How to Create Your First Vegetable Garden
Imagine walking outside to pick a juicy, ripe tomato, warm off the vine. Not only would your taste buds rejoice; you’d also feel pride from having grown your own food. If you’re green when it comes to gardening, though, rest easy. Even during your first year, you should reap some goodies, whether crisp young lettuces or sweet winter squash. Just keep these tips in mind, then start digging!
Pick a spot
Most vegetable plants need at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight daily. So, choose an area with ample sun, even if it’s in pots on your patio. If your lot only has partial shade, though, you can still grow leafy plants, like lettuces. To protect your crops, avoid spots with heavy foot traffic or high winds, which can topple over plants and deter pollinators. Make sure a water source is nearby.
Create a fenced bed
For a manageable first vegetable garden, dig a 4x8 bed with a soil depth between eight and 36 inches. Then overfill it with top-quality garden soil by about two inches.If you’d rather go with a raised garden bed, install a frame on your lawn and line it with several layers of newspaper, then soil (with a depth of at least eight inches). To keep out deer and burrowers, like gophers or rabbits, put an eight-foot or taller fence around the perimeter of your vegetable garden. Make sure it extends at least six inches below the ground.
Since most vegetables are annuals, they need to be planted each year. Select varieties that your family will eat, choosing between growing from seeds (less pricey but slower) or seedlings (pricier, but faster). Either way, read the fine print to make sure plants will thrive in your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone and are the right size for your garden. For the best results, lean towards plants marked “disease-resistant.”
For a 4x8 garden, choose three to four types of vegetables. So, you’ll have produce from spring through fall, plant “cool-season” plants (like lettuce, kale, peas, carrots, radishes, and broccoli) in the late spring. After harvesting those goods, plant “warm-season” vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, and herbs, in late spring or early summer.
For varieties that produce veggies throughout the season (like tomatoes, peppers, and squash), you’ll need fewer plants. For varieties with only one harvest (like carrots, radishes, and corn), buy more plants.
Subdivide your plot into one-foot squares using lattice strips. In each square, plant one extra-large plant, four large plants, nine medium plants, or 16 small plants. Leave more room for vining crops, like green beans, cucumbers, and peas.
When laying out your garden, make sure you’ll be able to easily access plants for weeding, watering, and harvesting (without stepping on soil). Whichever design you choose, place tall veggies (like pole beans on a trellis or tomatoes grown on vertical supports) on the north side of the garden so they don’t shade shorter plants.
For the first few weeks after you’ve planted seeds or transplanted seedlings, water frequently. Then, water every few days. To cut down on fungal infections, water the soil rather than the leaves, preferably in the morning.
Keep out weeds and pests
Since weeds compete with vegetable plants for resources, you’ll want to weed frequently and apply mulch around larger plants, like tomatoes. If your vegetable plants become infested, pick off large insects and throw them in a bucket with soapy water. Treat plants with an organic insecticidal soap spray.
Harvest most of your vegetables right before they reach full maturity. Here are a few guidelines for common varieties:
Cucumber: Check daily and pick when young, firm, and smooth—when overripe, they become bitter and pithy.
Head lettuce: Harvest when the heads feel full and firm.
Leaf lettuce: Once the plants have reached four inches in height, harvest the outer leaves only. Let the younger inner leaves continue to grow.
Tomatoes: Pick when fully colored, fragrant, and slightly soft.
Broccoli: Check frequently, picking when individual buds reach the size of a match head. Don’t let the buds flower.
Summer squash: Check often and pick when young, with tender skins.
Peas: Pick when pods look full, and peas taste sweet.
Winter squash: Cut from the vine (before the first frost) when they attain their final color.
The Old Farmer's Almanac Garden Planner. gardenplanner.almanac.com.
Beck, A. (2023 updated). [Planning your first vegetable garden]. bhg.com
McLaughlin, C. (n.d.). 4 Easy Steps to your First Vegetable Garden. finegardening. com.
Boeckmann, C. (2023 updated).The Basics of Planting and Growing a Vegetable Garden. almanac.com.
Traficante, B. (2018). Do Your Vegetables Have Enough Room to Grow. motherearthliving.com.
Iannotti, M. (2020). When and How to Harvest Garden Vegetables. thespruce.com.