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How to start a vegetable garden

How to start a vegetable garden

So you want to start growing your own food? Then the best thing that you can do is start a vegetable garden today! I for one think it’s a fabulous idea and not nearly as daunting as you might imagine. Growing your own food is an amazing way to feed your family, get in touch with nature and get your hands dirty. For me, there is nothing more rewarding and calming than getting home from The Day Job, putting on my wellies and going out into the garden to tend to my veggies.

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

I just love getting my hands in the dirt (usually forgetting to put my gardening gloves on). I still marvel at being able to take a wee seed and nurture it into something that I can feed my family with! With just one single tomato seed I can grow enough tomatoes to make some small batch tomato sauce or have some fresh tomatoes to put on my favourite CLT sandwich. It’s just too cool.

So now that you have made up your mind to start growing your own food let me try to answer some of the many questions you may have. Hopefully, I have covered most of them, but if I didn’t drop me a comment and I’ll get back to you! Just so you know, you may want to get comfy and grab yourself a coffee (or wine as I have no idea what time it is where you are right now) and settle down as this is going to be a long post!

Vegetables

Which vegetables are easiest to grow?

Many of the basic kitchen staples are luckily easy to grow as well! I have put together a list of some common veggies that are also easy to grow. They are listed below in alphabetical order so as not to play favourites (tomatoes, tomatoes are my favourite).

  1. Beans
  2. Beetroot
  3. Carrots
  4. Cucumber
  5. Lettuce
  6. Peas
  7. Radish
  8. Swiss chard
  9. Tomatoes
  10. Zucchini

Now before you just stop reading here and run out and grab seeds I would suggest you stick around for more information so that your garden will thrive. But if you are set now that you have my list of 10 vegetables that are easy to grow then can I at least tempt you to get heirloom seeds? I honestly believe these are the best seeds to grow. They have history, they are dependable and they allow you to save your seeds for next year. This is key as it means you won’t have to buy seeds again! I wrote about the 5 reasons you should grow heirloom seeds which will give you a lot more information about these types of seeds. Oh, and you should check out my goto heirloom seed place, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

How big should my vegetable garden be?

This depends on your goal and the space you have available to you. Is your goal to grow enough food to feed your family? Yes? Well, congrats and in that case, I would strongly recommend you pick up a copy of Melissa K Norris’ book The Family Garden Plan: Grow a Year’s Worth of Sustainable and Healthy Food. There are. some awesome worksheets in there (plus loads of other great info) to help you reach your goal of feeding your family from your garden. Oh, and you’ll need a lot of space!

On the other hand of you just want to grow a few veggies, get your kids in touch with nature or something less huge then you won’t need as much space. Even a 4-foot x 4-foot raised bed (like the one I plan to put on my front lawn) will grow you a decent amount of produce. My vegetable garden started in a small 4-foot x 6-foot area and then it grew, and grew, AND grew! To the point now that I have things planted in the front garden, down the side of the house, in the basement (using my Aerogarden Farm Plus and some grow lights) and all over the whole backyard. So, my point is, just start somewhere and you can always expand.

As a novice gardener you will be better served to start small, learn and then increase the size of your garden. There is no point in starting huge becoming overwhelmed and giving up (not that you would).

Shovelling dirt

When should you start your vegetable garden?

Today! Well, unless it’s the middle of winter, or ay time in winter really. Other than that let’s go and get some gardening on! Now you may be reading this in fall and being like, hey hang on a second that doesn’t make sense. But seriously, even in fall you can start a garden. You may not get much from it, but there are some veggies that grow quite quickly or can grow even into the winter if cared for properly. Plus, it means you will be raring to go come next spring!

How to prepare the ground for a garden?

Now that you know that you want to start a vegetable garden, how much work you have to do will depend on what stands in the way of you putting your garden where you want it. If you are taking over an existing flower bed (as I have done multiple times). Then it is just a matter of removing the existing flowers, removing and weeds and rocks, turning the soil (one of these hand tillers is key) and adding soil amendments as needed (more on this later).

