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Vegetable Gardening for Beginners: The Complete Guide

By Gardening Journey

With so much emphasis today on eating natural, organic foods – not to mention the rising costs associated with buying them, many people are considering growing their own vegetables in a home garden. It’s very easy to grow your own vegetables, and at harvest time, vegetable gardening is a very rewarding pastime.

All your garden really needs is sunshine (6-8 hours of sun each day, in the summer), some soil, fertilizer, and a little attention to watering and weeding.

As a gardening beginner, your first vegetable garden will require the largest amount of work, but don’t let that dissuade you – the work you put in up front won’t have to be repeated next year, and the rewards speak for themselves.

Why Start a Vegetable Garden?

Across the world, many people are installing vegetable gardens in their lawns. And for the cost of seeds, tools, and water, they’re enjoying food that’s as fresh and local as it can possibly be, all while spending less time shopping for groceries and more time at home, connecting with their family and friends.

As you can see, there are many great reasons to start a home vegetable garden. Apart from allowing you to grow your own food, conserving energy and saving money, a home garden will also help to control runoff from rainfall and guard against flooding.

A garden can act as a sound buffer, lowering noise levels in your neighborhood. Your garden will attract a variety of local and migratory wildlife like birds and butterflies, not to mention helping to conserve important creatures like bees – who are vital to our ecosystem – and helping to reduce CO2 in our atmosphere, replacing it with oxygen.

Additionally, a home vegetable garden is a great space for both children and adults to experience the outdoors, and get off the sofa. A garden can create ground shade, helping with cooling, and can work as a filter for dust and pollutants.

For gardeners in the city, a rooftop garden mutes sunlight before it warms the building beneath, saving in energy costs for everyone.

Picking a Good Spot for Your Garden

Now that you’ve decided to start your vegetable garden, the first step is to find the perfect location. Since this is your first garden, there are several things you should keep in mind:

Start Small. As we mentioned, your first garden is typically the most work to set up, so starting small is a good idea. Set up a manageable area for your garden bed(s), whether they are in the ground, raised beds, or in containers, and know what you’re going to plant (and the space requirements of those plants) ahead of time.

Sunlight. Sunlight is the most important thing for any garden. Vegetables require at least six hours of sun each day – and if you can get 8 hours, that’s better. Don’t worry too much about afternoon or morning sun, as long as the garden gets at least six hours total, you’re golden.

Good Soil. As gardeners, we know that good soil means good plants! When looking at the soil in your own ground, darker tends to be better, but just about any soil is workable – as long as it’s not full of rocks, roots, or other obstructions. Even mediocre soil can be improved with minerals, manure, and sand to make it excellent. And, if all else fails, a raised bed with formulated soil is always an option.

Water Source. Apart from sun and soil, water is the third piece of the puzzle to make a healthy garden. Choose a location close to a water source – like a hose, well, or other hydrant where you can easily make sure the garden stays watered – and while we’re at it, plants don’t grow in totally soaked soil, so avoid areas that tend to collect rainwater. Higher ground is best!

Wind Shelter. This one is especially important on a rooftop, or out in an open plain. Find natural windbreakers in the surrounding area or consider building a fence to protect your plants from the wind to minimize damage from wind exposure.

Choosing What Crops to Plant

Now that you have a location, it’s time to decide what to plant. You’ll want to maximize your space and grow plants suited to your local area, as well as considering the time vs. reward – corn, for example, is delicious, but takes up lots of space and takes months to get a single harvest, while pole beans are quire space-efficient and produce beans for weeks.

Easy to Grow. For the beginning gardener, having vegetables that are basically foolproof is a great plan. Plants like broccoli, beans, tomatoes, gourds like squash and eggplant, greens such as lettuce or Swiss chard, and root vegetables like potatoes tend to be very simple.

Suitable for Your Region. When planning your garden, pay a visit to your farmer’s market and find out what’s already grown locally. This will help you to ensure you aren’t fighting an uphill battle in getting a plant that isn’t exactly suited to your area to thrive – plus, by growing what other gardeners are growing, you can always go to those folks for help if needed.

