How to Start A Vegetable Garden
"Life is bristling with thorns, and I know no other remedy than to cultivate one's garden." --Voltaire
How? Well, just dive in. If you have a sunny spot, warm weather and a few plants from the hardware store simply plant them into the ground. Keep them weed free and watered until ready to harvest from your organic vegetable patch. No kidding, this would really work just fine for one year (after that you likely would have depleted your soil of nutrition).
If you are willing to invest a bit more effort, then read on for a quick primer on vegetable gardening, such as:
- Vegetable garden layout
- how to prepare your soil
- how to amend your soil
- how to plant;
- when to plant
- how to make some decision on what method of growing is best for you
Vegetable Garden Layout
Proper layout of your garden will make it more useful, more productive and easier to maintain. Vegetable garden layout touches on many areas of knowledge:
- Site Selection
- Style (e.g. raised beds, vs. beds, and rows)
- Companion planting
- Crop rotation
I will touch on each of these areas well enough for a beginner vegetable gardener to get a sense of things, and perhaps well enough for an experienced gardener to learn something or be reminded of something they used to know. If you were hoping for an aspect of garden layout other than what I covered, please let us know.
Garden Site Selection
The main factors in garden site selection are:
- Wind Protection
- Soil Conditions & Water
The average American garden is 600 square feet. The median garden size is 96 square feet. You may want to keep that in mind and allow for future expansion of your garden. Start small, achieve success and then expand. Vegetable is not a lot of work, but there are demanding moments during the season so going too large too fast can be a butden.
Assume all vegetable garden crops like the full sun--like eight hours or more per day--and select a site that provides that. To spell it all out, avoid shady areas such as behind walls, trees, shrubs, north facing slopes etc. If you can’t make 8 sunlight hours happen in your space your garden will be less productive and your tomatoes may never ripen. Even plants that like cooler temperatures like a full sun--they like lots of hours of less sun/heat and it is not the same thing as a few hours of more sun. The more sun, the more crops your garden will produce.
While a flat garden is easier in almost every respect, you can garden on hillsides and slopes as long as you take measure to avoid erosion and maintain sunlight. If you do select a hillside location, be sure to provide adequate sunlight for your plants. The ideal slope would face the south so that the hill receives full sunlight.
To avoid erosion, you will need to terrace a very hilly garden, and may want to consider raised beds to help in this. The flatter your garden the less erosion you will experience. Commercially, fields of lettuce are often laser-leveled to increase moisture retention and make other operations more efficient. Voltaire probably did not know it, but the practice of contour plowing--where crops are planted across slopes rather than up/down slopes--can reduce erosion and increase soil fertility as soil is not washed away. In the 1930s, the Soil Conservation Corps demonstrated 50% higher yields when contour plowing was used.
Small plants do not like the drying and physical stress effects of the wind. A wind-protected garden is better than a windswept one. Provide windbreaks-- almost anything will do--fences, lines of trees or other plantings. Effective windbreaks are upwind of the prevailing winds (typically to the west of your garden) and will protect a ground area of about 10 feet for every height of the windbreak. For example, a 3-foot high fence will protect ground 30 feet of ground on the downwind side of it.
A final consideration in site selection is the condition of the soil and access to water Garden gurus will tell you that you can improve any soil into a viable growth medium. Nevertheless, some soils are much easier to work with than others. If you have a choice for you garden site consider the soil and its moisture content. You want to avoid growing in an area that is constantly too wet, or dry. And you want to have a site that can provide the water you will need via hoses, rain barrels, etc.
Do you want to grow with a particular method? The style of vegetable gardening you pick will affect your design. Here are some choices:
- Square Foot Gardening
- Raised Beds
- Beds and Rows
Each of these styles may affect your overall garden layout if you are committed to a particular style. Seed packages and general gardening instructions are typically given for bed, and row style planting as if you are a large scale grower. Spacings are provided between plants, and between rows of plants that recommend ideal spacing for proper traditional cultivation. Planting into raised beds often requires adapting seed packet instructions because plant and row spacings do not maximize the use of space within the raised beds. Finally, square foot gardening attempts to balance ideal plant spacing while maximizing land use.
