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Are you interested in growing your own food? Use these tips to start a vegetable garden from scratch for bountiful harvests, no matter your growing space. Includes advice on what to grow and information on raised beds, container gardens, and creating an in-ground vegetable garden.
In my experience helping run an allotment (a type of community garden), I’ve seen many people come and go. Most new gardeners arrive in spring full of energy and excitement. They spend weeks digging and planting and generally wearing themselves out by early summer. Quite a few give up around this time, and I think that if they’d started off on the right foot, they’d have a better chance at success. These tips for how to start a vegetable garden from scratch cover the basics of what every new gardener should know before they begin.
New gardeners have a lot of challenges, and the big two are the learning curve of knowing how to grow and tend plants and learning how to start a new vegetable garden. The lucky few begin with an established garden area that has been well-worked and tended before. More often, though, new gardeners have to start a new garden from a turfed area in the backyard.
Then, once you get going, the challenges switch to weeds competing with vegetables, keeping on top of watering, amending the soil, and knowing how to care for and harvest plants. There’s a lot to do in the growing year, which is why starting a vegetable garden well will save you time and effort. It will also create the foundation for bountiful harvests in the coming years.
Three Ways to Start a Vegetable Garden
There are three main ways to start a vegetable garden: container gardens, raised beds, and traditional in-ground beds. Once you decide which style is best for you and your space, there are even more techniques and styles to explore within each category. Everything from no-dig gardening to hugelkultur to vertical gardening! Know that starting a vegetable garden can be back-breaking work or relatively easy. It all depends on your strategy, budget, and how you approach the project.
- Container Garden: growing vegetables in pots, containers, and large planters. Includes many vertical gardening solutions and mainly soil-less growing medium. Great for balconies and patio space.
- Raised beds: containers sized from 4×4′ and larger and elevated from the ground. Raised beds can be made from wood, metal, or other materials and can be anywhere from six inches to several feet tall. A very useful method for gardening on poor and rocky soil (including newly built properties)
- In-Ground Gardens: traditional garden space made directly on existing soil. It can be created by digging beds or the easier way of using black plastic to clear land.
What Type of Vegetable Garden to Choose?
When starting a vegetable garden, you can stick with one of the above styles or use a mixture of them. How you decide to create a garden will depend very much on the soil. It will also depend on your physical capabilities and whether you own land or have permission to create traditional gardens in rented space.
If you have all the green lights to start a vegetable garden on the ground, you’ll need to decide on raised beds or in-ground beds. The quality and type of soil you have are the first things to consider. Most soil will be suitable for in-ground vegetable gardens, but there are exceptions when containers and raised beds may be better. For example, if your soil is waterlogged, very sandy, very rocky, or you have poor-quality soil, such as around new-build homes. Also, look at:
- The quality and type of soil: do you have clay soil, sandy, or loamy
- Amount of ground space and potential vertical space (walls) to grow on
- Location of trees and how their roots and shade will affect your garden
- How many hours of direct sunlight does the space get — full sun is best
- Exposure to wind
- Exposure to salt in the air or soil, such as by the seaside
- Drainage issues throughout the year
- Pernicious weeds to contend with
- If it’s difficult for you to work bent over or on your knees
Grow What You Like to Eat
Once you have a growing space prepared, it’s time to grow vegetables. There are three tips that I’d recommend you consider when choosing types to grow. Grow what you like to eat, grow what grows well in your region, and begin with easy-to-grow vegetables.
Almost every beginner gardener starts off a little perplexed as to what to grow and ends up growing things that they won’t eventually eat. If you don’t eat turnips, you probably shouldn’t grow them. Have an allergy to nuts? Don’t grow peanuts. It’s almost silly to point this out, but I hope it makes sense. Growing veg that you won’t eat ends up in wasted time and wasted food.
In my region, it’s difficult to grow warm-climate crops like tomatoes, peppers, and melons outdoors. They would not grow at all if not given specific conditions that mimic their preferred climate and protection from disease. Instead, my region favors cool-season crops for outdoor growing—vegetables like spinach, lettuce, chard, beets, peas, and brassicas such as cabbage and kale. Knowing what grows well in your region increases your chances of a successful harvest.
Lastly, choose vegetables that are easy to grow. Potatoes are pretty easy to grow for everyone. Radishes are quick to crop and generally easy to grow, too. Others, like tomatoes, are very easy to grow if you have warm to hot summers. There are types of vegetables that are challenging to grow for everyone, though, including watermelon, cauliflower, eggplant, and celery.
How to Tend a Garden
Vegetables are demanding plants since they’ve been bred to produce food and can only thrive and survive with a gardener’s help. Most need fertile soil, protection from wind, regular watering, and help to defend themselves against pests and weeds. You cannot simply dig a hole in the ground, plant your veg, and expect it to thrive. It needs nurturing.
