If I could go back 5 years and read this post before getting my hands in the soil for the first time ever, it would have saved me a huge amount of time, effort, and money.
With several years of experience now under my belt, I can at least give you enough advice to help get you started off on the right foot, and hopefully avoid many of the costly mistakes I made.
Do I have all of the answers? I don’t think anyone can ever have all of the answers when it comes to plants. But the best teacher is experience, and experience has been my only consistent teacher throughout the years. So hopefully what I’m about to share will be of some benefit for all the beginners looking to start gardening.
Table of Contents:
Let’s start with the why. Why did I want to raise my own food, and why do I think you should also?
I’ll make my explanation simple:
- You know exactly what you’re eating when you’ve raised your food yourself.
- Supplementing your groceries with homegrown produce will save you a ton of money.
- Gardening teaches children (and some adults!) where our food actually comes from, and breeds a sense of appreciation for what we have. There are many life lessons to be derived from gardening.
- There’s an incomparable excitement and satisfaction that comes from going outside and plucking a meal out of the earth.
- You can raise hundreds of pounds of food every year for the price of a few packs of seeds.
- Contrary to the illusion most of us are accustomed to, you might not always be able to depend on having a stocked grocery store to feed yourself and your loved ones.
- It takes practice, so it’s best to start now!
Make a Plan
If you’re thinking about starting your first vegetable garden, the best and most important thing you can do is to plan ahead.
There are all kinds of resources out there that you can take advantage of when it comes to educating yourself about gardening. Watch videos on YouTube. Read blogs (hey – this is a great place to start!). Read books. Go to classes.
Even better, find a local gardener who is an expert – and learn firsthand from them! This is a great way to acquaint yourself not only with the best tips and advice for gardening in general, but also on the specific demands of gardening in the area in which you live.
There’s no better way to learn than by doing, after all.
Once you think you have a handle on things, you can start planning out your very own garden. Sit down and make a list of all the vegetables you’d like to grow, how much food you think you need, and how much space you have at your disposal.
Neglect nothing in the planning process, but do know that lots of ideas will come up once you get started. That’s okay – and it’s to be expected – but it’s good to plan things out as well as you can so there are as few surprises as possible.
Don’t try to do everything all at once in your first year. Even if your ultimate goal is total self-sufficiency with your garden, consider planting just a few types of crops the first year until you get some experience under your belt.
What do you want to do with your harvest? How you ultimately plan on using your harvest also determines what you should plant.
- Do you want slicing tomatoes, or paste tomatoes? Amish pastes and Romas are best for making sauces and canning with.
- Do you want slicing cucumbers or pickling cucumbers? Pickling cucumbers are smaller and have less seeds and water content than their slicing versions, and are better for pickling and making into relish.
- Do you plan on keeping root crops in cold storage? Red and yellow onions are better keepers than white ones.
Step 1. Choose the Best Place for Your Garden
Here are a few key factors for positioning a successful garden:
- Plant your garden somewhere with at least 6 hours of sunlight. If you get less than this consider planting shade-loving crops, such as herbs and leafy greens.
- The South-facing side of the house gets the most sun.
- Don’t plant a garden somewhere where there’s often standing water in the yard, unless you’ll be building raised beds to absorb the sogginess.
- Plant close to your house to begin with, then extend further away as your garden grows. The old adage, “Out of sight, out of mind,” easily applies to gardens, and weeds can take over in just a matter of days. Try to keep your plants where you can see them from a window or door.
- Position your garden somewhere close to a water source. Make sure your water hose can reach your garden beds, or you have some means of watering your plants otherwise.
- If the sunniest place in your yard is on a slope, consider terracing it with raised beds.
Ideally, the garden should be positioned on level ground or at most, a gentle slope. Avoid gardening at the top of a slope, as water will run away from your plants, but also avoid the bottom, as it could be prone to flooding or frost pockets.
Pay attention to the topography of your property. Remember, warm air rises and cold air descends, so lower spots will naturally be cooler. Plus, hillside soil tends to be much more shallow, which can make it more difficult for plants to set roots – another reason to consider growing on flatter ground.
