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How to Plant a Vegetable Garden

How to Plant a Vegetable Garden

  • By Melissa Ozawa
  • Photos by Andrew Montgomery and Illustrations by Amy van Luijk

There are lots of great reasons to grow your own food, but we’ll stick to our favorites: You know exactly where it comes from. By working the soil organically, you help the environment. And of course, vegetables taste infinitely better when you cultivate them yourself. (Maybe unabashed pride adds extra flavor?) It’s also fun, relaxing, and -- pun intended -- grounding. So, whether you have a big plot or just a few pots, read on, and get ready to roll up your sleeves.

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1. Getting Started

Before deciding what you want to grow, map out a space, and consider how much time and effort you can put into your garden.

Find a location

Look for a spot that gets at least six to eight hours of sunlight a day. If planting in the ground, choose a well-drained area (no big puddles after a rain). To prevent critters from accessing a new all-you-can-eat salad bar, fence it in (wire fencing will do).

Know your soil

The foundation of any garden, it should contain plenty of nutrients and organic matter. Contact your local cooperative extension, and send in a sample for analysis. Prior to planting, enrich your plot with a layer of compost. If you’re using containers, get organic potting soil.  

Dig In

There are three basic ways to grow edibles: in containers (pots), raised beds, or the ground. When deciding which to go with, weigh these options.

  • Containers
    Containers

    PROS

    They’re perfect for small spaces, even a city balcony. Just make sure they’re deep enough for roots to grow.

    CONS

    Frequent watering -- almost daily when it’s hot and sunny. Since space is limited, stick with herbs, dwarf varieties, and greens that don’t require a ton of room.

  • In Ground
    In Ground

    PROS

    This method is most economical and requires less work in the beginning. You can water less frequently than with pots or raised beds.

    CONS

    You have to work with what Mother Nature has provided, which could include poor soil or lots of inconveniently placed tree roots or rocks.

  • Raised Beds
    Raised Beds

    PROS

    You’re in control. You can customize soil and bed size and correct problems easily. Since boxes are contained, the soil heats up faster, so you can plant earlier. An important note: Use only untreated wood, to prevent chemicals from leaching into the soil.

    CONS

    Since you need to fill beds with soil, initial costs can be higher than growing in the ground. You may also have to water and feed more frequently because they drain so effectively (but usually less than with containers).

  • Containers
    Containers

    PROS

    They’re perfect for small spaces, even a city balcony. Just make sure they’re deep enough for roots to grow.

    CONS

    Frequent watering -- almost daily when it’s hot and sunny. Since space is limited, stick with herbs, dwarf varieties, and greens that don’t require a ton of room.

  • Raised Beds
    Raised Beds

    PROS

    You’re in control. You can customize soil and bed size and correct problems easily. Since boxes are contained, the soil heats up faster, so you can plant earlier. An important note: Use only untreated wood, to prevent chemicals from leaching into the soil.

    CONS

    Since you need to fill beds with soil, initial costs can be higher than growing in the ground. You may also have to water and feed more frequently because they drain so effectively (but usually less than with containers).

  • In Ground
    In Ground

    PROS

    This method is most economical and requires less work in the beginning. You can water less frequently than with pots or raised beds.

    CONS

    You have to work with what Mother Nature has provided, which could include poor soil or lots of inconveniently placed tree roots or rocks.

2. Pick What (and When) to Plant

Talk to fellow gardeners, visit your local nursery, and look through seed catalogs (see our go-tos below) to learn what grows well in your area. Then comes the fun part: Choosing vegetables! Select what you love to eat, and be open to branching out from the basics, like mixing in ‘Green Zebra’ tomatoes with your beefsteaks. Sketch out where you plan to plant what, and record everything you sow in a notebook.

Know your last frost date

It’s tempting to put everything in the ground on the first warm weekend in spring, but be careful: Some varieties tolerate the cold; others cannot. Before you start, ask your local nursery for the last frost date in your area, consult seed packets and plant tags for growing times, and plan your plantings from there.

Seeds vs. Seedlings

  • Seeds
    Seeds

    PROS

    They’re inexpensive (dozens for only a few dollars), and you’ll find a wider selection of unusual varieties.

    CONS

    They require more effort, because you may have to plant some varieties, like tomatoes and peppers, indoors. Since you’re starting at the beginning, you’ll have to wait longer for the harvest.

  • Seedlings
    Seedlings

    PROS

    They give you a handy head start, which is especially helpful for new and busy gardeners.

    CONS

    You’re limited to the varieties that are available in this form; also, seedlings are often more expensive than seed packages.

  • Seeds
    Seeds

    PROS

    They’re inexpensive (dozens for only a few dollars), and you’ll find a wider selection of unusual varieties.

    CONS

    They require more effort, because you may have to plant some varieties, like tomatoes and peppers, indoors. Since you’re starting at the beginning, you’ll have to wait longer for the harvest.

  • Seedlings
    Seedlings

    PROS

    They give you a handy head start, which is especially helpful for new and busy gardeners.

    CONS

    You’re limited to the varieties that are available in this form; also, seedlings are often more expensive than seed packages.

Order Seeds, Buy Seedlings

Get seedlings at your local garden center or farmers’ market. They’ll carry the varieties that are best suited to your location. Here are our trusted sources for seeds.

Hudson Valley Seed Company, hudsonvalleyseed.com

Heirloom and open-pollinated seeds in beautiful, gift-worthy packaging.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds, johnnysseeds.com

One-stop shopping for edibles.

Kitazawa Seed Co., kitazawaseed.com

Specializes in Asian vegetables, like shishito peppers, chrysanthemum greens, and shiso.

Seeds from Italy, growitalian.com

Traditional Italian varieties, such as borlotti beans, radicchio, and seven kinds of basil, organized by region.

Seed Savers Exchange, seedsavers.org

Rare and heirloom seeds from a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving and sharing.

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, southernexposure.com

Offers heirloom southern varieties, like okra and collards.

Happy Together

To maximize your space and streamline your tasks, put edibles that require similar amounts of water and sunlight in the same bed or container. See some classic groupings. 

3. Tend and Harvest

Congratulations! The work of preparing and planting your garden is done. Now all you have to do is keep up with routine tasks, like watering and weeding, and check regularly for signs of disease (such as leaf spots and powdery mildew) and pests (like Japanese beetles and tomato hornworms). Before you know it, you’ll be tossing fresh lettuces and reveling in your newfound status: Green Goddess.

Basic Maintenance

Follow these four simple steps to keep your garden beautiful and bountiful.

  • 1
    Feed

    Add about an inch of compost at the start of the season. Then apply an organic fertilizer, like fish emulsion, or another thin layer of compost as the season progresses.

  • 2
    Hydrate

    Water deeply when needed, about an inch once a week. Opt for a soaker hose or drip irrigation system that delivers moisture directly to the roots, rather than sprinkling down from above.

  • 3
    Weed

    Do it often -- as in anytime you see weeds sprouting. This will save you time in the long run, because if you remove them while they’re young, they won’t spread. Also, remember that you’re going to eat what you sow -- so skip herbicides.

  • 4
    Resow

    Fast growers like radishes, lettuces, and other greens can benefit from multiple plantings. Stagger the timing, starting seeds directly in the ground every few weeks so you have continuous salad fixings.

Smart Solution

To help keep moisture in and prevent weeds from taking root, scatter a layer of mulch around seedlings (leaving a radius bare around the bases) and over paths after planting. Some common mulches include seedless straw, salt hay, leaf mold, and even nitrogen packed grass clippings. Avoid regular hay, which can contain weed seeds that will cause headaches (and backaches, from endless pulling) down the line.

For a Tasty Yield Timing is Everything

There’s something magical about eating a perfectly ripe tomato just off the vine while it’s still warm from the sun. (Martha likes to bring a little salt with her into the garden to do just that!) You’ll know when your vegetables are ready by looking at their size, shape, and vibrant color. Tomatoes will give with a gentle tug rather than needing a hard pull. Some plants, like okra, beans, and turnips, are extra-delicious and tender when picked young. Keep up with your harvest to encourage new growth: Cucumbers will slow their production if they aren’t plucked when ready, and when zucchini get too big, they aren’t as tender and tasty as when they’re smaller.

Plan Ahead

Rotate crops annually to help stave off disease and pests and keep your soil healthy. Be especially careful not to grow nightshades in the same area each year, because they can be disease-prone.

Our Essential Tools

  • Hori Hori Knife
    Hori Hori Knife

    It digs and cuts, and is especially helpful for removing weeds with deep taproots (like dandelions).

  • Cultivator
    Cultivator

    This is the go-to tool on Martha’s farm for digging out weeds quickly.

  • Clippers
    Clippers

    Invest in a pair of sharp, fine-pointed garden scissors for harvesting cut-and-come-again greens and herbs.

  • Trug
    Trug

    Haul your vegetables from garden to kitchen in a lightweight container.

  • Hori Hori Knife
    Hori Hori Knife

    It digs and cuts, and is especially helpful for removing weeds with deep taproots (like dandelions).

  • Clippers
    Clippers

    Invest in a pair of sharp, fine-pointed garden scissors for harvesting cut-and-come-again greens and herbs.

  • Cultivator
    Cultivator

    This is the go-to tool on Martha’s farm for digging out weeds quickly.

  • Trug
    Trug

    Haul your vegetables from garden to kitchen in a lightweight container.

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