No matter what type of vegetable garden you have, you will need to care for it for your space to be productive. Various tactics are used, and you can get wildly different advice depending on who you ask. That’s one of the ways that gardening can be challenging and confusing! The main ways that you tend a healthy garden are to:
- Give seeds and plants space to grow
- Feed the soil rather than feed plants
- Keep the soil moist but not waterlogged
- Protect the soil from weeds and erosion.
- Use supports for plants that need to grow upwards or in windy situations
- Protect crops from the cold
- Protect crops from pests
Give Seeds and Plants Space to Grow
Larger plants need more space to grow than smaller plants. It makes sense but can be challenging to understand plant size differences by just looking at young plants. When you sow seeds or plant seedlings, you should always plan for the plant’s final mature size. The tiniest seed can grow into a massive canopy of leaves or thick underground roots.
Put yourself in the plant’s position and think about the space it will eventually need to be healthy and happy. If you’re unsure, look on the back of the seed packet or search online for the mature size of the plant, including the space it might need underground. The number of plants that you grow in any area will be different based on the types that you grow.
It’s a newbie mistake to plant crops too close together, and most take years to figure out where they’re going wrong. That’s because a plant’s final size can be difficult to visualize at first, and you may even feel that there’s too much empty space between plants. Giving them that extra room is an invitation to thrive, though. If you fill it with other plants, each can suffer as they grow and find they don’t have the space they need.
Feed the Soil Rather than Feed Plants
One of the biggest misconceptions people have about outdoor plants is that they need constant feeding. That we need to be diligent about NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) and that plants somehow eat the nutrients that we pour and scatter on the ground. The last part of this isn’t accurate, and as an experienced gardener, I almost never think about NPK. I’d venture to say that most organic gardeners are the same. The exceptions are in the occasional times that a plant doesn’t look like it’s growing too well or if you are encouraging fruit to form on plants, as in the case of tomatoes.
Instead, organic gardeners focus on feeding the soil rather than feeding plants. We now know that 90% of land plants form relationships with underground fungi. It’s these microscopic threads of fungi in the soil that we end up feeding instead of plants themselves. What happens under the soil is that fungi process nutrients in the soil and give some to plants through the physical connections they have with them.
It’s a symbiotic relationship, and the fungi trade these nutrients and water for energy-rich carbohydrates produced from the plant. Plants use carbon from the air to create sugars through photosynthesis.
Use Compost to Feed the Soil
This means that if we concentrate on feeding the soil (the fungi), it can help us produce more bountiful harvests! Since digging can damage thread-like fungi and underground networks, opting for a no-dig gardening approach helps increase yield while lowering effort. It’s relevant for in-ground gardening beds and raised beds especially.
You can feed the soil without damaging it by mulching the surface of our garden beds with compost. You do not need to dig compost or manure into the ground itself. It only takes about half an inch of compost spread per year once you establish your no-dig beds, too! I use a lot of composted horse manure, but you can use compost made from garden waste, other animal manures, or DIY organic fertilizers. There’s no need to use or purchase synthetic fertilizers, and they end up doing more harm than good.
Learn to Make Compost
After how to tend the garden and plants, the most important skill a gardener can know is making compost. It saves money and recycles inevitable garden waste. In fact, all of the waste from your garden and the kitchen can be transformed into nutrient-rich compost for your beds. Sticks, green waste, weeds, cardboard, food waste, and even waste from herbivore pets such as rabbits.
There are quite a few ways to compost, including bokashi (for kitchen and food), wormery composting (for cardboard and uncooked food waste), and hot composting. The easiest way to make compost takes about a year but is very low effort. It’s called cold composting and is the main method that I use.
Once it’s finished, spread homemade compost over the soil (or old compost) as a weed-suppressant mulch. You can mulch in this way on all garden beds, including containers. Homemade compost is filled with nutrients that your soil and vegetables will love and is practically free to make!
Keep the Soil Moist
Plants, and the life that lives in soil, need moisture to live. Too little, and they can wilt and die and too much, and they can drown. Though they’re under the ground, plant roots need oxygen to live! In good soil, oxygen and water collect in soil pores that plant roots and soil organisms can use.
Soil that is dug and left exposed to the air dries out very quickly. When I think back to my grandma’s garden, I now realize that she had the sprinkler on for an hour every summer evening to keep the soil moist. Much of that water just evaporated the next day, though. However, a layer of compost on top of the soil feeds the micro-organisms below AND helps lock moisture in. Try it, and you’ll see it works.
Other types of mulch helps keep the ground moist too. In drier climates, a layer of straw is a good solution, and it keeps weeds down too. In wetter climates, straw mulch can be a nightmare, though. If left on the ground in spring and autumn, it creates an ideal environment for slugs and snails to live.
When you choose the location for your in-ground garden, it’s also best to place it away from saturated areas. If a boggy or waterlogged area is all you have to work with, you can take measures to improve drainage in the area or grow in containers and raised beds. With those two, you tend to add use drainage material, such as perlite or grit, as around 10-20% of your potting mix.
