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How to Start a Vegetable Garden: The Best Beginners Guide

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Have you always wanted to try your hand at vegetable gardening but don’t know where to begin? Well, you’re in the right place. This article is going to cover everything a beginner gardener needs to know about how to start a vegetable garden from scratch. 

If you’ve never successfully grown a living thing in your life, or it’s been a while since you last wielded a trowel, then growing vegetables might seem a bit daunting to start with but I promise you it isn’t. I’m going to explain each step in detail so that you understand it’s importance, and I promise to leave out all the technical jargon (or what I call ‘gardenise’) that can often leave new gardeners feeling overwhelmed.

So…Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

If you’re going to learn how to start a vegetable garden and grow vegetables, then it makes sense to understand what it is that makes them grow. So bear with me…

Cast your mind back to high school biology…you’ll remember there are three essential ingredients that plants need to grow:

  1. Sunlight
  2. Water
  3. Food

That’s it. Simple? Well if you keep this ‘perfect trifecta’ in mind when it comes to the decisions you make for your vegetable garden, then growing vegetables doesn’t need to be complicated! 

How to Start a Vegetable Garden for Beginners

My philosophy when it comes to gardening is start somewhere. Whether you live in an apartment or a lifestyle block, there’s always somewhere and some way to grow edibles. In an apartment situation, you may have room on a balcony for a few pots or even an indoor garden when considering how to start a vegetable garden. Or if you have a backyard, then a potager or raised garden bed is a great way to grow vegetables. 

Anyone can do it

I smile when I think back to my university days… my friend and I used to joke about how she’d never been able to successfully grow a vegetable in her life. So before she left for Wellington I bought her a ‘Garden in a Box’. This was essentially a 1m x 0.5m styrofoam box with a bag of potting mix and seed packets inside. Her apartment was on the third storey with a fire escape so, with great intentions of proving she could grow vegetables, she planted her little garden outside. 

Alas! Within a month her poor little garden had become the resident’s ashtray – her little seeds never stood a chance! In her defense though, a couple of years later in a (private!) ground storey flat, she proved she did know how to start a vegetable garden by raising 30 tomato plants one summer! Needless to say, she got creative with finding recipes and uses for tomatoes!

The point of my story is that anyone can grow vegetables (perhaps just check that your fire escape isn’t the communal smoking hang out first), whether its a few herb pots inside, a potager kitchen garden or a garden plot. 

So with this in mind, let’s start this edible journey together. Ready? Let’s go!

Freshly picked vegetables from a vegetable garden
You could soon be harvesting vegetables like these from your home garden

1) Choose a Location

First things first, where you choose to plant your vegetables is very important. Think back to our ‘perfect trifecta’ – sunlight is a biggy for plants (without dredging up old memories of science class, plants use light to create energy through the process of photosynthesis). 

So when choosing a spot for your garden or pots, consider where gets the most sun (minimum 6hrs is ideal). In saying this, if you only have shade to work with don’t despair, there are some plants that grow well in shade such as leafy greens, lettuce and kale.

“Leaves are like solar panels. You want to make sure they are in an optimal position to draw as much sunlight as possible.”

Different Types of Vegetable Gardens

You’ll also want to consider the type of garden you can create based on the space you have available.

  • Raised beds or Potager Gardens are a great option. They allow control over the soil you plant in and can reduce weeds by placing a weed barrier in the bottom. Depending on the height and construction material of your raised bed, this can be a relatively inexpensive way of creating a garden that allows you the versatility to grow various vegetable plants and tend them without too much strain on your body.
  • Pots or Containers are a great solution when space is limited. Some plant varieties such as strawberries grow really well in pots. The beauty of a container is they can be moved to optimise sunlight in different seasons, or can be taken with you should you have to move house. 
  • Garden Plots or planting directly in the soil is what our ancestors would have done and is another practical option when considering how to start a vegetable garden. This can be done by skimming off the top layer of the ground to remove grass and weeds, then digging and turning over the soil. It is important to note when choosing this method that you’ll still need to add compost to the soil; native soil alone will be lacking adequate nutrition.

Gardening Tip: A well-tended, small garden is better than a large untended one, so when you’re just starting, consider how much time you have to dedicate to watering and weeding your garden and create a garden accordingly.

2) Soil, Soil, Soil

Soil deserves a heading all of its own because I cannot stress how important it is if you want to grow a successful vegetable garden. You might consider soil an unnecessary expense but food in our ‘trifecta’ is an essential ingredient to success! 

