Beginners Guide: How to Start a High Producing Vegetable Garden from Scratch
Congratulations on your decision to start a vegetable garden! You’ve taken the first step on a journey that will yield tasty rewards. Like any great venture, it pays to plan. And the best way to ensure a high-producing vegetable garden begins with information.
The information you need is easy to find. Its significance, however, cannot be overestimated. To ensure a high-producing vegetable garden, you need to know what conditions exist in your location. Once you have that, you can choose the plants that will do best and supply you with plenty of fresh vegetables throughout the growing season.
Vegetable plants vary widely in their preferences for sunlight, soil type, and soil fertility. Therein lies the degree of difficulty with growing some species. Some plants tolerate less than ideal conditions quite well. Other plants will struggle.
Stay in the Zone
Knowing your area’s hardiness zone is perhaps the most important thing you need when considering how to start a vegetable garden. The USDA Hardiness Zone Map provides a visual image of zones across the country that show where plants thrive best. Most seed packets and starter plants include zone information on labels. The USDA offers a free tool to help you determine which zone you are in.
The hardiness map is the work of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Oregon State University’s (OSU) PRISM Climate Group. The new and improved 2012 map reflects input from scientists and experts in the horticultural field. While not perfect, it is the best place to start when researching how to start a vegetable garden. It gives you the first criterion for selecting plants for your garden.
Armed with this information, you have the best chance of success for a high-producing vegetable garden. You know what plants do well in your location, especially if you live in the eastern half of North America. That bit of intel gives you the key to one of the best prevention tips for pests by minimizing environmental stress. Your next job for how to start a vegetable garden is your layout.
Vegetable Garden Layout
To ensure a healthy and high-producing vegetable garden, you need some basic information which will guide your plant choices. Some things you should find out include:
- How much sunshine/shade of your vegetable garden receives
- Direction your layout faces
- Soil type, i.e., clay, loam, or sand
These factors will help you plan your layout for optimum yield. Some vegetables, for example, thrive better in sunny conditions. Other may relish some less intense sunlight. Knowing this information ahead of time allows you to pick the best vegetables for your site.
Next, think about the design of your garden and what elements you feel are must-haves. These features may include items like a bird bath, herbaceous borders, or maybe even some flowers for a spot of color. Also, consider the style of your garden. Do you picture it as a formal garden of tilled rows or do you see as a more casual cottage garden?
If you want your garden to be more than just a place to grow vegetables, make it happen. It can be functional as well as practical. Working with the arrangements of your plants can make it a showpiece as well as a kitchen garden. The only rule is that there are no rules.
With perennial plants like asparagus, it pays to take the time before the spade hits the ground to create the garden you want, including its shape. You don’t have to have the traditional rectangular-shaped garden if you want to be creative. A diagonal garden can create a sense of space. On the other hand, an L-shaped layout can make access to your plants easier, while encouraging visitors to walk around and explore your garden.
You can even mix things up with a circular garden. Consider the size and space with which you have to work. Even unusual shapes like corners or curved sites offer opportunities. The only limitation is your imagination.
Many vegetable plants are ornamental on their own right. Use it your advantage. You can train climbing plants like green beans to a decorative trellis as a focal point or hide an unsightly feature like an air-conditioning unit. If you have space, you might even consider using an archway for your climbers.
And finally, take your time during this planning process. Think about to what your ultimate goal is with your garden. And give serious consideration to how committed you will be down the road during the warm summer months. Being an armchair gardener is easy; getting your hands dirty takes time and effort.
Plants, like people, can be picky about their living conditions. While some plants like cucumbers are very forgiving, others like tomatoes require more attention. Some vegetable plants have special needs, whereas others are targets for certain pests and diseases. Each of the plants below includes basic information for getting started and any special requirements each one may need.
For a harvest that lasts the entire growing season, choose a variety of vegetables that you can plant at different times. Opt for early spring choices like carrots, followed by later season plantings of summer-loving plants like tomatoes. Depending upon the plant, you may even be able to get a second harvest of those early-growing plants. It’s a great way to get a high yield from your garden without a lot of extra work.
Asparagus prefers cooler areas and a cold winter with freezing temperatures. It produces a sizable harvest. But it is a commitment. Unlike many other vegetables, it will claim its place in your vegetable garden for years.
- It is a perennial and can last 15 years or more with good care.
- It can tolerate salt, making it a good choice for coastal areas.
- It may take two to three years before it starts producing vegetables.
- Regular watering is essential to avoid water stress, making it moderately difficult to grow.
- Because of its large spread and height, it may shade out other plants.
- Asparagus has several issues that you will need to carefully monitor, including asparagus beetle, rust, and crown rot.
Beets are another cool season vegetable. Unlike asparagus, it is an annual plant, as you may expect. It can tolerate a soil with low fertility as long as it drains well.
- A continuous harvest through the growing season is possible with successive plantings.
- Beets don’t require a lot of room, making them a smart choice for a smaller garden.
- Regular weeding is vital to ensure a high-quality vegetable.
- Beets will not thrive in acidic soils.
- Potential issues include the leaf miner, Cercospora leaf spot, and scab.
Broccoli plants prefer the cold as well. In fact, you should plan on harvesting them before the weather turns too warm. Good soil quality is vital for a plentiful yield.
- Its preference for cooler conditions means that you can grow broccoli both in the spring and fall.
- It probably won’t surprise you that broccoli tolerates frost better than many other vegetable plants.
- Broccoli can “bolt” or produce a flower stalk if a cold snap follows a good growing run.
- Broccoli has high nutritional requirements that will require fertilizing.
- Its roots are close to the surface, making frequent weeding necessary.
- Several pests target cole crops like broccoli, including flea beetles and cabbage loppers as well as diseases like black rot and club root.
