What You Need To Know Before You Start Your First Vegetable Garden
If I could go back 5 years and read this post before getting my hands in the soil for the first time ever, it would have saved me a huge amount of time, effort, and money. With several years of experience now under my belt, I can at least give you enough advice to help get you started off on the right foot, and hopefully avoid many of the costly mistakes I made.
Do I have all of the answers? I don’t think anyone can ever have all of the answers when it comes to plants. But the best teacher is experience, and experience has been my only consistent teacher throughout the years. So hopefully what I’m about to share will be of some benefit to you newbies.
Let’s start with the why. Why did I want to raise my own food, and why do I think you should also?
I’ll make my explanation simple:
- You know exactly what you’re eating when you’ve raised your food yourself.
- Supplementing your groceries with homegrown produce will save you a ton of money.
- Gardening teaches children (and some adults!) where our food actually comes from, and breeds a sense of appreciation for what we have. There are many life lessons to be derived from gardening.
- There’s an incomparable excitement and satisfaction that comes from going outside and plucking a meal out of the earth.
- When you’ve toiled and labored over growing your food, you’re much less likely to waste it.
- You can raise hundreds of pounds of food every year for the price of a few packs of seeds.
- Contrary to the illusion most of us are accustomed to, you might not always be able to depend on having a stocked grocery store to feed yourself and your loved ones.
- It takes practice, so it’s best to start now!
More about why you should garden:
- You Must Learn How To Garden NOW!
- Why Food Is More Precious Than Ever To Me
- How To Prepare For Empty Store Shelves
Where’s The Best Place For Your Garden?
Every situation is different, but I firmly believe anyone can grow something no matter where they live.
Here are a few key factors for positioning a successful garden:
- You really want to plant your garden somewhere with at least 6 hours of sunlight. If you get less than this consider planting shade loving crops, such as herbs and leafy greens.
- The South-facing side of the house gets the most sun.
- Don’t plant a garden somewhere where there’s often standing water in the yard, unless you’ll be building raised beds to absorb the sogginess. Yes, plants need water, but they can drown if you give them too much.
- Plant close to your house to begin with, then extend further away as your garden grows. The old adage, “Out of sight, out of mind,” easily applies to gardens, and weeds can take over in just a matter of days. Try to keep your plants where you can see them from a window or door.
- Don’t forget to position your garden somewhere close to a water source. Make sure your water hose can reach your garden beds, or you have some means of watering your plants otherwise.
- If the sunniest place in your yard is on a slope, consider terracing it with raised beds.
More about where to raise edibles:
How Big Of A Garden Should You Plant?
If you are brand new to gardening, I would highly recommend that you start fairly small. Especially if you are easily discouraged or overwhelmed. Start with a few potted herbs or tomatoes, and work your way up to a small garden bed. Several raised beds might be a good start if you’re feeling motivated. Or, you can do like we did and till up a 30×50 plot and go crazy.
The size of your garden really depends on a few things:
- How much of your food do you want to grow? Do you want to supplement your grocery shopping or replace it entirely?
- How many people do you plan on providing for?
- How much space do you have?
- How much are you physically able to handle?
Remember, you can always start small and add on as you go. The number one thing I would caution you against would be getting in over your head and becoming discouraged to the point of giving up. It’s better to have one small, well managed garden bed that produces abundantly, than a huge neglected plot that is overrun with weeds and produces miserably.
You might also check out– How Much Should I Plant To Feed My Family For A Year? (Granny Miller left a helpful link in the comments section there as well.)
Choose A Gardening Method
Once you’ve decided that you are going to give gardening a shot, and you’ve determined where you want to place your garden, the next consideration you need to make is which method of gardening you’d like to try. It may even be a combination of methods.
There are quite a variety of ways to grow your own food:
- Traditional Rows- require good soil and a tiller or plow
- Lasagna Gardening- building beds over existing ground out of compostable materials
- Raised Beds- built out of wood, rocks, cinder blocks, railroad ties, or other materials and filled with good soil/compostable materials
- Square Foot Gardening- planting in blocks instead of traditional rows
- Container Gardening- planting in buckets, tubs, etc; especially great for gardening on patios or decks
- Hugelkultur- building raised beds by covering rotting wood, sticks, logs, and branches with soil and planting in it (the decomposing materials break down over time and add nutrients to the bed)
A simple online search will bring up lots more information on all of these gardening methods. There are also many good books on each subject as well, so consider which might be the best fit for you. Don’t be afraid to mix things up and experiment with different gardening methods until you find the right one(s)!