For a beginner vegetable garden you can succeed with any style or mixing styles, but going against the recommended spacing on a seed packet can be hard without other guidance. (For the curious, see this post about seed spacing decisions…)
Square Foot Gardening
Square Foot gardening is an intensive form of gardening that attempts to maximize food production in a minimum of space. Plants are placed close together and there is a large focus on improving the soil to create a very productive environment. There are several books that describe the method. If you intend to do all your gardening by hand from garden prep to weeding and watering, square foot gardening is great. It really does let you develop the smallest garden for the most output. The down side of the method is that it really rules out using things like hoes, rototillers, and even makes watering difficult to make efficient--there are plants everywhere! And, you really do need to amp up the quality of your growing soil because every square foot needs to provide lots of nutrition to plants. The upside is that the intensity make you focus on your plants, and everything is in a small area so there is less work to do on fences, raised beds, etc.
Raised Bed Gardening
Raised Bed Gardening can be intensive, or not depending on what you plant and how you plant. Raised beds provide a great framework for your garden and they warm up quickly in the spring and drain well. One downside to gardening in raised beds is you can not generally use a rototiller to prep your soils--except for small portable models, and of course they do cost something to construct. Typical raised beds are constructed of lumber about 4 feet by 8 feet in size and perhaps 6 inches high. You can purchase hardware to connect standard 2”x6” lumber. (Note: do not use pressure treated lumber for food producing beds! It is not safe.). Many growing technologies are hard to use in raised beds because they are typically adapted from commercial products--plastic mulch and low-cost drip irrigation systems for example can be hard to fit into these beds.
Beds and Rows
Conventional bed-and-row gardening is most like commercial vegetable production, and growing in this manner means you can use many commercial products and agricultural implements efficiently. You also get the convenience of reading advice right off a seed package or plant label without adapting your plant spacing. Some of the most efficient commercial growing technologies are plastic mulches, drip irrigation, and row covers that control temperature, sunlight and pests. You can also use labor saving tools like hoes, wheel hoes, rototillers and seeders in this method of growing. If you have space for a large garden you may want to work in this system. Of course, with the convenience of technology comes the cost of fencing, and additional equipment, maintenance, etc.Geometry
After selecting an appropriate site you will need to layout the garden beds, pathways, fences and access to water, etc. Start with a sketch. Determine your sizes for:
- Garden Beds
Here are some recommendations:
Don’t go wider than 48” assuming you have access on each side of the bed. It become too hard to reach into the middle of your bed for planting and weeding. If it is hard, it does not get done. 36” bed width is nice. If you have really long beds be sure to allow crossing points at about every 25-50 feet or you will have a long walk to get to the other side!
Some crops grown in fields--like pumpkins and Zucchini- are grown flat with wide spacings. If you want to grow these plants, consider reading about growing them vertically so you can fit them more easily into your home garden.
Cartways need to be wide enough to maneuver your cart! Gardening tends to involve moving lots of material and have cart access is very nice all season long.
Footpaths ought to be at least 18” wide. You might go more narrow if you have great balance and like a challenge, or wider if you like to sit down as you work.
Fences are a sad necessity for most of us with pests and pets. For deer they need to be quite high--perhaps 6 feet, and they need to be worked on from both sides to keep them weed free. If you don’t like weeding vegetables, you really will not like weeding fences! For that reason, I suggest pathways around fences to be at least 24-30” wide.
Wide gates are nice. Make sure your garden cart can fit into the gate!
After you have a sketch you can live with, you will need to mark it out in your space. Gather the following:
- Measuring tape
Use some of your high-school geometry to layout the space on the ground. Keep in mind that this can get tricky if your garden is not relatively level because slope distances are longer than horizontal distances. To get right angles remember the 3,4,5 trick, or draw some intersecting arcs. Like this:
It is helpful to start by positioning and measuring one of the long length of your garden first, then finding a right angle, then find the side. From there you can measure parallel sides to get things nailed down. Use the stakes, strings and measurements as required.
Once you have a big rectangle, you can divide it up with your tape measure and string into beds and paths as required by your plan.
Companion planting seeks to find mutually beneficial relationships between various plants and should be a part of your garden layout. The classic american example happy companions are the three sisters of corn, beans, and squash. The beans fix nitrogen which feeds the corn and the corn supports the beans. The squash grows along fine until the corn dies back in mid summer, at which point the squash goes crazy. Tomatoes and basil are another happy pairing. Check out this nifty infographic of companions.
