Have you been thinking about growing a vegetable garden? Tossing around the idea, but you aren't sure where to start. Below, we have created a beginner's guide that will help you plan and prepare so you can reach your gardening goals. We have included all the "dirt" on everything you need to know. From where to place your garden to composting and actual dirt, this guide will help you from start to finish.
Where to Put a Vegetable Garden
Before we roll up our sleeves there are a few things to think about prior to getting your hands dirty. What do you like to eat? What space do you have to dedicate to gardening? In reference to the first question, what you like to eat will dictate the space you take up. Maybe you only like a few things and you assume you'll have a small garden. Unfortunately, that is an incorrect assumption. For example, vegetables like corn, beans or zucchini need a good bit of space to grow. Also, plants that need a lot of sunlight can't be too close to those that are tall and will overshadow them. Knowing how each plant grows and the amount it produces is important in planning out your vegetable garden.
Now regarding the second question, space can sometimes be the biggest limitation to vegetable gardening. For myself, I love all types of vegetables and would need a billion acres for planting. In all seriousness though, growing veggies is attainable in all settings, you just need to be aware of the following environmental conditions:
- - Sun
- - Moisture
- - Air Circulation
- - Frost
Sun - Although some vegetable plants will grow in spots with less sun, most need at least 6 hours of sun a day. The more sunlight they get, the greater the harvest. As mentioned above, beware of planting smaller plants too close to bigger ones, as they block sunlight and will stunt growth. Also, avoid placing your garden by large trees that may cut out sunlight at various times of the day. Take the time to watch the area where you are planting and find answers to questions like:
- Where does shade fall? - Is the garden in full sun all day? - Does it get evening sun or just morning sun?
Moisture - Having water near by and accessible will mean life or death for your garden. Vegetable gardens need a lot of water, even small ones. Water on tap near by will be much better than toting it. If carrying is the plan, stop for a moment and put that gardening gung ho attitude down and think about lugging buckets of water to your garden in the heat. It's hard and it's no fun, ask me how I know.
Air Circulation - Good air flow prevents and promotes a variety of things. For prevention, air will keep fungal diseases at bay and it helps to discourage insects from setting up shop. As for promotion, air circulation will contribute to sturdy plant growth. Although air flow can be helpful, it can be harmful. If you live in a windy place, protect and shelter your plants.
Frost - Cold air is heavier than warm air and tends to settle in low spots of gardens. Avoid frost pockets if possible. They are known for damaging plants, both young and established. Frost also pops up on structures like walls and fences, so be mindful of plant placement.
Continuing on into our planning phase, let's talk about gardening methods. There are 5 methods of gardening, and each one has it's on process and benefits. Below, we will go more in depth into each one to help you decide which one is best for you.
In-Ground Garden Beds
In-ground gardening for a beginner can seem daunting. Starting small will be the key to success. A smaller vegetable garden will offer less frustration, labor and time, therefore giving you a sense of accomplishment. Also, with a small garden you can master the basics and get a feel for what it takes to make and maintain a vegetable garden.
A good size for an in-ground garden is about 10 feet by 10 feet. For a visual reference, think of a small bedroom or large closet. Of course, if you measure this out and that still seems to big, shave off a couple feet until you're happy with the size. However, do remember what space your plants will need to grow best.
Once you have your place and size mapped for your garden, testing the soil will be the next step. This step is important, and can be done two ways. You can either send a sample to a state certified testing lab, or inspect it yourself. Read below for a list of common soil textures.
- Gritty soul indicates too much sand
- Powdery soil has too much silt
- Soil that is sticky when wet is indicative to clay heavy soil
Ultimately, you want soil that drains well, is crumbly, dark and nutrient rich. To learn more about amending and improving your soil for gardening, continue reading further in the guide for more information. Upon soil testing, amending and of course reading this really great guide, let the sweat pour. With either a hoe, a tiller or a small garden tractor, get those gloves on and prepare to break ground. For most tillers, rows will end up being about 36 in wide. If tilling by hand, be sure to leave room for the plants to grow, along with enough space to walk and weed.
