Ready to plant your own garden? Here’s how to start a vegetable garden from scratch so you can begin harvesting food.
As we become more concerned about our food system, many people are working to eat locally by supporting nearby farmers and community supported agriculture projects. Others? They’ve decided to tackle growing some of their own food. If you’re embracing the idea of a garden but not quite sure where to start, read on for ideas on how to plant your own garden.
How to Start a Vegetable Garden from Scratch
The how-tos of starting a vegetable garden from scratch can vary a bit based on your individual situation. The biggest piece of advice I have? Just do it. You might not do it exactly right, and you will learn something new every single year. But get started — even if you just plant a few Swiss chard seeds in a pot! Starting a garden from scratch means you can decide exactly how to do it. You don’t have to follow someone else’s idea of what your garden should look like. There are some things to consider, though.
Determine the location of your garden
Although some crops can thrive in partial shade — primarily those that you grow for the leaves, like lettuce and chard — most vegetable crops prefer full sun.
When you’re ready to plant your own garden, assess your options for situating your garden area so that it receives plenty of sunlight. Watch your potential garden area throughout the day. Does it get six to eight hours of direct sunlight? Here’s the exception to the rule: If you’re in the hot southwest where summer sun can quickly bake an area, a little bit of dappled shade or a shorter amount of sunlight can give your garden a reprieve.
If your yard is short on sunshine, consider these options:
- Choose crops that will do well with some shade.
- Get creative with the placement of your garden. This is how I solved the dilemma at our last place, which was very shady.
- Consider going rogue. When we talk about vegetable gardens, we usually think “back yard.” Well, what if all the great veggie growing sunshine is in the front yard? There are plenty of vegetable plants that are beautiful enough to be part of an edible landscape. Check this list for plants that you can sneak by your homeowners association. When you decide to start a vegetable garden from scratch, consider all the possibilities!
Decide what kind of garden bed to use
Once you’ve determined where your garden will go, decide what kind of garden beds you’ll have. When I was young, our garden was simply rows of veggies planted directly in flat ground. These days, I prefer to have garden beds with the edges delineated somehow. Maybe I just need to know where to stop planting.
Some options to consider:
- Raised beds — especially raised beds with a seat on the edge — make it easier to access your garden. These are a great choice for people who have limited mobility.
- If you’re trying to grow some food in a small urban location, container gardening makes sense. But container gardening isn’t just for apartment dwellers. If you’re a family who relocates regularly, by gardening in containers you’ll be able to move your garden with you. And if, like me, you need to “adjust” your garden to take advantage of a certain exposure, they’re good for that, too. I’m particularly fond of Smart Pots for this.
- Wicking beds are a little more work to put together but can be great for limiting your water usage.
- A lasagna bed can be created right on top of your existing soil (and you don’t even have to remove the grass before you start) or inside a raised bed as well. I’ve used the lasagna bed method (for building soil) and lined the beds with rocks (for that “edge” I need).
- Remember that the bigger your garden, the more effort it will take. It’s okay to start small!
Build your soil
Once you’ve determined where your garden will be, probably the most important thing you can do is start building your soil. If you don’t have good soil, you simply won’t have a thriving garden. That’s not to say you can’t grow things while you work on your soil. If you’re bringing poor soil up to par, it may take a year or two. Eventually, you’ll see a marked improvement in your crops.
- If you’re not composting yet, get started now. Your kitchen scraps and yard waste are garden gold. If you don’t want to build a compost pile, consider a compost tumbler or a worm bin.
- Use your finished compost as a side dressing alongside plants, or work it into the planting hole as you transplant your seedlings. If you have a lot of it, cover the whole garden bed with a couple inches of compost. You just can’t go wrong with it.
- For new beds, try a lasagna bed as mentioned above. This is kind of like composting in layers. All of the materials used would be perfectly suitable in a compost pile, but this method doesn’t require any waiting.
- You can get started even if you won’t be planting right away, though. Create lasagna beds in the fall and they’ll break down over the winter months, leaving you with lovely soil to work in the spring. Or build a compost or manure pile right where you plan to plant. Again, by springtime it will be teeming with worms and ready for planting.
- Mulch! Adding several inches of mulch (lawn clippings, straw, leaves) helps to retain moisture in the soil and hold down weeds. And as that mulch breaks down, it adds organic matter to your soil. Ruth Stout’s Gardening Without Work makes an excellent (and funny) case for deep mulching.
- Manure from barnyard animals is an excellent addition to garden beds, but with the exception of rabbit manure, you’ll need to let it sit for a couple of months so it doesn’t burn plants. Alternatively, add it to a fallow bed and let it work its magic for a couple of months before you plant.
Choose your crops
Plan ahead before heading to the nursery for seeds and seedlings. It’s easy to get caught up in spring fever. Instead, focus on what will work best for your garden and your family.
- If you’re trying to move more of your diet to food you’ve grown, you’ll want to consider calories. A garden full of lettuce isn’t going to sustain you, you know? Think about adding some of these crops to boost the calorie content of your garden.
- Choose the things your family enjoys. A garden full of okra isn’t going to serve you well if only one person in your family will eat it.
- Plant enough. When starting a garden from scratch, with little knowledge of crops and how they grow, this is a sticking point for a lot of people! Here’s how I calculated the number of tomato plants we need for our household. Whether it’s beans or zucchini, you’ll want to know how much you can expect to harvest from a single plant. This will help you decide how many to grow. A single bush bean plant isn’t going to cut it for a family of four; a single zucchini might.
- Talk to your local gardening friends to find out what grows well in your region. Or visit your local cooperative extension office. Choosing plants that thrive in your region will lead you to a successful gardening season.
- Don’t forget about fruit when you’re starting a garden from scratch! Unlike an annual garden, fruit trees and shrubs will produce for years. Try your hand at planting a nectarine from seed or growing blueberries in a container.
Choose your planting options
- Besides choosing the different vegetable varieties, you’ll want to decide how you feel about using hybrids or transgenically modified seeds. I cover the difference between them and non-hybrid, open-pollinated seeds here.
- Do you want to start with seeds or seedlings? Or maybe some of each?
- If you’re hoping to add both vegetables and herbs to your garden, you can start with seeds, a plant, or find a friend from whom you can take a cutting. Here’s how you can make a rooting hormone for more success.
Plan for pests
Pests are a inevitable part of gardening, whether it’s a bug or a disease or a critter. Knowing how to handle pests in the garden will help you avoid some problems and tackle others quickly. I positively always avoid harsh chemicals and poisons in the garden, opting for organic methods. I don’t want to be exposed to the poisons, and I certainly don’t want to harm the beneficial bugs while I’m trying to eradicate the ones that are a nuisance.
- Diatomaceous earth (DE) is my go-to for dealing with soft-bodied pests. Now, you need to know that it will also damage good bugs, so use with caution. But when things are getting a bit out of control, I sprinkle it on. I tend to use it mostly on the ground where I know bees and ladybugs are less likely to get into it. The DE causes cuts and abrasions on the bugs and eventual dehydration.
- If you know that you’ll be battling deer or other wild animals be sure to invest in a fence to keep them out. Here’s one small-scale solution to keep the critters out of the garden.
- Here are seven organic methods for controlling pests in the garden.
Plant your own garden
Sure, gardening nets you veggies. But while there is some work involved, learning how to grow a vegetable garden from scratch is also a great way to enjoy the great outdoors. It beats a gym any day, in my book!