Starting a new vegetable garden for produce in the spring or fall can be both challenging and rewarding.
Storms uproot plants, squirrels and pests wreak havoc on vegetables, and other natural mishaps cause much frustration.
There are also human-created issues that contribute to the failure of a vegetable garden.
While you can learn from your mistakes when gardening, it is beneficial to know about others’ mistakes and take preventive steps.
While 27 things to keep in mind sound overwhelming, once you read on, you’ll discover that vegetable gardening is not as difficult as you might think.
These tips will help you find the joys and rewards of gardening with fresh, money-saving produce directly from the garden to your kitchen table.
27 Things To Know About Before Starting A Vegetable Garden
It is essential to put in some research time before you start a new vegetable garden.
Before you plant, research the following by asking, and finding the answers to, the following questions:
- What is the square footage (length x width x height) of your garden?
- What vegetables grow well in your climate?
- What is the length of the growing season in your area?
- What are the first and last frost dates in your area?
- What vegetables do you wish to grow (and eat)?
- What are the spacing requirements for the vegetable plants?
- Are the vegetables you want to grow cold- or heat-tolerant?
- Which vegetables need to be planted in spring and which in the fall?
- Will you use the ground or raised beds?
- What is your budget?
- What materials and tools are needed to set up the garden? (Look at reviews.)
- Which plants produce higher yields of produce (per initial cost of plants or seeds)?
- Which plants grow well with other plants? (Look into companion plants and which to avoid.)
- Did you read the rest of this article for more important considerations?
2. Location, Location, Location
The “real estate” for your vegetable garden matters.
While many vegetables are annuals, there are perennials as well. Location is important for both kinds of plants to have yearly and long-lasting growing success.
There are primarily 3 things that impact how well your vegetables will grow:
- Soil composition
- Amount of sunlight
These 3 topics, as well as other important ones, will be further discussed in this article below.
3. Soil Composition
Nutrients & pH Level
To grow healthy vegetables, garden soil needs to provide adequate nutrition that includes the 3 essential nutrients:
- Nitrogen (N)
- Phosphorus (P)
- Potassium (K)
Vegetables also benefit from other naturally occurring elements in soil and compost such as boron, copper, iron, calcium, manganese, and zinc.
Generally, vegetables grow well in soil that has a pH level between 5.5 and 7.5 (acidic is below 7, alkaline is above 7). Ideally, the soil should be around a pH level of 6.5.
If in doubt about the nutrients and pH level of your new garden, contact your local extension or gardening store. They can help you test your soil for nutrients and make amendment recommendations.
Ideally, your soil should not be too dense with clay or too loose with sand.
You can test this by heavily watering a spot, scooping out a sample, and squeezing it with your hand. If it retains a solid shape like playdough, it has clay. If it falls apart easily, it has sand.
Ideally, the soil should hold some shape but is also able to be easily broken.
If you buy garden soil only from gardening soil, this is not “ soil” but rather more like compost. Often the labeling indicates that it should be mixed with topsoil.
Generally, 4 parts of topsoil mixed with 1 part of compost (or garden soil) will offer adequate nutrition. Amending soil can also help create a better soil texture if there is too much clay or sand.
Vegetable roots generally grow 8 to 12 inches deep, so consider amending the soil at this depth.
You can also amend topsoil with other nutritious organic matter such as shredded leaves, shredded bark, or grass clippings. Banana peels and citrus rinds can also be used directly in your soil to offer nutrition and pest control benefits.
If you use manure, never use fresh, since it can kill your plants and transport weed seeds.
Aged manure from cows, chickens, horses, and goats is accepted to use. Never use pig, cat, dog, or human feces in vegetable gardens since they can carry and spread diseases.
Once the soil is amended, you can generally add a layer of compost or organic “mulch” each of the following years at the surface of the soil.
This will break down and release nutrients into the soil, improving the overall structure and drainage.
4. Sunlight Needs
Many fruits and vegetables need 6 to 8 hours of full and direct sunlight.
However, others such as spinach and cabbage will grow well in partial shade. Some plants do not respond as well in hotter climates and may need protection from heat.
Take note of how the sunlight passes over where you intend to have your garden.
This will help you to map out where to plant each item, as well as help you determine what will grow best there based on its lighting needs.