Cabbage plants are at the edge of the cool season plant spectrum when daytime temperatures hover in the 60-degree range. You can sow seeds as soon as the soil allows. Seedlings emerge quickly, usually within one week. You can harvest your cabbage in less than three months.
- Cabbage plants will tolerate mild frosts, but a hard freeze damage young plants.
- Because they are cool season vegetables, you can plant cabbage plants both in the spring and fall.
- Like broccoli, you should plant them so you can harvest them before hot weather kicks in.
- Cabbage does best in well-drained soils with regular watering, which may make them moderately difficult to grow.
- Several pests and disease plague cabbage, including cabbage worms, cabbage root maggot, and clubfoot.
Epic Gardening provides a handful of powerful tips and resources for anyone struggling with a terrible case of cabbage pests or worms.
Unlike many vegetables, you can plant carrots before the season’s last frost. Best practices like proper watering go a long way to producing a good yield. You can plant carrots as seeds, sowing about 20 seeds per foot of row. Then, you can thin them when they emerge in two to three weeks.
- Because of the small amount of room they need, carrots are an excellent choice for a smaller garden.
- With additional plantings every three weeks, you can enjoy a continuous harvest to last the growing season.
- Mulching around plants will keep them from overheating for optimal growth as well as control weeds.
- You can plan on about one pound of carrots for each one foot of row.
- You’ll need to remove any stones or obstructions like roots in the soil to ensure well-formed, straight carrots.
- Carrots are not tolerant of competition from other plants and weeds—including other carrots.
- Carrots are not a good choice for areas with heavy clay soils which can make it tough for young plants to push down into the ground.
- Several problems can occur with carrots, including flea beetles and carrot root flies.
If you want a challenge, look no further than cauliflower. You can start seeds indoors and plant them after the danger of frost has passed once soil temperatures reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Growing cauliflower is not easy because it has such a narrow range of favorable conditions, including sunlight and heat. Mulching will help protect it and keep down weeds to prevent damage from removing unwanted plants.
- Green and purple varieties of cauliflower can add some welcome to your garden.
- A second fall harvest is possible to increase yield.
- While it can tolerate cold conditions like other cool season vegetables, a hard freeze will wipe out a crop.
- Because it’s shallow-rooted, you must take care when weeding near plants.
- To get their characteristic white heads requires intervention on your part to blanch them by covering them with the plants’ outer leaves.
- Common pests of cole crops will go after cauliflower too, including flea beetles, cabbage worms, and cabbage aphids.
Corn is considered a moderately difficult plant to grow because it demands optimal soil conditions and a reliable source of moisture. You should plant seeds after the threat of frost has passed. Seeds germinate quickly within seven days. You can harvest your first ears of corn about 20 days after silks appear.
- Depending on where you live, you may be able to get an early harvest with hybrids.
- In the right conditions, corn plants will flourish, giving you a good harvest.
- While individual plants have a small spread of less than 1 ½ feet, you need a sizable space to get an adequate yield.
- Tall plants may shade out other garden plants.
- Bear in mind that raccoons and crows like corn too, meaning you might have a battle on your hands.
- Corn feeds heavily on nitrogen which can deplete the soil of this valuable nutrient.
- Other than problems caused by weather, several insect pests can damage corn plants, including corn earworm and European corn borer.
Cucumber plants make an excellent first-time gardener plant that you can grow from seeds. As long as you plant them after any danger of frost, you’ll likely reap a good harvest. If space is an issue, you can train the vines to a trellis or cage. Because they grow fast, cucumber plants will need fertilizer through the growing season.
- Cucumber plants are easy plants to grow and maintain.
- Plants mature fast to give you a quick return for your efforts.
- You can grow cucumbers to order, harvesting at the size you want.
- Cucumber plants have a large spread up to six feet that may be too large for some gardens.
- Cucumbers lay down deep roots up to four feet underground, making nearby trees a competitor for nutrients.
- Cucumber plants do not tolerate cold conditions.
- Common pests include cucumber beetle, squash bug, and aphids.
Eggplant is often described as a delicate plant merely because they thrive best in areas with a long, warm growing season. You should plant this tropical plant from transplants rather than growing from seed. Eggplant prefers fertile soil with lots of organic matter. Regular long and thorough watering is necessary to prevent shallow roots.
- Eggplant is an attractive plant that will add some pop to your garden.
- Many varieties of eggplant exist, giving you plenty of choices for the vegetable you want.
- Eggplants have very specific requirements, so you should not plant at sites where peppers, tomatoes, or strawberries have been planted to reduce the risk of verticillium wilt.
- Pests to look out for include flea beetles, spider mites, aphids, and Colorado potato beetles.
Garlic is an easy-to-grow plant that is suitable for small gardens. Growing them couldn’t be simpler. Place cloves with green tips facing up about 2 inches down.
- This cool-season vegetable tolerates frost.
- Flowers from garlic plants are edible.
- Few if any pests target garlic plants, making it as close to worry-free as you can get.
- Garlic plants will not fare well in dense clay soils.
- Several types of rot target garlic and other onion plants.
Green beans are best grown directly from seeds. The plants don’t take up a lot of space with a spread of under two feet. However, they need some support like a trellis to grow. Because of susceptibility to rot and rust, good air circulation around climbing plants is essential.
- Green beans are an easy plant for beginners.
- Many varieties exist, giving you lots of choices with different maintenance needs.
- This warm-season vegetable does not tolerate frost, so only plant it when the danger of freezing has passed.
- Likewise, a cold, wet growing season could wreak havoc on your plants.
- Because plants can grow up to 5 feet, a risk of shading out other plants exists.
- Common pests include aphids, leafhoppers, and spider mites.