Also called no till gardening, raised rows help to alleviate the back breaking work of turning the soil over like in traditional gardening. Many gardeners swear by raised rows for their ease and effectiveness. Tilling and planting can ultimately strip the soil of nutrients over time. With raised rows there's no tilling, just layering. Organic material like leaves, grass clippings, chicken manure along with soil and compost can build a rich foundation for rows. In addition to not having to till or turn the soil in the beginning, there is no need to do it after the first year either. Just simply add more material and cover with mulch or hay to deter weeds and prevent soil erosion.
Raised rows should be about 8 to 10 inches high and about 18 inches wide. As for length, this can be determined by you. Generally you'll want about 2 feet in between rows for walking. You will need equal amounts of organic material, compost and soil to build your raised rows. To employ this gardening method, preparation will need to begin in the fall. Gathering leaves, grass clippings and building up compost from food scraps will take several months to do. To note, starting raised rows can be a bit time consuming and expensive if you don't have the material on hand to start with. But, after the initial set up and the gathering organic material, raised rows are easy to keep and maintain.
In raised beds, like raised rows, the use of rich organic material will be needed, along with supplies to build the frames. These planter boxes have a high start up cost in the beginning, however, the investment is worth it in the long run. With the ability to concentrate on a small area, this gardening method can be cost effective to maintain and offer several benefits such as:
- Can produce higher yields
- Better drainage and deeper rooting
- Frames allow for protection from pests
- Prevents soil erosion
- The soil is worked easily in the spring, equaling a longer growing season
Just like raised rows, beds will need equal amounts of soil, compost and other organic material. The average bed can range from 4ft x 4ft to 4ft x 8ft, with a soil depth of about 8 to 12 inches. During the growing season, raised beds will need to be watered regularly because they are prone to drying out quickly. To retain moisture in the bed, add mulch, hay or pine needles.
Straw will be the principle growing medium for this gardening method. This type of gardening is a great way to grow herbs and veggies, as well as ornamental plants. Conditioned with potting soil, compost and fertilizer, the straw breaks down gradually overtime to provide a lush foundation of nutrients. The average bale costs anywhere from $5 to $9 depending on where you live, and how many you purchase at once. It is economical, easy and a great method for beginning gardeners. It is important to note that although called hay bale gardening, you have to use straw, not hay. Hay will unfortunately cause weed growth due to the fact that they are made from alfalfa and grasses that still have seeds. Straw however, is composed of cut down stalks of grains like oats and wheat, containing hardly any seed.
When starting a straw bale garden, the bales must first be solarized. This is done by wrapping them in black plastic for up to a month. The heat from the sun will kill any possible remaining seeds. Solarizing also speeds up the process of breaking down the straw to provide more nutrients that the plants can use. Before planting, remove the plastic. Next, we prep! This will take 7 to 12 days. You will be adding fertilizer every couple of days and generously watering them. Once you notice the bales begin to decompose and get warm, spread compost and soil over the top of them(2 to 3 inches).
Seeds and plants can be directly planted into the bales at this point. Plants that do well with straw bale gardening are those that are short and do not requiring staking. Stalk plants like corn, beans or tomatoes cannot not be supported by the bales. If you do stake plants, be sure to drive the stake through the bale and into the ground. Also, it is best to position the bales then plant them. Once they are watered, they become to heavy to move.
For those of you that do not have a lot of space to work with, container gardening is the method for you. Container gardening keeps time and cost to a minimum, and is easy to get started. A few tips for growing vegetables in containers are:
- Large containers will hold water better than smaller ones
- Plastic containers hold moisture better than clay
- Be mindful of drainage holes
- Hanging baskets can be used, but will need to be watered more frequently
- Transplants from stores are great for containers.
