How to Plant a Vegetable Garden

Planting tomatoes or cabbage for the first time? We have all the information you need to know about how to plant a vegetable garden. Let's get started!

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Starting a vegetable garden at home is an easy way to save money. Planting one tomato plant can provide you with 10 pounds of fruit over the course of a season. In almost every case, the flavor and texture of varieties of homegrown vegetables far exceed grocery store produce. By planting vegetables, you enjoy the pleasure of savoring delicious, sun-warmed tomatoes fresh from your backyard. Plus, growing vegetables can be fun. It's a great way to spend time with children or to get away and spend time outdoors in the sun.

Learning what to plant in a garden with vegetables, and how to tend them for the best harvest, is easier than you think. If you plan it right, you can enjoy a beautiful garden full of the fruits of your labor without having to spend hours and hours tending it. Planting a garden that includes vegetables and flowers means you've combined natural companions, and turned a potential eyesore into an attractive landscape feature.

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Deciding What to Plant in a Vegetable Garden

When deciding what to plant in a vegetable garden, it's best to start small. Many gardeners can get too excited at the beginning of the season and plant more warm season vegetables than they need. A number of vegetables tend to be high-yield.

When you're planning a vegetable garden, first think about how much your family will eat. Keep in mind that vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, and squash keep providing throughout the season—you may not need many plants to serve your needs. Other vegetables, such as carrots, radishes, and corn, produce only once.

Determining How Much Space You Need

Once you know what you want to plant, you can figure out how to plant a vegetable garden with the right amount of space.

You don't always need a large space to begin. If you choose to grow your vegetables in containers, you don't even need a yard—a deck or balcony may provide plenty of space.

Remember that it is important to keep your growing space healthy. A well-tended 10x10-foot sunken bed vegetable garden will usually produce more than a weed-filled or disease-ridden 25x50-foot bed.

Picking the Perfect Spot

No matter how big your vegetable garden or what you decide to plant, there are three basic requirements for success:

1. Full sun

Most warm-season vegetables need at least 6-8 hours of direct sun. If they don't get enough light, they won't bear as much and will be more susceptible to attack from insects or diseases. The soil temperature depends on the sun to keep the vegetables going.

Here's a hint: If you don't have a spot in full sun to plant a garden with vegetables, you can still grow leafy vegetables like lettuce and spinach. And if you're in a hot-summer climate, cool-season varieties such as peas may do better in part shade.

2. Plenty of water 

Because most vegetables aren't very drought-tolerant, you'll need to give them a drink during dry spells. When thinking about how to plan a vegetable garden, remember that the closer your garden is to a source of water, the easier it will be for you. This is especially important when planting tomatoespeppers, or any other warm-season vegetable.

3. Good soil

As with any kind of garden, success usually starts with the soil. Most vegetables do best in moist, well-drained soil that's rich in organic matter, such as compost or peat moss. The soil temperature is also vital in keeping your vegetables alive and well. Utilize a soil thermometer to help track the soil temperature.

Many gardeners like to have their vegetable gardens close to their house. This makes it easier to harvest fresh produce while cooking. It can also be handy to keep a few favorite potted herbs or vegetables next to your grill.

How to Design and Plan Your Vegetable Garden

There are two basic approaches to planning the layout of a vegetable garden:

Row Cropping

This is probably what comes to mind when you think about how to plant a vegetable garden: Place plants single file in rows with a walking path between each row. Row cropping works best for large vegetable gardens, and it makes it easier to use mechanical equipment, such as tillers, to battle weeds.

The downside of row cropping is that you don't get as many warm season vegetables in a small space—much of the soil is used for footpaths rather than vegetable plants. Row cropping isn't as visually interesting, either.

Here's a hint: Allow at least 18 inches between rows so you have plenty of room to work between them. As you sketch out your plan, place taller vegetables at the north side of the garden. This includes naturally tall plants like tomatoes and plants that can be grown on vertical supports—including peas, cucumbers, and planting beans.

Intensive Cropping

This way of planting a vegetable garden means grouping in wide bands, generally 1 to 4 feet across and as long as you like. Intensive cropping reduces the amount of area needed for paths, but the closer spacing of the plants usually means you have to weed by hand.

Because of the handwork required, remember this: It is important not to make the bands wider than you can comfortably reach.

Intensive cropping also allows you to design your vegetable garden, making it a good choice, for example, if you want to grow vegetables in your front yard. It's a great solution for mixing vegetables with ornamentals as well.

A specialized version of intensive cropping is the square-foot method. This system divides the garden into small sunken beds (typically 4x4 feet), that are further subdivided into 1-foot squares. Each 1-foot square is planted with one, four, nine, or 16 plants, depending on the size of the plant when it matures.

It also makes sense to leave some areas of the garden unplanted at first. This allows you to plant a second crop to harvest later in the season. Lettuce, radishes, green onions, carrots, and green beans are commonly planted several times during the season. Planning out your vegetable garden, with help from our free vegetable garden plans and utilizing helpful vegetable garden tips, will guide you in deciding which method to use.