Kale is another cool season plant of the Cabbage Family that you can propagate by seed. Seeds germinate in less than a week. Because it tolerates cold, you can get a second harvest in the fall. In fact, that little bit of frost will make it taste sweeter, not unlike late harvest wines.
- This annual plant is easy to grow, with a relatively small spread of under 3 feet.
- Pests don’t affect kale as much as other cole crops like cabbage.
- Several varieties exist which can provide an attractive focal point for your garden.
- To reduce the risk of reoccurring disease, you should rotate kale or any other cole crop into your garden every three years.
- Common pests include slugs, flea beetles, and cabbage loppers.
Leaf lettuce is one of the few vegetable plants that you can plant and leave it until harvest. You can plant them directly from seeds or transplant seedlings. You should harden seedlings before planting by cutting back on watering and if possible, reducing the temperature. Size will be your best indicator of when to harvest.
- Lettuce is fast growing, providing a good harvest relatively quickly.
- You’ll have plenty of choices from the varieties with different shapes, sizes, and flavors, with some like romaine requiring a bit more care.
- Because they have shallow roots, it’s important to keep lettuce plants well-watered.
- Since lettuce is a cool season plant, it will not do well in warm regions.
Growing onions are similar to garlic since they are in the same plant family. You have some options for growing onions. You can plant them in the fall for spring harvest or in the spring for a summer yield. Likewise, you can propagate them by seed or plant sets, i.e., immature bulbs, or as transplants.
- Several varieties of onions are available with different requirements for day length so you can easily find one the best for your growing conditions.
- This cool season plant tolerates frost well.
- Like garlic, pests don’t pose many problems for onions.
- Regular watering is essential for optimal growth.
- While disease isn’t a great concern, you should rotate onions into your garden every four years.
- The onion maggot is one pest that may target your vegetable plants.
Parsnips, like carrots, are a hardy root crop that prefers cool conditions. In fact, you can even overwinter the plants for harvest in the spring. You can grow parsnips from seeds. Patience is required when planting this vegetable as it can take three weeks or more to germinate.
- Letting plants overwinter will enhance its sweet, nutty flavor for the best quality harvest.
- Parsnips won’t do well in acidic soils.
- Parsnip plants have special needs early on, with well-tilled soils and frequent weeding essential during early growth.
- Pests that target carrots may also go for parsnips, including carrot root flies and carrot weevils.
Like with other cool season vegetables, you can get started in your garden in early spring as soon as the soil lets you. Plants will emerge in two weeks or less after propagating by seed. You can train plants to a trellis where they can reach heights up to eight feet.
- Plants are easy to grow, and not many things can beat the sweet taste of freshly harvested peas.
- Like most cool season plants, peas can tolerate frost to some degree.
- During wet springs, pea plants may not require frequent watering.
- Since mildew may pose problems, it is important to water pea plants at the ground level rather than on the vines or leaves themselves.
- Frequent weeding in its early days is necessary to allow pea plants to get established.
The key to growing peppers is warmth. You can propagate them by seed, but don’t be quick to transplant outdoors if conditions aren’t favorable. As long as the nights don’t get too cold, you’ll likely harvest some produce. Equally important is making sure that the plants don’t wilt.
- Peppers don’t need a lot of space for their size with a height and spread of less than three feet.
- Peppers can add a bit of color to your vegetable garden as they change from green to red.
- Peppers can be temperamental because these tropical plants prefer warm conditions.
- Peppers have a longer growing season than many other common vegetables, meaning they’ll require relatively more maintenance than faster-growing plants.
- You’ll need to make sure the plants are receiving adequate moisture to prevent blossom end rot.
- Aphids and borers are common pests.
These plants stand out as you can grow them from parts of the tuber itself or seed potatoes. You should plant them eye-side up about four inches into the ground. You’ll see sprouts in less than a month, depending upon the soil temperature. Plants are ready to harvest when the tops begin to die off, typically around 100 days.
- Potatoes are easy and fun to grow, making them a good project for children.
- You can choose from early to medium-late maturing varieties to get a full season harvest.
- Potatoes differ from many common vegetables in that they prefer acidic soils.
- You can prevent blight is a common disease of potato plants with good air circulation around the plants.
- Do not plant damaged seed potatoes which may be another source of blight or other diseases.
- Using certified seed will help you prevent problems with potatoes, such as scab, blight, and viral diseases.
- Colorado potato beetles and flea beetles are common pests.
Planting radicchio gives you a chance to enjoy a delicious vegetable that often commands a higher price tag at the grocery store. You can propagate radicchio by seed a few weeks before the average last frost. After emerging in less than two weeks, you can thin the plants. Mulching around the growing plants will ease them through the growing season by keeping weeds in check.
- Radicchio is a striking addition to your vegetable garden that will add plenty of color.
- Its small spread of under one foot makes it a good option for smaller gardens.
- Depending upon your location, you may be able to get a second harvest in the spring.
- There’s a good reason that radicchio is expensive—it can be a temperamental and unpredictable plant.
Everything about radishes is quick, whether it is its emergence time of four days to its quick harvest. But that also means good growing conditions during its short growth period are important. Radish plants need adequate moisture and a weed-free environment for the best quality harvest. You can think of radishes as your garden’s starter plant, setting the stage for the later-season plants.
- With its fast-growing time under six weeks, you can easily get multiple harvests in before summer rolls in.
- Radishes are easy to grow and will take up little space in your garden.
- You can grow them with other root crops, like carrots or parsnips.
- While it thrives best in full sun, hot weather can affect the flavor of radishes, causing them to be more pungent.
- As may be expected with a member of the Cabbage Family, radishes are susceptible to cabbage root maggots.
