Beginner Vegetable Gardening Made Easy

Planting tomatoes or cabbage for the first time? We have all the information you need to know about how to plant a vegetable garden for beginners.

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Beginner vegetable gardening 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 vegetables from a container vegetable garden far exceed grocery store produce. By planting vegetables in pots, you enjoy the pleasure of savoring delicious, sun-warmed tomatoes fresh from your backyard. Plus, growing vegetables in containers and raised beds can be fun; it's a great way to get away and spend time outdoors in the sun. Our tips and tricks will help get you the best vegetable garden this season.

Check out tips for growing an organic vegetable garden.

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Deciding What to Plant

Deciding what to plant in a vegetable garden is easier than you think. If you plan it right, you can enjoy a beautiful container vegetable garden or raised bed vegetable garden without having to spend hours tending to it. When deciding what to plant in a beginner 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.

First think about how much you and your family will eat. Keep in mind 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.

Learn how to grow a plentiful container vegetable garden.

Determining How Much Space You Need

Once you know what you want to plant, figure out how to plant a vegetable garden for beginners with the right amount of space. You don't always need a large space to begin. If you decide growing vegetables in containers is your best option, you don't even need a yard—a deck or balcony may provide plenty of space.

Editor's tip: 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.

Your ultimate vegetable care guide.

Picking the Perfect Spot

Many gardeners like to have their potted vegetable gardens or raised bed vegetable garden 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 vegetable garden plants and herbs next to your grill. 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 six to eight hours of direct sun. The soil temperature depends on the sun to keep the vegetables going and resistant of insects and disease. Plant your raised bed vegetable garden in a place you know is exposed to light most of the day.

Editor's tip: If you don't have a spot in full sun, 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 drought-tolerant, you'll need to give them a drink during dry spells. When thinking about raised garden bed plans, remember 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 is rich in organic matter, such as compost or peat moss. The soil temperature is also vital to keep your vegetables alive and well. Utilize a soil thermometer to help track the soil temperature.

How organic matter helps your soil.

Planning Your Layout

How your plant your vegetables is important, and depends on the type of vegetables you are planting. 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 for beginners: 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 not getting as many warm-season vegetables in a small space—much of the soil is used for footpaths rather than vegetable plants.

Editor's tip: 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 raised bed 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 and building raised garden beds, remember this: 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, which divides the garden into small sunken beds (typically 4x4 feet), and subdivided into 1-foot squares.

See these vegetable garden layout tips.

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 a easy way to fix this problem. Build the 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 Raised Bed

After making sure your soil is in ideal condition, it's time to start digging. Utilize these steps before digging your new garden or building a new sunken bed from scratch.

1. Loosen your soil

Loosen your soil before growing vegetables in raised beds or sunken beds. You can either use a tiller or dig the bed 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. This is to assure the bed is in a proper place for your vegetables.

Easy tips to building raised garden beds.

Choosing Varieties

Once you start deciding what vegetables to plant in a garden, you'll probably notice the possibilities are endless. When selecting varieties of warm-season vegetables, pay close attention to the description. 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 from a garden center. The benefit of buying started plants is having a crop ready to harvest several weeks earlier than if you were to plant seeds in the ground. Starting warm-season vegetables indoors is easy, but does require some time and attention. Seed packages include instructions for starting seeds.

Cut your garden costs by starting seeds indoors.

Care and Feeding

Most warm-season vegetables appreciate a steady supply of moisture; about an inch of water per week is usually sufficient. 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. By planting vining crops, like green beans and peas, you make use of vertical space in the garden and boost yield per square foot.

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.

See our weed-identification guide.

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.

Learn how to compost at home.

Harvesting

Harvesting your vegetables is what gardening is 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. With many vegetables, the more you pick, the more the plant will produce.

Check out these harvesting tips for the freshest vegetables.

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.

Get garden pest control tips.

Deer and Rabbits

Other bigger pests, such as moles, deer, and rabbits, can disrupt your raised bed vegetable garden, even a potted vegetable garden. Use fences to deter rabbits. Make sure the bottom of the fence extends 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.

See how to get rid of moles in your garden.

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 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. This reduces the chance that pests will gain a permanent foothold in your garden.

Summer Insects

Pick off larger insects and caterpillars by hand. 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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