Keep in mind that you will want to heed your growing zone while choosing plants. However, it is also important o recognize microclimates.
Microclimates exist both within individual growing zones, as well as within the same yard. Various features can impact the temperature and sunlight levels of a property, such as nearby structures that cast shade or block the wind, shade trees, hard surfaces, and more.
Last but not least, consider how much effort will be necessary to build a garden in the place you have selected:
- Will you need to tear up topsoil, grass, or large roots and rocks?
- Will you need to build a fence or amend the soil?
- How will you keep out weeds?
If this seems overwhelming, pause and take a deep breath. You can start with just one small raised bed, and build out from there.
Step 2. Figure Out the Size of Your Garden
If you are brand new to gardening, I would highly recommend that you start fairly small. Especially if you are easily discouraged or overwhelmed.
Start with a few potted herbs or tomatoes, and work your way up to a small garden bed. Several raised beds might be a good start if you’re feeling motivated. Or, you can do like we did and till up a 30×50 plot and go crazy.
The size of your garden really depends on a few things:
- How much of your food do you want to grow? Do you want to supplement your grocery shopping or replace it entirely?
- How many people do you plan on providing for?
- How much space do you have?
- How much are you physically able to handle?
Remember, you can always start small and add on as you go. The number one thing I would caution you against would be getting in over your head and becoming discouraged to the point of giving up.
It’s better to have one small, well managed garden bed that produces abundantly, than a huge neglected plot that is overrun with weeds and produces miserably.
In most cases, it is not necessary to have a massive garden. When used effectively, a garden that is around 200 square feet will provide a harvest sufficient for one person year round. An 800 square foot garden should feed four. Again, this is when the right crops are selected and the land is utilized to the best extent possible.
Step 3. Choose A Gardening Method
Once you’ve decided that you are going to give gardening a shot, and you’ve determined where you want to place your garden, the next consideration you need to make is which method of gardening you’d like to try. It may even be a combination of methods.
There are quite a variety of ways to grow your own food:
- Traditional Rows – require good soil, and a tiller or plow
- Lasagna Gardening – building beds over existing ground out of compostable materials
- Raised Beds – built out of wood, rocks, cinder blocks, railroad ties, or other materials and filled with good soil/compostable materials
- Square Foot Gardening – planting in blocks instead of traditional rows
- Container Gardening – planting in buckets, tubs, etc. – especially great for gardening on patios or decks
- Patio gardening – if you live in a teeny tiny apartment and only have a patio to grow on, don’t worry! This is an option too. You can trellis, grow in containers, or even give hydroponics a try!
- Hügelkultur – building raised beds by covering rotting wood, sticks, logs, and branches with soil and planting in it. The decomposing materials break down over time and add nutrients to the bed.
- Vertical gardening. This is great if you don’t have a lot of space at your disposal. Plants are stacked and/or grown vertically on trellises, hanging wall planters etc.
Don’t be afraid to mix things up and experiment with different gardening methods until you find the right one(s)!
Currently, I am combining three of these methods in my garden. I have raised beds, fill the lasagna gardening way, and planted using square foot gardening. You do what works best for you, or experiment until you find what you like best.
Step 4. Know Your Soil Type
Before you put a single seed in the ground, it’s essential to understand your soil type. In some cases, you may have to do a bit of extra work to properly prepare the soil for planting.
The main soil type are:
- clay soil
- sandy soil
- chalky soil
- slit soil
Conduct an extensive soil test in the location where you plan to grow your garden. You can buy a comprehensive test kit online and do it yourself.
Another option is to bring a sample to your local cooperative extension. They’ll be able to give you an idea of the nutrient profile of your soil (is it high in nitrogen? Phosphorous? Potassium? Magnesium? Calcium?) as well as its acidity and soil type.
Generally, the best type of soil for most plants will be loamy, fertile, and of a neutral pH. That’s not to say that you can’t garden in more acidic or alkaline soil. Plenty of plants prefer both of these kinds of soils – blueberries, for example, love acidic soil.
