Do you want to start a vegetable garden, but you are not sure where to begin? Here are some helpful vegetable gardening tips for beginners that will get you off to a great start.
Starting a vegetable garden is an enjoyable and rewarding project that will provide a wealth of benefits for you and your family. Growing fresh food enables you to eat healthier, spend time bonding with children, get some exercise, save money on the grocery bill, become self-reliant, and perhaps even make a little extra money selling excess produce.
Gardening Tips for Beginners
If you are new to growing a gardening, read on for some helpful vegetable gardening tips to get you started. This article focuses on tips for starting a garden, and provides links to expanded articles so you can learn more about each topic.
Select a Sunny Location
Vegetable plants thrive in sunshine. Your garden will need to be in a location that receives at least 6-hours of direct sunlight each day. An area that is in full sun and away from trees and shrubs is ideal.
This is true for plants growing both in the garden and in containers. Plant your vegetables in the sunniest location available for the best results.
Avoid areas that are located near concrete because it holds and radiates heat causing the soil to remain too hot and dry. Also stay away from low-lying areas that are prone to flooding, hillsides that tend to be dry and windy, and full shade locations.
Don’t be discouraged if your garden area is not perfect. A little work can transform a less than ideal location into a spot that can grow food. Trim away low branches and remove shrubs that create shade.
If your yard is shaded, you can focus on growing edible crops that can tolerate partial shade. Check out these articles for tips:
Begin with a Small Garden
If you are new to growing a vegetable garden, begin with a small garden for the first year. This will help you keep up with the chores. A small vegetable garden can provide plenty of fresh harvests. As the garden grows, you will learn about your unique growing season and how to care for your garden on a smaller scale.
One of the reasons people get discouraged and give up on their garden is because they don’t have time for the maintenance. The garden needs to be watered frequently during hot spells, weeds must be removed, and vegetables need harvesting when ready so they don’t go to waste.
Start with a small growing area about 100 square feet. Six 4 x 4 foot raised beds with paths in between, or a 10 x 16 foot plot will provide you with plenty of vegetables for fresh eating.
Expand the garden a little each year and experiment with growing different crops. You will quickly gain knowledge and learn how to care for your garden plants, and they will reward you with great-tasting food.
Start with Good Quality Soil
Soil is the foundation to a healthy vegetable garden. A successful garden depends on good, loamy soil that is filled with organic matter and nutrients.
The soil feeds the plants, not the fertilizer, so the more nutrients the soil contains the healthier and more productive the vegetable plants will be. You feed the soil by adding organic matter to it, like compost or well-rotted animal manure.
After selecting the right location for your vegetable garden and preparing your garden beds, add 2-inches of finished compost on top of the soil and work it in. Work it down to 4-6 inches deep so the nutrients will be readily available to the plant roots.
Add compost to the garden every time you plant a new crop. Over time, the organic matter will improve the soil structure for better plant growth, prevent soil compaction, and attract earthworms that will increase soil fertility.
If you plan on building a raised bed garden and filling with fresh, quality garden soil, you will have an immediate advantage over a regular garden because you are starting out with loose soil that is rich in nutrients and organic matter. You will also have fewer weeds at least for the first few years.
If you are growing a container vegetable garden, incorporating additional organic matter into the potting soil is not needed if you are starting with fresh potting mix. Most potting soil blends already have compost or manure in them.
Gather Basic Gardening Tools
A shed filled with numerous gardening gadgets is not required to grow a vegetable garden. However, the right equipment will help make gardening easier. Focus on the following basic gardening tools when you are just starting out:
To start, you should have a few long handled tools such as:
- Round-headed Shovel for digging, and moving bulk materials, such as compost, and mulch.
- Digging fork for loosening soil and harvesting root crops.
- Hoe is great for digging planting trenches, weeding, and shaping soil into mounds and rows for planting.
- Bow rake for raking out debris and shallow weeds, leveling soil, and spreading mulch and compost.
The following hand tools will help you work in small places and will be used frequently for daily maintenance:
- Pruners will come in handy for trimming and harvesting. Anvil pruners have only one blade that closes on a flat surface, while bypass pruners have two blades that work like scissors, and passing by each other to make the cut.
- Trowel for digging small holes to plant seedlings, removing weeds, and mixing soil amendments.