Before planting in containers, it is best to add gravel in the bottom for drainage. About 1 inch will do. Potting soil can be bought at your local home improvement store to fill containers. It can also be mixed with dirt you may have on hand along with compost to create a rich soil. Container plants can be fed at least twice a month with liquid fertilizer to increase growth and yields. Be sure to follow the instructions on the label though, because it is easy to burn plants with too much fertilizer. Container gardening is perfect for beginners to get familiar with how plants grow. Although this method is expensive to start up, it is one of the least labor intensive ways to get a vegetable garden going.
Improving Soil Before You Plant
Let's dig a little deeper on the soil situation shall we? Improving, amending, composting, oh my! The last thing we want to do is overwhelm you when it comes to all the dirty details on planting. So, below we have broken it down to amending, soil pH and composting to help you get your dirt ready for producing prize winning veggies.
Nothing will grow without healthy dirt. Just like a human, if not given the proper nutrients, a plant will become malnourished, stunted and eventually starve to death. Nutrient rich soil stabilizes a plant and influences solid anchorage of the root system.
Adding organic matter like compost, which we will discuss shortly, will enrich the soil greatly. From decomposed food scraps and leaves to chicken or cow manure, organic matter comes in many forms to create compost. When amending, amounts are generally equal parts soil and equal parts organic material. Utilizing organic material and amending your soil with it will build a foundation of fertile, rich soil.
Knowing your soil's pH is the best way to understand what can actually be grown. As we have learned in school, pH is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of an aqueous solution. The measurement is based on a pH scale of 0 to 14, with 0 being the most acidic, 7 being neutral and 14 being the most alkaline. With soil, a pH that ranges from 6 to 7 is most ideal. Most garden soils will generally range between 5 and 9. As noted previously, a test with a lab can identify the pH of a soil. You can also purchase a test at local home improvement store or gardening/landscaping store.
Messy, weird smelling and complicated is what most of think of when you mention composting. These terms are true, but only if you're composting the wrong way. When composting the right way, it does not smell, it isn't messy and its far from complicated.
Compost is made up of soil, water and a number of things from food scraps to paper products and leaves. Layers of these organic materials break down over time to create the best soil boosting mixture known to man. When creating compost, there are items you should not throw in. The following items will attract animals, make the compost smell bad and ultimately not be good for your garden.
- Diseased plants
- No feces from dogs or cats
- Weeds that go to seed
- No sawdust from pressure treated wood
- Dairy products
- No meat, oils or fats
Composting can be done several ways, including a designated area that is enclosed and kept away from animals, or it can be put in bins that are stationary or turn. To help your compost breakdown quickly, alternate between green and brown matter. Green matter is anything fresh like food scraps, and brown matter will be things like dead leaves or cardboard. In addition to the layering, add water every few days to keep it damp and mix thoroughly.
Many plants die because they are planted in soil that is either too wet or too dry. Generally, soil will contain 50% solid material, with the other 50% being nothing more than air. Soil that drains poorly is generally due to its pore space being filled with water for long periods of time. Soils with a dull or gray color, are those that do not drain well. For soils that have good drainage, their colors are often bright.
Too indicate poor drainage in soil, you can dig a 12"x12"x12" hole when the soil is moist, fill with water and observe how long it takes for the water to drain. If it takes less than 3 hours to drain, then you have excellent drainage. If drainage takes anywhere from 3 to 12 hours to drain, then the drainage is considered adequate and will be suitable for most plants. If you should need to correct your soil's drainage, it can be done in various ways such as:
- Distributing organic material throughout the soil
- Raise the height of the soil 10 to 12 inches
- Shaping the surface to allow for run off
- Install drainage pipes or tiles
Picking Your Plants
In the beginning of this guide we discussed thinking about what you wanted to plant based off of what you like to eat. Now is the time to look over a list of plants and determine if those plants are capable of growing where you live. It's best to do some research on what plants grow best in your area by either contacting your state's cooperative extension service or checking reliable online resources. Below are common, productive plants that are usually easy to grow in most areas.