Protect the Soil from Weeds and Erosion.
You may have started seeing a theme here: mulching the soil, especially with compost, feeds it and helps keep the soil moist. It also creates a protective layer on the soil surface and helps stop your garden soil from washing or blowing away. It even works for containers or if your garden is on a slope, like both of mine are! Compost mulch prevents soil erosion.
It does more than that, though, too. If the compost you use is free of plant seeds (so well-composted), it stops weed seeds from growing. It does this by creating a layer over the soil where most seeds already exist. Every time you dig or disturb the soil, you bring more weed seeds up! Covering the soil stops light from reaching these upper soil areas and prevents weed seeds from germinating.
Weeds are any plants that grow in your garden that interfere with your deliberate crops’ growth. That means that if a dandelion is growing in the way of your beetroot, it’s a weed. If it’s growing out of the way of your veg, both physically and within seeding range, it’s a cheerful pollinator-friendly flower.
Use Plant Supports
Vegetables grow at different heights, and some taller types need support. Bean wigwams and pea sticks are a couple of the most well-known types. I grew mashua for the first time last year and found out quickly that it liked a lot of vertical space to grow too! Knowing which plants need or benefit from plant supports can make all the difference. Plant supports include this DIY cucumber trellis, raspberry trellises, blackberry trellises, and DIY garden obelisks for flowers and climbers.
If your garden is in a windy or exposed place, staking tall plants can save them from being knocked over. I live and grow on a windy island in the middle of the Irish sea, so staking everything from purple sprouting broccoli to sunflowers can help keep them from being destroyed by summer storms. I’ve shared a lot of different ways to create trellises and plant supports from garden waste in my piece on garden projects using sticks and twigs.
Protect Crops from the Cold
Most garden veg doesn’t grow well until night temperatures don’t drop below 45°F (7°C). If your garden does not yet meet this requirement, wait on sowing most seeds or planting out seedlings. Cold temperatures can stunt growth, and frost will kill many plants. There are exceptions to this rule (including growing garlic), but they also can grow better if you wait on sowing or planting crops.
Knowing about last frost dates (especially your own!) and nighttime temperatures is instrumental for early spring gardening. I present much more information on sowing undercover in late winter and early spring in this video.
If your garden has hit that crucial night temperature, plants need hardening off before planting outside. Hardening off means exposing them to outdoor temperatures during the day and bringing them back inside the house or greenhouse at night. It gets them more accustomed to outside temperatures. An easier way to harden off involves using a cold frame. Without hardening off, indoor-raised plants can go into shock and fail to thrive.
Once planted outside, you can protect crops from the cold with layers of horticultural fleece or fleece tunnels. They serve as windbreaks, protection from late frosts, and create a slightly warmer environment inside.
Protect Crops from Pests
Garden vegetables and fruit are as delicious to wild animals as to people. Unprotected, your garden will be at the mercy of birds, mammals, insects, and invertebrates – many who strike at night. Learn which pests your region and garden may have and find ways to deter them without hurting them. Be aware that all wild creatures are an essential part of the biosphere, and using poisons and traps is detrimental to the environment and wild food chains.
For example, Britain has much-beloved hedgehogs as garden visitors, and slugs make up part of their diet. In the United States, deer are a big pest in the garden, yet they have an essential role in wild plant management and as food for carnivores. Insects of all kinds are food for garden birds. Even if you’re highly irritated by a particular pest, there are ways to exclude them from wreaking havoc on your garden’s natural balance. Here are some ideas:
- Build a small garden pond for natural pest control. Frogs are voracious eaters of slugs and insects and are attracted to areas with a water source.
- Use methods to Keep Birds out of the Garden
- Build fencing tall enough to keep deer out
- Dig galvanized steel mesh into the ground at the bottoms of your fencing to keep rabbits out of the garden
- Line the bottom of raised beds with galvanized wire to keep moles and groundhogs out of beds.
- Strategic and sensible netting of crops can keep birds, insects, and other animals off while not harming them.
Create Garden Paths
One of the most underrated and under-discussed vegetable garden topics is paths – the area between spaces where you grow your vegetables. Good pathway solutions should give you a dry and clean place to walk and reduce work. I know this lesson well! Before putting in wood chip garden paths, my walkways between beds would fill up with weeds. I spent just as much time weeding them as I did my beds. It was frustrating, and they also became slippery and muddy whenever it rained.
So please trust me when I say that if you don’t have a plan for these footfall areas, the weeds and grass that grow in them will significantly increase your workload. Some pathway styles are better than others, and some only suit certain regions. There are pros and cons to all, but some solutions include wood chip paths, wooden boardwalks, paver pathways, pea gravel paths, bare landscaping fabric, and grassy paths—the last with or without flagstones or DIY stepping stones.
More Ideas for Starting a New Vegetable Garden
I hope that this piece has given you food for thought in helping you to plan and start a new vegetable garden. Here are a few more articles that I think can help you too: