How To Start a Vegetable Garden

By: Hilary Meyer

Here are the basics of growing your own food. Learn how to create a vegetable garden plan, source seeds, get essential garden tools and find out what vegetables to plant first.

How To Start a Vegetable Garden

There are some really good reasons to grow your own food: you can grow organic produce, save money and know exactly where your food comes from. If you just have a tiny window area or a small deck, start by planting a few herbs or greens for salads in containers. If you have slightly more room, say a small urban backyard, try creating a small garden.

Before you get started, consider these four things.

Sunlight: First, you'll need a spot that has at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day to sustain vegetables.

Soil Quality: Second, you'll need good-quality soil. You may want to consider amending your soil with compost to improve it.

Zone: Third, check what USDA plant hardiness zone you live in to get a good idea of what kinds of crops grow best.

Taste: And fourth, consider what you and your family like to eat. Try growing things that are harder to find at your markets, such as interesting hot peppers, heirloom tomatoes and obscure herbs.

Step 1. Start with a Plan

A garden plan will help you with everything from how to space your plants to when to put them in the ground and where. You could draw up a plan on graph paper or generate one using an online garden planner, such as the free Plan-a-Garden tool from Better Homes & Gardens, which helps you customize a garden design from scratch. BH&G also offers a number of preplanned vegetable garden designs that you can download and print out.

Step 2. Source Your Seeds

Most garden centers will carry standard grocery-store varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs, but if you're looking for more unique, heirloom varieties, you might need to order your seeds online or via mail-order sources for the best selection.

High Mowing Seeds offers a wide range of organic seeds, including kitchen garden collections, such as the Garden Starter Collection and the Kitchen Herbs Collection.

The best reason to start your own garden: tomatoes. Check out Gary Ibsen's Tomato Fest. He offers over 600 organic heirloom tomato seeds suitable to grow in almost any climate or any space, including rooftops and patios.

Specializing in Asian vegetables, Kitazawa Seed Company is a great place to find off-the-beaten-path items like Chinese celery and shiso leaves. The company was started in 1917 in San Jose, California.

Step 3. Get These Basic Tools

You don't need a lot of tools to start a garden, just these essentials:

Trowel: Dig small holes for planting transplants.

Stirrup hoe: Pull up young weeds at the root with just a gentle back-and-forth motion.

Garden rake: Level beds and filter out large stones that may interrupt seedling growth.

Related: The Only Tools You Need to Start a Garden

Step 4. Know What Vegetables to Start Early

Some veggies love cool weather (you can plant them a few weeks before the last frost) and grow quickly. So plant them first and you'll enjoy the rewards of your work in a hurry.

Lettuce: You can plant different types of lettuce all over your garden, wherever there's room. It's forgiving and grows fast enough that you'll be harvesting young leaves for salads within a few weeks. Plant seeds every two weeks in the spring so you have a constant supply.

Turnips: Turnips take about a month from seed to harvest and have a peppery and sweet flavor when they're picked fresh.

Peas: Pea plants produce more in cooler weather than they do once it heats up. And by the heat of the summer, they're pretty much fizzled out so you can plant a late-season crop in their spot.

Related: 13 Easy-to-Grow Vegetables & Herbs

Tips for Growing a Kitchen Garden

  • Start by making an inventory of foods you enjoy during the spring, summer and fall, focusing on crops that you can't always buy fresh—fancy lettuce and mesclun mixes, for instance, are easy to sow and quick to grow.
  • Start with rich, organic soil. Supplement with organic compost, usually found at garden centers, to give plants a boost.
  • Companion planting, such as edible marigolds planted near tomatoes to repel pests, builds on symbiotic combinations for a healthy partnership both in the garden and on the plate.
  • Ultimately, the kitchen garden will inspire you to celebrate fresh flavors. Think of yourself as a food artist, building color in the garden and on your plate.

Helpful Gardening Resources

Here are some great gardening resources to get you started:

The Vegetable Gardener's Bible, Edward C. Smith (Second Edition, Storey Publishing, 2009). Want to know whether it's a good idea to rototill your soil or find out how to get your plants to yield more this year? Turn to Ed Smith's tome for the answer. (For the record, he advocates avoiding rototilling, because it disrupts the natural structure of soil, and instead growing in deep raised beds to yield bountiful results.) Plus the book includes a plant directory with nutrition information (parsley has vitamins A and C), photos of each plant and growing tips (parsley likes to grow in very loose soil).

Starter Vegetable Gardens, Barbara Pleasant (Storey Publishing, 2010). This book is packed with simple step-by-step information to get novice gardeners started growing their own vegetables in small spaces. Pleasant offers a variety of garden plans, each beautifully illustrated, from a small, foolproof garden planted directly in plastic bags of soil to a full-blown "family food factory garden." She walks readers through the process, from deciding what to grow to how to preserve herbs and how to protect plants from harmful insects.

If your idea of a vegetable garden is a beautiful, whimsical space that not only provides food but also creates an oasis in your backyard, you'll find inspiration in gardening guru Ellen Ecker Ogden's book The Complete Kitchen Garden (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, March 2011). She includes 14 themed kitchen gardens, from a salad lover's garden to a chef's garden, along with garden plans, plant profiles and recipes to use up the harvest.

Gardeners.com. This site is not only a great source for gardening tools and supplies, but also has tons of "how to" guides, on everything from how to grow vegetables in containers to how to start your own seeds indoors.

Some original reporting from Jessie Price & Ellen Ecker Ogden.

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