Currently, I am combining three of these methods in my garden. I have raised beds, fill the lasagna gardening way, and planted using square foot gardening. You do what works best for you, or experiment until you find what you like best.
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Keeping Critters Out Of The Garden
If you live in the city, you might have problems with dogs, cats, or even wild animals digging in your garden beds. If you live in the country you’ll definitely have animals to deal with.
You Might Need A Fence Around Your Garden If…
- Deer come onto your property
- Rabbits are seen in your yard
- You already have a problem with dogs digging in your flower bed
- You have a certain neighbor who you know would just help themselves otherwise
If you’re trying to keep deer out of your garden you’ll need a fence at least 4 ft. tall. Yes, they can jump over this if they’re really intrigued, but I’ve found that our 4′ fence has served as a great deterrent. Since installing it, we haven’t had a single plant bothered by deer or rabbits. Some people hang strips of brightly colored material or old CDs around the perimeter of the garden to scare wild animals away. I don’t know if this works or not, but old time gardeners I know swear by it.
We have chosen to surround our garden with 4 ft. welded wire fencing, using metal stakes every 10 ft. and a 4×4 wooden post every 20 ft, concreted in. You want a fence that doesn’t have holes large enough for small rabbits to get through. Some sources recommend burying the fence a foot or so to keep animals from digging under, but we’ve never had an animal dig underneath the garden fence here.
If Moles Or Other Ground Critters Are A Problem…
- Build raised beds and line the bottoms of them with hardware cloth
- Plant in containers
- Get a good mousing cat
My biggest problem right now is our cats using the raised beds as litter boxes, digging up bunches of plants as they go. The best way I’ve found to discourage this behavior is by mulching thickly- which you really ought to do anyways. They particularly don’t like trying to dig in thick woodchips.
What You Should Grow First
It’s incredibly easy to go absolutely wild buying seeds for your first garden. Cracking open a seed catalog can have the same effect as letting a child loose in a candy store. We’ve all done it. But try not to get too crazy buying the “fun” varieties or things you don’t typically eat. Instead, make a plan.
Plants That Belong In Your First Garden…
- Foods that you regularly buy and eat anyways
- Your favorite herbs
- Crops that grow well in your planting zone (climate)
- Cool weather crops in the Fall/Winter, warm weather crops in the Spring/Summer
Before planning your first garden, learn your Planting Zone. When you buy seeds or plants there will be information there that tells you which zone the plant grows well in- make sure it’s suited for your zone.
Don’t go crazy buying exotic stuff or plants you wouldn’t normally cook with. It has been my experience that much of that stuff goes to waste as I have no idea what to do with it or I end up not even liking it.
What Do You Want To Do With Your Harvest?
How you ultimately plan on using your harvest also determines what you should plant.
- Do you want slicing tomatoes, or paste tomatoes? Amish pastes and Romas are best for making sauces and canning with.
- Do you want slicing cucumbers or pickling cucumbers? Pickling cucumbers are smaller and have less seeds and water content than their slicing versions, and are better for pickling and making into relish.
- Do you plan on keeping root crops in cold storage? Red and yellow onions are better keepers than white ones.
These are just a few things to keep in mind when choosing which varieties you’d like to grow.
For more information, check out:
Should You Buy Seeds or Plants?
When planning your first garden, you have two options: start plants from seeds or buy them from a nursery ready to transplant. There are pros and cons to each.
I’ll give you a quick pros/cons list to skim over here. For more detailed information check out my article on Starting Seeds vs. Buying Plants.
Pros/Cons of Starting Seeds:
- More variety to choose from
- Cheaper than buying plants
- If you buy heirlooms you can save seeds for next year
- Swap your extra seeds with friends
- Learning to raise plants from seed breaks your dependence on someone else to grow them for you
- Takes more time to nurture plants from seed
- You need space to grow your plants indoors or in a greenhouse/cold frame
- More materials and equipment needed to grow from seed (containers, seed starting mix, grow lights)
- Chance of plants dying before you can transplant them
- You’ve got to calculate the right time to get the seeds started depending on when they need to be transplanted outdoors (before last frost, after last frost, etc.)
Pros/Cons of Buying Nursery Plants:
- Save time buying plants ready to go in the ground
- Doesn’t require space to house plants for weeks
- No extra materials or equipment needed
- You don’t have to worry about the seedling dying before it’s ready to transplant
- Timing is a no-brainer. Just buy the plants when you’re ready to plant them.
- Plants are much more expensive to buy than seeds
- Limited variety to choose from
- Most nurseries only sell hybrids (which means you can’t save seeds)
- You’re depending on someone else to raise your garden for you to a certain degree.
