If you understand the basics and plan accordingly, a vegetable garden can deliver lasting rewards. Choose your favorite edibles, but also consider your climate, space, light, soil type, and budget. If you're a novice, start on a small scale.
To determine when to start seeds and set seedlings outdoors, find out the first and last frost dates in your area. The number of days between these dates determines the length of your growing season; choose vegetables that will reach maturity within this span of time. Learn the basics of seed starting to understand timing and caring for seedlings.
Finding the Right Site
Choose a spot close to the house that remains sunny all day. A vegetable garden benefits from a level or gently sloping site and needs fertile, well-drained soil, regular watering, and 6 to 8 hours of sun daily.
Designing a Bountiful Garden
For scale, use graph paper to sketch your designs, keeping in mind the mature size and habit of each plant. Place larger plants where they won't overshadow shorter ones, and choose compact varieties if you have limited space. Start small; you can always dig more beds or enlarge pre-existing ones in subsequent years.
Preparing the Soil
A healthy vegetable garden requires loamy, well-drained, nutrient-rich soil. Most vegetables prefer slightly acidic soil (6 to 6.8 pH). Start by taking a soil pH test or getting a complete test (for information about testing, contact your local cooperative extension, listed under government offices in the phone book).
If possible, clear and prepare beds in fall for spring planting, or prepare the beds in spring once the soil is workable (pliable but not too wet). Clear an area of sod, weeds, and debris, and use a spade or fork to turn the soil to a depth of 12 to 14 inches, incorporating a 3- to 4-inch layer of compost (or well-rotted manure and any amendments recommended by your soil test) into the top 12 inches of soil. Rake the soil until it is airy and level. Loose, well-aerated soil allows oxygen to reach the plants' roots more readily and warms up more quickly. If your soil is poor, consider building raised beds.
Even if you know which vegetables you want to grow, understanding some common terms will help you narrow the choices and garden more successfully.
Heirloom, Hybrid, or OP?
Open-pollinated (OP) plants have parents of the same variety and reproduce true to seed, so their seeds can be saved and replanted and the resulting plants will resemble their parents.
Heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated plants that have been cultivated for at least 50 years. They are often more flavorful, colorful, and interesting than hybrids, but they may be challenging to grow if your soil is disease prone.
Hybrid plants are the result of crossbreeding to produce offspring with desirable traits, such as disease resistance or uniform color or size. As a result, hybrids will not usually reproduce true to seed, and new seeds must be planted each season.
Cool Season Versus Warm Season
Cool-season crops, such as peas, lettuces, radishes, brassicas, and spinach, germinate and thrive in the lower temperatures of spring and fall and tolerate light frosts. Many cool-season crops can be direct sown in the garden around the last frost.
Warm-season crops, which include tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, pumpkins, snap beans, squash, and sweet corn, prefer summer's heat. Plant these after the soil has warmed. Many warm-season crops also require a long growing season and should be started indoors in late winter to early spring or purchased as seedlings ready to be transplanted.
Creating the right conditions for vegetables -- rich, healthy soil, plant diversity, and regular watering, weeding and mulching -- helps to discourage pests and diseases. Healthy, vigorous plants are less vulnerable than undernourished, neglected ones.
Most seed packets and plant labels provide basic information on growing; follow these instructions carefully. Many new gardeners tend to set plants too close together, which encourages the spread of diseases and limits the amount of sun, nutrients, and water that each plant receives.
Proper mulching between plants and rows suppresses weeds and helps to control the spread of diseases, retain soil moisture, and regulate soil temperatures. Mulch comes in many forms: Composted leaves, grass clippings, shredded bark, pine needles, newspaper, and specially designed reflective plastic are all effective. Mulch at planting time, and replenish regularly. Wait to mulch warm-season crops such as tomatoes and eggplants until about 2 weeks after planting, so the soil has time to warm up first.
Always water seedlings well immediately after planting. Vegetables' requirements vary, but a good rule is to give plants 1 to 3 inches of water weekly depending on the temperature, humidity, and rainfall (more water during hotter, drier weeks) to maintain soil moisture during the growing season. Many vegetables, such as tomatoes, squash, and lettuces, depend on regular watering to set fruit, grow properly, and develop good flavor. Use a soaker hose, which provides a steady flow of water at the soil line, or use a garden hose, but avoid splashing or wetting the foliage. The best time to water is morning; watering in evening, when plants are no longer photosynthesizing, may attract slugs and snails.
If you prepared the planting beds properly -- incorporating plenty of organic matter such as compost and well-rotted manure -- your vegetables should require little additional fertilizer. If necessary, side-dress plants in midseason with well-rotted manure or compost, or feed them every few weeks with a liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion, liquid kelp, or compost tea. Avoid using high-nitrogen fertilizers, which promote leafy green growth at the expense of flowers and fruits.
Many vegetables can tolerate some pest damage, but watch for pests regularly, handpicking insects and their eggs and larvae before they become a problem. Start with low-impact controls such as hosing off bugs or protecting young plants with a floating row cover or protective cardboard collars, which can be removed as plants mature. Use broad-spectrum controls -- such as insecticidal soap or horticultural oil-insecticidal soap combinations specifically designed for edibles -- only when necessary.
If possible, choose disease-resistant cultivars.
These easy-to-grow varieties, whose flavors range from hot to sweet, embody the best of the growing season.
'Black Seeded Simpson' looseleaf lettuce (Latuca sativa) is an heirloom that matures early in the season with a tender texture and delicate flavor.
'Bush Champion' cucumber (Cucumis sativus) has a compact habit that allows it to thrive in containers, producing crisp, bright-green fruits in abundance.
'Chiogga' beet (Beta vulgaris ssp. vulgaris), an Italian heirloom, is also known as a striped beet for its globe-shaped, mild-flavored, red and white flesh.
'Danvers Half Long' carrot (Daucus carota ssp. sativus), a popular heirloom, has an excellent flavor and doesn't require deep soil.
'Early French Breakfast' radish (Raphanus sativus) is a heat-tolerant heirloom radish with superior crunch.
'Fordhook Giant' Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris) is an easy-to-grow, heat-resistant heirloom that does not bolt; it has a mild flavor.
'Kentucky Wonder Brown' bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), an heirloom with a distinctive flavor, has been popular since the mid-nineteenth century.
'Rosa Bianca' eggplant (Solanum melongena) is a sweet-flavored Italian heirloom with lovely creamy flesh.
'Saffron' summer squash (Curcurbita pepo) grows on a productive, bushy plant that provides an early harvest.
'Sugar Ann' pea (Pisum sativum) is an award-winning snap pea that grows in a bush form and doesn't require staking.
'Super Sweet 100' cherry tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum) produces an abundance of candy-sweet, bite-size tomatoes all season. For a slicing tomato, plant 'Brandywine,' one of the most popular heirlooms for its large, flavorful, nonacidic fruits. For sauces, choose 'San Remo' paste tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum), an Italian heirloom with intense flavor, few seeds, and a high sugar content.
'Teton' spinach (Spinacia oleracea) tolerates heat better than other spinach cultivars, making it a three-season crop in temperate climates.