What to Plant: A Garden Vegetable List
The top 11 garden vegetables in the United States are:
- Sweet Pepper
- Hot Pepper
- Sweet Corn
(list from National Gardening Association)
Other easy vegetables to grow include:
Beets, kale, swiss chard, pumpkin, shallot.
This list contains good things to start with and have the advantage of being widely available as young plants at hardware, supermarket and garden centers. If you are just starting out, using young plants for transplanting makes sense and reduces a great deal of work. Starting your garden with seedlings helps delay garden and seed starting preparations by several weeks in the spring and lets you begin your garden when the weather gets nice.
It is hard to find much beyond the most popular vegetables in local stores, and it is hard to find heirloom vegetable varieties too. If you want to grow more exotic vegetables you will need to find a specialty garden center or you will need to start plants from seeds.
Most young transplants come with spacing and tending advice, and virtually all seed packages do too. You can follow this advice, or experiment with different spacing if you like.
Two special mentions for growing tomatoes. First, especially of the vining type (aka indeterminant). It makes sense to practically bury tomatoes alive.. Tomatoes will send out new roots wherever vines touch the ground, and a deeply buried plant will quickly take off in good soil. So, if you plant young plants as deep as possible and leave just a few leaves out you will get your tomatoes off to a good start. Second, tomatoes benefit from lots of calcium in the soil. Save and crush eggshells and place a few tablespoons in each hole as you plant your tomatoes.
Soil Preparation and Making Healthy Soil
Good growing soils have both structure and nutrition. Ideal garden soil is loose and light and not too sandy or dense. This allows the roots to grow and have access to water, air, and nutrients. You need to work on both structure, and nutrition and compost is the ideal soil amendment as it helps with both. Other options include peat moss and other organic matter to improve soil structure.
Testing your soil and getting a recommendation for nutrition is a great way to start in a new garden. Most states have approved testing labs you can find online that can deliver test results and soil improvement recommendations for your vegetable garden. Many garden centers also sell test kits that you can send off to laboratories for results.
When to plant vegetables
Most planting dates are specified in relation to the last frost date, and the first frost date, and you can find these dates by entering your zip code in several online data tools:
http://bit.ly/1BX68d5 (this is a google search on “frost date by zip code.” Sorry that we could not locate an easy to use federal government data sources for this information.)
You can also learn your agricultural zone here:
http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/ (this is a federal government website).
One piece of advice is to avoid planting before the dates given, since often daylight as well as temperature play a role in plant development. You may get lucky with temperatures, but many vegetables will simply not develop without the proper amount of daylight/night.
Weeds must be kept at bay for a successful vegetable garden. Weeds generally can totally overwhelm a garden as many weeds grow quickly and shade out desired vegetables. Even weeds that are underneath your plants can take moisture and nutrition away from your plants. It is almost imperative to keep your garden as close to weed-free as possible. It is fun to weed when the weeds are small, but if you let them get large there is no fun at all.
Most weeds can be beat by depriving them of sunlight, or continually disturbing them via cultivation. They can also be scorched with a flame. The ideal method of weed suppression is a healthy overstory of intended vegetables that will shade the ground. Devoted organic farms plant “green manure” cover crops that are intended to simultaneously block sunlight from promoting new weed growth and also add organic matter and nutrients to the soil. For example, a planting of tomatoes might be surrounded by a planting of clover.
Depriving weed seeds of sunlight typically means adding mulch to your garden. This can be almost any material and pine needles, bark mulches, sawdust and straw are used, as is newspaper and old carpeting-in short almost anything will do assuming it is “food safe.” We sell plastic mulches that are very effective at blocking sunlight and simultaneously prevent moisture evaporation and warm soil for more effective growth
Cultivation, or the frequent disturbance of the top layer of soil is an effective, but labor intensive method of controlling weeds. If you cultivate frequently, you will not need to mulch (an often expensive and time consuming activity), but you will need to diligently cultivate! There is something to be said for cultivation in that it get you into the garden frequently so you can monitor the health of plants several times per week.
Watering your vegetable garden
Watering your vegetable garden is an important
Cover lots of ground quickly. Inexpensive.
Focused watering delivers water to root zone of plants only. Leaves are not wetted. Easy hook-up to hose connection.
Drip Irrigation Tape
Tightly focused watering delivered with maximum control. Leaves are not wetted. Low flow water delivery prevents erosion.
Easy to work in garden during watering.