5. Soil Drainage
As mentioned above, the soil in a vegetable garden should not be too sandy or full of clay. If it is, it will need to be amended with garden soil, compost, or organic matter.
This is to create a texture that holds shape and texture, but also drains excess water away.
Additionally, your garden should not have low places that allow water to pool. Oversaturated vegetable plants will not thrive.
Take care to fill in any sunken spots in your garden with leaf mulch, organic materials, or a topsoil and compost mixture.
Run water from a hose over the area and continue to fill and adjust the area to eliminate pooling.
6. Watering Needs
On average, garden plants need 1 to 2 inches of water weekly. This can vary in times of heat or drought.
You can use commercial products to test the moisture in the soil. However, you can also stick your finger in a few inches of the topsoil near your plants, and feel if the upper layer has moisture or not.
Once plants are well established, consider doing a “heavy water” soak once a week. This allows water to penetrate deeply, encouraging the roots to reach down and become robust.
Make sure that your soil drainage is adequate as previously mentioned. If it is not, then water doesn’t drain invites in root rot, pests, and other diseases.
Consider using a drip irrigation system or soaker hose which provides targeted hydration.
Convenience is related to many other things in this article but is something to consider. If a garden is conveniently set up for you, you are more likely to tend to and enjoy it.
If the growing location is ideal (in regards to drainage, soil, and sunlight), you can make your garden more accessible.
Consider the following:
- Grow your vegetables close to your home or where you can easily see it.
- Place your garden near a water spigot or have a hose long enough to reach it.
- Install rain barrels as a water source.
- Have gardening tools and a bucket nearby, or stored together in a shed or garage, for weeding, mulching, and so on.
- Determine how you access the size of your plot.
- Skinny areas may be more easily accessible as compared to a wide plot where you have to walk through.
- Set reminders and alerts on your phone for watering and impending weather forecasts.
8. Map It Out
You should plan ahead regarding the type of vegetable gardening you hope to do. In general, this involves choosing a potted (container), raised bed, or surface (yard) garden.
Then, after you have decided on an ideal location, it is recommended that you draw a simple map of how you wish your garden to take shape.
Perhaps you want long skinny rows or wide boxes.
Map out pathways on how you will get to your plants to care for them. Avoid making too many pathways, so that you can maximize your growing space.
Consider how you will get water to your garden, and label that on your map. If you will frequently access a compost pile, map where that is in relation to your garden.
It is okay if your map changes as you build your garden. However, making a plan gives you the ability to carefully think about how you will manage and accommodate your gardening needs.
9. Daily Maintenance
As mentioned before, your garden should be easily visible to you from your home.
As a result, you will remember to care for it and notice any issues such as pooling water or excessive weeds, that you can address right away.
Your garden should have your attention every- or every other day for watering, weeding, and other overall health observations.
10. Invest In Quality Materials
Consider investing in quality tools and materials to set up your garden successfully. This is likely to save you money in the long run.
For example, if you opt for naturally-based raised garden beds, use cedar instead of pine.
While cedar is typically more expensive, it is more durable against cracking and rotting and more pest-resistant than pine. Simply put, cedar lasts longer than pine.
If you do not have the budget for building up a raised bed, you can opt for other free or low-cost gardening practices, such as Hügelkultur (mound building) or barrier-free designs.
Also consider purchasing consumer well-rated tools such as hoes, shovels, gardening gloves, and so on. You will use these extensively and want them to stand up well under use and time.
11. Keep It Simple
When you are new to vegetable gardening, it may be best for you to start small. Keep it simple and find what works best for you and your plants.
Pest and weed control may be easier if you opt for a raised bed or container garden.
There is a seemingly endless amount of vegetable plants that you can grow, and to be successful it takes knowledge and experience.
Opt for vegetables that are easier to grow, even in less-than-ideal conditions.
These include vegetables such as:
- Green beans
- Swiss chard
Above all else, make sure you plant vegetables that you actually want to eat!
As mentioned above, hopefully, you’ve done your research. You must show restraint in your eagerness to get started and plant your vegetable seeds or seedlings at the right time.
If you plant too soon, frost can drastically affect your plants from thriving or even growing. Most plants are planted in the spring after the last frost, or a few weeks before the first frost in the fall.
