How to start a vegetable garden from scratch in your backyard

Mon Jun 14 2021

A woman in her garden looking at tomatoes and carrots

Many of us are still spending extra time at home and looking for creative outlets and home improvement projects to keep busy. Few hobbies combine these two things better than learning how to start a vegetable garden from scratch.

Not only does planting a vegetable garden get you up and moving in the fresh air, but the vegetables you produce can offset today’s soaring food costs. If you’re new to gardening, start small and plan well so you can have vegetables you grew yourself on your dinner table this summer.

And don't worry – you don't need a green thumb to have a thriving vegetable garden. These are tips anyone can put into action, regardless of your gardening experience.

Choose the right spot

You don’t need a lot of space for an abundant garden. In fact, most experts recommend a space that’s no bigger than 10’ x 10’ when you first start out to keep your garden manageable. Depending on your yard, you may want to start even smaller, especially as you think about how much sun and water you need.

Vegetables typically need at least six hours of direct sunlight every day, so you want to choose a spot that's fairly exposed. However, if you live in an area where the summer sun will beat down on your plants, look for an area that gets some afternoon shade. This will give your plants relief for part of the day.

Check the soil and make sure the area has good drainage. If your soil has lots of sand or clay, you can mix in organic matter to improve it. You need about two to three inches of organic matter for clay soil and an extra inch for sandy soil. Compost or well-rotted manure is the best for soil health. Adding organic material also helps the soil texture to better absorb the water your seed needs while still allowing it to drain at the right speed.

If you don't opt for a raised garden bed, you may want to surround your vegetable garden with a border – perhaps decorative edging or flowers. This not only makes it easy to see where you need to tend, but it can help keep pets (and pests!) out.

One important note regarding gardens and your home’s value: most people know that complimentary landscaping goes a long way toward increasing your home’s curb appeal. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean a veggie garden will have the same effect. Not everyone wants to do the work a garden requires, so consider using raised beds if you’re thinking about moving in the near future.

Stock up on supplies and tools

Having the right tools and supplies makes starting a vegetable garden much easier. Here are some must-haves to put on your list:

  • Water hose
  • Spray nozzle
  • Garden gloves
  • Trowel
  • Garden forks
  • Garden stakes
  • Dandelion weeder
  • Fruit and vegetable fertilizer
  • Fruit and vegetable disease control
  • Insect control

You may also need other things based on your location and the vegetables you plant. For example, gardens where there’s more wildlife benefit from protective fencing, and tall plants like tomatoes require a trellis.

Pick your vegetables

Now for the fun part: pick the vegetables you want to grow. If you’ve decided to go with a 100-square-foot garden (that’s the 10’ by 10’ one we mentioned earlier), then you want three to five types of vegetables and three to five plants of each type.

As a beginner, you want to choose vegetables that are easy to grow and that you and your family enjoy eating. Here are some popular low-maintenance options:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Squash
  • Carrots
  • Radishes
  • Corn
  • Lettuce
  • Greens
  • Peas
  • Broccoli
  • Eggplant
  • Potatoes
  • Kale

Crops such as tomatoes, peppers, and squash only need to be planted once to continuously produce fruits and vegetables. Others, like carrots, radishes, and corn, need to be replanted after a harvest.

Timing is important, too. Lettuce, greens, peas, and radishes are great to plant in early spring because they do better in the cooler weather of the season. When the weather warms up, you can add tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and herbs. Vegetables such as potatoes, cabbage, and kale are best timed for fall harvests.

Plant your vegetable garden

You can plant your garden using seeds or plants at various stages of growth purchased at your local garden store. Seeds are usually more expensive and take longer to produce crops compared to starter plants. However, starter plants can be easier for new gardeners to grow because you can plant them when there’s no more danger of frost in your area.

Whether you go with seeds or starter plants, the actual steps to planting a vegetable garden are:

  • Use a trowel to dig a hole two times deeper and wider than your plant: This gives your plants enough space for their roots to take hold and for their leaves to get plenty of sunlight and air circulation.
  • Place plants in holes and cover them with soil: Compact the soil around them, and be sure to not bury them deeper than what they were in their containers. You should also add garden stakes to vine plants such as tomatoes and beans so that they can grow vertically.
  • Water your seeds or new plants immediately after planting: Plants and seeds need water right away to help them settle in, but you also want to water them whenever the soil is starting to dry out approximately a half inch from the top.
  • Fertilize your plants: A new location can be stressful for fledgling plants, so give them some TLC in the form of extra nutrients. Vegetable fertilizer can build stronger root systems, stalks, and leaves.

Maintain your garden

One thing veteran gardeners will tell you when you’re learning how to start a vegetable garden is how important it is to care for your plants. A well-tended 10’ by 10’ vegetable garden will yield more produce than an untended 10’ by 25’ garden, so make gardening part of your routine.

Your first concern should be water. The soil should be moist, and that means that you need to water your vegetables every couple of days – and probably every day during really hot summers. The best time to water is in the late afternoon or early evening when plants can spend the night recovering from the day’s stresses.

If you’re worried that you’ll forget to water your plants or your best source for water is a bit of a haul, consider a drip irrigation system or a soaker hose to keep everything hydrated. You can even get a timer that turns these on and off so you don’t overwater your plants.

Next, make sure you keep weeds out of your vegetable garden. You don’t want to let the weeds take over and choke out your plants. It's best to tackle weeds when they’re small and easily pulled out by the root, so check for them regularly. To get the stubborn weeds with deep roots, you can use a dandelion weeder. This allows you to get directly under the weed and pop it out from the roots.

Finally, fertilize your vegetable garden regularly. Most experts agree that you should add fertilizer to the soil every three to four weeks. That’s true even when crops start to appear so that your plants continue to get the nourishment they need to grow and produce vegetables.

We’d love to end this with a happy, “And that’s all there is to it!” However, learning how to start a vegetable garden and tending to it throughout the growing season requires consistent attention. Just remember that your efforts will be rewarded with healthy fresh food for you and your family.


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