If you live in a cooler part of the country, spinach is a must-have for your garden. Like parsnips, you can begin propagating spinach as soon as you can work the soil. Plants will emerge in less than two weeks, depending upon soil temperature. Adequate water is essential for this shallow-rooted plant.
- Hardy describes spinach perfectly which can tolerate temperatures as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit.
- The time from planting to harvest is relatively quick at less than 45 days.
- This cool season vegetable does best with cool temperatures and consistent moisture.
- Seeds may not germinate at all if temperatures are too warm.
- You can prevent mildew and rust, some of the greatest threats to spinach plants, by watering early them in the day.
Unlike its winter counterparts, summer squash forms compact vines with a spread of less than four feet. As its name implies, warm soil conditions are necessary for seeds to germinate. Plants typically emerge in less than two weeks and can be hastened with black plastic mulch.
- Plants produce a lot of vegetables, making only a few plants necessary for a fruitful harvest.
- Adding summer squash to your vegetable garden will give you a chance to try one of the many delicious varieties you may not find at your grocery store.
- Like other warm season vegetables, summer squash will not tolerate cold weather or frost.
- Summer squash is susceptible to a variety of diseases, most notably when harvesting is underway.
- Squash bugs and cucumber beetles are common pests.
If you live in a warm climate and have a garden with full sun, sweet potatoes will be happy to take up residence. You’ll have your best luck growing sweet potatoes from starter plants. Plants require consistent watering that is best done in the morning to prevent rotting. You can harvest sweet potatoes about four months after planting.
- As you might expect from its preference for a warm climate, sweet potatoes can take the heat well.
- Its tolerance extends to diseases and pests for which sweet potatoes can manage well for the most part.
- While they tolerate heat, you must take care to avoid water stress, especially in new plants.
- Likewise, you should plant sweet potato plants well after the threat of frost.
Tomatoes are the quintessential vegetable garden plant. While you can grow them from seed, you’ll have your best luck with starter plants. You will need stakes or cages to keep plants and tomatoes off of the ground. Doing so will help plants produce more fruit that will ripen quicker.
- One of the many advantages of growing tomatoes is the huge selection you have from sweet cherry tomatoes to meaty beefsteak varieties.
- Tomatoes are prolific producers, given the right conditions.
- Tomatoes command a lot of ground with a spread and height up to six feet.
- Tomatoes can be delicate, requiring consistent moisture to prevent common problems such as blossom end rot.
- They are susceptible to several pests and diseases, including aphids, tomato hornworms, and verticillium wilt.
Despite the name, winter squash is a warm season plant that is sensitive to frost. You can begin them as seedlings indoors if your growing season is shorter or propagate by seed if planting a short-season variety.
- Winter squash are easy to grow and maintain.
- Squash flowers are edible, providing a gourmet treat.
- Winter squash have sprawling vines, with some having spreads over 10 feet.
- As may be expected, winter squash leaves a big mess to clean up after harvest which is necessary to prevent mildew.
- Watering early in the day will prevent common problems like bacterial wilt, scab, and powdery mildew.
Non-Vegetable Plants for Your Garden
There’s no rule that you can’t plant other types of plants. When you consider how to start a vegetable garden, think about the end product. How are you going to eat the vegetables you harvest? Herbs offer a welcome addition.
If you planted tomatoes, think about adding some cilantro for salsa. Love Italian foods? How about some oregano or chervil? Your vegetable garden opens up endless culinary possibilities.
Some herbs you may want to consider include:
Some herbs have their quirks. Plants like cilantro are self-seeding. This trait means that if you allow them to go to seed, you’ll end up with cilantro plants next year—without even planting them. To keep them under control, plant herbs like dill in containers and harvest them when they’ve gone to flower to prevent them from going to seed.
Besides herbs, you can also plant other fun gourmet additions. If you like plating your meals, you can include plants such as edible flowers or micro greens. These little extras can make your meals look as delicious as they will taste. Some options include:
Fruits can add a sweet addition to your garden too. Several types prefer similar conditions as your vegetables and will feel right at home. Like vegetables, primary considerations of height and spread apply with any non-vegetable plant you add. Some fruits to consider include:
Finally, you can select plants that can do double-duty in your garden. While deer will gladly eat your tomatoes, they’re not keen on other plants like marigolds. So, for additional non-vegetable options, consider ones that may deter pests. Adding these plants offers a safe and effective way to protect your garden.
Other Considerations for Choosing Plants
Some other factors may influence your decisions about plants since it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the vast selection available. If you’re new to gardening, try to limit your choices to a handful, depending on the size of your layout. Your best chances of success with a vegetable garden lie with knowing your plants well. This information includes basics like height/spread to times for planting/harvest to vulnerabilities and pests.
And remember, you don’t have to plant all the vegetables you want to harvest the first year. In fact, you’ll find that vegetable gardens produce the highest quality and the greatest yield when you rotate crops year-to-year. If you didn’t plant a particular plant this year, there’s always next year. Here are some additional tips to guide your choices.
- Think about the vegetables you typically buy and see if any are appropriate for your garden.
- Choose vegetables or non-vegetable plants that are expensive to buy at the grocery store to save money.
- Consider yield when deciding how much to plant.
- Optimize your yield by storing, canning, or pickling your harvest.
- Grow your culinary palette with tempting choices like heirloom varieties.
- Note which plants are more likely to attract bees in case someone in your home is allergic.
If the vegetable plant you want in your garden isn’t appropriate for your area, check out its varieties. You may find one that can tolerate your climate or the conditions of your garden. In the same vein, if you’ve had issues with a particular pest or environmental problem like drought, look for a plant variety that is resistant to the problem. The horticultural world is constantly evolving to deal with some of these common problems.