However, in most cases, neutral soil is preferred. You can easily rectify soil acidity or alkalinity by adding compost. This not only fixes that issue but also provides tons of nutrients to depleted soil. It can also improve its structure, a plus if your soil is on the sandy or clay side.
Step 5. Decide on What To Grow
It’s incredibly easy to go absolutely wild buying seeds for your first garden. Cracking open a seed catalog can have the same effect as letting a child loose in a candy store.
We’ve all done it. But try not to get too crazy buying the “fun” varieties or things you don’t typically eat. Instead, make a plan.
Plants that belong in your first garden:
- Foods that you regularly buy and eat anyways
- Your favorite herbs
- Crops that grow well in your planting zone (climate)
- Cool weather crops in the Fall/Winter, warm weather crops in the Spring/Summer
Before planning your first garden, learn your Planting Zone. When you buy seeds or plants there will be information there that tells you which zone the plant grows well in- make sure it’s suited for your zone. This will also give you an idea of when to start your plants and where to put them in the garden.
Don’t go crazy buying exotic stuff or plants you wouldn’t normally cook with. It has been my experience that much of that stuff goes to waste as I have no idea what to do with it or I end up not even liking it. Stick to the basics such as potatoes, lettuce, carrots, radishes, beets, or kale depending on your growing zone.
If your goal with your garden is year-round self-sufficiency, you might want to consider growing plants that can be preserved. Whether it’s by canning, freezing, or dehydrating, food preservation can really help you stretch out your harvest – more on this below!
Step 6. Buying Your Seeds (or Plants)
When planning your first garden, you have two options: start plants from seeds or buy them from a nursery ready to transplant. There are pros and cons to each. I’ll give you a quick pros/cons list to skim over here.
Pros and Cons of Starting Seeds:
- More variety to choose from
- Cheaper than buying plants
- If you buy heirlooms you can save seeds for next year (as opposed to hybrids)
- Swap your extra seeds with friends
- Learning to raise plants from seed breaks your dependence on someone else to grow them for you
- Takes more time to nurture plants from seed
- You need space to grow your plants indoors or in a greenhouse/cold frame
- More materials and equipment needed to grow from seed (containers, seed starting mix, grow lights)
- Chance of plants dying before you can transplant them
- You’ve got to calculate the right time to get the seeds started depending on when they need to be transplanted outdoors (before last frost, after last frost, etc.)
Pros and Cons of Buying Nursery Plants:
- Save time buying plants ready to go in the ground
- Doesn’t require space to house plants for weeks
- No extra materials or equipment needed
- You don’t have to worry about the seedling dying before it’s ready to transplant
- Timing is a no-brainer. Just buy the plants when you’re ready to plant them.
- Plants are much more expensive to buy than seeds
- Limited variety to choose from
- Most nurseries only sell hybrids (which means you can’t save seeds)
- You’re depending on someone else to raise your garden for you to a certain degree.
Understand The Characteristics of Your Plants
How your plants like to grow and what conditions they prefer will determine where and how you plant them, so take some time getting acquainted with their individual personalities.
Some Questions To Ask Your New Plants…
- Are they perennials or annuals? Perennials will come back every year, and need to be planted somewhere permanent. Artichokes, Asparagus, Strawberries, and many herbs are perennial. Annuals need to be re-planted every year. Annuals also need to be rotated to a different spot in the garden each year to reduce pest problems.
- Are they determinate or indeterminate plants? Determinate plants will grow into a bush and won’t spread. Indeterminate plants tend to vine, and need to be trellised, staked, or otherwise controlled.
- If they’re perennials, do they spread and come back in places you didn’t want them? Anything in the mint family will take over every inch of your garden in a heartbeat. These types of plants must be potted in a container or else planted WAY away from anything else you wanna grow.
- Do they prefer full sun or partial shade?
- How much spacing between plants does it require?
- Are they cool weather or warm weather crops?
- Can they tolerate frost, or should you use row covers?
- How many days to maturity? If you live in a short season climate you might not have a long enough growing period for the plants to get to maturity and yield a harvest.
- Are there certain plants your plant doesn’t like being next to? Are there certain plants that help your plant grow better?