Testing and Fixing Your Soil

It's best to test your soil before you begin planting a vegetable garden.

1. Soak soil and dig

Soak the soil with a hose, wait a day, then dig up a handful of soil to test.

2. Squeeze the soil hard

If water streams out, you'll probably want to add compost or organic matter to improve the drainage. Testing the soil temperature will also help in determining drainage.

3. Open your hand

A couple things could happen:

  • If the soil hasn't formed a ball, or if the ball falls apart at the slightest touch, the soil is probably too sandy. Add organic matter to improve sandy soil.
  • If the ball holds together even if you poke it fairly hard, you have too much clay in your soil. Organic matter improves clay soil, too.
  • If the ball breaks into crumbs when you poke it, like a chocolate cake, rejoice! Your soil is ideal.
  • If your soil doesn't drain well, your best bet will probably be to install raised beds as opposed to sunken beds.

Here's a hint: Build raised beds on existing lawn by lining the bottom of frames with several layers of newspaper, then filling with soil. That way, you don't have to dig!

Digging Your Beds

Utilize these steps before digging your new garden or building a new sunken bed from scratch.

1. Loosen your soil

Loosen your soil before you plant a garden with vegetables. You can either use a tiller or dig by hand.

2. Spread out soil

Once the soil has been loosened, spread out soil amendments, such as compost, and work them into the soil. Avoid stepping on freshly tilled soil as much as possible. Otherwise, you'll be compacting the soil and undoing all your hard work.

3. Smooth surface

When you're done digging, smooth the surface with a rake, then water thoroughly. Allow the bed to rest for several days before you plant.

4. Test soil temperature

Test the soil temperature with a soil thermometer to assure it is a proper place when planting your vegetables.

Choosing Varieties

Once you start deciding what vegetables to plant in a garden, you'll probably notice that the possibilities are endless. There are thousands of tomato varieties alone!

When selecting varieties of warm season vegetables, pay close attention to the description on the tag or in the catalog. Each variety of vegetable will be a little different: Some produce smaller plants that are ideal for small gardens or containers; others offer great disease resistance, improved yields, better heat- or cold-tolerance, or other features. Utilizing our plant encyclopedia will help you in your decision. 

Seed catalogs are one of the best sources for vegetables. Once you narrow your choices to types of vegetables, pick two or three varieties that seem promising—if one variety doesn't perform well, you'll have other plants to make up for it. Next year, grow the best vegetables again, and choose another to try.

Many warm season vegetables can be started early indoors or purchased already started from a garden center. The benefit of this buying started plants is that you can have a crop ready to harvest several weeks earlier than if you were to plant seeds in the ground. Starting warm season vegetables indoors is not difficult, but it does require some time and attention. Seed packages include instructions for starting seeds.

Care and Feeding

Most warm season vegetables appreciate 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 vegetables 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 than sunken beds 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, or cultivate, the top inch of soil 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 vegetables is critical to maximizing yields. Organic gardeners often find that digging in high quality compost at planting time is all their vegetables need. Most gardeners, however, should consider applying a packaged warm season vegetable fertilizer, following the directions on the box or bag. Don't apply more than recommended as this can actually decrease yield.

By using vining crops, like green beans and peas, when planting a vegetable garden, you can make use of vertical space in the garden and boost yield per square foot.

Harvesting

Harvesting your vegetables 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; it will continue to grow and produce after you snip some leaves. Summer squash (zucchini) and cucumber can be harvested when the fruit is just a few inches long, or it can be 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.

Stopping Pests and Diseases

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

Deer and Rabbits

Other bigger pests, such as moles, deer, and rabbits, can disrupt your garden. Use fences to deter rabbits. Make sure the bottom of the fence extends about 6 inches under the soil to stop rabbits from digging underneath. The fence needs to stand at least 8 feet above the ground to prevent deer from jumping over.

Spring Insects

Row covers, which are lightweight sheets of translucent plastic, protect young crops against many common insects. Row covers are also helpful to prevent damage from light frosts.

Fungal Diseases

  • Reduce fungal diseases by watering the soil, not the leaves of vegetables. If you use a sprinkler, do it early in the day so the leaves will dry by nightfall.
  • If a vegetable falls prey to a disease, 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 offer the most protection.
  • Make it a habit to change the location of your plants each year. In other words, if you are planting tomatoes in the northwest corner of your garden this year, put them in the northeast corner next year. This reduces the chance that pests will gain a permanent foothold in your garden.

Summer Insects

Pick off larger insects and caterpillars by hand. Once you get over the "yuck" factor, this is a safe and effective way to deal with limited infestations.

Use insecticidal soap sprays to control harmful bugs. Most garden centers carry these products. Whatever pest control chemicals you use, read the label carefully and follow the directions to the letter.

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