If you still need some ideas, the USDA Plants Database has a free tool that will help you select vegetable plants by type and state. But bear in mind, it’s only a guide. Some states such as California include multiple hardiness zones.
How Many Plants Do You Need
The size of your vegetable garden determines how much you can plant. It will also influence the types of plants you should select. Each plant needs a certain amount of real estate. So, the first thing you need to do is measure your space.
This guide from the Old Farmer’s Almanac provides step-by-step instructions for determining the square feet of your garden no matter what its shape. Your result is the maximum amount of space you have with which to work. The label on your plants or seed packets provides the optimal space each one needs. Your task is to figure out how you want to divide up your garden based on the size requirements for your vegetables.
Begin by drawing your garden layout on graph paper, indicating the primary directions. To make it easier to read, use a scale of maybe four or five squares per foot of garden space. Be sure to note any existing elements like trees or other structures. Pay attention to features such as slopes that can affect drainage patterns.
With this basic information in place, you can start allocating space for plants. Using spread information for each vegetable, determine how much space you can allot for each one. Don’t be tempted to skimp. Remember the spread information is for optimal growth which is your end goal. And certainly, don’t forget to consider height as well.
As you plan, consider the number of each plant that you want to include as part of their defined space. Information on each plant’s yield and ease of care can help you make realistic choices. One zucchini plant is a lot different from having two or three. And be realistic about what kind of yield you want.
You’ll likely have to plan out your layout more than once before you come up with a game plan. But it’s an important exercise that takes you from dreaming about a vegetable garden to making it a reality. And don’t be discouraged if there is a lot of white space between plants. Remember, the soil has a limited supply of nutrients without some extra help from fertilizers.
Options for Planting
Generally speaking, you have several options for planting your vegetables. You can start seeds indoors weeks before the growing season. The advantage of this method is cost savings. A packet of seeds will cost far less than a starter plant and sometimes, is the preferred way to go.
You can also cut to the chase with starter plants from a garden center for transplanting. If your growing season is limited, this is an excellent option for growing the plants you want despite other limitations. You can get plants directly into place and avoid some of the issues with delicate plants. If your area experiences environmental conditions that can interfere with plants getting established like temperature, you have another card to play.
Other options include cuttings or seed plants. Of course, you can simply sow seeds directly into the ground. However, the best method will vary with the particular plant, plant zone, and other local factors that can influence plant growth. Your local extension service can help you identify the important considerations for your area.
When it comes down to planting your vegetables, the sun direction will help you place your plants for optimal sunlight. After all, energy from the sun is an essential part of photosynthesis, the means by which plants produce food and energy. It will also help prevent taller plants like asparagus from shading the smaller ones like radishes.
Placement comes into play again when you space your plants. Each plant needs adequate space to grow for maximizing yield. Carrot plants, for example, need far less space than a cucumber or zucchini plant might prefer. Don’t let the small size of starter plants or the tiny size of vegetable seeds deceived you.
Part of the beginning stages of a garden will involve thinning of plants. If you’ve seeded your garden, you’ll likely be pulling several plants out to give the stronger and largest plants the best chance. As long as favorable conditions exist, your plants will gladly fill in the empty spaces.
Raised beds offer several advantages to gardeners. They present a barrier to weeds as well as an obstacle to common garden pests like slugs and snails. They will also allow you to grow a wider array of vegetables, especially if your garden has poor soil quality. A raised bed can allow you to create the ideal environment with better drainage that can produce greater yields.
They also offer some benefits for you. Being off the ground can make maintenance easier on your knees. And it also means that you may be able to extend the growing season without the risk of cooler soil temperatures. Besides that, raised beds framed in wood can add an eye-catching feature to your garden.
If you’re short on space, you can still find room for some additional plants by growing them in containers instead. Vegetables such as tomatoes will do quite well in a pot as long as you make sure you water them regularly. They can even give you a way to enjoy fresh produce year round when you bring them indoors over the winter months. You can plant perennial herbs like rosemary in a container and bring them inside to overwinter.
Dwarf varieties of vegetables make excellent choices for containers. You can still grow plants like peas without needing some support. You might even consider growing them in a hanging basket to add another level of interest to your vegetable garden. Doing this can make your garden more inviting as something more than just a vegetable garden.
Containers are also a smart choice for aggressive plants that can quickly take over a garden, such as members of the Mint Family. Make sure and pinch off flowers as they appear to prevent them from going to seed. By doing this, you’ll keep the plant producing longer through the season since many plants die back after flowering. It offers the advantage of allowing you to continue enjoying fresh herbs while keeping these plants in check.
Optimizing Your Space
And this is where knowing your plants well comes into play. The basics of height, spread, and growth periods give you the necessary information you need to optimize your space. You can use the different growing patterns of your vegetables to your advantage. For example, the short growing season of radishes allows you to sneak another harvest in while slower-growing plants mature.
Many plants can produce better yields when you plant them next to so-called companion plants. These plants may act as allies with beneficial relationships like deterring pests. Basil, for example, will repel flies and mosquitoes to give tomato plants an edge as a deterrent to common tomato pests like aphids. Other plants like garlic may enhance the flavor of other vegetables like beets.
Equally important is understanding the flip side of these relationships. Some plants do well in the same garden, and others don’t play nicely together. While cucumbers may like corn, sage can hurt corn plants. Often, these relationships exist because one plant may act as a carrier for another plant’s pest or disease.
Many of these relationships make sense from a culinary point-of-view, such as the beneficial taste relationship between chives and carrots. While the gourmet aspect may be subjective, the ally relationship cannot be denied. Aromatic plants such as chives and garlic deter pests such as aphids. Many plants are effective against a variety of pests, such as marigolds which will help keep beetles as well as deer out of your garden.
