Beginner Vegetable Gardening Made Easy
Planting tomatoes, carrots, or cukes for the first time? If you're a novice, you’re in luck. We have all the vegetable gardening tips you’ll need to plan, prepare, plant, and maintain a successful garden.
Vegetable gardening at home is an easy way to save money while you get up close and personal with nature. Planting one plant ($3 to $5), for example, can provide 10 pounds of tomatoes over the season. Growing tomatoes from seeds saves you even more money. You’ll also be happy to know that the flavor and texture of garden-grown vegetables exceed standard grocery store produce. Dig into our tips and tricks to get the best vegetable garden.
What Size Garden Should You Plant?
If you’re a beginner, start small. It’s better to be thrilled by what you produce in a small garden than be frustrated by the time commitment a big one requires. Plus, it makes sense to learn gardening basics before investing tons of time and money in this new hobby. You’ll get a feeling for how much time gardening takes. You’ll find out if you like spending time outside planting, watering, and weeding. You’ll learn how much produce you and your family can eat over the course of a summer.
A good size for a beginner’s vegetable garden is 10x10 feet, about the size of a small bedroom. Keep it simple. Select up to five types of vegetables to grow, and plant a few of each type. You’ll get plenty of fresh produce for your summer meals, and it will be easy to keep up with the chores. If 10x10 feet seems intimidating, you can go smaller (the veggies won’t mind) or consider growing vegetables in containers. With them you don't even need a yard; a sunny deck or balcony work fine.
Editor's Tip: A well-tended 10x10-foot vegetable garden will usually produce more than a weed-filled or disease-ridden garden that measures 25x50-feet.
Which Veggies Should You Plant?
What do you like to eat? How you answer will tell you what you should plant in your vegetable garden. Before you pick up your shovel, though, consider the following:
- Productivity: Think about how much you and your family will eat and how likely you are to freeze, can, or give away excess produce. Then be realistic about how many seeds or plants you need to put into the ground. (Many beginners make the mistake of planting too much.) Vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, and squash keep providing throughout the season, so you may not need many plants to serve your needs. Other vegetables, such as carrots, radishes, and corn, produce only once.
- Successive crops: Planting both cool- and warm-weather vegetables will give you a harvest of vegetables and herbs continuously through the spring, summer, and fall. In early spring grow lettuce, greens (such as arugula), peas, radishes, carrots, and broccoli. After you’ve harvested your cool-weather crops, plant hot-weather favorites, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and herbs. In fall, you can harvest potatoes, cabbage, and kale.
Pick the Best Spot for Your Garden
Choose thoughtfully. If you plant your garden at the back of the yard, you may overlook droopy plants that need water, destructive pests, and produce that’s ready to pick. That’s why lots of gardeners locate their vegetable gardens close to the house. The short distance makes it easier to harvest fresh produce or pick a handful of herbs while cooking in the kitchen or outside on the grill.
You also need to consider the movement of the sun during the course of a day. Position your garden from north to south to get maximum sun exposure; when plants are positioned from east to west they tend to shade each other.
No matter where you put your garden or what you decide to plant, there are three basic requirements for success: sun, water, and soil.
Plan the Right Amount of Sun
Like all plants, vegetables need the sun to kick-start photosynthesis. This process transforms light energy into glucose, which plants use to make substances such as cellulose (for building cell walls) and starch (a food source). The fastest-growing vegetables need what is called full sun—at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight a day–without blockage from trees, shrubs, or fences. That’s why you won’t have much success if you plant sun-loving vegetables in shady spaces.
If your yard provides partial shade, plant vegetables and herbs that like those conditions (lettuce, kale, chard, spinach, chives, cilantro, parsley, and thyme) or switch to container gardening. That way you can place sun-loving vegetables and herbs (tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, peppers, peas, beans, corn, and squash; basil, dill, and rosemary) where they’ll get enough sun. Root vegetables like carrots, radishes, and beets need at least 3 to 4 hours of sun a day to thrive.
