Vegetable Gardening for Beginners: Start Simple for the Best Results
Other considerations include the zone you are planting in, amount of light your garden will receive, and the access you may have to helpful gardening products. Below will detail what you need to be thinking about before finalizing your garden’s ultimate resting place.
Always consider your physical location (as in on a map) before deciding where to place the actual location of your garden. There are quite a few factors to take into account before putting in a permanent planting space, and you may, in fact, decide you don’t want anything permanent after all depending on your living situation, and the capabilities of your property for supporting growing vegetation.
Urban vs Rural
Living urban versus rural can make a very significant difference to the amount of space you have available for a garden. Rural, or country living, often have more open areas for plot planning, sun availability, and room for your plants to meander into. It is often very easy to create gardens that are larger than your original plans simply because you have the available space; but keep in mind that just because you have the room, doesn’t mean you have to fill it all at once.
Urban, or city living, often has a lot more factors you need to take into consideration before planning out your growing space and can present many unique challenges as well. Urban spaces are not only just smaller, soil availability, growing space, and light may all be limited and could need some creative planning to provide the best growing conditions possible. How to best take advantage of these smaller areas will be described in detail below.
Which growing zone you live in, and how that zone is affected by local weather and garden placement will need to be considered. Growing zones differ by both latitude and longitude, as well as due to elevation, and even distances from bodies of water.
Other than checking your zone on a dependable map, you can also determine your temperature highs and lows around your property with a simple outdoor thermometer that you can track through the seasons. Don’t worry about doing this in advance of planning your garden or using it as a deciding factor of garden placement, but rather use it to better know how temperatures are affected by wind and obstacles, such as building walls, in your yard so you know how to best care for your garden.
Sun vs Shade
Many vegetables thrive in a full sun (6 to 8 hours) situation and need either a direct or strong indirect (or filtered) amount of light to grow and produce. The flip side of this is that some of these plants will struggle if too much heat is produced, and they may sunburn or wither in attempts to protect their fruits. Nearby outdoor walls or other structures can also reflect, and intensify the heat from the sun, and you’ll want to consider either providing a barrier or not placing a garden near these areas. If you cannot avoid areas of intense light, don’t fret, as this can be easily remedied in that there are many solutions to providing partial shade or filtered light to your plants as described below.
Areas of deep shade will be problematic for most vegetable plants and you will want to avoid putting your garden in areas where your plants cannot receive any sort of good light. If all you have is shade, and you are unable to manipulate an area with sunlight to reach plants for at least 6 hours, consider only planting crops that tolerate shade well. There are some varieties of veggies that can do well in the shade, and need partial shade to thrive and provide the best crop. These plants are described below for you to consider!
I know how exciting it can be to finally get started with your garden, but keep in mind that the more space you have, the more likely you will want to fill it; and that often results in more work you originally planned on- especially when those tiny one inch seedlings become 20 foot long vines.
There are many ways to help limit your enthusiasm for a large garden and keep yourself under control. Planning plot sizes in advance, using raised beds, and planting only in containers helps provide a good visual for you from the start so you know exactly how much room you will be responsible for. This also will show you exactly how much room each will take up: an important factor to consider if you have limited room.
Again, start small. A well-tended 10x10 bed is going to have a better yield than a 25x25 that you can’t keep up with. Plot designs can be varied in shape and size, so feel free to use the space you’ve decided to allot to this.
Sometimes it’s nice to look over garden designs in advance to give you an idea of what your garden may look like at maturity. It’s amazing how much a small plot will grow, so plan out your garden in advance and keep in mind the care you will need to put towards it through the growing season.
I’m a huge fan of raised garden beds. They are easy to tend, and they also limit your space somewhat so you are forced to plan for size accordingly. They are also a good choice for urban areas since they are well contained and can look well blended into a manicured urban yard. They also are good choices for urban community gardens since you can pretty much build a raised bed of sorts over any sort of ground, concrete included.
Raised beds can come up only a foot or two, or like mine that I built out of old pallets– stand in at 3 ½ feet (I left mine more rustic looking however and lined the opening with garden fabric). They can be elevated further for your needs, or be smaller as part of an overall yard design. No matter what you do you just need to make sure the soils are prepped deep enough for the roots, and that there is some sort of drainage system in place.
Containers can be anything and everything from patio pots, old buckets, wheelbarrows, or even pallets. Container gardens are perfect for urban settings, mixed into other garden plots, or even just because you don’t want to put the time and effort into a garden plot at a home you won’t be staying in for any length of time. Garden pots can usually be found inexpensively at yard sales, and if you are like me, don’t pass by the broken or cracked pots – rehab them instead!