Companion plant relationships may offer another benefit after harvest. Strawberries, for example, have such a beneficial relationship with spinach. Imagine a salad with freshly harvested strawberries and spinach with a poppy seed vinaigrette. It’s almost as if Nature is telling you what to eat.
When to Plant
The time you plant varies with the particular vegetable. Some plants benefit from early planting in the spring that gives them plenty of time to grow in their ideal conditions. Others prefer the warmer conditions and the longer days of a late spring or early summer planting. Time to harvest is another important factor.
Generally speaking, the longer a plant needs to grow until harvest, the sooner you can plant them. Seed packets and plants typically include this information on their labels. The length to harvest is where the hardiness zone comes into play. The goal is to harvest plants before the threat of a hard frost or freeze occurs.
The following is a list of vegetable plants grouped by cool and warm season. It serves as a general guide about when to plant, but other factors come into play too. Many vegetables include a wide array of varieties that may thrive better in different locations and environmental conditions. Thus, planting times may vary, with some spring plants able to handle a fall harvest too.
Cool Season Plants for Spring
Warm Season Plants for Late Spring and Summer
- Green Beans
- Summer Squash
- Sweet Potatoes
- Winter Squash
While the USDA Hardiness Zone Map provides a reasonable guide, local conditions may trump common perceptions about planting. The timing of the last frost, of course, remains high on the list of considerations. But other things can affect planting time. For example, don’t forget about spring rains or the chance late-season snowstorm which can wipe out a newly-planted garden.
And don’t let one warm spring day deceive you. As hard as it may seem, you should avoid planting too early just because the weather seems nice. Your local garden center can advise you about the best time to plant to avoid an unexpected turn in the weather.
As you get ready to plant your vegetable garden, you might want to consider keeping a garden journal. The days ahead will offer many challenges and trials along with the rewards of a fruitful harvest. Take advantage of the lessons that your garden is teaching you; write them down. Learn from your mistakes and successes.
Include information about how plants fared during the year along with any notes about weather conditions or temperatures. If you find some plants didn’t fare well because of drought-like conditions, you can look for drought-resistant varieties for next time. Record any encounters with pests, insects, or diseases, so you’ll be prepared.
Three things are necessary for pests to attack your vegetable plants or diseases to overrun your garden. First, the disease or pest itself must be present or at least nearby. Second, there must be a susceptible host which unfortunately may include many plants in your garden. And third, the conditions have to be right for a particular pest or disease to take hold.
The scenarios for pests and diseases vary. You can control some factors, such as selecting healthy plants to add to your garden. Equally important is culling plants that have damage or signs of disease. With regular maintenance and diligence, you can prevent your plants from becoming a victim to pests or disease.
Maintaining Your Plants to Harvest
Planting is just the beginning. Now the real work and blood, sweat, and tears of vegetable gardening begin in earnest. When you research how to start a vegetable garden, you should rank this part of the process high in your decision to plant. To help it succeed, your garden needs your keen attention through the entire growing season—and after.
Your maintenance plan includes four major components: weeding, watering, plant inspection, and reaction. Weeding and watering help prevent stress which could make your plants susceptible to pests and disease. Regular inspections for damage give you an upper hand to get a handle on problems before they get out of control. The reaction is what you do to take charge of issues that compromise the health of your garden.
Weeding Your Garden
Regular weeding is probably one of the most important preventive measures you can do to keep your garden healthy. Weeds are nothing less than parasites. The health of your plants is paramount to a high-producing garden. Besides, you may find the time in your garden therapeutic as means to connect with Nature and the outdoors.
Keeping on top of weeds makes good sense for your plants in another way too. Pulling established weeds can damage shallow-rooted plants like lettuce. More delicate plants like cauliflower may not recover from such disturbances. The sooner you remove weeds, the less likely they’ll cause trouble.
Your garden depends upon you to make up for the shortcomings of adequate precipitation. However, plants vary in their requirements. Watering is the proverbial double-edged sword. Too much moisture can set your plants up for mold and mildew issues, while too little can cause plants to shut down due to water stress.
Watering frequency is also an issue. While small, frequent watering benefits shallow-rooted plants, it could be a detriment to plants that prefer a weekly long soaking instead. Water needs are one reason why it’s important to know your plants well, including their idiosyncrasies.
Damage to plants is a break in the defenses that they naturally have to counter stress in their environment. It represents a hole in the armor. And it is a signal that a plant is being overwhelmed. Damage is a red flag for immediate action because it shows that a plant is susceptible to pests and disease.
Remember, being susceptible is one of the necessary elements for pests or disease to invade your garden. The best recovery is early identification so you can take action right away. Inspect the plants for specific signs, such as black spots, holes, or discolored areas. Most pests and diseases have telltale signs so you can put an appropriate plan of attack in action.
Once you know a problem exists, it behooves you to react in a positive manner. Some diseases like blight may be a sign that you’re creating favorable conditions for disease to occur by over watering. Blight is transmitted in the air, making it hard to avoid. However, you can protect your potato plants by making your garden inhospitable for such diseases.
Also, your plants may become damaged by physical means, such as weeding that disturbs delicate root systems. Leaves may fall off, or a stem may break during regular maintenance. And then there is the outside factor. While wildlife is welcome in the woods, your garden is another story.
How to Keep Four-Legged Pests Away
Depending on where you live, pests like deer and raccoons will likely stumble upon your tasty vegetable garden sooner rather than later. Keep this in your mind when thinking about how to start a vegetable garden. Remember, they’re trying to make a living too. Just don’t make it easy for them to use your garden to do it.
If you had to pick the ultimate success story, deer would have to be it. From an estimated 500,000 in 1900, the deer herd has skyrocketed to about 15 million in the United States today. Part of the reason for their success exists because they are opportunistic grazers, known to eat over 700 plant species. And your garden is often just the kind of opportunity they seek.
