The Ultimate Guide to Starting a Vegetable Garden
Have you been dreaming of fresh-off-the-vine tomatoes? Maybe you prefer leafy spinach or homegrown peppers and squash. It sounds like you’re ready to start a vegetable garden and enjoy season after season of fresh produce from your own backyard. Don’t let the process overwhelm you. You don’t need expert know-how to get started growing vegetables, just a few pieces of easy advice.
Choosing the Best Space
When you’re starting a vegetable garden, focus first on finding a spot in your yard that gets a full day’s sun. Most plants need six to eight hours of direct sunlight. When your garden gets more sun, it produces a greater yield, bigger plants, and better-tasting vegetables.
You’ll also want to choose a spot that’s close to a source of water (garden hose hook-up or rain barrel) to make consistent watering an easier task.
As you locate the prime space for your vegetable garden, you should avoid:
- areas that flood or areas where water pools or collects after heavy rains
- areas with deep slopes
- areas that dry out quickly
- areas that are open and exposed to strong winds
It Starts with the Soil
The success of starting a vegetable garden can all hinge on the health of your soil. Healthy soil is moist, well-drained, rich in organic matter, and a warm temperature.
But you don’t have to be at the mercy of the soil in the ground. There is plenty you can do to improve your soil and make it work for you. To create an optimal soil mix, start with a “double-dig” — digging your backyard soil twice as deep as your shovel blade. When your native soil is exposed, mix in a high-quality organic matter. This can include compost, peat moss, Stauffers Planting Mix, aged manure, or mushroom soil.
Create a soil mixture that consists of two-thirds native soil and one-third organic matter.
Give Raised Beds A Try
When you think of a vegetable garden, are you envisioning long rows of growing crops? A garden doesn’t have to turn your backyard into farmland. For a compact garden space, consider growing in raised beds.
The benefits of raised beds include:
- better use of space
- better soil — loose, uncompressed soil that’s never been tread on
- better yield — raised beds are warmer, have better water and air movement, and roots spread more easily
- fewer weeds — retaining walls of raised beds block weed pollination while adding a weed cloth at the bottom of the bed prevents weed growth
- better drainage
To build a raised bed for your vegetable garden, follow these steps:
- Rake your improved soil mixture into a mound that’s the desired size of your bed. You can make your bed as long as you want, but size it four feet wide or less.
- Build your raised edging around the mounds.
- Rake your soil evenly throughout the bed and smooth it.
- Cover your bed with two inches of mulch (shredded leaves) to suppress weeds.
If you are building multiple raised beds, leave 18 to 24 inches between them. This will allow for ample space so you can tend to your plants without stepping into your beds.
What Veggies Are You Growing?
Will you grow your tried-and-true favorites or take this opportunity to experiment with new vegetables? The possibilities are endless! But, when you’re starting a vegetable garden, you should consult a growing region/hardiness chart to see which plants are best suited to grow in your area.
The timing of your garden is also important in choosing your first plants. If you’re growing in late spring or summer, choose warm-season plants.These plants are rated as tender to very tender. They cannot tolerate frost or nighttime temps that fall below 55°F. Cucumber, peppers, summer squash, lima beans, and tomatoes are examples of warm-season plants.
For fall vegetable gardens, you should plant cool-season plants. These plants are rated half-hardy to hardy. They are better at tolerating light frost, but may not survive hard freezes. Carrots, cauliflower, lettuce, broccoli, and spinach are popular cool-season plants.
When To Plant Your Vegetables
Want the specifics on growing any number of these plants? Visit our series of How to Grow articles.
Finally, many new gardeners ask whether they should use seeds or starter plants for their first vegetable garden. When you’re just starting out, it may be easier to cultivate plants that have been professionally started instead of worrying about seeds.
What Goes Where?
Block growing is a successful strategy that many gardeners use. Blocks let you plant the same distance apart in all directions. Here are two examples of a block layout:
- Planting radishes four inches apart, you’ll be able to fit 16 of them into a single square-foot block.
- When planting bigger crops like peppers, space them one foot apart. That means you’ll be able to fit 16 of them in a 4×4 foot block.
Block gardening also lets you play around with arrangements. For example, you can ring a block of carrots with onions or interplant heads of lettuce and radishes. You can use lots of small blocks or whole 4-foot-wide sections — whatever works for you. To maximize the yield of your vegetable garden, never leave a growing block empty. As soon as one crop is harvested, replace it with something else. Start with radishes in early spring, move on to beans in the summer, and finish up with lettuce in the fall.
You can also make the most of a small space with vining crops like cucumbers, tomatoes, and peas that can grow vertically up trellises or supports. Just remember to keep your tallest plants to the north so they don’t shade out the shorter plants.
Keep Your Garden Healthy
Your vegetables are planted! The work’s all done, right? Not quite. There are several tasks you need to complete throughout the growing season to guarantee a healthy harvest.
Weeds are enemy Number One, competing with your vegetables for important nutrients. Close planting is one way to limit weeds in your garden, but mulching is also an important form of weed control.
How much mulch will you need for a new vegetable garden?
Pace out the length and width of your beds. The average step is approximately 2.5 feet in length so count the steps it takes to cover the length of your garden, then count the steps it takes to cover the width, and use this formula:
- Total Length: Number of steps x 2.5
- Total Width: Number of steps x 2.5
- Total Width x Total Length = Square Footage
For bigger plants (broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, or potatoes) it makes sense to mulch the whole bed before planting. For smaller plants, it may be easier to add mulch after you have planted them.
A good rule of thumb for ensuring that your plants have adequate water is to water them when the top inch of soil is dry to the touch. You may need to water raised beds every other day since they drain faster. Sunken beds may only need water once or twice a week.
Instead of blasting your plants with a burst of water, take a slower approach. Turn your hose to a slow, steady stream of water and place it by each individual plant for 10-15 minutes. For larger areas, you may want to invest in a soaker hose that you can weave throughout your plants so all areas receive consistent watering.
To encourage healthy plants, you’ll also need to fertilize your garden. When you’re getting your planting beds ready, you can choose to fertilize a few days before planting or when you plant your crops.
At Stauffers, we’re big fans of Espoma Organic Garden-tone. During soil preparation, it’s recommended that you apply 3.5 lbs of fertilizer per every 50 sq.ft. of soil, then mix it throughout the top four to five inches of soil. From there, you should fertilize your seedling every seven to 10 days and then monthly from May to August once your plants are established. In general, climbing crops, such as tomatoes or beans, require smaller amounts of fertilizer, while root crops need larger amounts of fertilizer.
When adding fertilizer to your beds, avoid getting fertilizer on leaves of your plants. This can cause the roots to burn.
With a sunny spot, healthy soil, plants suited for your area, and diligent caretaking, a bountiful vegetable garden could soon be in your future.