I’m a huge fan of container gardens because of their versatility. Mix in flowers with your veggies, stagger pot heights (or even stack them!), create themed pots (like a salsa garden – yum!), and add in a fun mini trellis for a climber! The possibilities are endless! Just be sure to keep them well watered!
If you are unsure of what types of soils you have, you can easily figure it by using the ‘mason jar’ test. Simply take a mason jar (or other sealable clear jar) and fill it half way with the soils that will be used in your garden. Fill the jar with water and then seal the top before shaking well. You’ll need to let your jar sit for a few hours to allow the soils to separate out and settle, but once they do so, you’ll be able to see how much of each sand, clay, and silt you have present (sand will be on bottom, then silt, then clay on top). Once you know the approximate percentage you can determine what sort of soils you have. And once you are aware of this, you can easily amend it to fit your needs.
Many people think that creating a good soil growing compound is incredibly difficult and time consuming, but it is quite a simple process and definitely worth attempting rather than taking your chances with the soils you already have.
Amending soils, or improving your soils by adding in new materials to create a 40-40-20 percentage mix, is an important step towards making sure your plants will have not only the best start in life possible, but also will maintain through the growing and producing season. Garden soils and sands can be purchased directly from local garden centers in order to create your perfect mix, but before you begin to mix things into your soil, consider a few other suggestions that are easy to check.
The pH of soil is generally anywhere between 4.0 and 8.5, but the majority of plants favor a pH of 6.5 to 7.0 because this is where most nutrients and available minerals are found. pH refers to the acidity or alkalinity of soil. Acid based soils are found below 7.0 (neutral) and alkaline, or base soils, are found above. In order to determine your soil pH, consider a simple pH test , some of which also will help you to determine the available primary nutrients (nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus) so you can plan your soil amendment and fertilization accordingly.
To adjust your pH you can add in either lime to raise your pH, or aluminum sulfate to lower your pH. These are both easily purchased from your local gardening center and simply follow the directions on the bag to determine how much you need to mix into your soils. Generally you will only want a slight change anyway, and a little goes a long way.
To raise your alkalinity: Because it takes up to three months to raise the pH of soils, you may want to check your soils well in advance of planting. To create a more acidic soil, simply mix in wood ash throughout the soils, or add in limestone at a rate of ½ lb to 1 ½ lb depending on if you have sandy soils (needs less) or clay soils (needs more) every 3 square feet of soil.
To raise your acidity: You need 0.6 pound of aluminum sulfate per 0.5 drop in pH you want to achieve per 10 square feet of planting area in a balanced loam soil.
Compost is highly useful in your garden for a variety of reasons, but mainly because of the balance it lends to your soils when used correctly. Adding organic matter to your soils will amend them in such a manner that you should have a higher nutrient content for your roots to uptake, as well as providing a foundation for better soil structure. Moisture will be better locked in and it drain as easily, and clay soils will better aggregate, or stick together, to create air pockets for essential oxygen.
Amending your soils first and foremost addresses the moisture issues you have within your garden. Sandy soils provide too much drainage and doesn’t allow water to be as readily available to your plants. Clay soils hold too much water, and also often blocks off oxygen from reaching your plants as well. Drainage is especially important in garden plots that are dug into soils that hold high amounts of water naturally, with potted plants, or raised garden beds.
Consider the following when deciding which plants to purchase, and only choose 8 to 12 different plant varieties depending on your space to get started. You’ll want to plant 2 to 3 of each ideally, so you will have plenty of plants to harvest form when the time comes.
Size and Spacing
Seed or Purchase
If you are feeling REALLY adventurous (and possible cheap), you might be starting your plants from seeds. I’ll describe the details of this below if this is your choice, but for now I want to focus on the dangers (not really, unless you have a phobia of thinning seedlings, like I do) of planting seeds versus live plant purchases.
But in all seriousness, if you have space to start your seeds indoors, or even the temperatures to sow them directly in ground, your biggest mistake is going to be planting too many, and not thinning your seedlings. I am totally guilty of this as I feel I am murdering helpless baby plants by thinning – which of course ruins my harvest later on and makes my garden look unruly. Because of this I suggest limiting the amount of seeds you plant, AFTER you limit the seed packet choices! You can also mix and match and purchase certain plants, but sow the seeds of the rest, such as root vegetables for example.
As mentioned, choosing 8 to 12 varieties of plants for your first experimentation with vegetable gardening is the best way to help you learn as you go. There are a few plants that are better than others as well due to their ease of getting started, as well as hardiness, and good harvest yield, as well as others that provide benefits to your garden as well.