You have several options for controlling deer in your vegetable garden. Fencing off your garden may be the first thing that comes to mind. But deer have a counter strategy. Heights even up to 10 feet don’t pose a barrier to a hungry deer.
You can use repellents. However, they have to be re-applied frequently and regularly. Your best bet may lie with making sure your garden is not attracting deer. Along with your vegetables, consider selecting plants that deer tend to avoid.
Many of your possible choices include some of those double-duty plants. They make a suitable addition to your vegetable garden. But they also deter deer. Some good choices include:
Barriers like tomato plant cages can discourage some pests like raccoons, especially if other foods are more readily available. For squirrels and other scavengers, you can place a one-inch mesh wire fence at least 30 inches high around your vegetable garden. Be sure and extend it downward at least six inches underground as well to keep out burrowing critters. You can also discourage pests in a similar way as deer.
Many of deer-resistant plants may also keep rodents and other pests out of your garden. Rabbits, for example, will shun garlic because of its sharp smell. When planning your garden layout, you might want to consider planting garlic around the perimeter as a defense. In the end, the best you can do is try because a hungry animal is a desperate one, and they don’t read the lists of plants they supposedly don’t eat.
Pests in the Air
Birds, like deer, are opportunistic. To them, your garden is just another feeding area. However, birds like crows can do severe damage to your garden, even pulling up emerging plants. Most birds cannot smell, so repellents are not an option for keeping them at bay.
A common deterrent involves using some scare tactic. Shiny moving objects like Mylar tape or even pie tins tied by strings to stakes can fend off birds. Plastic or inflatable owls may offer a temporary solution for flying pests. The idea with these devices is to fool birds into thinking a predator is lurking.
However, it’s typically has a temporary effect as birds are quick to spot a fake. You might have some luck with moving things around occasionally to confuse them. But more often than not, the birds will figure out the ruse and continue to plague your garden. The best thing to do with a bird problem involves a more direct solution.
Barriers work well with birds. Flexible bird netting placed over your vegetable garden will keep flying pests out, while still allowing sunlight to reach your plants. While not the most attractive fix for the long term, birds will quickly find your garden again without this deterrent.
Another option is to grow bird-friendly plants like berry bushes far from your garden to lure them away. If you plant a preferred food like fruits, you may be able to keep birds from raiding your vegetable garden. Along with barriers, birds may end up preferring the easy option of an unprotected berry bush rather than trying to get under the netting over your vegetables.
Technically, the definition of a weed is simply a misplaced plant. If you didn’t plant it in your garden, it’s a weed. And weeds rob your vegetable plants—and you—of valuable nutrition. The best way to keep weeds under control is to prevent them from becoming established in the first place.
To control weeds, don’t give them a foothold into your vegetable garden. Cover bare spots with landscape cloth to prevent them from colonizing in your space. The cover will keep them from laying down roots. It will also deprive any weeds in the existing seed bank of valuable sunlight.
Keeping a vegetable garden is not a matter of merely planting and letting Nature take its course. Rather, it requires a commitment to regular maintenance on your part. You should weed your garden frequently to keep out interlopers. You can also use this time to check your plants for any signs of damage or stress.
As with aggressive herbs, another way to control weed establishment is to keep them from going to seed. Never allow weeds to flower so they can leave seeds in your garden. While you can’t prevent weeds entirely, you can take action for the things you can control. And finally, healthy vegetable plants have the best defense against pests and should be your highest priority.
Diseases, Parasites, and Insects, Oh, My
As with weeds, healthy plants stand the best chance against diseases, parasites, and insects. Plants have evolved defensive mechanisms against many of these pests. As long as their health isn’t compromised by poor maintenance or damage, they can often fight them off. But poor health makes them vulnerable and can lead to an infestation.
Each vegetable plant has its own set of enemies. Along with regular maintenance, being able to identify infestations or disease early offers the best way to get problems under control. Therefore, take some time to learn what pests are likely to occur with the plants in your garden. Like the specific conditions for plants, the necessary actions vary with the pest.
Fortunately, you have plenty of weapons in your arsenal. Some measures involve simple steps taken during planting such as ensuring air circulation around plants to prevent mildew. Watering plants earlier in the day giving plants plenty of time to dry offers a similar benefit. Other actions are more aggressive and use more direct counter attacks.
Dealing with insects can be tricky since you’re dealing with food plants. Pesticides, after all, are nothing short of poisons. But pesticides are not all the same, nor do they necessarily harm animals or birds. A less toxic option is to use insecticidal soaps.
These products are just what the name implies, a special soap that targets insects. They are particularly effective against soft-bodied pests, like aphids and spider mites. However, they only work while the soap is still wet. You have to catch the insects in the act because there is no residual effect.
But insecticidal soaps are not a be-all-end-all solution for all vegetable plants. They can burn plant tissues when they dry, especially in warmer temperatures. They may be inappropriate for other non-garden plants as well, like conifers and maidenhair ferns. Other plants that may be sensitive to the effects of insecticidal soaps include:
Before you use insecticidal soaps, try it on a few test leaves first before spraying an entire plant. And as with all pesticides, do not spray during windy conditions when the risk of drift to non-targeted plants exists. If you do use them, it’s important to spray both the top and underside of the leaves.
If you live in a warm, humid area, slugs may present a problem. While they’ll eat almost anything, your tomato, lettuce, and cabbage plants are most vulnerable. You’ll likely spot their destructive damage before seeing the slugs due to their dark color and secretive nature during the day. To get rid of them, crack open a beer.