While you’re in the buying process, don’t forget to get basic gardening tools, such as shovels, gloves, buckets, ladders, pruning shears, trowels, forks, and more.
Step 7. Starting Plants From Seed
If you’re choosing to grow some or all of your garden from seed, you’ll need to know how to get those seeds off to a great start. Some plants need to be started indoors several weeks before transplanting into the garden, while others do much better when sowed directly into the garden bed.
Some plants that do best direct sowed:
- beans (including green beans)
- root crops
Most other crops need to be started indoors to get a jump start on the season and to have the plants ready to put in the ground at the appropriate time.
Step-by-step how to start plants from seed:
- Gather containers to start your seeds in. They need to be at least 2 in. deep, and have drainage holes in the bottom. I use well-washed yogurt cups, and nail 2-3 pencil sized holes in the bottom for drainage. Of course, you can buy special seed starting containers too.
- You’ll need Seed Starting Mix to fill your containers. Do not use soil from the garden. It won’t drain adequately, and it won’t have the right nutrients for developing plants. Not only that, but it can harbor pests and pathogens that can harm your seedlings before they even get the chance to start growing well!
- Fill your containers with Seed Starting Mix, and water them thoroughly with filtered or well water (city water can kill them). Allow to drain if the soil is over-saturated. You want it moist, not flooded.
- Plant your seeds, 2 per container, no deeper than the diameter of the seed itself. This can vary, of course, so check your planting guidelines on the seed packet.
- Put the filled containers in a shallow dish or tray with a little water in it, to keep the containers from drying out. Place them somewhere warm, out of direct sunlight.
- Check on your seeds after 2 days, and then every day after that until you see seedlings emerging. With the very first sign of a seedling, place the container where it will get at least 6 hours of direct sunlight, or under a grow light.
- Keep your plants moist by bottom watering in a tray or spritzing with a spray bottle. Don’t saturate the soil or your plants will die, but when the top of the soil starts to dry out just give them a little drink.
Once you have plants ready to go into the garden, it’s time to transplant them from their pots to their new home. Before you can do that, they’ll need to be hardened off.
Hardening plants is basically acclimating them to life outdoors in the elements. Nursery plants will already be hardened off, and can go directly into the ground. If you’ve started plants from seed, you’ll need to harden them for a few days before transplanting.
Each different crop has a certain time they need to be put in the ground, so calculate accordingly. Usually it’s a couple of weeks before or after the last frost date in Spring, or the first frost in Fall. Start hardening plants a week before transplanting day.
Plants must have at least 2 sets of “true” leaves before transplanting. Cold frames can be used to harden plants.
Step 8. Transplant Your Plants Into The Garden
It’s easy, really.
Your first step should be to harden off your plants. To do this, you’ll begin by putting your seedlings outdoors for a limited period of time – generally, just an hour or two to start.
Put them in a location that is out of direct sunlight and wind. Bring them back inside after a couple of hours. Do this again the next day, but add an hour or two. Repeat until the plants can be outside for 24 hours.
Try to transplant on an overcast day, or in the evening when the sun isn’t at its strongest to reduce shock to the plant.
Make sure the seedling’s soil is a little damp before transplanting, so the root ball stays intact.
Step 9. Mulch, Mulch, Mulch!
People, I can’t stress to you how important mulching is. I’m the worst about not mulching my plants well enough, and I always regret it in the end.
Leaving the dirt around your plants exposed is like leaving a fresh wound exposed. The ground will heal itself, but the “scab” will be weeds. Mulch is like a band-aid. It’ll cover the wound and keep the bad stuff out.
Weeds get out of control very quickly. Mulching heavily is a GREAT preventative, and will save you a ton of time and hassle throughout the season.
Speaking of weeds, never, never, NEVER use non-organic weed killers near or around your garden. You will contaminate the soil, possibly kill your garden, and poison your family. I don’t care how “safe” the label says it is to use.
If weeds are a real problem for you, lay down a thick layer of cardboard over them and mulch heavily overtop.
Mulch also serves to retain moisture in the ground, keeping your plants from drying out or scorching in the sun. You really, really, really need to mulch. Heavily.