Companion Planting. Companion planting can help ensure that all your plants thrive by assisting with pest control. By planting companions next to each other, the idea is that we want all the natural pests attracted to the first plant to be repelled by the second, and vice-versa.

For example, onion pairs well with tomatoes and leafy greens like lettuce, but if planted next to beans or peas you may run into pest troubles. For a good introduction to companion planting, see this excellent guide.

Buying Seeds

Buying seeds can be pretty overwhelming for new gardeners because of the sheer volume of different companies and varieties out there. Our best advice? Read the label.

This will let you know how difficult the plant is to grow, when to plant, and what’s required. If you’re concerned about GMOs, this page has a list of good seed companies for those needs.

And here is a video with some great explanations about buying vegetable seeds for your garden, so you can spend your money wisely and understand exactly what you are paying:

Recommended Plants

Small, easy to grow plants include peppers, which thrive even with minimal attention, and root vegetables like onions or radishes.

Onions in particular are a great beginner plant, because even if the bulbs don’t quite mature, the greens are a lovely consolation prize. Salad greens can also be an easy and rewarding space-conscious choice.

For the gardener with a few feet of bed space, tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans are all great beginner plants, as long as they have space to sprawl.

Here is a list of some other recommended vegetables to grow for a beginner gardener:

  • Potatoes
  • Peas
  • Mint
  • Garlic
  • Beetroot
  • Lettuce
  • Carrots
  • Zucchini

Planning Your Vegetable Garden

We’ve seen lots of examples of beginner gardening mistakes. First time gardens can easily get out of hand, or unwieldy, or fall victim to neglect, wind, waterlogging, or pests. To prevent your first gardening experience from being a disaster, take some time to plan your garden.

Layout

No matter what kind of layout you end up using for your garden, the first thing to think about is location. Choose a basically level area in higher ground if possible, for good drainage. As we’ve mentioned, sun is a concern (6-8 hours) as well as protection from wind.

You’ll hear lots of recommendations about location. For example, many people will tell you to place your garden in the southernmost spot, because the sun is in the southern sky during summer.

These recommendations are good to pay attention to, but at the end of the day, as long as a garden is getting the sun and water it needs, it should be quite productive.

Once you’ve chosen a location, it’s time to think about layout, and this resource offers some great insights.

Raised Beds

Raised bed gardening has become one of the most popular way of growing vegetables today. The way they allow you to control space, soil, water levels, and location make them ideal for many gardeners.

If you go with a raised bed layout, construct beds that are no more than 3-4 feet wide, with space for walking paths in between. This will ensure that you’re able to properly attend to – and harvest – every plant.

Traditional Rows

For those who have the space, traditional row gardening can be a great option. Planting vegetables in long rows allows you to increase the space between plants, improving air flow around them and giving them more space to grow.

Here’s a rule of thumb for row gardening – try to plant the taller plants toward the west, and shorter toward the east. That way your shorter plants don’t spend those vital sunshine hours in the shade of the taller ones.

Square Foot Gardening

For beginner gardeners, we find that square foot gardens often tend to be a great way to begin. Larger gardens are prone to weeds and can be overwhelming for the novice. Square foot gardening is similar to raised bed gardening, but it is further subdivided into individual square-foot plots.

This is especially great for gardeners with kids – each child can have their very own square foot garden to tend. For some great insight on square foot gardening, take a look at this article.

Mulching

For gardeners, the purpose of mulch is fairly straightforward: mulch is like a barrier keeping sunlight and ambient air out of the soil. Mulching allows soil to stay cooler, meaning less stress on your plant roots from heat, and in cooler months, it helps stay off the freeze-thaw cycle of the moisture in your soil.

On the other hand, it does create cool, dark spaces that are the favored environments of slugs, earwigs, and other undesirables – so only use a thin layer. This page has a great intro to mulching if you need more information.

When to Plant

When considering the question of when to plant, you’ll have to go back to the question of what to plant. Remember, reading all those labels on your seed packets will ensure that you’re planting things at the right times.

