So you want to start a vegetable garden? Good for you.
Today we’re going to cover exactly what you need to know to plant your home garden that your neighbors will envy you for. Despite the shallow reasons above, a home garden is very beneficial.
Despite all these benefits, a lot of people are intimidated by the thought of getting started with a home garden. With a little guidance and planning, though, you’ll be on your way to growing your own vegetables in no time!
First Steps to Garden Vegetables at Home
The very first thing to think about is your garden bed. Do you already have a patch of good dirt at your home, or a space in a community garden, ready to use? Or do you need to make one from scratch?
Making a Garden Bed
If you don’t already have a place for a garden, you’ll need to make your own. There are a few ways to get a chunk of your lawn ready for veggies (Beaulieu, 2020).
- Good old-fashioned labor. The day before, soak the patch of grass that will become your garden with water to help loosen the grassroots. Then, day-of, grab a shovel and chop the top layer of earth into pieces about 1 ft2 big. Scoop up the pieces with your shovel until you’ve gotten rid of all the grass. Sweet and simple.
- Use the power of the sun. You’ll need a clear plastic tarp and about a month for this one. First, mow the patch of grass as short as you can. Then soak it with water and cover it with the clear tarp. Over the next 4 weeks or so, the sun will burn the grass through the tarp, and then you’ll be ready to plan
You’ve made your bed, now lie in it! Just kidding, but really, take a moment to admire your work. You took a piece of boring lawn and transformed it into something that will soon feed you and your family. Go you!
1. Soil Quality
Whether you already had a place to plant or you made your own bed from scratch, the next thing you’ll need to think about is the dirt itself.
Good growing dirt is not too rocky, has a dark brown color, and crumbles when you rub it between your fingers. If the soil is sandy or has too much clay in it, your plants won’t be able to get the right nutrients or enough water. Don’t despair, though, there are ways to improve soil by mixing in compost. A good compost can add important nutrients to even the best topsoil.
Compost is a kind of dirt made from organic material, like banana peels and eggshells. It’s a natural fertilizer.
You can buy bags of compost or make your own. There are 3 important things to think about if you go the DIY route (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, n.d.). Plus, you’ll need to check for any local rules about outdoor compost bins.
- Making or buying a compost bin. You can compost inside with a covered pail or outside in a covered bin. (You can also make a fenced-in pile outside, but without a lid, compost can smell or attract rodents.)
- The greens and the browns. Good compost is a mix of fruit and veggie scraps, called “greens,” and yard waste like fallen leaves, called “browns.” Both are important!
- Watering and mixing. Sprinkle on some water to keep your compost moist while it’s decomposing. Once a week or so, mix it up with a shovel or rake to make sure air can get below the top layer.
Your scraps will go from trash to treasure in a matter of weeks or months! Less waste in landfills and bigger, better vegetables in your garden—what’s not to love?
Tip: Coffee grounds make great compost! Just another reason to enjoy a morning cup of joe.
Planning Your Garden
Planning the garden is half the fun. While you may be eager to get your hands dirty and start planting, planning ahead will set you up for success.
The most fun part of brainstorming is dreaming about your favorite vegetables and what fabulous dishes you’ll cook with them. The first thing you have to keep in mind, though, is the climate where you live. The United States Department of Agriculture has a map of the different growing climates in the U.S., and you can look up your zone to see which plants thrive there.
2. When to Plant?
There are two main things to think about in regard to timing. First, some plants can’t survive a frost. Look up the estimated dates of the last spring frost in your particular region before planting, because there’s nothing sadder than waking up in the morning and seeing that Robert Frost has given your seedlings the kiss of death.
The second thing to consider is that some vegetables like cooler spring weather and others like hot summer weather (Boeckmann, 2020). Lettuce, peas, carrots, and spinach are examples of cool-season veggies that can be in the first batch of the year. You’ll need to wait longer to plant warm-season favorites like tomatoes, peppers, and green beans.
3. The Easiest Veggie to Grow
Trivia time! The most popular vegetable in home gardens is… drumroll, please… the tomato! It’s no wonder—tomatoes are perfect for salads, sandwiches, sauces, and everything in between, and they’re easy to grow.
Tomatoes should be planted 2-3 feet apart. Putting round wire cages around each plant can help them grow big and strong without toppling over. Water your tomatoes every day, or twice a day if the weather is really hot and dry.
As mentioned, tomatoes do well in warmer summer soil. There’s a “handy” rule of “thumb”you can use to tell if the ground is ready: stick a finger in the dirt, and if you can comfortably keep it buried for a whole minute, the ground is warm enough (Rhoades, 2018). A less “hands-on” way to tell if it’s tomato-planting time is when every night is 50°F (10°C) or warmer. (OK, enough puns for now.)
4. Other Winners for Beginners
In addition to tomatoes, other easy vegetables to grow are lettuce, cucumbers, and green beans. Root vegetables like turnips, carrots, radishes, and potatoes are also a good option for first-time gardeners. You can even grow potato plants from potatoes you have in your kitchen! Just let some potatoes sit in indirect sunlight until they start to sprout. Cut off a chunk that has a sprout and bury it in your garden.
Some plants are hard to grow because they need very specific weather conditions or nutrients in the soil. These include cauliflower, watermelon, celery, and asparagus. Fun fact—asparagus is one of the few veggies that’s a perennial, meaning it comes back each year on its own. But only if you can successfully get it started!
5. What to Plant Next to Each Other
Plants can help or hurt the growth of neighboring plants. This can be due to a couple of different factors, including soil input and output, height, pests, and disease. You can design your garden to maximize mutually beneficial relationships.
Some best friends that do well next to each other include (Kanuckel, 2018):
- Basil with tomatoes and peppers. Basil repels pests and can make peppers taste even better.
- Green beans with sweet corn. Beans help corn get the nitrogen it needs from the soil, and corn stalks are perfect for beans to wrap around as they grow upwards.
- Onions with carrots and parsnips. Onions keep pesky flies away from carrots and parsnips.
- Lettuce with chives or mint. These herbs can chase the slugs from lettuce.
- Carrots with tomatoes. Tomatoes provide carrots with needed shade and repel pests that prey on them, and carrots help more water and air get to the roots of tomato plants.
6. What Plants to Keep Apart
Those are five great partnerships, but some plants will keep each other from living their best life. Plant these ones well apart:
- Tomatoes and sweet corn. They suffer from the same damaging worms, so if one crop gets infested, it can spread.
- Onions and green beans. Beans won’t grow well if they’re near onions.
- Summer squash and potatoes. Disease can spread between these two.
If you want to plant anything really tall, like corn, be sure it won’t block the sun from the rest of your garden.
See more: DIY Make Your Own Chicken Coup to go with your home garden!
The Steps: How to Start a Vegetable Garden at Home
Now for the part you’ve been waiting for: getting the plants in the ground!
1. Buying the Plants
If you choose to start from seeds, you can find instructions for each plant on the packet. Cool-season plants can often be grown from seeds because you can plant them earlier.
If you want to grow warm-season plants from seeds, though, you might have to start growing them inside while it’s still cold out. Otherwise, they might not have time to actually produce vegetables before the season ends.
You can buy trays, called flats, of young plants that can go directly into the ground. Some large grocery stores sell vegetables for gardening. At a greenhouse, though, you can get customized tips for each plant when you buy it.
Staff can remind you how much sunlight and water each vegetable plant needs, how far apart to space them, and how long until you’ll be able to eat your harvest for dinner.
Be gentle when you take the seedling out of the tray. First, dig a hole in your garden for each plant. Pinch the bottom of the tray with one hand, and with the other hand, grab the base of the stem and gently wiggle it free. All of the dirt should come out in one piece, or else the roots could break.
Put the plant baby in the hole and fill in the space around it with dirt. It’s extra good if you have some fresh compost to mix in. Pat the dirt around the stem gently to help the plant stand upright, and give it a good drink of water.
Tip: Label each row with a popsicle stick so you can remember what’s planted where!
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