- Zucchini squash
- Spinach or Kale
- Green beans
Seed or Purchase Plants
The next big question to tackle is whether you want to start with seeds or plants. The answer to that is, both. Every gardener will do it differently, especially as you gain more experience. For beginners, it is often easier to purchase plants for veggies such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants or melons. As for seeds, those can be sown directly in the garden based on their plant date, or sown indoors and then transplanted. If choosing seeds, high quality seeds are best from reliable retailers. Be sure to purchase only what you will plant. The viability of seeds that are stored will decrease over time.
Getting Ready to Plant
If you have purchased young plants or started your seeds inside, then hardening off and knowing when to take your plants outside will be very important to their continued growth. Utilizing the USDA Growing Zone Map will also be key to successful transplanting.
Hardening off period
In the gardening world, hardening off is the equivalent of a momma bird helping a baby bird leave the nest. When seeds are grown inside, they are accustomed to a controlled climate. To harden off your young plants, you must introduce them to the outdoors in doses. For one week, take the plants out for an hour a day. This will allow them to acclimate. Do not put them in direct sun or wind. Depending on your area's winds, you can add a fan indoors or where ever you are keeping your plants. This will help them become sturdier. During this time, they will also need constant moisture. Allowing them to become too dry or too wet will easily wipe them out before they have a chance to get started.
USDA Growing Zone
The USDA Zone Map is divided into 11 separate planting zones. Each zone is 10°F warmer or colder than the adjacent zone in an average winter. Zone maps help gardeners compare their climates with the climate of where a plant is known for growing well. The map is a tool that helps to show where various plants can adapt. A plant must be able to tolerate an area's lowest and highest temperatures, as well as amount of rainfall that occurs.
When To Plant Your Vegetable Garden
Every region of the US has a different planting time. This time is based on weather, precipitation and a vegetable's temperature preferences. TheAlmanac’s Best Planting Dates Calendar is a helpful calendar that will show your local frost dates. Another way to help you know when to plant, is by following your local weather forecast and noting the annual average temps for spring in your area.
Care of Plants
Caring for your plants once they are planted requires time, labor, feeding and watering them until it is time to harvest. Since most gardens are growing during the summer months, and that is usually vacation time for most, be sure to have a plan in place if you go out of town. Additionally, you can always grow cool season crops if the summer is too busy for you. Below, we have provided helpful tips on caring for your plants through their growing season.
Watering can be labor intensive part if not planned out properly. Set up a schedule that suits your garden placement. Sprinklers or watering with a hose will be the easiest. Watering in the early morning and again in the evening is best for a vegetable garden. The reason for this is because it cuts down on evaporation. It is best to know how much water each type of plant needs. For example, tomatoes need a deep soaking watering, but they don't tolerate being overwatered. A good rule of thumb for all plants is to water the ground enough to reach the root system and not watering again until the ground appears dry.
Fertilizing your vegetables will help to maximize their yields. Fertilizing has to be done carefully if applying a solution, because it is easy to burn the plants. To garden more organically, add high quality compost at planting time as mentioned above. If you choose to use packaged vegetable fertilizer, be mindful of the instructions.
Welcome to Weeding 101! First lesson, it never stops. That's right, the task of weeding never stops. Depending on the gardening method you choose, weeds can be reduced greatly. Generally speaking though, weeds will always be competing with your vegetables. Hand picking and using hoe will help to remove the weeds and cultivate the soil, preventing weeds from growing back. Mulching or laying black plastic down is also quite helpful in deterring weed growth.
Don't let the bugs bug you. They are part of nature, and you have just created a great habit for them to gather. Removing insects can be done in various ways. From hand picking and dropping into a bucket of soapy water to spraying plants with a safe soap spray, keeping the insects away is pretty easy. To note, any chemical spray you use should be safe for vegetables and herbs, especially since you will be consuming them. As for four legged friends like deer, fencing and planting various flowers can help.
We hope this guide has helped you take that idea of vegetable gardening and make it into reality. Remember, with a little planning and preparation you can easily go from being a gardening beginner to expert in no time.