Some of the best choices to start with include the following. Consider limiting yourself for the first year to see how much space each takes up, and try not to plant more than one viing
Radishes are fast growers and easy to sow from seed. In fact, you can plant in spring, harvest, and plant again in later summer for a second, autumnal harvest.
Beets are another fast growing, and easy to care for plant. You can easily get multiple harvests in one growing season.
Salad greens are the plant that keep on giving, Well care for lettuces and spinach thrive through the growing conditions under the correct conditions (avoid full sun in the heat of the summer) and will provide you with a plethora of salad all season long.
Green beans put out a LOT of beans, and are super easy to can, or freeze for winter use!
Plant in early spring and harvest baby potatoes by the start of summer. Then leave the plant in the ground to continue producing through fall!
Occasionally onion bulbs may not mature as you would like, but what’s great about this plant is that the greens can be used as well, so there is no waste.
Although easy to grow, peas do need to grow up and climb, and they are also not fond of hot, direct sunlight. If you can plant them in the shade of another plant, do so.
Hot and bell peppers are easy to grow and lend some additional color to your garden if you let them ripen for different amounts of time.
Nothing beats a fresh tomato right off the vine. Large yields also can be used for canning and freezing at the end of the season.
Bush zucchini is a smaller version of the long zucchini vines you may remember from your childhood. Both are easy to grow and will provide a constant supply of zucchini all summer.
All squash varieties are easy to grow, but summer squash provides fruits for a long period, and if you have the room for a vine, this is a good choice.
Let’s face it, pumpkins are just fun to grow, but they really do take up a lot of room, If you have an area to train your pumpkin to grow into, it’s well worth it!
Another vining and climbing plant, cucumbers will produce consistent fruits all summer if you can provide the room for them to grow.
Basil is an easy herb to grow in your garden and is worth putting in as a low growing addition. Fresh basil pairs well with many of the other vegetables on this list.
Certain varieties of strawberries can produce all summer long, but even early spring producers will generally survive the winter and come back the following year with a new crop. Since they are low growers, you can plant them amongst your other plants, or create their own little plot (they do well in pots also).
No garden is complete without these cheery gold and yellow flowers, but marigolds do much more than just brighten up the garden. They are also a great deterrent for certain insects, rabbits, and also help draw in pollinators.
Companion planting is a consideration you may want plan for, especially since you should have a limited amount of plants to mix and match with and it will be an easy way to introduce yourself to this idea. Companioan plants are just that – plants that help intensify flavor, or complement each other when planted near one another. This concept help utilize your space, and in some cases certain plants help deter pests that like a specific vegetable. For example, onions deter most destructive flying insects, and lettuce tenderizes radishes, and radishes deter cucumber beetles (which can attack much more than cucumbers)!
Some plants, as mentioned, grow quickly and can be harvested more than once during a growing season. Or if you want to mix it up, you could plant one or more of these plants in spring, and another in the fall so you don’t crowd your plants out if you are insistent on trying your hand at growing more crops. All of the root vegetables, such as carrot, turnips, and radishes mentioned above are capable of this.
Purchase Seeds or Seedlings
Many garden centers have a seed display year-round, and additional varieties and live plants begin to make their debut sometime in March. In most places it is still much too cold to consider planting in the ground, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a start on your garden long before the winter snows have melted with seeds. Otherwise, hold onto any early seedlings you have until the last frost has passed.
In order to start your seeds yourself you only need a few items for success. Start seeds in small, individual containers such as seedling pots, or plastic cell flats with drainage holes since seeds can easily drown in too much water. Soil-less starting mixtures, generally a mix of vermiculite and peat are preferred to a potting soil when you first set your seeds.
Try to keep your soils between 65 and 70 degrees for the best results, which generally falls around room temperature.
But how can one start their seeds so early you wonder? Simple – all a seed needs is soil, water, and light. If you place your seedling pots where they will receive the heat of the sun and water them correctly, you will have little plants popping up in no time!
Ideally, if you have a small greenhouse, and plenty of sunny days (yes it can drop below freezing in a greenhouse if not properly set up), then you could realistically keep certain crops all year round.
Setting your seed pots near an indoor window, and away from a draft, is an easy way to get your plants started. I set a up a small card table in my dining room where seeds get a strong indirect light all day and they do just fine. If you have children, or a cat (like me) consider some sort of deterrent to keep them from poking little fingers (or paws) in the dirt. I stack up the table with boxes as sort of a ‘keep out’ fence and it seems to work well.