However, each type of vegetable plant has its own sowing, planting, and harvesting timelines. It is important that you know and follow them.
Refer to any seed or plant labels that indicate the number of days from seed to maturity, along with other planting information.
13. Disease & Pest Resistant Seeds And Plants
If possible, opt for disease and pest-resistant seeds and plants. This will save you time, and money, and result in healthier plants.
For example, some squash varieties are squash bug-resistant and some tomato varieties are blight-resistant.
Typically seed packets will indicate if they are resistant to any diseases or pests.
Try to find organic heirloom seeds that have developed resistance naturally because they have not been sprayed.
14. Seeds & Seedlings: Logistics
While starting plants from seeds can seem daunting, thankfully this is the best and easiest way to start most vegetable plants. You can even germinate seeds without soil!
Follow the seed packet’s information label on when to start germinating your seeds for your climate and area. This can be at least 4 weeks before the last frost date.
Seeds can germinate without light, but consider if you need to invest in a special grow light if you do not have consistent warmth for your seeds.
You can start seeds directly in the garden. However, they may be prone to pests and diseases, inclement weather, excessive water, or cold temperatures.
Once seedlings start to grow and mature, they can be moved to the garden.
However, they need to be hardened to the elements before transplantation into the garden bed. Hardening of the seedlings helps them to strengthen their leaves and stems.
Once temperatures remain consistently above 55°F, your seedlings can spend their days outside. However, if the night temperatures drop or there’s wind or a storm, they need to come in.
Generally, hardening takes 1 if the weather is stable. It can take up to 2 weeks if the temperatures drop, there is overnight frost or the weather is inclement.
Seedlings should wait to be planted in the garden bed after the last frost date. So, if you need to wait longer to transplant them, continue to care for them inside.
If you opt to buy seedling starters, such as commonly offered cucumber and zucchini ones, you still must wait until the outdoor conditions are suitable.
Once you are ready to sow your seeds or seedlings, consider using potting soil.
Potting soil is darker-colored, so when you fill planting rows with it, it can help you distinguish between seedlings and weeds.
Your rows and holes for the seedlings are bigger than the root system to give it ample space to spread out and establish hold.
As you plant, keep in mind that seedlings also need adequate spacing from other plants. (Read on to see more about spacing.)
15. Plan It Out: Spacing
Regardless of the size or simplicity of your new vegetable garden, all plants need enough space to grow healthy.
Otherwise, they will compete with each other for soil nutrients, sunlight, and water. Overcrowding can also invite diseases, slugs and bugs, leggy or deficient growth, and failure to bloom or produce vegetation.
Make sure you have researched the spacing needed for each plant, as well as the companion plants that can grow nearby.
16. Limit Use Of Fertilizer
As mentioned above, soil composition plays a huge role in growing healthy plants. It is better to feed your plants naturally with the soil, rather than use commercially made fertilizers.
Fertilizers can provide short-term boosts of growth, but the pre-measured levels of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus may not be exactly what your plant needs.
This could result in further plant struggles. It may not be worth the risk to experiment with an already struggling plant.
If your plants are struggling, despite adequate watering and spacing, there may be a nutrient deficiency. Test your soil with help from purchased kits or your local gardening store or extension.
Often amending the soil with some organic compost helps feed your plants adequately.
Compost builds up long-term soil health. It also should be applied as a layer of mulch at least once a year, in addition to supplemental support.
Plants generally thrive well when compost is added at the beginning of the growing season.
Many gardeners opt to add another layer of compost “mulch” to the garden mid-growing season for a boost as the plants start to develop vegetation.
Compost nutrition is great for sowing, seedlings, and struggling plants.
18. Immediately Remove Weeds
Hopefully, your garden is conveniently located and within sight in your yard. You’ll want to observe and visit it daily if possible.
Weeds grow fast and are in competition with your garden plants for nutrients and water.
As soon as you see a weed growing, fully remove it, including the roots. You do not want to give weeds the chance to drop seeds and spread.
To remove weeds, use a small spade or hoe, taking care not to damage the root systems of healthy plants. If you have watered the soil, weeds’ root systems may be loose enough to pull out by hand.
Vinegar sprays are commonly used to remove weeds but use them with caution. The acidity of vinegar can also harm your vegetation.