Good mulching materials:
- Wood chips – the kind from tree cutting services
- Straw (NOT hay – there’s a difference)
- Newspaper– the black and white print only; several sheets thick
- Dried grass clippings (from unsprayed yards)
We get our woodchips from a local tree cutting service by the truckload, for FREE. If you see a tree trimming truck in your neighborhood, stop and ask them if they need somewhere to dump the woodchips. More often than not, they’ll be grateful for a place to unload their truck!
Step 10. Control Insects and Other Critters
It won’t be long after you’ve planted your garden before you’ll be faced with the dilemma of dealing with hungry insects.
Watching your beautiful crops go from gorgeous green to looking like grandma’s lace doilies can make any gardener desperate enough to wanna annihilate the enemy with full force. But before you go crazy with dangerous pesticides, consider a natural alternative.
These are the larvae of Mexican Bean Beetles, and they’re starting to do a lot of damage to the leaves of my bean bushes – which means I probably need to sprinkle my plants with ashes again to see if that helps.
I’m also gonna have to get out there and pick off as many of these as I can find as often as possible so they don’t ruin a second harvest.
Here are just a few organic methods of pest control which I’ve learned with time and experience:
- Sprinkle beans liberally with wood ashes to discourage Mexican Bean Beetles (beans love ashes, but the beetles hate them). Also, squish or remove by hand any of the yellow bean beetle larva you discover on your plants.
- Before white moths start appearing in your Spring garden, cover your brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, etc.) with row covers. Sunlight and rain water will still be able to get to your plants, but the moths won’t be able to lay their eggs on them.
- Position bird houses around your garden to attract the birds that are predators to the insect pests you don’t want in your garden.
- Ladybugs feed on aphids, and are beneficial insects to have in your garden.
- Squash bugs can be picked off plants by hand. Be sure to look on the underside of every leaf when dealing with an infestation. Also, scrape off or squish any of their eggs, which will also most likely be on the undersides of the leaves.
- Rotating crops, and planting several of the same crop in different places around your home will reduce the chances of an infestation.
- Use companion planting to either discourage harmful insects from becoming a problem, or to distract them from the crops you want to protect.
If you live in the city, you might have problems with dogs, cats, or even wild animals digging in your garden beds. If you live in the country you’ll definitely have animals to deal with.
You might need a fence around your garden if:
- Deer come onto your property
- Rabbits are seen in your yard
- You already have a problem with dogs digging in your flower bed
- You have a certain neighbor who you know would just help themselves otherwise
If you’re trying to keep deer out of your garden you’ll need a fence at least 4 ft. tall. Yes, they can jump over this if they’re really intrigued, but I’ve found that our 4′ fence has served as a great deterrent.
Since installing it, we haven’t had a single plant bothered by deer or rabbits. Some people hang strips of brightly colored material or old CDs around the perimeter of the garden to scare wild animals away. I don’t know if this works or not, but old time gardeners I know swear by it.
We have chosen to surround our garden with 4 ft. welded wire fencing, using metal stakes every 10 ft. and a 4×4 wooden post every 20 ft. concreted in. You want a fence that doesn’t have holes large enough for small rabbits to get through.
Some sources recommend burying the fence a foot or so to keep animals from digging under, but we’ve never had an animal dig underneath the garden fence here.
If moles or other ground critters are a problem:
- Build raised beds and line the bottoms of them with hardware cloth
- Plant in containers
- Get a good mousing cat
My biggest problem right now is our cats using the raised beds as litter boxes, digging up bunches of plants as they go.
The best way I’ve found to discourage this behavior is by mulching thickly- which you really ought to do anyways. They particularly don’t like trying to dig in thick woodchips.
Step 11. Encourage Your Plants To Grow And Produce
As your plants grow they will slowly deplete nutrients from the soil. When plants are lacking in certain nutrients, they will begin to display problems, such as Blossom End Rot.
Be sure to add vital minerals back to the ground so that your crops will continue to thrive in your garden. A few natural fertilizers you will want to sprinkle around your plants are:
- Livestock manure. Heavy feeders such as broccoli and blueberries particularly thrive on lots of aged manure.