- Hand rake cultivator is ideal for working in compost, loosening soil, and removing weeds.
Other helpful gardening equipment includes:
- Watering can for hand watering individual plants as needed.
- Garden hoses for moving water to the garden.
- Spray nozzles for aiming water.
- Garden gloves to protect your hands.
- Posts, tomato cages, and trellis supports for growing vertically and staking tall plants.
- Harvest baskets to gather vegetables, herbs, and fruit as needed.
- Buckets are helpful for weeding, moving soil or mulch, and harvesting.
- Wheelbarrow for moving large amounts of garden soil, compost, and mulch, and essential for end of season garden cleanup.
Shop garage sales, estate sales, and thrift stores for your gardening tools. Often times the quality of older tools is much better than what you can find new.
Let your gardening gadgets build over time as your experience grows. Once you start growing food, your view on recycled material changes. You will look at any container that will hold soil and think, “Can I plant something in that?” Poles and stakes “Will that work as a plant support?”
Decide Which Vegetables to Grow
Think about what you want to accomplish with your vegetable garden. Are you aiming for fresh salads, trying to save money at the grocery store, increase your family’s food security, or avoid pesticides? Do you want to grow crops to preserve and store through winter?
Narrowing down your objectives will help you choose vegetables that will maximize your growing space. Some vegetables will grow better in your climate than others, so the right plant selection is essential for a good vegetable harvest.
On the back of seed packets and the labels on potted plants will provide information regarding how many days for seed germination and days until maturity. Select plants that will have plenty of time to germinate, grow, and reach maturity in your climate.
For example, lettuce, early carrots, radishes, turnip, and beets will be ready to eat in 30-40 days after the seeds are planted. However, sweet potatoes and winter squash will need 3-4 months to reach maturity after being planted.
Some of the easy to grow garden vegetables for beginners include beans, cucumbers, peppers, radishes, salad greens, scallions, tomatoes, winter squash, and zucchini. These vegetables will grow and produce with very little maintenance if they are planted in a sunny location and fertile soil.
Grow the Right Crops at the Right Time
Understanding which crops to plant in spring, and which need to wait for warmer temperatures is the key to growing a vegetable garden that will produce from spring, summer, and well into fall.
The ideal planting date for each vegetable varies, depends on the weather, and if they can tolerate light frosts. There are generally two different groups of vegetables: cool season and warm season.
- Cool season vegetables can handle light frosts and flourish in the cooler part of the growing season in early spring and fall. Cool season vegetables include beets, carrots, kale, lettuce, radishes, spinach, chard, onions, peas, and potatoes.
- Warm season crops need both warm soil and high temperatures to grow and produce fruit. They are killed by frost. Plant them well after the last frost in spring. Warm season crops include beans, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, squash, and zucchini.
It is helpful to plan the garden early before spring arrives. This gives you plenty of time to develop a planting schedule for your vegetable garden. A seed starting schedule is a planting calendar tailored to the time between the last frost in spring and first frost in fall for your area.
If you garden in colder areas, you’ll need a jump-start on some vegetable plants. You can purchase seedlings from garden centers at planting time, or grow your own transplants from seed indoors under lights. Once you develop a planting schedule, you will know your last frost date so you can begin sowing seeds inside according to your seed starting schedule.
Begin planting the vegetable garden in the early spring after the soil has warmed. Don’t be in a big hurry to get the garden established because if the soil is still too cold, the seeds will not germinate and end up rotting in the ground. If you are transplanting seedlings, be sure to harden off your plants, so they adjust to outdoor growing conditions.
Avoid Crowding the Plants
Don’t be tempted to overcrowd your garden. Although it may seem like you have a lot of space when you are sowing seeds and transplanting seedlings into the garden, each plant needs space to grow. Plants that are too close together will compete for nutrients, moisture, and airflow.
Follow the recommended plant spacing specified on the seed packages. Note the mature size of each plant and allow enough space between them for development. Also, allow 10-12 inches between the planted rows for foot traffic. A raised bed garden should be 3-4 feet wide and have at least 1-foot of space between each bed for walking, or enough space for a lawn mower if you have grass in between.
