Your Comprehensive Guide to Starting and Cultivating a Vegetable Garden
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.
1. Get 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 6 to 8 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 will do).
Know Your Soil
The foundation of any garden, your soil, 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.
2. Gather Your Garden Tools
You'll need a few essentials if you're planning on establishing a vegetable garden. First up? A hori hori knife: It digs and cuts, and is especially helpful for removing weeds with deep taproots (like dandelions). Also invest in a pair of sharp, fine-pointed clippers; these garden scissors work well for harvesting cut-and-come-again greens and herbs. Round out your arsenal with a cultivator—this is the go-to tool on Martha's farm for digging out weeds quickly—and a trug, so you can your vegetables from garden to kitchen in a lightweight container.
3. Choose Your Growing Method
Containers are perfect for small spaces, even a city balcony. Just make sure they're deep enough for roots to grow. They require 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.
You're in full control when you choose to grow your vegetables in a raised bed. 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. There are a few 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).
This method is most economical and requires less work in the beginning. You can water less frequently than with pots or raised beds. But you do have to work with what Mother Nature has provided, which could include poor soil or lots of inconveniently placed tree roots or rocks.
4. Pick What (and When) You Want to Plant
Talk to fellow gardeners, visit your local nursery, and look through seed catalogs 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. And while it may tempting to put everything in the ground on the first warm weekend in spring, 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.
5. Decide Between Seeds vs. Seedlings
Seeds are inexpensive (you can purchase dozens for just a few dollars), and you'll find a wider selection of unusual varieties. They do, however, 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 also have to wait longer for the harvest. Discover some of our favorite places to purchase seeds, below.
- Check out Hudson Valley Seed Company for heirloom and open-pollinated seeds in beautiful, gift-worthy packaging
- In need of a one-stop for edibles? Consider Johnny's Selected Seeds
- Kitazawa Seed Co. specializes in Asian vegetables, like shishito peppers, chrysanthemum greens, and shiso
- For traditional Italian varieties, such as borlotti beans, radicchio, and seven kinds of basil, organized by region, visit Seeds from Italy
- Seed Savers Exchange boasts rare and heirloom seeds from a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving and sharing
Get seedlings at your local garden center or farmers' market. They'll carry the varieties that are best suited to your location. However, it's not enough to just plant and go—seedlings need a little extra care as they establish. For example, 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.
6. Group Like Vegetables When You Plant
To maximize your space and streamline your tasks, put edibles that require similar amounts of water and sunlight in the same bed or container. These are some of the most classic groupings.
7. Tend to Your Vegetables
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. Follow these four simple steps to keep your garden beautiful and bountiful.
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.
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.
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.
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.
8. Stay on Top of Your Harvest
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.