Time and again I have come across people who have said they are no good at gardening; then when I look at where they’ve planted their plants, they’re in nothing more than dirt. 

Think about raising a child. If you want them to grow strong and healthy, you wouldn’t feed them a sole diet of chips, would you? Of course not, you would (try!) to feed them a balanced diet of fruit, veggies, protein, carbohydrates etc. The same principle is applied to growing vegetables. Plant them in soil with no nutrients and they will fail to thrive. Plant them in a beautiful rich soil full of good food and they will reward you.

What Soil do I Need to Grow Vegetables?

To start I would recommend potting mix or native soil (i.e. garden soil from your garden) mixed with compost (organic matter, broken down food scraps, leaves, bark etc). If you don’t have a compost bin, your local garden centre will have a selection of done-for-you bag mixes. 

A great starting point is 50/50 compost to potting mix (or even 1/3 to 2/3 at a pinch). So for raised gardens, you could add equal bags of potting mix to compost. Alternatively, if you have native soil from your garden, use this to fill up half your raised bed, then dig through 50% compost. For garden plots, dig compost straight into the existing soil. 

For large plots or potagers, consider going to a landscape supply shop. There you can purchase soil by the trailer load for a lot less than the cost of bags. 

Garden Tip: It’s a good idea to prepare your soil 2-3 weeks before planting seedlings to allow time for the soil to absorb the nutrients

If you think your soil isn’t looking to rich or has struggled to grow anything in the past, then you could look at having a soil test done. This will tell you exactly what nutrients the soil is lacking. However, when you’re just starting out, all you need to begin is a good base of compost and soil. 

Good soil is attractive to worms which in turn fertilise your plants (through worm castings aka worm poo). So you want to entice these bad boys to come and stay as much as possible! Good soil = good tenants (aka worms) = good crop of vegetables, so it’s worth investing in the ‘groundwork’.

3) Seedlings or Seeds

Vegetables seedlings in a garden centre ready to be planted in a vegetable garden

When you’re just starting out, my recommendation is to choose seedling over seeds. Although seedlings are more expensive, their success rate is higher and you’re going to yield results a lot faster. 

If you’re growing vegetables on a budget, garden centres always have regular sales so keep an eye out for specials. I also like to try my luck in what I call the ‘plant rescue section’ where packs are only $1 or $2 so I don’t have a lot to lose if they don’t survive (and if they do I feel a small sense of an achievement that my little seedlings have achieved their purpose in life!)

Further down the track once you have gained some confidence, growing seeds is a great way to go. I must admit there’s always a moment of elation when the first tiny seed heads poke out of the soil!

Garden Tip: To give your seedlings an added boost, I always soak my seedling trays in an organic seaweed solution before planting them in the ground. This makes a huge difference and gives them a great start to life in their new home.

It’s important to remember that you need to add to your soil regularly, unfortunately, it’s never a case of once you’ve put in good soil that’s the last time you have to do it. As plants grow, they draw all those beautiful nutrients from the soil to produce a crop. So every season before you plant a new crop, it’s important to dig through some fresh compost to give your soil a boost ready to feed the next lot of hungry plants. 

Crop Rotation 

The other thing to consider from one season to the next is rotating your crops (aka trying not to plant the same vegetables in the same position in your garden each year). The reason for this is because different plants draw and deposit different nutrients into the soil. Some plants such as tomatoes, broccoli and lettuce are heavy feeders which means they draw a lot of nutrients out of the soil, while others like potatoes, garlic and onions are light feeders. Rotating crops regularly in your vegetable gardens is a great way to make the best use of nutrients in your soil. 

In saying all this. If you just have a small space to grow, for now, don’t worry too much about this principle, instead concentrate on adding compost or nutrients to your plants before, partway through the growing cycle and after harvest to boost nutrition.

4) How to Plant Vegetables

When to Plant

A common mistake that new gardeners make is planting in the wrong season. I can recommend several books that contain excellent guides which I refer back to year after year. This one in particular is my go-to, with comprehensive growing guides for almost every vegetable.

Alternatively, you can find a great garden planner or vegetable growing guide online. Just be sure to search for a link to one written for your country and growing season as you don’t want to find yourself planting according to the seasons in the opposite hemisphere!

Plan

Once you have chosen your plants, it’s time to get them in the ground! The first thing to do is consider your vegetable garden layout. 

