There’s a lot to be said for starting a vegetable garden. It’s enjoyable as a hobby, it brings you closer to nature, it can save you some money on your food costs, and there’s a real sense of accomplishment to pulling it off successfully. Somehow the things you grow yourself always taste best, and you’re especially proud to serve them to your family and guests.
Getting started, though, may seem a bit intimidating. But break it down into steps, and it’s really not so overwhelming:
1. Choose what to grow.
You first need to decide what to grow in your vegetable garden. What do you like to eat? That’s one obvious factor. But beyond that, you’ll want to do some research into what grows well in the climate and soil of your particular area. If you’re in a dry part of Canada, you probably won’t have much luck with plants that grow best in the tropics.
There’s also the factor that some vegetables are more finicky and require plenty of skill, time, and tender loving care to thrive, and others are hardier and do well with a minimum of assistance. If this is your first vegetable garden or you’re not going to have a huge amount of time to invest in it, you may want to stick to some of the easier vegetables to grow. Some of the ones with which beginners tend to do well are beets, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, radishes, and tomatoes.
Variety is a good idea. Not only because when you’re done it’s nice to have a variety of tasty items to eat, but because combinations of plants often grow better than when you have all one kind in a garden. For example, if a plant has a fungus problem that strikes only that kind of plant, it can easily spread if all the other plants in your garden are of that same kind, whereas if it’s surrounded by only other kinds of plants, it’s effectively quarantined.
Related to this, familiarize yourself with the concept of “companion plants.” Some types of plants grow particularly well together, because, among other things, they distract pests away from each other. Research which plants are good companion plants for the vegetables you’d like to grow, and consider adding some of those to your garden.
2. Choose where to locate your garden.
It’s said of real estate that the three most important factors are location, location, and location (not necessarily in that order).
One could say something similar about gardening.
An area that previously was used to grow grass can be a problem for a garden. Almost all soil pests build to large populations on grass roots. If you choose an area that’s had grass for your garden, first till or spade it thoroughly and wait to plant until it’s been free of grass for at least thirty days.
A tree’s root system can take a lot of valuable nutrients from the soil and leave little behind for a garden planted too close to it.
Check the shade patterns of your house, trees, fences, and other items. Vegetables need at least six to eight hours a day of direct sunlight, preferably continuous. Locate your garden where you’re sure that much sun will be available.
Excessive wind can be a problem for a garden. It can damage crops and dry them out. If there is a lot of wind in your area, set up your vegetable garden where there is a fence or building partly blocking the wind.
Locate your garden where predators are less likely to disturb it. If you’re out away from the city with plenty of land, a vegetable garden at the far end of your property might be vulnerable to deer and other wild animals, whereas something close to your house might not be. If you have a dog that runs loose in your yard, consider fencing off the area you wish to turn into a vegetable garden.
3. Check your soil.
Vegetables do best in loamy, well-drained soil. You need to make sure your soil is up to snuff, and do something about it if it’s not.
Clear the intended area of all unwanted debris such as weeds, rocks, twigs, etc. Rake it smooth. Work it with a tiller or other appropriate tool.
A lot of what’s relevant to know about your soil may be hard for a layperson, especially a beginner, to discern. Therefore you should have your soil examined by a professional. They will be able to tell you if it is appropriate for growing what you intend to grow, or if it is too heavy clay or too sandy and perhaps needs to have some other material mixed in with it. They will also be able to tell you if your soil contains enough organic material to serve as plant nutrients. If not, you will have to work in some compost or fertilizer.
4. Plant your seeds.
Choose a day to plant when your soil is not too wet. If you pick some up in your hand and it’s a little moist but crumbly, that’s good.
If it sticks together when you squeeze it, that’s too wet and you should wait.
The precise configuration of your garden, how much space to allow between crops, etc. will depend on what you’re growing. But as a rule, put your tallest crops toward the back and your shortest crops toward the front. Plant in rows that run north and south, so each item in the row gets the same exposure to the sun. Leave enough room to walk between the rows without stepping on your crops.
The best time of year to plant will also depend on what you are planting. This information is generally available with the seeds you buy.
It’s a good idea to use seed markers to note what you plant where, so you’ll remember what to expect to pop out of the ground.
5. Maintain your garden.
Now you’ve gotten your vegetable garden started, but that doesn’t mean your work is through. You’ll need to stay on top of things to give your crops the best opportunity to thrive.
Depending on your rainfall, you may need to water your vegetables. Always be on the lookout for weeds and dig those up when you see them. (Adding mulch can cut down on weeds.) Keep an eye out for pests and use a pesticide (or organic alternative) if necessary. Pick ripened crops frequently to encourage more production.
There’s a lot to vegetable gardening, so it’s expected that certain things might trip you up the first time or the first few times you try to get a garden started. But it’s OK if it’s not perfect from the beginning. When you run into problems, there is a plethora of sources of information to solve them, from books to the Internet to the folks at your local garden supply store. Tap into this knowledge, gain experience gradually, and you’ll get more and more of a feel for growing top quality vegetables.
Nikki Phipps, “Vegetable Gardening for Beginners.” Gardening Know How.
Cynthia Rice, “How to Grow a Vegetable Garden.” Googobits.
“A Beginner’s Vegetable Garden.” The Old Farmer’s Almanac.