Tips on starting a vegetable garden from scratch including ideas for clearing land, mulching, compost, and amending the soil
In my experience as an allotment secretary, most new gardeners tend to arrive with the spring flush. Full of energy and excitement they begin digging and planting and generally wearing themselves out. They also have a lot more challenges, since perennial weeds and their seeds will be competing with veg, and there’s generally a lot more to do in a lot less time. Starting a garden from scratch in autumn will give you a head start that will make gardening easier in the next year. Though these tips are best used from September to November, use them at any other time of the year. The most important thing about gardening is to get started.
Survey your growing space
When we moved into our new home a year ago the back garden was a blank canvas. There was a greenhouse, a few fruit trees, shrubs along the sides, and a lot of work ahead. The first thing I did was look at the soil and situation and make some calls. First I dug the ground and found that the soil was sandy-to-loamy but low in organic matter. There are also trees and shrubs around the sides that were spreading their roots to the center of the garden. That’s why I chose to go for raised beds as opposed to open garden beds.
When you’re looking at your growing space, consider these factors:
- The quality and type of soil
- Location of trees and how their roots and shade will affect your garden
- How much sun the space gets
- Drainage issues
- Perennial and problematic weeds
- Is anything growing there already?
Start a Vegetable garden from scratch
Vegetables are demanding plants. Whereas ‘weeds’ can scratch a living out of any old crack in the pavement, veg needs babying. Most need fertile soil, protection from wind, regular watering, and help to defend themselves against pests. You cannot simply dig a hole in the ground, plant your veg, and expect it to thrive.
Traditional vegetable gardens are long beds that are kept free of weeds and tended daily. Gardeners add nutrients to the soil using compost, manure, seaweed, green manures, and other means. This is an exercise that has to not only be done when you first break ground but every year afterward. You feed the soil so that it can feed your veg.
You can choose to start a traditional garden if you have a large enough space and if you deem it suitable. Vegetables also grow well in containers and pots, raised beds, or undercover in polytunnels and greenhouses. How you start your garden is up to you, your challenges, and your location.
Other things that you may want to consider are time, money, and purpose. Meaning, the time you will have to work in the garden in the future, how much money you can spend, and how you want to use the space. Vegetable gardens can be purely functional or they can be an outdoor living space. The materials you bring in to build it could be as inexpensive/free as wood pallets, or as expensive as pre-made raised beds.
To dig or not to dig?
The standard way to start garden beds is by digging. I remember the back-breaking work of even double-digging when I started my first allotment. Although gardening has been done this way for a very long time, it’s now known that it’s completely unnecessary. The only catch is that you’ll need to have a lot of compost or manure to spread in a thick layer over the soil.
The idea is that worms do the digging for you and it works, as evidenced by the work of Charles Dowding. Digging over the soil will still work, and it’s a way that gardeners have been using to get organic matter in the soil quickly. However, the action turns up a lot of buried weed seeds and can destroy the natural soil structure. Both will create more work and be less efficient than letting nature help you along.
Starting a garden in a new build property
If you’ve just moved into a newly built home, it’s probable that you’ll be starting your garden on poor quality soil. When new homes are built the topsoil is removed to make way for the building’s foundations and it’s oftentimes taken somewhere off-site. Its absence is oftentimes disguised by the rolls of grass that are laid down to create the lawn. It’s subsoil underneath rather than fertile top soil. Vegetables will struggle to grow in it.
Sub-soil is red and crumbly and lacking in structure. If your future garden is on sub-soil you’ll have a lot of work ahead of you to repair it. This will involve digging a lot of manure and compost into the soil and could take years. You can also opt to put in raised beds.
Building Raised Beds
Raised beds aren’t for everyone and there’s a strong case against them when it comes to slugs. They create places where they can hide and lay their eggs so many choose not to grow in them. I’m the other person who swears by them. In the allotment garden, it’s because I’m on a slope and the beds help stop erosion. I’m also a fan because they let you build the soil up over challenging soil. At home, it’s another set of issues already discussed.
Late autumn and into winter is the best time to put in raised beds and other hard landscaping. It gives your new garden an instant framework for adding compost and manure and creating growing spaces. They also look neat, can be easier to maintain, and can be built quite high if you have mobility issues. Head over here for tips on building raised beds.
Clearing Grass & Weeds
The simplest way to clear land is by suppressing the vegetation. There are a number of ways to do it but the most effective is laying dark polythene plastic over the ground. Over a period of 2-3 months the annual weeds underneath will die off and the worms will have pulled the rotted material down into the soil.
Begin by mowing or strimming the vegetation down. Next, lay 4-6″ of compost over the areas you’re planning to grow in. Cover the area in heavy-duty polythene and weigh it down well. By the time you uncover it, the soil underneath will be tilled and fertilized and most likely ready for planting. Just make sure that troublesome perennials like dock or brambles have been removed first.
This method works a treat in autumn. Lay it over the ground in September or October and by spring that area underneath will be clear and practically ready for planting. Here’s more information on using polythene as weed suppression.
Create Garden Paths
If there’s one under-rated garden feature, it’s garden paths. Not only do they give you a dry and clean place to walk and work, but they reduce work. Before I covered the paths in my allotment garden they would fill up with weeds, especially at the sides. I spent just as much time weeding them as I did my beds! They also became slippery and muddy whenever it rained and just looked bad.
There are many solutions for creating weed-free paths but the easiest and cheapest is woodchip garden paths. To create them, lay cardboard or weed resistant material on the ground, then one to two inches of wood chips. It’s done wonders with keeping my garden tidy and reducing weed spread.
In my home garden, I’ve put in pea gravel paths. These are a lot more labor-intensive and expensive but they’ll look great when finished. To create gravel paths, you dig the soil out 3-4 inches deep, support the sides with wooden planks, and line the bottom with weed-resistant material. Next, you fill them with a layer of basic gravel followed by a layer of decorative gravel.
While you’re clearing an area for a new vegetable garden, you’ll likely end up with a big pile of waste. It could be sod, that you can stack upside down and cover with a tarp. Give it six months and it will transform into good quality topsoil.
Other materials like grass, annual weeds, leaves, sticks, and small branches can be composted. The action of mixing ‘greens’ such as grass, with ‘browns’ like cardboard, will break down into a rich material that is like black gold in the vegetable garden. Lay it on the soil yearly as a weed-suppressant mulch and to feed the soil. It’s filled with nutrients that your vegetables will love. There are easy ways to create compost and more involved techniques that involve making sure the pile breaks down quickly.
More Beginner Gardening Inspiration
If you’re looking for more clever ideas to get your garden started, check out these popular pieces here on Lovely Greens.
- 15 Mistakes that Beginner Gardeners make
- Using Wood Chip Mulch in the Vegetable Garden
- The Lazy Gardener: 22 Time & Effort Saving Gardening Tips
- What to plant for Autumn Harvests