You can place shallow dishes of beer around your garden where you’ve spotted their telltale irregular damage to leaves. The containers need to be shallow enough for them to get into, but deep enough so that they won’t get out. A dish cut from the bottom of a two-liter plastic soda bottle works well. You can also use a commercial slug repellent or pluck them off plants if you can handle it.
If you see little holes in vegetable plant leaves, chances are you have a flea beetle problem. The risk of severe damage is greatest in smaller, developing plants. Like many insects, they can also act as carriers for other problems, such as bacterial wilt. Because they are hard-bodied, you need something different than an insecticidal soap to tackle this pest.
Flea beetles attack a wide variety of vegetable plants, including tomatoes, kale, and peppers. You can control them with pesticides that contain pyrethroids or carbamates. If you prefer a non-chemical solution on your plants, you have a couple of choices. You can try a similar tactic as for deterring birds with a lure or in this case a trap crop like Chinese mustard.
The idea works the same. By planting a preferred food, you can keep the pests from your garden. Unlike the bird tactic, the trap crop concentrates the flea beetles where you can then apply an insecticide. You can also use floating row covers.
You can place these lightweight covers directly onto plants or suspend them using a support. The idea is to create a barrier to keep flea beetles out. To be effective, they must be secure, with no way for the flea beetles to get under them. You can leave the row covers for regular maintenance as long as you tie them down afterward.
Floating row covers offer a solution for other garden pests, such as onion thrip, bean leaf beetles, and cucumber beetles. Prevention, after all, the single best way to manage pests and disease. Even if your plants recover from some infestation, the stress they endure can still leave them vulnerable to another attack.
If you use pesticides, keep these guidelines in mind.
- Only use EPA or state-approved pesticides.
- Read the entire label—including safety precautions—before using any pesticide.
- As basic as it sounds, follow pesticide directions to the letter and apply the product only as directed.
- Keep pesticides tucked away in areas where pets or children can’t get to them.
- Avoid using pesticides near water sources such as streams and lakes, including wells.
- Follow the principles of integrated pest management to minimize pesticide use.
Best Practices for Pest Management
Another alternative for pest management is to adopt the techniques of integrated pest management. It includes ways to optimize pest management through the use of best practices. It offers the advantage of getting the most out of simple methods that have a large impact. It doesn’t rule out pesticide use, but rather helps you use it for the best results in an environmentally-friendly way.
Farmers use these best practices to minimize pesticide use while still getting the maximum benefit. These methods mean balancing the use of pesticides at the time and in the optimal amount for the best effect. It sounds simple. However, applying pesticides when and how they’ll be most effective at protecting vegetable plants as well as the environment while reducing their use.
The trick is to apply pesticides when weeds and pests are most vulnerable which starts with the correct identification of the problem. You can take lessons from growing vegetables to set you on the right track. Like your vegetable plants, weeds are most vulnerable before they’ve become established. Pesticides for weeds will prove most useful during early growth.
Herbicides, for example, may be selective for only specific types of weeds. Non-selective herbicides, on the other hand, may kill any plant—including your vegetable plants. The number one rule with pesticides is that more isn’t necessarily the best choice. Instead, the best strategy is to use the right pesticide and apply it when the weed’s defenses are at their weakest.
Timing is also crucial. Herbicides are classified as either pre-emergent versus post-emergent. Pre-emergent pesticides are those which you apply before the weeds have popped up, whereas post-emergent refers to those after weeds have sprouted. Because herbicides act differently, proper identification of the plant is necessary to use the right pesticide for the job.
Another easy practice you can adopt is crop rotation. Farmers use this practice routinely with soybeans and corn. The idea is that if you switch crops at some set pattern, you prevent pests from getting established. It works best with pests that are host-specific.
This term describes the relationship between particular plants, i.e., hosts, and pests. If your corn gets infested with a host-specific parasite, a farmer may make a switch to soybeans which removes the hosts, and thus, the parasite. You can apply the same practice to your garden. For example, you can help prevent root disease in tomatoes plants by not planting new plants where you’ve had potatoes or peppers in the last two years.
Many of the vegetable plants described above include similar recommendations. For example, you should not plant garlic in places where other onion plants have grown in the last few years. Doing so prevents new plants from becoming infected with diseases that may persist in the soil. Likewise, you should practice crop rotation with green beans to protect them from outbreaks of common bacteria and viruses.
Despite how simple as it sounds, it is surprisingly effective. By depriving pests of their preferred plant hosts, you can fend them off for a time. By adopting these practices, you can spare your plants while saving money on pesticide costs. This practice works best for annual plants, of course.
Another benefit of crop rotation involves the soil quality. Plants have varying impacts on the soil, due to their different nutritional needs. Heavy feeders can deplete soils of valuable nutrients. You can help replenish nutrients by rotating the vegetables in your garden with ones that have different requirements or with those which can fix nitrogen into the soil.
After the Harvest
At the end of a fruitful harvest, there’s still some work to do to set the stage for a high-producing vegetable garden next year. Part of the process of how to start a vegetable garden involves tasks after the season. Many of these to-do items include ways to ensure a good starting point for next year’s plants.
These post-season chores include removing leftover till or vines to allow for adequate air circulation to prevent mold and mildew. It’s also important because this layer of duff acts as a barrier to sunlight. Since many plants are picky about soil temperature, removing this litter allows sunlight to penetrate into the ground and warm things up for the next planting. And of course, there will be another vegetable crop next year.
After the harvest, take the time to review your gardening journal. The lessons you learned during your first-time gardening will prove invaluable for the next go-around. Note what worked and what didn’t. By now, you have a good idea of the amount of work involved.
Now it’s time to plan for the next harvest. So, use the winter months to browse gardening catalogs. Plan for the crops you need to rotate out of your garden the following. Find some new seeds or plants to try next year and get ready to pull out that shovel again.