Provide Plenty of Water
Watering wisely is key to garden success, especially in warm, dry regions. During the first few weeks after seeds germinate or seedlings are transplanted, watering keeps plants strong. Deep watering encourages roots to grow deeper in the soil, where they’re better protected.
Weather conditions and the composition of your soil determine when you should water. Clay soil dries out more slowly than sandy soil. Sunny, windy conditions dry out soil more quickly than cool, cloudy weather. Still not sure? Feel the soil 3 to 4 inches down from the garden/container surface. If it feels dry, it’s time to water.
Editor's Tip: The closer you place your vegetable garden to a source of water, the easier it will be for you to handle this chore.
Start Plants in Rich Soil
For the best harvest, give your vegetable garden the best start with rich soil. Rich, healthy soil is something you know when you feel it: It’s easy to dig and drains well.
If it’s not clear which type of soil you have, send a sample to a state-certified soil-testing lab for help. But you can also investigate soil type yourself by examining its texture. Pick up a trowel's worth and put it in your hands. Does it feel gritty? Too much sand. Is it powdery? Too much silt. Is it harsh when dry, and sticky when wet? Too much clay. The combination of these three types—and in which specific proportions—determines the texture of your garden soil. That texture affects drainage and controls the availability of nutrients.
You want soil that is dark, crumbly, and literally full of life. Fortunately, no matter what the texture may be, all soil can be improved over time by incorporating organic matter into it. Take sandy soils, for instance. They're made up of large soil particles, so water and nutrients run through gaps relatively quickly. Adding organic matter (typically compost) to sandy soil helps it retain both moisture and nutrients for plants to use.
Clay soils are just the opposite. They contain very small, densely packed particles that hold moisture but don't allow much air space for plant roots. Compost helps separate those tiny clay particles so water can drain more freely and plant roots can get needed oxygen.
After making sure your soil is ready to go, get ready to plant using these steps.
- Loosen the soil: Use a tiller or dig with a spade or shovel to loosen garden soil.
- Feed the soil: Spread soil amendments like compost and work them into the soil. Avoid stepping on freshly tilled soil or you’ll compact it and undo all your hard work.
- Smooth the surface: Smooth the surface with a rake, then water thoroughly. Allow the bed to rest several days before you plant so the soil amendments can do their work.
Planning Your Vegetable Garden Layout
Choose either row cropping or intensive cropping when you plan your vegetable garden’s layout.
Place plants single file in rows at least 18 inches apart so you can walk easily between them. This approach makes the most sense for large vegetable gardens because rows make it easier to use mechanical equipment, such as tillers, to battle weeds. The downside is that space set aside for footpaths cuts down on the number of vegetables you can plant.
Editor's tip: Tall plants generally do well on 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. Save money by making your own A-frame trellis for growing vegetables.
Boost your garden’s productivity with intensive cropping, which means that you space two or three plants close together in a bed about 4 feet wide (aka a wide row). Seeds are sown or transplants are placed so that their leaves will barely touch at maturity. This approach, which uses almost every square inch of the prepared soil, works well for most types of vegetables, excluding the ones that vine (such as cucumbers). The downside of this method is that you have to weed by hand because the plants grow so close together.
The square-foot method, in which you subdivide a raised 4x4-foot garden bed into 1-foot squares using a physical grid (such as lattice strips), is a specialized version of intensive cropping. You’ll need 8 cubic feet of top-quality garden soil to fill such a bed with 6-inch-high sides. The planting formula is simple: 1 extra-large plant per 1x1-foot square; 4 large plants per square; 9 medium plants per square; and 16 small plants per square. Mix and match at will.
Editor's Tip: No matter how much you hate to weed, make it a priority. Weeds compete with vegetables for water, nutrients, and light. Keep them in check, especially early in the season.