Discard weeds away from your garden into a covered trash bin. Avoid throwing weeds into a compost bin, since that can allow the weeds to continue to grow.
A layer of mulch on top of the garden can help keep weeds from growing.
Mulching is an essential part of setting up a garden bed. A layer of mulch will keep weeds at bay, retain moisture for your plants, and decrease the amount of watering that you need to do.
Generally, 2 or 3 inches of mulch is adequate for vegetable gardens. Take care not to pile up mulch around the base of each plant, since this can prevent water from getting adequately to the root system.
20. Avoid Pesticides & Herbicides
If you opted for heirloom seeds or seeds that are disease- or pest-resistant, they are more likely to grow well from the start.
Keep in mind that any chemical you spray on your lawn or in your garden ends up in the soil and runs off into waterways through the water table.
Considering that you plan on eating the produce from your garden, it is best to keep these chemicals out of your body (and the environment).
There are many ways to naturally treat diseases and keep insects and other pests at bay without the use of chemically-based pesticides and herbicides.
Vegetables such as zucchini, lettuce, summer squash, tomatoes (indeterminate variety), cucumbers, and pole beans, produce high yields.
When you pick these regularly, more will grow. Deadheading, removing old blooms, can also encourage more to grow.
This video discusses how you will know when your produce is ready to harvest:
22. Manage Yields
If you have high-yield-producing vegetable plants, be prepared to manage them.
You can do the following:
- Eat them up right away
- Try new recipes
- Preserve them with canning or dehydration
- Share with neighbors
- Donate to a food shelter (if they accept fresh homegrown food)
Don’t forget to compost any leftovers or vegetation that is beyond ripe.
23. End-Of-Season Overwintering
Once your gardening season is over, prepare the bed for winter. This will give you a good start when you garden again next year.
Overwintering can include the following:
- Remove dead debris.
- Amend and aerate the soil by digging fallen leaves or leaf mold into the soil.
- Spread a layer of compost, mulch, straw, or leaf mulch over the surface.
- In temperate areas, sow a cover crop of hardy winter plants such as clover, winter rye, millet, or barley.
- Plant garlic and other frost-tolerant vegetables (if desired) in mid- to late fall for a spring harvest.
24. Use Cost-Effective Methods
Consider how to use natural materials from your yard to feed your plants, and also other resourceful ways to build a new garden.
Shop garage sales and look for ways to add to your garden in a budget-friendly way, such as building your own cucumber trellis.
Use starter plants from neighbors that share.
While you want to have quality tools, make sure you look for bulk deals, sales, and other discounts for your gardening needs.
25. Implement Time-Savers
A cumbersome garden can drastically reduce a person’s motivation to care for it. By setting up time-savers, you are more likely to tend to and enjoy the benefits of gardening.
In the beginning, some strategies take time to set up but are well worth it for the time-saving benefits throughout the growing season.
Consider the following time-savers:
- Use mulch: This reduces time spent weeding and watering.
- Utilize a watering system: Use a drip or soaker hose watering system or collect water in rain barrels.
- Tools are nearby: Keep tools nearby for quick access instead of carrying them back and forth every day.
- Keep buckets or a cart close: Keep a disposal system for debris and weeds close by for quick discards. Use a clean bucket for collecting produce.
Record-keeping is a great way to keep track of yields, mapping, watering needs, plant species requirements, pest-control measures, successes, and failures.
By keeping a record, you can build up information about what works, and what doesn’t, for your garden. This will allow you to modify plans if necessary for the following year.
A notebook offers many pages with room to draw or put down ideas. You can even use garden planning apps on your mobile device if you wish to be paper-free.
27. Be Kind To Yourself
Lastly, you should be kind to yourself. It is hard to be an expert without trial and error.
Weather, climate, and pests are not something that can be controlled, but you can take steps to mitigate damage. And, even if you cannot, it is okay. Even farmers have difficult growing seasons.
It is okay to try and then try again.
Gardening may seem intimidating. But, by keeping the above things in consideration, you can have a strong start, as you enter the wonderful world of growing your new vegetable garden.
Vegetable gardening offers the benefits of cost-effective, delicious, and nutritious food, and time well-spent outside.
Harvesting your own produce can be a joyful and rewarding experience, and gives you much appreciation for the essential work that farmers do on a large scale.