How to Start a Vegetable Garden

More and more people these days want to start a vegetable garden. But not having any experience in vegetable gardening, they may not know how to begin to produce their own food.

For our grandparents, a vegetable garden was just a fact of life, something they did annually to put fresh food on the table before the days of supermarkets brimming with produce from around the world at any time of year. But as our society has evolved, we’ve unfortunately moved away from growing our own food as we have become more and more reliant on purchasing food grown by others. Many folks have never had the fulfilling experience of tilling the earth, planting seeds or harvesting homegrown vegetables. So when they want to start a vegetable garden, they cannot rely on past experience to help them tackle the project.

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Anyone can start a vegetable garden, and growing your own food doesn’t require a lot of money or fancy gadgets. Just take it one step at a time and soon you’ll be harvesting fresh, tasty food from your very own garden.

You don’t need to spend a lot to start a vegetable garden. You can begin with just a few basic tools, then as your gardening desire and skills increase you can add more specialized tools a bit at a time. You will want to have a good, strong shovel or hand trowel. A hoe will come in handy for weeding, and you may want a pair of gardening gloves to protect your hands. A pair of pruners comes in handy for harvesting prickly cucumbers or cutting through tough squash stems. These few simple tools will be enough to get you started.

The first thing to do once you decide to start a vegetable garden is to do some research. You’ll need to know what growing zone you live in so you can plan on growing vegetables appropriate for your climate. Some vegetables, artichokes for example, grow very well in warm climates but they need much more care to flourish in a northern climate. If your growing season is too short, artichokes would not be a good choice for an inexperienced gardener.

When buying seeds to start a vegetable garden, most seed catalogs will indicate which growing zones are suitable for each particular vegetable. You can find your growing zone here: http://www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone/ushzmap.html

Before you start a vegetable garden you may also want to research various gardening styles to determine which style suits your needs. You might decide to garden organically, or perhaps you don’t mind using chemical pesticides and herbicides in your garden. Will you grow in raised beds, practice square-foot gardening or lasagna gardening? You might decide that double digging your planting beds is the way to go, or perhaps the only option for you is to grow everything in pots. Reading about how others garden will help you decide how you want to garden.

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The next step to start a vegetable garden is deciding where the garden will be. Nearly all vegetable plants require full sunlight for best production, at least six hours daily. The location for your garden should receive plenty of unshaded sunlight, and it should also be fairly close to your house. If you can see the garden from your house you’ll be more likely to keep it looking neat and tidy. A garden that is hidden behind a shed or one that is way out in the back forty will be too easy to neglect, and you’ll be less likely to dash out to a faraway garden to grab a handful of lettuce or a ripe tomato for dinner.

Finding a suitable location to start a vegetable garden may also determine the size of the garden. But even if you have nearly unlimited space to work with, don’t go overboard with your first garden by making it too large and unmanageable. Start out small the first year. You can always expand the garden in later years as you gain more experience and confidence in your gardening skills. Like any other new endeavor, you’ll become better at gardening with practice, practice, practice.

Once you’ve decided where you want to start a vegetable garden, you’ll need to prepare the soil for planting. The quality of the soil will determine how it needs to be prepared, and it may also be a deciding factor in the gardening style you choose.

If the soil is heavy clay, or if it is weak and can barely even support a weed, you may choose to build raised beds for your vegetable garden. Raised beds will ensure that your garden has good drainage, and by bringing in or creating soil for the raised beds, you will also be providing good nutrition for the vegetable plants. You can learn how to create raised beds here: http://freeplants.com/preparing-raised-planting-beds.htm

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Raised beds work well for traditional gardening in rows, and also for square-foot gardening or lasagna gardening. Lasagna gardening is just another way of building raised beds, as it involves layering different organic materials together that will gradually decompose into rich soil. When building raised beds, keep in mind that you want to be able to reach into the middle of the bed from either side without having to step onto the bed. Stepping on the raised bed compacts the soil, and you want the soil to remain loose and fluffy for the roots of your plants. Don’t make the raised beds so wide that you can’t easily reach the center of the beds.

If the soil in your chosen garden area is already rich, a raised bed may not be necessary. If this is the case you can start a vegetable garden area by tilling the soil or turning it with a shovel. If you want to till the soil but you don’t want to invest in a rototiller, they can be rented from rental centers, or look in your local paper for someone who offers to till gardens in the spring.

Once the soil is prepared and all danger of frost has passed in your area, it’s time to start planting. You may have decided to start a vegetable garden because you already know what you want to plant. But if you aren’t quite sure what to plant in your new vegetable garden, begin by making a list of the vegetables your family enjoys eating the most.

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For your very first vegetable gardening experience, stick with plants that are easy to grow. As you gain experience in vegetable gardening, you can add some of the more difficult to grow vegetables to future gardens. Vegetables that are easy to grow include leaf lettuce and other greens, beans, cucumbers, garlic and onions, peas, potatoes, pumpkins, radishes, spinach, squash and zucchini.

If you want to grow tomatoes or peppers the first year you start a vegetable garden, it would be best to buy small plants from a nursery. Later on after you’ve gotten the hang of gardening, you may want to try growing your own tomato and pepper plants from seed.

No matter what you are planting in your vegetable garden, always read the information that is on the seed packets. Most seed companies will include information on the seed packet that will tell you how far apart to plant each seed, and how far apart each row of seeds should be. If you are planting vegetables with sprawling vines, such as pumpkins, squash or melons, give them plenty of room to grow so they don’t overtake neighboring plants.

Always mark the rows well so you’ll know what is growing where in the garden. I learned that lesson the hard way myself with my very first vegetable garden. Pumpkins and watermelons were planted a bit too close to each other, and the lush vines intermingled so much that by midsummer I could no longer tell one plant from another. In September I watched a watermelon growing larger and larger, but when I thought it was finally ripe and sliced into it, I found that the big ol’ watermelon was actually an unripe pumpkin. Sure, it was a beginner’s mistake, but also a valuable lesson! Don’t be afraid to make mistakes with your first garden. Not only will you learn from those mistakes, but you’ll also have a good story to tell later on.

Some vegetable plants are very easy to grow, but because of the insects they attract and the damage those insects can cause, it can be frustrating for new gardeners to grow these plants. Broccoli is actually quite easy to grow, but it inevitably attracts little green worms that hide amongst the leaves and florets. If you proudly harvest a head of broccoli only to find little green worms floating in the cooking water, you may never want to grow broccoli again! Until you’ve learned how to thwart the worms, it might be best to buy your broccoli at the farmer’s market.

Like any other hobby, gardening does have its pitfalls, and those little green broccoli worms are just one of those pitfalls. Insects will be attracted to your garden, and the neighborhood deer and rabbits may also see it as a good place for an easy meal. If weeds aren’t kept in check they can quickly overwhelm the vegetable plants and reduce your harvest. The weather won’t always cooperate either. Gardening can be a challenge, but you must learn to rise to the occasion and deal with each challenge as it presents itself.

There are any number of pesticides available, both organic and non-organic, for dispatching or repelling insects. If deer or rabbits are a problem, a fence around your garden may be a necessity. If rainfall is irregular or nonexistent, you may have to get out the hose or watering can. An early frost can wipe out your plants, but being aware of the impending weather and having floating row covers on hand can save your garden. If you don’t have floating row covers, an old bed sheet will do just fine in a pinch.

Above all, gardening should be fun and enjoyable. When you first start a vegetable garden, don’t worry if it’s not perfect, beautiful or bountiful the first year. You’ll learn from your mistakes and your next garden will be much better than the first. A gardener never stops learning how to garden even better.

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