If however you are staring at a patch of grass and imagining copious amounts of veggies in its place you have a bit more work on your hands. If you are daft like me then you could use your hand tiller to (very slowly) remove it all. Yes, I did do this and it got me a new 10-foot x 10-foot garden but I (and my back) wouldn’t recommend it let me tell you!

You would be better served to rent a rototiller to do the heavy work for you. I don’t suggest you buy one as my goal is always no-till gardening as I feel it is a better method.  You can also cover the grass with some cardboard and start placing the new dirt on top.  As the cardboard biodegrades it will kill the grass.

Soil

What kind of soil do I need for a vegetable garden?

Ah, the soil! Along with sun and water, the soil forms the trifecta of gardening needs (on a basic level). The answer to what kind of soil you need when you start a vegetable garden will depend (sorry) on what you are planning to grow. Some plants will want soil that is high in compost. While others will want a soil with a higher pH or lower pH. Some plants will want a well-draining soil, others prefer it if more sandy.

So as you can see there is no one answer. However, all plants are going to want nutrients in the soil. If you just start a vegetable garden in ‘dead’ soil, devoid of nutrients you shouldn’t expect much. I always make my own compost as it is a great way to use up any kitchen scraps (you can also make your own broths). This year I am branching out from my current tumbling composter and getting into vermicomposting. Which is basically composting with worms. Let me tell you, one of the best things you can add to your soil is worm castings! I will be posting more about vermicomposting in the future so stay tuned (if you’re interested that is).

What is the best vegetable garden layout?

This is one question that really doesn’t have a right or wrong answer. There are so many different layouts and methods of “gardening”. It is really about finding what will work for your specific scenario. I grow in my basement (with my Aerogarden Farm Plus and grow lights). As well as in my front garden (after I removed the flowers) and anywhere in my backyard that I could find space.

If you are in a condo or apartment you could grow in containers or flower boxes if you are short on space but have a balcony. No balcony? No problem! You can still go the Aerogarden or Rise Garden (a new discovery of mine and I am obsessed) route and grow some food inside. You could also make a window garden.

If you have limited outdoor space (or even if you have lots) you can go the raised bed route. For the biggest. bang for your buck you can pair it with square foot gardening and companion planting. This will make the most of whatever space you have available. The one thing to remember is that you don’t want any garden to be more than about 2 feet wide. Unless you have crazy long arms, if it is wider than this you won’t be able to get to all the plants.

So if you have a raised bed that is accessible on both sides then it can be 4 feet wide. This ensures you can reach 2 feet in from either side. If your garden is up against the fence then 2 feet it is! If you have unlimited (or just a sh*t tonne) space then have walkways/paths every 4 feet. Keep to that rule and you should be fine with whatever layout you choose. There are so many different ones, just have a peek on Pinterest.

Starting seedlings

Should you start a garden with seeds or plants?

Starting with plants is definitely easier but also more costly. Not just this year but also in future years. This is because you will most likely be buying hybrids which means you won’t be able to save the seeds. As a newbie gardener, who has decided to start a vegetable garden for the first time this can be a great way to reduce the learning curve about growing your own food. Especially is you have just decided to start a vegetable garden and you haven’t grown much before.

Once you are more comfortable in the garden then starting your plants from seeds is extremely rewarding. It can also be a wee bit addictive. There are just SO MANY types of plants and different varieties to grow! If you do decide to start from seeds then please (I beg you) get heirloom seeds! You will also be well served to get yourself a nice grow light. Seedlings grown in windows tend to be ‘leggy’ (long and spindly). They also don’t always make the move to outside very successfully.

Seedlings

Can all seeds be started indoors?

