Read This Before You Start a Vegetable Garden

1) Choose a spot in full sun.

Most edibles, including vegetables and herbs, need full sun to thrive. Full sun means 6 or more hours of direct sunlight or more; the more sunlight, the better!

If you’re not sure about how much sun you have, watch your yard throughout the day for a few days to find the ideal location. Make sure large shrubs and trees aren’t blocking the garden for portions of the day.

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2) Figure out how you’re going to water.

It may not seem like a big deal, but if you have to drag out the garden hose or haul watering cans to your garden during a dry spell, the joy of gardening goes right out the window. Many veggies, such as cucumbers, are thirsty and need regular watering or they’ll suffer and not produce well.

You should consider setting up soaker hoses, which deliver water directly to the root. This is more efficient method because you don't waste as much water as overhead sprinklers, which allow some water to evaporate.

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3) Do a soil test.

Once you’ve decided on a location, get a soil test. It sounds like an unnecessary step, but if you don’t know what you have to start with, you won’t know if you need to add anything—and why waste money on adding nutrients you don’t need?

These tests evaluate soil pH (acidity) and nutrient levels, and your local university coop extension service (find yours here) can do a soil test for you, typically for $20 or less. It’s only necessary every few years, so it’s not a huge investment. Home test kits also are available, but they’re not as accurate or thorough.

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4) Start small.

You might have visions of grandeur, but let’s be real: A vegetable garden requires some work. For example, you’ll need to weed regularly because baby plants don’t compete well with weeds for water and nutrients; you’ll need to tie up tomato plants; and you’ll need to pay attention to potential pest or disease issues, which seem to pop up overnight. You don’t want to take the fun out of growing things by overcommitting the first year.

So, what size is right for a vegetable garden for beginners? Start with a bed that’s no larger than 100 square feet (so, 10 x 10 feet). But it’s fine to start smaller, too. You can always “go big” next year once you gain experience.

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5) Try container gardening.

If you don’t have quite the right amount of sun in your yard, or if your soil is poor and you don’t want to fuss with amending it, container gardening is a great way to start because you can place pots anywhere on a deck, patio, driveway, or even on a small balcony.

Containers also increase your gardening space, warm up faster in spring, and give you better control over your environment. Many new veggie varieties have been designed to grow well in containers, too.

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6) Grow what you love.

There’s no sense growing radishes because someone told you they’re easy to grow if you hate them. Start with just a few types of veggies you like, and get a few plants of each.

You also can choose varieties you won’t find at the grocery store, such as chocolate-brown or orange cherry tomatoes, teeny cucumbers, or white eggplants that are so pretty they look like ceramic. You’ll get more satisfaction in growing, eating, and harvesting edibles you love.

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7) Buy seeds and plants from reliable nurseries.

This is definitely a case of you get what you pay for: Stick with well-known seed and plant nurseries for best results. Many gardening companies such as Burpee, Ferry-Morse, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and Harris Seeds, have been around for decades, so they’re reliable sources of seeds and plants. No-name seeds tend to be poor quality, with low germination rates.

When it comes to plants, it’s totally fine to buy seedlings from the big box retailers, but check out local nurseries, too, for more unique varieties. Online nurseries also offer a much wider selection of veggies, herbs and flowers than you’ll find locally, and they’ve perfected shipping techniques so your plants will arrive intact.

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8) Plant a combination of seeds and seedlings.

Seeds are cheap, usually just a few dollars per package. However, in cold climates, you won’t have enough time to raise heat-loving crops, such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, in your short growing season. If you try to plant these types of crops from seed, you’ll run out of summer before the crops come to maturity.

You can start these crops from seed indoors a few months ahead of time, but that requires seed-starting supplies, such as pots and grow lights, and can be a wee bit frustrating for first-time gardeners. For crops that require a long growing season, consider buying seedlings instead of seeds.

On the other hand, there actually are many other plants that prefer to be direct-seeded into the garden because they don’t like having their roots disturbed. Plant seeds for easy-to-grow crops such as cucumbers, squash, peas, bush and climbing beans, and herbs such as dill, cilantro, and basil.

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9) Watch for problems.

Any experienced gardener will tell you that pests and diseases seem to appear overnight. One day your potato vines look fine, and the next they’re covered in black and yellow striped potato bugs! You don’t have to be an expert to spot trouble: Look for anything unusual such as wilting leaves, spotted or yellowing leaves, chewed holes, or masses of weird-looking bugs.

Don’t panic and start spraying! You’ll kill beneficial bugs and pollinators. Identify the problem first before figuring out what to do. Your university county coop extension agent can help.

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10) Plant flowers, too.

Many vegetables, such as cucumbers and squash, require insect pollination in order to form fruit. Planting flowers brings in the pollinators, as well as beneficial bugs to take care of some of the bad bugs that want to chow down on your veggies.

Sweet alyssum, zinnias, marigolds, borage, and herbs that you allow to go to flower such as dill and cilantro are great choices for attracting beneficials of all sorts.

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11) Enjoy your garden!

Make a habit of strolling around your garden every day. Pay attention to what’s happening: Teeny-tiny tomatoes are forming! The pollinators are buzzing in the squash blossoms! The hummingbirds are visiting the bean blossoms!

Part of the joy of gardening is the daily discovery of what’s new, beautiful and interesting. We promise you’ll find a peace in nature that nothing else can deliver.

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You'll be harvesting in no time.