- Egg Shells. Tomatoes and peppers greatly benefit from dried and crumbled egg shells sprinkled liberally around the base of their plants.
- Coffee Grounds. Tomatoes and peppers also thrive when dried coffee grounds are sprinkled around their soil.
- Wood Ashes. Beans in particular benefit from the potassium in wood ashes. Sprinkle liberally over top of plants or around base.
- Epsom salt. Good for tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers.
- Ground covers. When your garden bed is finished producing for the season, plant a cover crop such as clover, rye, and buckwheat (to name a few) instead of allowing the bed to sit empty. These “green manure” crops, when allowed to grow and then tilled back down into the soil, add vital nutrients back to the garden.
- Invite Pollinators. Don’t forget the importance of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators to your garden. Most plants are not self-pollinating, and require the assistance of pollinators in order to actually produce a crop. Plant lots of flowers around your garden to attract these beneficial friends.
- Crop Rotation. Rotating where you plant your crops to different beds in the garden will help balance soil fertility, and reduce the chances of pests and disease. Avoid planting the same crop family in the same place for the following two years.
Step 12. Composting
Composting is a GREAT way to turn organic matter into nutrient dense material for your garden. Instead of throwing kitchen scraps down the drain, or taking yard debris to the landfill, learn how to convert them into “black gold” and recycle these organics to help you grow more food!
If you’ve ever done any research into how to compost, you may have found yourself overwhelmed with all of the scientific specifications of carbon to nitrogen ratios. Don’t be intimidated! It really doesn’t have to be complicated. Basically, here’s all you need to know to get started composting:
Mix browns (carbon) with greens (nitrogen) in approx. a 4:1 ratio.
- Browns: Wood chips, small sticks, bark, leaves, newspaper (not the glossy, colored sheets), untreated cardboard, sawdust, straw, pine needles, and corn stalks.
- Greens: Kitchen scraps*, fresh lawn clippings (from untreated grass), garden waste, small shrub trimmings, and livestock manure.
- Compostable Kitchen Scraps: fruits, veggies, coffee grounds and paper filters, tea bags, nut shells, and egg shells. Do NOT use meats, fats, or sugary foods.
When using livestock manure, you’ll want to make sure that the manure you use comes from animals which have not grazed on fields or crops which have been sprayed with herbicides.
These weed killers will pass through the animal and will remain in the manure, and can contaminate your garden and kill your plants. So be careful where you source your manure from.
Also, always allow the manure to age for at least 6 months before spreading it on your garden. Otherwise, the weed seeds that have remained in the animals’ droppings will sprout and your garden will be overrun with horrendous weeds.
If you live in an extremely dry climate, you’ll need to wet your compost pile every so often to help it decompose faster.
Keeping a Garden Journal
Maintaining a journal of each year’s garden is extremely important. Not only will it prevent you from making the same mistakes twice, you’ll also have a record of what you planted, how well it did, and what you learned that will benefit you in the future.
Along with keeping good notes, you’ll also want to make a sketch of the layout of your garden each year so that you can rotate your crops appropriately the following year.
Don’t rely on your memory to keep you straight! You’d be surprised how much you forget if you don’t write it down.
Some things you’ll want to keep track of in your garden journal:
- What did you plant? Which varieties did you go with? Did you start them from seed? Where did you get your plants? How did they do?
- When did you start your seeds? When did you buy your plants? When did you transplant your seedlings to the garden? When did you begin harvesting each crop?
- Weather patterns. First, last and unexpected frosts/cold snaps/heat waves.
- Different gardening methods you tried with different plants, and how it turned out.
- Pests you encountered and solutions you found. When did you first notice the problem?
- Harvest yields
- Sketch of your garden, with each crop labeled.
There really is a lot more to gardening than this, but at least you have a good starting point to go from. Any of you seasoned gardeners please feel free to add advice in the comments section below!
A city girl learning to homestead on an acre of land in the country. Wife and homeschooling mother of four. Enjoying life, and everything that has to do with self sufficient living.