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Understand The Characteristics of Your Plants Before Planting Them
How your plants like to grow and what conditions they prefer will determine where and how you plant them, so take some time getting acquainted with their individual personalities.
Some Questions To Ask Your New Plants…
- Are they perennials or annuals? Perennials will come back every year, and need to be planted somewhere permanent. Artichokes, Asparagus, Strawberries, and many herbs are perennial. Annuals need to be re-planted every year. Annuals also need to be rotated to a different spot in the garden each year to reduce pest problems.
- Are they determinate or indeterminate plants? Determinate plants will grow into a bush and won’t spread. Indeterminate plants tend to vine, and need to be trellised, staked, or otherwise controlled.
- If they’re perennials, do they spread and come back in places you didn’t want them? Anything in the mint family will take over every inch of your garden in a heartbeat. These types of plants must be potted in a container or else planted WAY away from anything else you wanna grow.
- Do they prefer full sun or partial shade?
- What type of soil do they prefer?
- How much spacing between plants does it require?
- Are they cool weather or warm weather crops?
- Can they tolerate frost, or should you use row covers?
- How many days to maturity? If you live in a short season climate you might not have a long enough growing period for the plants to get to maturity and yield a harvest.
- Are there certain plants your plant doesn’t like being next to? Are there certain plants that help your plant grow better? (Read my article on Companion Planting for more details.)
Other tips along these lines…
How To Start Plants From Seed
If you’re choosing to grow some or all of your garden from seed, you’ll need to know how to get those seeds off to a great start. Some plants need to be started indoors several weeks before transplanting into the garden, while others do much better when sowed directly into the garden bed.
Some Plants That Do Best Direct Sowed…
- beans (including green beans)
- root crops
Most other crops need to be started indoors to get a jump start on the season and to have the plants ready to put in the ground at the appropriate time.
How To Start Plants From Seed…
1. Gather containers to start your seeds in. They need to be at least 2 in. deep, and have drainage holes in the bottom. I use well-washed yogurt cups, and nail 2-3 pencil sized holes in the bottom for drainage.
2. You’ll need Seed Starting Mix to fill your containers.
3. Fill your containers with Seed Starting Mix, and water them thoroughly with filtered or well water (city water can kill them). Allow to drain if the soil is over-saturated. You want it moist, not flooded.
4. Plant your seeds, 2 per container, no deeper than the diameter of the seed itself.
5. Put the filled containers in a shallow dish or tray with a little water in it, to keep the containers from drying out. Place them somewhere warm, out of direct sunlight.
6. Check on your seeds after 2 days, and then every day after that until you see seedlings emerging. With the very first sign of a seedling, place the container where it will get at least 6 hours of sunlight, or under a grow light. I just use a shop light from my husband’s workshop with a standard fluorescent bulb in it.
7. Keep your plants moist by bottom watering in a tray or spritzing with a spray bottle. Don’t saturate the soil or your plants will die, but when the top of the soil starts to dry out just give them a little drink.
Other Stuff You Might Wanna Know…
- Paper Pots For Starting Seeds
- Thinning Seedlings
- Pinch ‘Em Off
- How To Start Broccoli and Cabbage From Seed (photos; the basic process for most seeds)
Getting Your Plants In The Ground
Once you have plants ready to go into the garden, it’s time to transplant them from their pots to their new home. Before you can do that, they’ll need to be hardened off. Hardening plants is basically acclimating them to life outdoors in the elements. Nursery plants will already be hardened off, and can go directly into the ground. If you’ve started plants from seed, you’ll need to harden them for a few days before transplanting.
How To Harden Plants Before Transplanting
- Each different crop has a certain time they need to be put in the ground, so calculate accordingly. Usually it’s a couple of weeks before or after the last frost in Spring or the first frost in Fall. Start hardening plants a week before transplanting day.
- Plants must have at least 2 sets of “true” leaves before transplanting.
- Cold frames can be used to harden plants.
- Read Hardening Plants For Transplanting for specific instructions.
How To Transplant Plants Into The Garden
It’s easy, really.
- Transplant on an overcast day, or in the evening when the sun isn’t at its strongest to reduce shock to the plant.
- Make sure the seedling’s soil is a little damp before transplanting, so the root ball stays intact.
- Either gently squeeze the sides of the container, or use something such as a fork to help remove the plant from the pot without disrupting the root system.
- DO NOT yank on the plant itself.
- DO NOT shake off the soil from around the roots.
- Dig a hole deep enough to bury the roots just to ground level.