Developing a garden map will help you plot out the garden ahead of time so you can plan for the proper spacing for your vegetables. Mapping your vegetable garden before planting helps you see where everything will be located, how much space each plant needs, and how many plants will fit in every area.
Watering is one of the most crucial steps to growing a vegetable garden. Plants use water for all vital functions from staying cool and hydrated, to absorbing and transporting nutrients from roots to foliage and fruit.
Preferably, water will come naturally from rain. You will need to provide supplemental water to keep your garden flourishing if the weather doesn’t cooperate. The easiest way to see if your garden needs to be watered is to stick your finger deep into the soil. If you can’t feel any moisture several inches down, you need to water.
Use soaker hoses or a watering can to water the base of the plants at the soil level. Water early in the morning when the air and ground is cooler to help minimize water loss due to evaporation and allow the foliage time to dry. Also avoid wetting the foliage to avoid fungal diseases.
New seedlings and transplants have shallow root systems. They need frequent watering until their roots grow and become established. Keep the soil evenly moist, but not soggy until the plants begin to sprout new foliage. Water established plants as needed until the moisture reaches the roots. Then let the top few inches to dry out slightly before watering again.
Mulching your garden beds is one of the best things you can do for your garden. Mulch is layered on top of the garden soil to help retain soil moisture, prevent weed growth, and to enrich the soil as it breaks down.
A generous layer of mulch on the soil surface is key to conserving soil moisture. Once the plants are 6 to 8-inches tall, apply a 3-inch layer of organic mulch around the plants, keeping it from touching the base of the stem. Use straw, tree bark, shredded newspaper, leaves, or compost as mulch for garden plants.
Plants growing in containers also benefit from a 2-inch layer of mulch to help retain moisture and keep the soil cool. Soil in containers tends to heat up quickly in direct sun and dry out rapidly. A layer of organic mulch will help container-grown plants remain hydrated and cooler throughout the summer growing season.
Don’t be tempted to water too much. The roots need oxygen to breathe and function. Soggy, waterlogged soil will fill air pockets and prevent the plant from absorbing nutrients.
Over time, you get to know how the soil should feel if when it is moistened. Use your finger or a shovel to check the soil moisture at least once a week. If it feels lightly damp to a depth of 6-inches, you’re in good shape. If it’s bone dry, start watering.
Keep up with the Weeds
Weeds crowd your vegetable garden plants and compete for nutrients, space, and moisture. A weedy garden can result in unhealthy plants that are under nourished, stressed from crowding, vulnerable to fungal disease because of reduced airflow, and will end up dying or producing smaller harvests.
Don’t leave bare spots. It doesn’t take long for weeds to invade and take over. Make sure every part of your garden is either planted or mulched.
Covering the soil with a layer of organic mulch is the best way to prevent weeds. Mulch helps shade the soil and deprives weed seeds of sunlight required to germinate and grow. It also prevents seeds dropped by birds or wind from coming in contact with the soil surface and taking hold.
Mulching helps reduce the number of weed seeds that could sprout, but you will still need to put some effort in weeding.
Hand weed the garden frequently. Any time you see a weed in the vegetable garden, pull it up by the roots. Discard the weeds away from the garden and do not add it to the compost pile. A garden trowel or claw will allow you to get under the weed and extract the plant from the soil by the roots.
- How To Control Weeds in a Vegetable Garden (Coming Soon)
Keep a Gardening Journal
The best gardening lessons come through hands-on experience. Keeping good notes will help you improve your vegetable garden from year to year.
A gardening journal is a place to gather all your gardening notes, seed starting schedules, and sketched maps so you can refer to them each year. It can be a day-to-day diary of what is going on in the garden, or an informal log describing goals for the garden, how each crop did, how much was harvested, how each garden bed performed, succession planting, crop rotation, pest and disease issues, and the weather.
- Tips for Keeping a Garden Journal (Coming Soon)
Vegetable gardening is always a work-in-progress and the best way to learn is through trial and error. After a couple of gardening seasons, you will discover which plants grow well in your garden and which ones may require too much attention.
Good planning is key to a successful vegetable garden
Whether you are new to growing your own food or have been growing a vegetable garden for years, you will benefit from some planning each year. You will find everything you need to organize and plan your vegetable garden in my PDF eBook, Grow a Good Life Guide to Planning Your Vegetable Garden.