Choose seeds that make good companions, and thrive at similar intervals for the best beginner gardening experience.

If you want to think ahead, consider growing something that thrives in heat and can be harvested early – like peppers, and then replacing them as the weather cools with a cool-weather plant like broccoli. Of course, if you’d rather simply do one planting and one harvest, especially as a beginner, that’s just fine too.

Improving the Soil

As we’ve mentioned, most soils are entirely capable of growing a vegetable garden – and even mediocre soil can be improved. For a really successful garden, some soil improvements is a must. Let’s take a look at some of the ways you can improve your soil.

Testing the Soil

Now, brace yourself, because we’re going to talk a little chemistry. Don’t panic, you don’t need to be a scientist. So, as you may remember from chemistry or biology class, pH is a measure of the acidity of a substance – remember, 7 is neutral, and a pH lower than7 is acidic, while a pH above 7 is basic.

Soil is no exception, and it has a pH value, and unsurprisingly, plants tend to like neutral soil. A pH soil test can be obtained at nearly any home improvement store, as well as meters which will also test for moisture and light.

Clearing Weeds

The amount of time you’ll spend worrying about weeds, in a sense, depends on which style garden you use. While square-foot gardens and raised beds using controlled soils can remain fairly weed-free, a traditional row garden can inherit weeds from plant life that inhabited the soil before it was tilled.

A good way to prevent weeds from starting is to smother them. After clearing the ground for your garden, just leave the clippings of the grass and weeds that were there previously, and cover the area with newspaper.

Keep the newspaper damp by watering it each day, and walk over it to keep everything pressed down. This will discourage the more stubborn weeds from re-growing.

As the plant matter from your clippings begins to decay, earthworms will be attracted, and they will aerate the soil and add nutrients – a bonus!

Compost

Compost is a great way to create extremely nutrient-rich soil, and it couldn’t be easier to make. Just create some layers of organic material – dry leaves, kitchen veggie scraps, shredded paper, plant clippings, and just a little bit of soil.

Over time, this will turn into something called humus, and it’s excellent for building soil. This article has an excellent breakdown on composting methods.

Manure

In addition to composting, plenty of fertilizers and other synthetic soil enrichment methods are around to help improve soil. However, for many gardeners, nothing is better than the tried-and-true method of manure.

In comparison, manure contains a little less nutrient content than the sparkly synthetic fertilizers, but nothing is better at providing carbon and carbon compounds. This is organic material that helps build and fortify the structure of soil, and that’s something no fertilizer can do.

Planting the Crops

Now that you have your garden laid out, your soil prepared, and your seeds at the ready, it’s time to get to the good stuff: planting your garden.

Planting time is the second most exciting time to be a gardener (the first is, of course, harvest time) – this is when you can finally put all the hard (but worthwhile) work of building your first garden behind you, and really begin the enjoyable process of growing your own food.

How to Plant the Seeds

The first step to actually utilizing your garden to grow delicious vegetables is to plant your seeds. If you ask ten gardeners how they plant their seeds, you’ll likely get ten different answers, as everyone develops their own routine. But – as a general guide, here’s our preferred method of starting seeds for beginners.

Begin by marking out rows with stakes on either side of the garden, and stretching string between them. Alternatively, you can use a long, straight piece of wood as a guide.

Whichever method you use, use a hoe or trowel along your guide to cut a furrow into the soil. It should look like a V-shaped indentation a few inches deep – refer to your seed packets for more specific depth requirements.

Now that you have your row defined, you can distribute the seeds along the row, taking care to distribute them more or less evenly in small groups, or individually for larger seeds. Don’t be afraid to use additional seeds. This will help cut down on loss should some of your seeds fail to germinate.

Finally, once your row has been populated with seeds, use your trowel or hoe to pull fine soil over the seeds – take care to avoid large clods of soil and rocks. Finally, give the soil some taps with your tool of choice to firm it and ensure that moisture in the soil has good contact with the seeds, and to help the soil to retain moisture.