This is not a yes or no answer, I’m not trying to be wishy-washy but its the truth. Technically, yes you can start all seeds indoors, but that doesn’t mean you should. Certain plants will need to be started indoors. This is because most growing seasons are not long enough to get them to harvest otherwise. Then there are other plants that do NOT like to be transplanted. So starting them indoors can reduce your success as you will most likely disturb their roots when you transplant them.

In order to make this nice and easy, I thought it might be helpful to make two lists. One of the plants that. do best when started indoors so that they have enough time to produce enough yield for harvest. Plus a second list of plants that do best when they are direct-sown outside.

6 Seeds to start indoors

  1. Broccoli
  2. Eggplant
  3. Lettuce
  4. Luffa
  5. Peppers
  6. Tomatoes

6 Seed to direct sow outside

  1. Beans
  2. Beetroot
  3. Carrots
  4. Corn
  5. Peas
  6. Radish
Starting seedlings inside

What do I need to start seeds indoors?

You don’t really need much to start seeds indoors. Just some good quality soil (ideally seedling starting mix), some pots and light (preferably a grow light) and if you can afford it a seed germination heating pad really does help. There are so many options even for the ‘pots’ that you start your seedlings in. You can check out my post on 8 ways to start seedlings if you are looking for ideas.

Even in the safety of your home, bad things can befall your precious seedlings. So once you have decided to grow from seed indoors you will want to make sure to be aware of the 8 common mistakes and learn how to avoid them. We don’t want your seedlings dying an untimely death before they have a chance out in the real world!

When should I start my seeds?

Again this will depend on where you live and what seeds you are starting. The back of just about every seed package will give you this information. It will let you know if the seeds should be started indoors or direct seeded outside. Additionally, it will usually give you a timeframe of when this should happen. Such as “start seeds indoors 4-6 weeks before last frost date”. Last frost date??? Don’t worry this is pretty easy to find out (just remember it is a guesstimate). You will just need to know what hardiness zone you live in. If you are not sure what zone you are in and you live in Canada you can check your zone here. If you are located in the USA then you can check your zone here.

A great way to keep track of all these dates is to use a chart to track the seed starting dates and your harvest dates. Lucky for you I made one and you can learn more about using it and also download it here. I use it myself as I am terrible at keeping track of all of the dates. This is made worse by the fact that I grow so many different things! So a chart to keep it all organized is a must for me!

What is companion planting?

Remember back in High School when there were certain groups or cliques that just DID NOT mix? Well, this is kinda like that, but with plants. Take heed, this is not something to dismiss! Mixing the wrong crowds can lead to disaster or at least a sh*tty harvest. Which is definitely not the outcome we want.

You could have the best soil, a gorgeous raised bed and your plants don’t thrive. This can be because you may have (unknowingly) planted them next to their nemesis. The right pairing in the garden can lead to better yields, enhanced flavour and can even deter garden pests!

You know how tomatoes and basil go hand in hand when it comes to food? Well, they do the same in the garden too. Basil helps to repel tomato pests and disease as well as helping its growth and flavour. This means it will taste even better as you shovel it into yo belly! If you want to know more then I got your back, here is a bunch more information on companion planting.

Seeding square

What is square foot gardening?

If you want to get the most bang for your buck, then you will want to pair companion planting with square foot gardening. But I guess I should first explain exactly what it is, right?

Well as the name implies square feet are involved. It’s like planting your garden in 12 inches by 12 inches squares at a time. It was conceived by Mel Bartholomew, a civil engineer, who took up gardening in his retirement. He found the standard way of gardening inefficient. So he did what any self-respecting engineer would do and put on his thinking hat and the rest is history. If you want to go right to the source here is the newest edition of his book.

Square foot gardening is meant to be organic, with no need to use fertilizers, insecticides, or pesticides. It really is the best way to make the most of every square inch of space.  It can be very powerful, especially if you do not have a lot of space. Even with a small 4-foot by 4-foot garden, using this method you have 16 square feet of planting space! So you should check out this post about square foot gardening if you want to get your garden started using this method. You may also want to pick up a handy seeding square to make the job easy peasy.