- Plant in loose soil so the roots won’t have any trouble spreading underground.
- Gently firm the soil down around the plant with your hands to pack it well.
- Wait until the next morning to give the plant a little water. It should have what it needs from initially being planted with a wet root ball.
Mulch, Mulch, MULCH!
People, I can’t stress to you how important mulching is. I’m the worst about not mulching my plants well enough, and I always regret it in the end. Leaving the dirt around your plants exposed is like leaving a fresh wound exposed. The ground will heal itself, but the “scab” will be weeds. Mulch is like a band-aid. It’ll cover the wound and keep the bad stuff out.
Weeds get out of control very quickly. Mulching heavily is a GREAT preventative, and will save you a ton of time and hassle throughout the season.
Speaking of weeds, never, never, NEVER use non-organic weed killers near or around your garden. You will contaminate the soil, possibly kill your garden, and poison your family. I don’t care how “safe” the label says it is to use. If weeds are a real problem for you, lay down a thick layer of cardboard over them and mulch heavily overtop. Or, use my Homemade Non-Toxic Weed Killer on them.
Mulch also serves to retain moisture in the ground, keeping your plants from drying out or scorching in the sun. You really, really, really need to mulch. Heavily.
Good Mulching Materials…
- Wood chips- the kind from tree cutting services (Check out the Back To Eden Film, if you haven’t already!)
- Straw (NOT hay; See: Hay vs. Straw)
- Newspaper- the black and white print only; several sheets thick
- Dried grass clippings (from unsprayed yards)
We get our woodchips from a local tree cutting service by the truckload, for FREE. If you see a tree trimming truck in your neighborhood, stop and ask them if they need somewhere to dump the woodchips. More often than not, they’ll be grateful for a place to unload their truck!
Controlling Insect Damage: Pesticides or Organic Methods?
It won’t be long after you’ve planted your garden before you’ll be faced with the dilemma of dealing with hungry insects. Watching your beautiful crops go from gorgeous green to looking like grandma’s lace doilies can make any gardener desperate enough to wanna annihilate the enemy with full force. But before you go crazy with dangerous pesticides, consider a natural alternative.
Here are just a few organic methods of pest control which I’ve learned with time and experience:
- Sprinkle beans liberally with wood ashes to discourage Mexican Bean Beetles (beans love ashes, but the beetles hate them). Also, squish or remove by hand any of the yellow bean beetle larva you discover on your plants.
- Before white moths start appearing in your Spring garden, cover your brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, etc.) with row covers. Sunlight and rain water will still be able to get to your plants, but the moths won’t be able to lay their eggs on them.
- Diatomaceous Earth is another natural substance you can sprinkle on your plants to discourage harmful insects.
- Position bird houses around your garden to attract the birds that are predators to the insect pests you don’t want in your garden. Some of the best birds to attract to your garden are: Bluebirds, Chickadees, Nighthawks, Nuthatches, Phoebes, Sparrows, Swallows, Vireos, Woodpeckers, and Wrens.
- Ladybugs feed on aphids, and are beneficial insects to have in your garden.
- Squash bugs can be picked off plants by hand. Be sure to look on the underside of every leaf when dealing with an infestation. Also, scrape off or squish any of their eggs, which will also most likely be on the undersides of the leaves.
- Rotating crops, and planting several of the same crop in different places around your home will reduce the chances of an infestation.
- Japanese Beetle (or June Bug) traps can be purchased to keep these pests off of your grape vines and berry bushes naturally!
- Use companion planting to either discourage harmful insects from becoming a problem, or to distract them from the crops you want to protect.
- Try using Homemade Bug Sprays to repel pests from your plants.
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How To Encourage Your Plants To Grow And Produce
As your plants grow they will slowly depleat nutrients from the soil. When plants are lacking in certain nutrients, they will begin to display problems, such as Blossom End Rot. Be sure to add vital minerals back to the ground so that your crops will continue to thrive in your garden. A few natural fertilizers you will want to sprinkle around your plants are:
- Livestock manure. Heavy feeders such as broccoli and blueberries particularly thrive on lots of aged manure.
- Egg Shells. Tomatoes and peppers greatly benefit from dried and crumbled egg shells sprinkled liberally around the base of their plants.
- Coffee Grounds. Tomatoes and peppers also thrive when dried coffee grounds are sprinkled around their soil.
- Wood Ashes. Beans in particular benefit from the potassium in wood ashes. Sprinkle liberally over top of plants or around base.
- Epsom salt. Good for tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers.