Once you’ve planted and covered your seeds, use a gentle shower from your garden hose to water them – be gentle here, you don’t want to disturb the seeds or the soil. Keep up the practice of making sure these seeds are watered to ensure healthy germination until you see sprouts.

Once the seeds have sprouted, look for them to develop into seedlings. They will start to sprout leaves, and in the case of multiple plants, wait for one of the plants to develop three well defined sets of leaves.

Once the third set has developed, then do a little thinning – you’ll want to thin out the smaller, weaker plants so that only the stronger ones are left. This ensures that the smaller plants aren’t stealing moisture and nutrients from the champions of the batch.

It’s best, and easiest, to thin while these seedling are small, so that pulling them up doesn’t disturb the roots of the stronger plants.

Succession Planting

As a beginner gardener, you may wish to simply garden for a single season: plant, tend, harvest, and then leave the garden beds be until next summer. That’s totally fine, but if you’d like a garden that really works for you year-round, consider succession planting.

Succession planting isn’t difficult, and it will truly maximize the rewards you get from your home vegetable garden. By using succession planting, you could double or triple the volume of fresh vegetables you harvest from your garden.

By continuously planting and harvesting each season in Spring, Summer, and Fall, with weather-appropriate plants, you can turn your garden into a very efficient food source. For an excellent beginner guide to succession planting, take a look at this video:

Crop Rotation

Those of us who have been gardening for years all have a story about a bumper crop one year leading to a minuscule harvest the next.

Bountiful plants followed by punier versions is a very common tale among gardeners, and the culprit isn’t the validity of your (or our) green thumb – the answer to fighting this boom-and-slump cycle is crop rotation.

Crop rotation is, essentially, an extension of the work you did in initially laying out your garden, and deciding where to plant what.

Moving the plant groups that you have placed together to new locations – and new soil – every year is something that some gardeners don’t do, but it can be a huge improvement to nearly any garden, in several ways.

First of all, rotating crops year after year helps to keep that soil that we spent so much time worrying about healthy and fertile. By planting the same plants in the same soil each year, those same plants are going to drain the same nutrients – in the same way – year after year, and over time that soil will become less effective.

Additionally, rotating your plant groups helps to mitigate soil diseases and pests.

What are those? These are conditions like verticillium wilt and rootworms that prefer certain types of plants – so planting the same thing in the same location each year helps them set up a permanent foothold. To learn more about soil-borne diseases, check out this piece.

Maintaining the Garden

Once you’ve planted your seeds, it’s time to get to maintaining those plants. Garden maintenance isn’t difficult, it just requires a little attention every day. This is what, for many of us, makes gardening so enjoyable.

It gets us out of the house and into the warm sun each day, carefully watching and tending to the plants as we see the fruits – sometimes literally – of our labor thrive.

Watering

When, how often, and how much water to give a garden is one of the most common questions beginner gardeners ask. Watering your garden can be as simple as watching rain falls, or as complex as installing automatic irrigation systems. Finding the happy place somewhere in between is where most beginner should flourish.

In terms of how much water your garden needs, that really depends on many factors. The plants, your location, the type of soil you have – all of these are factors in how much you’ll need to water your garden.

In terms of soil, sandy soils tend to (of course) hold less water than heavier dirt or clay soils. So, consider how long it takes that soil to dry out.

This is another reason that soil building with compost or manure is highly recommended – this creates healthy soil that drains rainwater sufficiently while retaining just enough water for plants.

As a rule of thumb, your garden soil should be just moist. If the weather is rainy, you may not need to add any water at all. If it’s hot and dry, then you’ll want to bring out the hose.

Watering in the morning tends to be best, so that evaporation is reduced, but watering in the afternoon is okay, too. If you water later in the day, try not to let the plants get too wet – this can encourage fungal growth if the dampness persists into cool evenings.

Weed Control

If you’ve taken steps to prevent weeds when you created your garden, weed control on an ongoing basis should be fairly manageable – particularly if you’re using raised beds or square-foot gardening methods, which tend to not inherit weeds.

Weeds can surprise you – even in a weed-free patch of soil, you may find that once you plant, you start seeing weed growth, too.

