With decades of vegetable gardening experience under my belt, it’s easy to take the years of knowledge for granted. It’s like riding a bike. I garden on cruise control and react or learn quickly when faced with a new challenge. In turn, years of teaching new gardeners have kept me in touch with the challenges they face. Sound, step-by-step advice is invaluable–potentially averting years of mistakes and poor yields. Getting the big picture of a new garden venture from the start will set the wheelbarrow rolling in the right direction. The new vegetable gardener will be quickly rewarded if modest goals are established from the beginning and time is set aside for the project.
Tips for the New Vegetable Gardener
Here are my top ten tips for helping new vegetable gardeners succeed in the first year from the ground up. (Note: If you plan to grow vegetables in containers, click here to read an article about successful vegetable container gardening, click here to learn how to grow spring vegetable containers, and click here to learn how to grow tomatoes in pots.)
- Plan Ahead: Determine your garden’s location, size, and crops before you break ground. Vegetable gardens require full sun (8-hours or more per day) and soil that drains well. Gardening is a commitment that often takes more time and labor than anticipated. If you have never gardened before, plan small in the first year to keep it enjoyable and manageable. It will help you succeed from the start and determine how to grow your garden in future years. (Click here for a good article about planning a garden, and click here for an article about rotating crops through the season.)
Start Clean: Remove all of the turf from your soon-to-be garden bed. That means manually skimming off the sod with a sharp spade or using an automated sod cutter, which can be rented. I recommend the latter if you have planned a large garden. The bed should be small enough for you to reach into from all sides or large enough to add a walkway for easy access. Square or rectangular beds are easiest to mow around and manage.
Don’t Skimp on Soil: Your garden is as good as its soil. When siting it, choose a well-drained spot. If low ground is a problem in your yard, opt for a raised bed (Click here to learn more about preparing a raised bed garden, and click here for a raised bed plan). For garden success in year one, liberally feed your soil with organic matter, such as Black Gold Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss, Garden Soil, and Garden Compost Blend, especially if your soil is rich in clay or sandy. Add at least 3 inches of the amendment to the soil surface, and till it to a depth of at least 8 inches. Use the amendment application formula below to determine the amount you will need.
Amendment Application Formula
([area to cover] ft2 x [depth in inches desired] x 0.0031 = ___ yd3).
Example: If you wanted to cover a 20 square foot area with 2 inches of compost, the result would be: 20 ft2 x 2 inches of compost x 0.0031 = 2.48 yd3.
Raise and Cover: Tilling and adding lots of fresh organic material will loosen and lift your soil to enhance drainage and aeration for better root growth. To take it one step further, I always rake or hoe soil up into berms to maximize drainage and keep beds light for better root growth. Berming is especially helpful for root crops, like carrots, potatoes, and beets, and deep-rooted plants, like tomatoes. Finally, I add mulches appropriate for vegetable gardens, like seed-free straw, compost, mushroom soil, grass clippings, or leaf mulch, to keep weeds down. I generally put straw along walkways I’ve established in my garden and compost on the planting areas. Avoid bark mulch of any kind in vegetable gardens because it binds nitrogen, which is detrimental to heavy-feeding vegetables.
Fertilize: Good fertilizer formulated for vegetable growing is essential for bumper crops. Any all-purpose granular or slow-release vegetable fertilizer will do, though I recommend feeding tomatoes with a food specially formulated for their needs. Tomatoes are very heavy feeders that require a wide variety of nutrients to perform their best. Follow the product instructions to keep them well fed.
- Choose Good Varieties: Don’t pick just any old tomato, pepper, or bean for your garden. Do your research and pick the best when it comes to yields, performance, and flavor. If you are not certain, always select award-winning plants, such as All America Selections Winners. These tend to be as full-proof as you can get. It is also wise to choose disease-resistant varieties, so keep a lookout for these as well. (Click on the links to discover our favorite sauce tomatoes, lettuce, green beans, mini vegetables, carrots, and fast-growing vegetables.)
Know Planting Times: It is essential to know when you can plant a vegetable, what temperature it likes best, and how long it will take to produce. Vegetables are broken down into cool-season and warm-season types, though some will grow well from spring to fall. Cool-season vegetables, like cabbage, lettuce, peas, and radishes, grow best in cool spring or fall weather, while warm-season crops, such as corn, okra, peppers, tomatoes, and squash, need the heat of summer to yield. Some grow very quickly, and others take months to produce. For example, radishes can be ready to harvest in as little as 20 days, but some pumpkins can take 120 days to produce fruit. So, knowing a crop’s days to harvest is important. Finally, you need to know your last frost date (click here for yours) to determine when it is safe to plant tender vegetables and fruits outdoors.
Know Plant Needs and Sizes: Identify each plant’s height and width to determine its garden footprint. You also need to know if supports, like tomato cages or bean and cucumber trellises, will be needed. One important tip for tomato growers is that bush (determinate) tomatoes only reach 1-3 feet and need small cages or stakes, but vining (indeterminate) tomatoes can reach 6-8-feet high and wide, so tall, strong cages are required. Follow spacing guidelines to give your vegetable the space they need to blossom.
- Know When to Harvest: When is it ripe? Tomatoes and peppers will be fully colored when ready to pick. Beans should be plump and reach the advertised length. Zucchini and summer squash are best harvested small but firm. And, you will know when beets, carrots, and radishes are ready to harvest when their bulbous tops become visible along the soil surface. If you are not sure when to harvest a crop, ask us through our free horticultural advice service, Ask a Garden Expert.
Keep It Clean: Weed, weed, and weed some more. Even when you mulch your beds, they will arise. Weeds compete with vegetables for resources and can quickly overwhelm a garden if ignored. They may also harbor diseases and attract pests. Pull or hoe weeds as you see them. Even if you weed every few days or even every week, you will have few to no weed problems, which will give you more time to focus on plant care and harvest. Investing in good weeding tools makes the task lighter. I am never without my weeding knife (Hori Hori), strong hoe (Prohoes are the best), and Korean hand plow (Ho-Mi).
Reach out to friends, family, books, and online references when you have gardening questions. There’s always more to learn and new plants to discover. And, if you can’t find an answer, ask us a gardening question for free at Ask a Garden Expert. You can also search the hundreds of questions we have already answered. It’s our goal to help gardeners succeed.