Garden Sowing and Cold Frames
If your days have been mild and sunny, but your nights are still a bit chilly, and you don’t have the room to start seeds indoors – you might want to consider sowing your seeds directly in ground and covering them with a cold frame of sorts.
are temporary, and often movable, greenhouses that can be purchased as is, or even made with a bit of wood and heavy plastic. If you are considering sowing directly in ground before the last frost, check your temperatures before committing to make sure that you can keep your temps above freezing, and warm enough for germination during the day.
Sowing seeds in ground is an easy process, but does require a bit of maintenance once the seeds germinate. My favorite technique is to drag my finger through the soils at the depth the seeds should be planted (each seed variety may be different so be sure to read the back of your seed packets for this information). Once my ‘row’ is dug I drop the seeds in and cover lightly with the displaced soils. Some seeds are extremely tiny so don’t worry about trying to drop them in individually, but rather ‘sprinkle’ them in and cover.
Depending on the seeds you’ve sown, you should start to see some germination taking place within about a week to 14 days. Again, this information will be on the back of the packets you purchase, of which I always suggest you keep, or record the information somewhere. You’ll need to watch for the stronger, larger plants that grow faster for thinning purposes as they continue to mature.
Leave the seedlings alone for a few weeks to get a stronger root system, and to allow any stranglers to make an appearance above ground. You’ll most likely start to see a lot of crowding occurring as the primary (or first leaf sets) are overtaken by secondary leaves. This is when you will want to thin them in order to allow enough room for the plant maturity and the fruits it will eventually bare. Thinning will be specific to the plant you have sown, so pay attention to that information on the back of the seed packet!
Seedlings that were purchased or grown, and that weren’t grown directly in the garden, are delicate and need a hardening off period– that is, a transitional period into more intense sunlight and temperatures in order to secure a high survivability rate before you transplant them. This is a simple process that gradually introduces your plants to the outdoors over a period of about a week. Purchased seedlings may have already gone through this process if they have been stored outdoors at the garden center.
Start seedlings in a protected area with only a few hours of sunlight a day and increase their exposure to all day sunlight for the next 7 days, also decreasing their watering (but never allowing wilt to occur). Protect your seedlings from rain, strong winds, or dropping temperatures.
Once the temperatures stay above freezing, or you have protection over your soils, dig a hole approximately twice the size of your seedling pot, and spaced out for mature plants (again, information will come with the plant concerning spacing). Start to remove the plant by gently squeezing the sides of the seedling pots and then tip it over, cradling the soils that will being to slide out. Once you have the entire plant removed, gently place it in the hole, and fill completely, tapping soils in to cover the roots. This is the same technique you will use for your own started seeds once they begin to outgrow their seedlings starter pots and have true secondary leaves.
Occasionally seedlings will come in pots that you can plant directly into the ground. If this is the case, follow the directions on the pot and place them in! Always be sure to water your newly transplanted seedlings well in order to help settle the soils and get them the moisture they need to avoid transplant shock. There are also a few tricks to help avoid this as well, such as placing a little epsom salt in the holes to provide a burst of nutrients.
When the word harvest comes to mind, I automatically think autumn, but in fact, harvest takes place anywhere from 30 to 90 days with many plants producing through the entire season. Don’t be discouraged if you have a poor yield your first year, or you aren’t as impressed with a variety of veggie you choose early in the spring. You’ll learn a little more each year you plant, and reap the benefits with each passing season.
Summer crops generally produce through the entire summer and provide seemingly endless supplies of produce for you to gorge yourselves upon, and if you are feeling generous, share with your friends and family. They are also very easy to grow! Examples of summer crops are listed below:
As I touched upon earlier, certain vegetables can be planted in both spring and fall due to their love of cooler weather and/or quickness to fruition. Start seeds early for late spring and early summer crops, and then plant again in late summer for a bountiful fall harvest!
- Salad greens
Obviously once you have all your plants in ground and are looking forward to an abundance of product, you will need to to aware of the proper care of your maturing vegetation. But no fear! Most plants can be pretty much left to their own and do best with limited attention. But there are a few things you need to be attentive to in order to secure a successful harvest.
Water is a necessity for the survival of your plants since it is water that allows the roots to take up nutrients and feed the vegetation. Watering your plants regularly allows for available moisture to keep your plants healthy and producing throughout the growing season. Young plants have shallow roots and need to be watered more regularly in order to keep them hydrated until their roots spread and grow deeper. Morning is typically an ideal time to water plants to allow them the opportunity to uptake moisture into their leaves through the heat of the day. This is crucial for their survival as photosynthesis, the creation of plant foods through the conversion of sunlight, occurs.
