your plot.
Measure and sketch
Now that you’ve picked your plot, draw it out on paper and measure the space. Beginners should stick to a 10-foot x 10-foot area if you’re planting in the ground. Raised beds should range from four feet by four feet to four feet by eight feet. You don’t want to bite off (or plant) more than you can chew.
No matter the size of your gardening bed, plan for clear paths every four feet to enable you to weed and harvest your crops without treading on the soil.
Prepare the soil
Get your garden plot ready for your veggies by breaking up the dirt and loosening the soil with a shovel, spading fork or cultivator.
Rake the bed and get rid of anything that shouldn’t be in it, including weeds, grass, roots and rocks. These will all interfere with your plants’ growth. Who wants that?
Use a hoe to blend in fresh garden soil. You can buy it pre-made or mix your own garden soil. It should consist of 60 percent topsoil, 30 percent compost and 10 percent potting soil, which is made up of peat moss and either vermiculite or perlite.
If you’re planting in raised beds, your soil preparation will simply entail filling the box nearly to the top with bagged soil and raking it so that you have an even surface. A shovel like AMES long handle round point floral shovel works well in raised garden beds.
Select your vegetables
Some vegetables are more beginner-friendly than others. A few options for new gardeners include:
- Green beans
- Hardy greens like kale, chard and spinach
As you review this list, think about how you cook and what you and your family likes. You don’t want to waste effort and money harvesting vegetables that will end up uneaten. Also, inquire with your local extension service, an organization that provides educational resources to people who want to learn more about gardening. You can also ask neighbors with thriving landscapes and gardens what they recommend growing in your area. The climate and plant diseases common to your part of the country are a couple of factors to consider.
Marigolds are always a good addition to a vegetable garden. They enhance the look of it while repelling pests and attracting pollinators.
Decide if you want to start from seeds or plants. You’ll save money if you go with seeds but young plants will save you time. Read the instructions on your seed packets to ensure that they’ll survive and thrive where you plant them.
What time of year you plant your veggies, whether from seeds or plantings, will vary. Vegetables that thrive in cooler weather, such as lettuces and peas, should be planted in early spring or fall. Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers prefer warmer soil, so plant them in late spring or summer.
Place taller plants on the north side of your garden to avoid blocking lower plants from the sunlight. Some of the taller plants will benefit from an armature or trellis to support them.
If you choose young plants, use a garden trowel to create holes in the soil where you’ll place the plants. The holes should be twice as deep and twice as wide as the plants’ containers. Generally speaking, give each plant a berth of two to three feet from its neighbor. Once you’ve put the plants in their holes, cover them with soil and lightly tamp the soil around them.
Unless you have a large family or intend to share your harvest with your friends and neighbors, think about the timing of your plantings. High-producing crops like lettuce will likely yield too many heads for you to eat at once, so you might want to plant a few seeds one week and hold off on planting more until a couple of weeks later. This way, you’ll have fresh produce over a longer period of time and none will go to waste.
Water and maintain
Water immediately after planting and then again when the soil is dry to a half-inch depth. Adjust your sprinkler system, if need be, to automate your garden’s irrigation. Travel frequently or just forgetful? Invest in a smart timer, which will only irrigate when the soil is dry, to ensure your plants are getting watered properly and avoid wasting water.
You’ll probably water two or three times per week. Ideally, do this in the late afternoon or early evening. Be careful to wet the roots only and not the rest of the plants. Digging shallow furrows in a V shape between rows and pouring water into the furrows will make it easier for the water to reach the deeper roots. Some plants prefer other methods. For tomatoes and peppers, create rounded banks around them to construct a depression where water can collect. Summer plantings, such as beans and squash, will do well within individual squares of soil. Use a rake to build these structures that will serve as natural basins and protection from the elements.
Maintaining your garden takes more than just watering. You’ll also need to keep an eye out for invaders — weeds, animals and pests.
Remove weeds as soon as you spot them. They’re much harder to deal with once they’ve fully taken root. A layer of natural mulch will help prevent weed growth from even happening.
Insects and animals will be as tempted to eat your freshly grown vegetables as you are. Watch for evidence of these pests so you can be proactive. Use non-toxic repellents or make your own insecticide from eight ounces of vegetable oil and one tablespoon of dish soap. Blend the ingredients well and drop in a couple of teaspoons of fragrant oil.
You can make safe animal repellent as well. Open your pantry to get the hottest hot sauce you have and pour one ounce of it into your blender along with four ounces of your dish soap and a cup of aromatic leaves that deter animals. Marigold leaves work well for this. Add a cup or two of water, puree the mixture and then strain it. Put it into a spray bottle with more water and mist it on your garden weekly or after it rains. Keep the bottle in the refrigerator.
Other methods for pest and animal control include fencing, wire covers, netting and plant tents.
The most exciting part of planting a vegetable garden is when your hard work comes to fruition and it’s time to harvest! Pick vegetables when they’re still tender. This will encourage the plants to continue producing, and you’ll enjoy the best tasting crops. Cut leafy veggies about two inches from the ground. Harvest root vegetables when they’re large enough to eat.
Prepare for next season
A vegetable garden is a year-round undertaking with different phases each season. To keep your garden growing, follow these steps after harvesting is done for the year.
Spread another layer of compost — two inches’ worth — each year.
Rotate your crops annually to maintain a healthy soil bed.
If your first planting went well, think about enlarging your garden plot for the following year.
Stock your gardening shed with tools and hoses to get ready to start your vegetable garden.Shop for gardening tools