- Ground covers. When your garden bed is finished producing for the season, plant a cover crop such as clover, rye, and buckwheat (to name a few) instead of allowing the bed to sit empty. These “green manure” crops, when allowed to grow and then tilled back down into the soil, add vital nutrients back to the garden.
- Compost. I’ll discuss how you can get started making your own “black gold” next.
- Invite Pollinators. Don’t forget the importance of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators to your garden. Most plants are not self-pollinating, and require the assistance of pollinators in order to actually produce a crop. Plant lots of flowers around your garden to attract these beneficial friends.
- Crop Rotation. Rotating where you plant your crops to different beds in the garden will help balance soil fertility, and reduce the chances of pests and disease. Avoid planting the same crop family in the same place for the following two years.
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Composting is a GREAT way to turn trash into nutrient dense material for your garden. Instead of throwing kitchen scraps down the drain, or taking yard debris to the landfill, learn how to convert them into “black gold” and recycle these organics to help you grow more food!
If you’ve ever done any research into how to compost, you may have found yourself overwhelmed with all of the scientific specifications of carbon to nitrogen ratios. Don’t be intimidated! It really doesn’t have to be complicated. Basically, here’s all you need to know to get started composting:
Mix browns (carbon) with greens (nitrogen) in approx. a 4:1 ratio.
Browns: Wood chips, small sticks, bark, leaves, newspaper (not the glossy, colored sheets), untreated cardboard, sawdust, straw, pine needles, and corn stalks.
Greens: Kitchen scraps*, fresh lawn clippings (from untreated grass), garden waste, small shrub trimmings, and livestock manure.
*Compostable Kitchen Scraps: fruits, vegetables, coffee grounds and paper filters, tea bags, nut shells, and egg shells. Do NOT use meats, fats, or sugary foods.
When using livestock manure, you’ll want to make sure that the manure you use comes from animals which have not grazed on fields or crops which have been sprayed with herbicides. These weed killers will pass through the animal and will remain in the manure, and can contaminate your garden and kill your plants. So be careful where you source your manure from. Also, always allow the manure to age for at least 6 months before spreading it on your garden. Otherwise, the weed seeds that have remained in the animals’ droppings will sprout and your garden will be overrun with horrendous weeds.
If you live in an extremely dry climate, you’ll need to wet your compost pile every so often to help it decompose faster.
Be sure to check out:
Keep Your Compost Pile Turned
Once you have all of these wonderful organic materials sitting in your compost pile or bin, you’ll need to be turning or flipping that pile every now and then to aid in the breakdown of these materials. A pitchfork makes turning or flipping compost fairly easy. Chickens are also wonderful for scratching up a compost pile, and turning it into that rich substance you’re looking for.
Turning your compost helps it break down faster, but it also prevents weeds and seeds from growing and taking over your pile (which happens very quickly if you aren’t diligent). I admit, it’s still fun to find a volunteer watermelon or tomatoes growing in your compost pile, but if you are hoping to use your compost in your garden you’ll want to keep it weed free.
Keeping a Garden Journal
Maintaining a journal of each year’s garden is extremely important. Not only will it prevent you from making the same mistakes twice, you’ll also have a record of what you planted, how well it did, and what you learned that will benefit you in the future.
Along with keeping good notes, you’ll also want to make a sketch of the layout of your garden each year so that you can rotate your crops appropriately the following years. Don’t rely on your memory to keep you straight! You’d be surprised how much you forget if you don’t write it down.
Some things you’ll want to keep track of in your garden journal:
- What did you plant? Which varieties did you go with? Did you start them from seed? Where did you get your plants? How did they do?
- When did you start your seeds? When did you buy your plants? When did you transplanted your seedlings to the garden? When did you begin harvesting each crop?
- Weather patterns. First, last and unexpected frosts/cold snaps/heat waves.
- Different gardening methods you tried with different plants, and how it turned out.
- Pests you encountered and solutions you found. When did you first notice the problem?
- Harvest yields
- Sketch of your garden, with each crop labeled.
There are so many great resources out there for gardening information. Here are just a few on my bookshelf that I find myself referring to most often…
- Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth
- Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza
- Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew
- What’s Wrong With My Vegetable Garden? by David Deardorff & Kathryn Wadsworth
But to be honest, the internet is THE go-to for all of your gardening questions and problems. It’s an amazing resource, and is more often than not the way I find the answers I’m looking for.
Psst…just a couple more articles you might enjoy:
There really is a lot more to gardening than this, but at least you have a good starting point to go from. Any of you seasoned gardeners please feel free to add advice in the comments section below!