Even though well amended soils will provide the majority of nutrients needed for your plants to grow and produce, applying fertilizer judiciously can give your vegetation an extra boost. When you first begin to prepare your soils, adding in a slow-release, 10-10-10 fertilizer (the numbers represent available Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, the building blocks of vegetation). These nutrients will be available for your newly planted seedlings to help them overcome transplant shock more quickly, and strengthen their roots.
Come summer during the height of the growing season, consider feeding your plants with a quick release fertilizer made specifically for vegetables once every 3 to 4 weeks to provide available nutrient uptake. Mixing a tablespoon of epsom salts into a gallon of water and watering your plants with it is also a good practice.
No matter what you do, you are going to have unwanted vegetation popping up with in your garden that you will need to dispose of. Because you have create a variable havan for vegetative growth, it follows that other plants will thrive in it as well.
It is important to stay on top of your weeding as you see them appear. Weeds left too long can begin to choke out your vegetable plants, or even intertwine their roots with them, so when you pull them out you risk damaging your prized veggies. If you are planning on taking a tool to task, be very careful not to accidentally dig up, or damage your existing plants.
Mulch is an effective agent to help combat weed germination. By spreading mulch and inch or two thick, you help keep the weeds at bay.
Unfortunately, no matter what you do, your plant will most likely become prey to various insects and diseases. There are a variety of common bugs you will find in the your garden, but as a beginning gardener, there is no need to become pest identification expert; rather, knowing how to get rid of these flying, crawling, and creeping bearers of destruction should be your focus.
Generally you will see the destruction of these insects before you see the actual culprit, and knowing when to treat your plants will be crucial to making sure you get rid of the population you’re most likely collecting.
Diseases of your plants are usually fungal or bacterial in nature and thrive in moist, humid environments. So they can be generally avoided through proper plant spacing that provides air circulation, and the amendments of soils from one year to the next to help eradicate soil borne diseases and keep a healthy plant to help stave off possible infection. If you think you have any of the below listed disease, start by improving the circulation of your plants.
Luckily there isn’t a huge range of diseases that often attack your plant, but those that do can wreck havoc in a short amount of time
Bacterial Leaf Spot
Small, dark water soaked spots will appear on leaves that dry and leave behind a hole in the leaf. Dark spots and cracks can also form on the fruits.
A white downy growth on the underside of the leaves and on the stems will wither the leaves and can cause significant plant damage, but not often death.
This is a powdery growth on the tops of the leaves that can cause the dropping of leaves and fruits to ripen prematurely, making them of a lower quality.
A product of wet conditions, avoid overhead watering, and if your weather is calling for amounts of rain, consider treating plants in advance to stave off possible infection. Blight will cause black spots, fungal growth, and death of the your plant.
Usually found on mature plants, rust is a brownish-red spot on leaves and stems of the plant. You can keep this in check by removing the leaves, and treating early on to prevent spread.
There are also a lot of ‘extras’ you might want to consider to help with your growing season, as well as with your space and garden design. A few of my ‘must haves’ are listed below that are easy enough to incorporate into new gardens.
Row covers, or white garden fabric, can have variety of uses in your yard and can help lengthen your growing season, keep out insects, or provide a cooling shade during the heat of the summer. They are easy to install and reusable for more than one season.
If you are limited on space, or happen to have your garden along a wall or fence, you may want to consider using trellis support for your climbing varieties, such as squash, cucumbers, beans, or peas. You can create your own trellis, or find them at local garden centers. Just make sure they are well attached to the wall to keep them from tipping and wreaking havoc on your plants.
Cage supports aren’t only for tomatoes anymore (seriously consider allowing your tomatoes to grow within one rather than staking it for support). Like a trellis, you can grow bean and peas, cucumber, or any other variety of smaller climber within in them. Homemade cages also provide decent support and can be made to size, or even stretched out to form dome-like structures to grow your plants over. They allow you to better utilize your space, and take advantage of the space you have.
Go Ahead! Get Addicted to Gardening!
I know I have a TON of information shared with you above, but it’s everything you need to consider starting your own vegetable garden next season. Whether you choose a small plot (remember START SMALL), a raised garden bed, or container pots for your veggies, if you follow the suggestions above concerning soils, plant choices, and minimal care, you will have a degree of success you never realized you were capable of!
There are, of course, a million other details I could share with you about your garden, but to keep it simple, and less than overwhelming, the basics will do for now. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to ask below – and as always: please share this wealth of knowledge!