Testing and Fixing Your Soil
Without ideal soil conditions, your vegetables will suffer. Before you start planting, it is best to test your soil. No soil-testing kit on hand? You can manually test your soil in three easy steps:
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
If the soil hasn't formed a ball or falls apart at the slightest touch, the soil too sandy. Add organic matter to improve sandy soil. If the ball breaks into crumbs when you poke it, like a chocolate cake, your soil is in ideal condition. If your soil doesn't drain well, your best bet will probably be to install raised beds as opposed to sunken beds.
Editor's Tip: Building raised garden beds is an easy way to fix this problem. Build the raised beds on the 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.
Choosing Vegetable Varieties
When selecting which vegetables you want to plant, pay close attention to the description on the seed packet, tag, or label. Each variety of vegetable comes with specific benefits. Some produce diminutive plants ideal for containers or small gardens. Other varieties offer better disease resistance, improved yields, or better heat- or cold-tolerance. Utilizing our Plant Encyclopedia will help you decide. Ask greenhouse or garden-center staff if you’re still unsure.
You may want to try two or three varieties of the same vegetable. If one variety doesn't perform well, you'll have other varieties of the same vegetable to make up for it. Then be sure to plant the best-performing vegetables the following year, and choose other varieties to try.
Seeds vs. Transplants
Decide whether you want to start vegetables from seed or purchase young plants from a garden center. If you’ve decided on seeds (e.g., peas, beans, squash, lettuce, mesclun mix, beets, or radishes), note that most annual vegetables should be started indoors about six weeks before the last frost in your region. Some plants—such as carrots, beans, and peas—can be sown directly into the garden. Check the seed packages for directions or look here for instructions for starting seeds.
You might prefer to buy seedlings from a nursery or garden center and transplant them into the garden. This method works best for slow-growing plants such as broccoli, celery, and kale. Note that transplants will mature sooner and give you an earlier harvest than starting plants from seed. Because they’re stronger when put in the garden, transplants also do a better job of resisting pests during the growing season.
Caring for Your Vegetable Garden
After putting all that effort into planning, preparation, and planting, it would be a shame to let the garden wither away over the course of the summer. Follow these steps to keep your garden going strong.
Stop Weeds in Their Tracks
Weeds compete with your vegetables for light, 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.
Feed Your Future Food
Fertilizing your vegetables helps to maximize yields. Organic gardeners often find that adding high-quality compost at planting time is all their vegetables need. Other gardeners might consider applying a packaged warm-season vegetable fertilizer according to the directions on the box or bag.
Resist Pests and Diseases
Some problems require special solutions, but in general, follow these guidelines.
Keep Animals Out
Big pests, such as deer and rabbits, can disrupt vegetable gardens of all types. It takes an 8-foot-tall fence to keep deer from jumping into the garden. A fence needs to extend 6 inches beneath the soil to stop rabbits from digging their way in.
Deter Destructive Insects
Picking off large insects and caterpillars by hand (and dropping them into a bucket of sudsy water) is a safe, effective way to deal with limited infestations. For bigger quantities of insects, try insecticidal soap sprays that you can find at most garden centers. Whichever pest-control chemicals you use, carefully follow the manufacturers’ directions.
Fight Fungal Diseases
Reduce the likelihood of fungal diseases by watering the soil, not the leaves of the plants. If you use a sprinkler, do it early in the day so the leaves will dry by nightfall. If a plant falls prey to a disease, promptly pull it and throw it in the trash; don't add sick plants to your compost pile.
Additional disease preventatives include growing vegetable varieties listed as disease-resistant and changing the location of your plants each year. The latter idea helps stop diseases from gaining a permanent foothold in your garden.
Harvesting your vegetables is what gardening is all about. Many vegetables can be harvested at multiple times during the growing season. Leaf lettuce, for example, will continue to grow and produce after you snip some of the tender, young leaves. Summer squash (zucchini) and cucumber can be harvested when the fruit is a few inches long or larger.
The general rule: If it looks good enough to eat, it probably is. With many vegetables, the more you pick, the more the plant will produce.