This is because the seeds for those weeds can remain deep under the soil, where they don’t get enough sun or moisture to grow, until they’re dredged up toward the surface by your tiller, hoe, or trowel. For this reason, you should keep an eye on your garden for weed growth.

When you do see weeds popping up, don’t wait for them to become a bigger problem. Young weeds are much easier to deal with than older ones. Once you’ve pulled them, just toss them on the ground – as they decay, they will help add nutrients to your soil.

Pest Control

The best thing you can do for pest control is companion planting, as discussed earlier. Another good practice is to plant flowers in addition to your vegetables – this will attract bees and butterflies, which will act as natural pest deterrents.

Still, even with plenty of preparation, sometimes pests like aphids, earwigs, Japanese beetles, or caterpillars will appear. The best pest control method depends on your plants, and the type of pests you have. This resource has a great breakdown for the most common garden pests.

Fertilizer

So, you’ve composted and mulched and manured – your soil is in tip-top shape. But, as we’ve mentioned, even manure doesn’t have the nutrient content of a good fertilizer, so it may be good to consider using some (especially if you don’t use manure).

There are 3 major kinds of fertilizer:

  • Organic fertilizers are just what they sound like: they’re made from natural materials, and have to be broken down naturally by microorganisms in your soil, resulting in a slow, gradual release of nutrients.
  • Water-soluble fertilizers are mixed with water and sprayed onto soil as a liquid, rapidly feeding nutrients to the plants.
  • Synthetic fertilizers are nutrient-rich chemical compounds that attempt to emulate the effects of organic fertilizers on a more rapid, and more nutrient-rich, basis.

To learn more about the best kind of fertilizer for your plants and your garden, chat with another local gardener, or consult your local home improvement store, who will certainly have a wide selection of fertilizers available for you.

Gardening Tools

To maintain your new vegetable garden, you will also need a few essential tools in addition to a positive attitude and an excitement for this wondrous craft. Here are some basic gardening tools you’ll need to have at the ready when you get started.

  • Gloves: For protecting your hands from thorns, splinters, and dirt.
  • Spade: For digging holes for plants and moving dirt around.
  • Rake: For leveling soil or clearing the ground.
  • Hand trowel: For weeding, planting, and small or shallow digging jobs.
  • Pruners: For cutting smaller branches, larger clumps of herb plants, and large flowers.
  • Hoe: For skimming, slicing, and removing weeds.
  • Shears: For trimming small hedges and cutting back herb plants.
  • Soil knife (hori-hori): For cutting through roots, transplanting, slicing through sod, weeding, and removing plants from pots.
  • Garden hose: For watering your garden.

Harvesting the Crops

This is the time you’ve been waiting for! All throughout the season you’ve weeded, you’ve watered, you’ve nurtured and you’ve fertilized. Now those veggies are ripe, and it’s harvest time. Here are some tips for harvest time to help you make the most of your home garden.

First of all, resist the urge to harvest all in one day. Vegetables ripen at different times, and some plants produce harvestable vegetables continuously for weeks.

Make harvesting part of your daily garden routine – harvest veggies as they ripen. This ensures that you get a constant supply of fresh, ripe veggies, and it encourages production in the plant (since it isn’t wasting energy and nutrients on a vegetable that’s already ripe anymore).

For leafy vegetables, cut through the whole stalk at an angle – harvest these in the cool morning time if you can. For summer squash, you can harvest by holding the vine in one hand while holding the squash in your other hand. A gentle pull is all it takes. In the case of winter squash, cut the vines about 3 inches from the squash.

For root vegetables like onions, carrots, and potatoes, loosen the soil around them with a garden fork before pulling – you don’t want to damage the veggies by trying to pull them through solid soil! If you can, try to leverage the veggies out with the fork after loosening the soil, rather than by pulling alone.

For more great tips on harvesting, consult this excellent harvesting page.

There you have it! You’re now a successful novice gardener. As you harvest, begin thinking about what to plant next, and as the years go by, your gardening routine will become more and more an integral part of your daily life.

 

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