When you purchase seeds or seedlings there’s always a guide on the back of the packet/tag indicating the optimal amount of sunlight or shade, and the distance needed between each seedling. It may look like too much space, to begin with, but trust me they’ll grow in no time and you don’t want overcrowding (or what I call a ‘plant mosh pit’) where your plants have to compete for sunlight and nutrients. I have accidentally done this in the past and it results in some runty plants and some leader plants which still aren’t as lush as they should be. 

Remember the solar panel concept I talked about and bare this in mind when choosing where to plant and how much space to give each seedling. 

Planting 

If you choose to pre-soak your seedlings in Organic Seaweed Mix before planting, then do this now while you map out your plot. Mix up the solution in a bucket, place the whole seedling (pot and all) into the bucket so the pot is submerged. Once bubbles start to appear, remove and continue with the next pot. 

Once you have a rough idea of where each plant is going, use a trowel to dig a small hole then carefully tip and remove the seedling from its pot (if it has been soaking be careful as the soil can fall apart easily). You want to protect the roots as much as possible so keep the soil intact around the roots of the plant as you carefully place it in the hole. Still holding the plant, carefully fill in the space around it with soil then firmly pressing the soil around the stalk of the plant so it can stand upright on its own it. You want the seeding to be reasonably level with the ground once planted; if it’s too low then it can become waterlogged and rot the stem, to high and the roots may be exposed to the elements and dry out. 

Mulch

Weed domination is the top reason why people give up on their garden, so it’s a good idea to spread a thick layer of mulch over the soil from the start to help minimise this. By laying mulch over the soil you’re blocking sunlight from reaching any seeds that might be there, thereby preventing them from germinating (growing).  

You will want a good few centimetres worth of mulch across your garden bed. There are several different types of organic matter you could use for mulch but I would suggest either straw (not hay as it may contain weed seeds) or shredded leaves.

Spread the mulch evenly to cover any exposed soil, but leave a few centimetres around the stem of each plant so that as it decomposes it doesn’t rot the plant. 

Talk to Others

I find it invaluable talking with other gardeners; I find it especially helpful talking to the great staff at my local garden centre as I always like to ask for advice when it comes to selecting the best variety of vegetables. 

How to grow vegetables is a topic people are eager to talk about and offer advice on – much of it tried and true. So if you’re ever stuck, don’t be afraid to reach out!

In the same breath, if you need some advice on how to start a vegetable garden, feel free to drop me a comment below and I’d be more than happy to help.

5) Plan to Water Regularly

To give your seedlings a good start, at the beginning it’s important to water them at least every day for the first few days. After this, you can reduce the amount of water you give them to every 2-3 days; (depending on how hot the weather is). This will encourage the plant’s roots to grow deeper as they look for water. 

It might go without saying but make sure you have easy access to a tap to water your garden. It’s a good idea to invest in a good hose or watering can.

Watering can watering a vegetable garden

6) How to Take Care of your New Vegetable Garden

Now that you know how to start a vegetable garden and it’s all set up; there are a few things I suggest you do regularly to ensure you keep on top of it:

  • Pull out weeds while they are young and easy to pluck. Whatever you do you don’t want weeds to seed as they will disperse little seed babies all around your garden!
  • Stake plants as required. Vegetables like tomatoes and beans need the support of stakes; it helps to have these at the ready as they grow. 
  • Harvest regularly (at least once a week). By leaving produce on the plant for too long the plant will think it’s done its job and stop producing as fervently!
  • Fertilise your garden soil regularly to help plants thrive. Every 2-4 weeks I’d recommend mixing up a watering can of Seaweed Mix. Watering your vegetables by hand will give them that extra boost. This is especially important for heavy feeders like tomatoes and cabbages; giving every plant a little extra love though won’t go a miss. 

Then that’s it; how to start a vegetable garden in 6 steps!

Enjoy Your Healthy Homegrown Produce

You now have a detailed plan for how to successfully plant your first vegetable garden; you’re well on your way to growing your own edibles! I’d love to see and celebrate your garden creations if you’d share them with me on The Potager Project Facebook page.

There are so many healthy, nutritious recipes you can make with the fresh vegetables you’ve grown in your garden. I look forward to sharing some of my favourites in later posts.

One thing I’d love to try is sprouting wheat. You can unlock so many nutritional benefits from this useful grain by sprouting and milling it yourself. Learn all you need to know about how to sprout wheat here at The Home Intent.

I’m so proud of you for taking this first step (I realise for some, it’s out of your comfort zone!) Trust me, when you start harvesting your vegetables and tasting the difference, you’ll be so pleased you did!

garder and blogger at the potager project