How to Start a Vegetable Garden from Scratch

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person water a beautiful vegetable garden

So you want to start a vegetable garden? It turns out it’s easier than you think! More often than not, the hardest part about starting a vegetable garden is the starting. Once you make an effort to start, it’s simple to stay on track and have a great harvest. Whether you live in an apartment, home, city, or suburb, there is a vegetable garden that will work for you and your needs. Here’s everything you need to know about how to start a vegetable garden from scratch.

Getting Started

Garden Bed

The first thing you need to get started is a garden bed. If you have a yard, you can build this bed directly into the ground and create what is called an “earth bed.” Or you can go the route of a raised garden bed. Raised garden beds are significantly simpler to maintain and are often more aesthetically pleasing. Plus, you can even find pre-built kits online!

If you only have a patio or balcony at your disposal, there are great raised garden kits that are small and compact. These are perfect options for starter gardens! Just make sure that you get enough sunlight. A vegetable garden needs at least 6 hours of direct sunlight.

It’s best to start small. You certainly don’t want to find yourself biting off more than you can chew. Remember that you will have to water this garden, weed it, fertilize it, and get the soil ready. A typical starter vegetable garden is around 4 x 4 feet.

For those that are on the more crafty side, you can always go the route of building the beds yourself out of wood.

Good Soil

The foundation of every successful garden is good soil. You don’t just use you’re average potting mix when you are growing vegetables in a garden bed. And you also don’t just want to use what is in the ground. Your local hardware store will have a “garden soil” for sale, which is a great introductory product. I highly recommend buying a pre-mixed vegetable garden soil for your first garden, as mixing your own soil can be a bit of science!

So what is the difference between all this soil anyway? Potting soil is for use in containers only and has no soil in it at all.  Potting soil is a mixture of peat moss and other organic materials. Garden soil is a mix of topsoil and other natural materials like compost and fertilizer. The significant part about garden soil is that it is mixed for you, but it is more expensive than buying topsoil and mixing the ingredients yourself.

Purchasing pre-mixed vegetable garden soil will be the easiest route. But, if you want to create a soil mix, start with topsoil. Topsoil will be available by the bag at any local nursery or garden store. The ideal ratio is approximately 60% topsoil, 30% compost, and 10% potting soil. Try talking to someone at your local garden store. The great thing about gardeners is that they love to talk about gardens! Take them these proportions, and I’m sure they will point out precisely what you need for your climate.

Weed Control

Once you have your garden bed set up, the first step is to use a weed cloth. If you want a more DIY approach, you can also use recycled cardboard. A weed barrier will keep the grass and weeds beneath your garden bed from growing into your soil. A proper weed barrier is an essential step, and you’ll thank yourself in the long run!

So you’ve got your garden bed assembled, and your weed barrier set in place. Now it’s time to get dirty. Open your bags of garden soil and fill the bed. Filling the garden bed with new soil is one of the most exciting parts of the process. It’s that great feeling of anticipation for things to come.

What to Plant

Now it’s time to decide what to plant. Try filling your garden with vegetables you like to eat. You’d be surprised how often gardeners plant things they don’t even like using! If you’re big on salads, try growing kale, lettuce, or tomatoes. Love cooking? Plant some onions, garlic, and fresh herbs.

Your local garden center will sell starter plants that you can transplant into your garden. Transplants are by far the most straightforward route of getting things started and established in your garden. Alternatively, you can start from seed.

Make sure to check when it’s safe to plant something in your area. For example, here in New Jersey, I am in zone 7a. That means my area is susceptible to a certain amount of frost and a certain amount of hot weather. Try googling your state’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map to determine when to plant certain vegetables. On average, it’s best to wait to grow tomatoes until May or June, unless you are a more southern state with an earlier last day of frost.

How to Germinate Seeds

With seeds, like tomatoes, you often want to start them inside. The germination period can be super fun to watch and is a great way to get the kids involved. Home Depot and garden centers will sell seed starter kits. These use a seed pod or pellet used of a dehydrated growing medium. Simply hydrate the pod, add your seed, and watch it grow!

Reusing egg cartons is another excellent way to start germinating seeds. Fill the container with your soil mixture and plant a few seeds in each compartment. If too many grow, you can always cut them back. So it’s best to overprepare. Keep your seeds just out of direct sunlight by a window. A kitchen counter is an attractive option since it lets you keep an eye on it (plus it’s so fun to watch!). Once your seedlings have grown about an inch or two, they will be ready to transplant into your garden. This process usually takes about 1-2 weeks, depending on the type of vegetable.

It’s Time to Plant!

And now the magic moment has arrived, the time to start planting things! On your seed packet or a purchased transplant, there will be directions for how to space your crop. On average, it’s best to plant things at least one index finger apart. Keep in mind what you are planting. Vegetables like tomatoes like to grow upwards. So be prepared to make a trellis out of sticks or bamboo, and space them accordingly. Likewise, cucumbers and beans like to sprawl and crawl out. You can save space by training these plants to grow vertically on a trellis.

Water, Water, Water

Make sure to give your new plants a proper and thorough watering. It’s essential to wet the root system of the plants thoroughly. But make sure not to create any puddles or oversoaked area! This initial thorough watering will set your garden up for success.

For a beginner, knowing when to water your garden can be tricky. The best rule of thumb is to stick your finger in the soil. The soil should feel lightly damp and certainly not mucky. If the soil feels dry to the touch, it’s time to water your garden. Make sure to pay attention to the weather. If there has been a lot of rain, you can likely skip a watering. But if it has been extra sunny, you’ll probably need to add another watering.

Enjoy

So you’ve created your raised garden bed, mixed your soil, germinated your seeds, and planted your plants. With the right amount of care and a regular watering schedule, you’ll be enjoying the bounty of your harvest in no time! Having your vegetable garden is such a rewarding experience. Not only is the act of gardening therapeutic, but it opens your eyes to all of the work that goes into creating food. There is nothing more rewarding than feeding yourself from your garden and enjoying the fruits, or in this case, the vegetables, of your labor.

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