Coldframe

What is a cold frame?

A cold frame is pretty much like a mini greenhouse. They are pretty quick and easy to build and they can help to extend your growing season without needing to have a full-sized greenhouse. They tend to be built from wood or better yet bricks with a window on top to let in the sun and help warm up the enclosure. I have plans to build a few of my own with some windows my dad gave me. But before I do that I have to build my raised beds!

Harden off seedlings

What is hardening off?

Hardening off is the process of letting your plants (which have been started indoors) have a chance to acclimate to the world outside. Chances are you didn’t even know you needed to harden off seedlings, which sucks. Or maybe you did but decided to roll the dice to “save” some time.

If you skip this crucial step, it’s like turning a coddled child out into the world. They will find themselves woefully unprepared for the harsh reality of the real world. So please make the time for this step. It does take some time, but not too much. Plus it is worth the effort in order to avoid a plant massacre. If you want to learn more then here is some more information about how to harden off your seedlings.

Do I need a greenhouse?

No, you definitely don’t need a greenhouse when you first start a vegetable garden. But they are amazing if you can get your hands on one! I still dream of getting one of my own, so for now, I still have to be patient. Greenhouses are a great way to extend your growing season and grow plants that require a warmer environment than you may have. In a pinch, you could more easily and cheaply build yourself a cold frame. You just won’t have as much space as you would with an actual greenhouse.

Raised Beds

Should I use raised beds?

If this is a viable option for you then yes I would strongly recommend that you use raised beds. This year I am installing two huge 4′ x 12′ beds which will give me a whopping 96 square feet of planting space! I truly believe that when paired with square foot gardening and companion planting that raised beds are the best way to garden. It’s hard to explain just how excited I am for the wood and aluminum corners I ordered to show up so that I can get mine built! Excitement aside, I have grown my own food for years without having any raised beds. So it is by no means a necessity.

Gardening tools

What gardening tools will I need?

This all depends on what you are growing and also how fancy you want to get! I will give you my thoughts broken down into three lists actually. One for if you are just want to try to start a vegetable garden but not sure you will keep it up, one if you really want to get serious about growing your own food and one if you want to branch out!

6 Tools to start a vegetable garden

Below are a list of some of what I consider the basics, they are all things I have in my own backyard and I use on a daily basis. I have included links to Gardena and some Fiskars as I honestly think they are the best brands and they last a long time. You could definitely find cheaper versions but you will most likely end up rebuying them in the long run.

  1. Gardening set (Gloves, pruners, weeder and trowel)
  2. Shovel
  3. Hose
  4. Sprinkler
  5. Multipurpose nozzle
  6. Hand-weeder (Love this combi-system!)

6. Tools for the serious vegetable gardener

  1. Seeding square
  2. Seed germination heating pad
  3. Grow light
  4. The Family Garden Plan by Melissa K Norris
  5. Composter
  6. Rain barrel

4 Tools to seriously up your gardening game

  1. Aerogarden or Rise Garden
  2. Grow tent (they are not just for growing weed people)
  3. Vermicomposting setup
  4. Greenhouse

If I have missed any questions you may still have about how to start a vegetable garden then just leave me a comment and I will do my best to get you an answer.

Happy gardening!

2 Comments

  • Hannah
    April 12, 2020 at 8:41 pm

    thanks for your post! i wanted to start a small garden last year, now i really want one! the one thing that keeps me from doing it is the fear my hard work will be consumed by squirrels and bunnies instead of me. how do i protect my food?

    Reply
    • Kir
      April 12, 2020 at 8:58 pm

      Hi Hannah,

      I’m so glad you want to start your own vegetable garden! I am in the middle of writing a post on how to deal with common garden pests so stay tuned! If you have any questions about starting you garden feel free to send me an email!

      Happy gardening,
      Kir

      Reply

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