A beginner’s guide to vegetable gardening (2024)

If you have a newfound interest in gardening, you’re not alone. In the years since the pandemic, America has more growers than ever. But while a horticultural hobby can be rewarding, and even beneficial to your physical and mental health, starting a vegetable garden can seem a bit intimidating.

The truth, though, is that anyone can grow vegetables, whether it’s in a big backyard or a tiny window box. The best time to start planning an edible harvest is in the early spring, so use these pro tips to set yourself up for success.

Pick the right plot

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Though it may seem obvious, the first step to starting a garden is figuring out where to put it. “You want a spot that’s sunny, so we always suggest people pick the southern-facing side of their property,” says Dan Kemper, a master trainer at Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pa. “If you can get eight to 12 hours of light, that’s what we would consider full sun. That’s where most plants will do their best.”


There are a lot of ways to create a garden: If you have the space, you can sacrifice some lawn or build raised beds. If you don’t want to put plants directly in the ground, you can also grow veggies in containers. That’s a great way to get started, says Nancy Awot-Traut, horticulture expert with seed and plant company Burpee.

“I would recommend new gardeners go with containers first, especially if they’re in a smaller space like a condo,” she says. “If you are doing a raised bed or going into the ground, don’t go too big. I always tell people to start with under 50 square feet.”

You can always add to your garden, but the more space — and plants — you have, the harder you’ll have to work. “There’s watering and weeding and looking for bugs, and a lot of people don’t really want to put that much time into it,” Awot-Traut says.

Source the right soil

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Once you’ve chosen the spot, you should assess the soil. A good growing medium should be rich and loose, without a lot of rocks or roots, and the dirt should absorb water without holding onto too much of it.


“If the soil is constantly wet, that’s an issue,” Kemper says. “We want to have nice drainage. If your existing soil is too wet, you can plan to make raised beds where you just put soil on top of the ground so that it can be a little bit better drained.”

There’s plenty more to learn about your soil beyond its moisture content, Kemper adds, and there’s an easy way to determine what you’re working with. “At least once every three years, if not once a year, you should be doing a soil test,” he says. For a small fee, some state agriculture departments offer testing, as do the local extension services of many universities. “If you have low nutrient levels, you should be adding in compost or manure or some type of organic fertilizer,” Kemper says.

Even if you’re buying high-quality soil and compost, either in bags or by the truckload, keep in mind that you eventually will need to add nutrients.

“The soil needs to be fed,” Kemper says. “People get the idea that they’re going to be ‘natural,’ and never use fertilizer or manure or anything. They’ll end up tapping out the nutrients of the soil and then nothing will grow. You always need to think of your soil as the crop itself: you have to keep feeding it because it’s alive.”

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Deciding what to grow — and when to plant it — starts with determining your hardiness zone. The U.S. Agriculture Department maintains a map that breaks the nation into growing zones based on temperatures and average first and last frost dates. Knowing your zone can keep you from planting too early, a common mistake that often results in plants getting zapped by a late frost. Even veteran gardeners should take a second look at the map: For the first time since 2012, the USDA made updates for this growing season that moved about half the country into a new zone.


Other than simply paying attention to the forecast, Awot-Traut says there are some basic ways to know when it’s warm enough to plant. “If you’re sitting on the ground in your garden and you’re cold, it’s too cold for plants,” she says. “Or, you can stick your finger in the soil about an inch deep. If you can comfortably leave it there for a minute, it’s warm enough to plant.”

Seed packets are often printed with detailed information about when to plant, and whether seeds should be sown directly in the garden or started inside. “For a first-time gardener, I’d say if a seed packet says to start indoors, put it back,” Awot-Traut says. “It’s a couple of steps up because you need seed-starting equipment, and among beginners I see a lot of failures, so I don’t recommend it.”

Having a successful first season can be a big confidence-builder, so experts suggest sticking with easy-to-grow varieties at first. “I recommend summer squash or zucchini, bush beans, cucumbers, lettuce and cherry tomatoes,” Awot-Traut says. “It is really hard to fail with a cherry tomato.”


Some plants are a bit more finicky, Kemper says. Broccoli and onions, for example, aren’t plants he suggests to newbies. On the other hand, “hot peppers are great starter plants,” he says. “They can take a hurricane or a locust swarm and still come out on top.”

And whether it’s your first or 50th growing season, Kemper says, everyone should be growing garlic. “I don’t think there’s anything easier,” he says. “You pull off a clove, stick it in the ground in the fall, mulch it, and wait for the next summer’s harvest. You don’t have to do anything else: Just set it and forget it.”

A vegetable garden also doesn’t have to be limited to, well, vegetables. Adding some flowers and herbs can attract beneficial bugs and deter pests. “You can plant something like marigolds, which are great for attracting pollinators,” Awot-Traut says. “They also help to keep some of the bugs away without worrying about spraying.”

The most important piece of advice when it comes to choosing plants is simple, she says: “Don’t plant anything you don’t want. Radishes are easy to grow, but if you don’t like radishes, don’t plant them!”

Have the right attitude

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There are lots of growing practices that can make a garden successful in its first year, and no shortage of advice and resources to help new hobbyists learn the ropes and avoid common pitfalls. Planting things too close together, for instance, can promote bacterial and fungal growth. Healthy plants need space to grow, Kemper says. “Spacing them out allows maximum airflow, and that reduces disease.”


Pests and birds can also hurt your harvest, but netting or row covers can protect the plants. Weeds can rapidly get out of control, but mulching can help with that, Kemper says. “We use straw or leaves raked off the lawn,” he says. “You can use wood chips. Some people get creative with newspapers or cardboard.”

But no matter how hard you try, the reality of gardening is that something will probably go wrong. “You might need to do some experimenting,” he says, “which means a little bit of success and failure.”

Failure — whether it’s an herb that withers, a tomato that never fruits or a squash bug invasion — is part of the hobby, say the pros, and it’s the best way to learn. It’s bound to happen, Awot-Traut says, so don’t let it stop you from growing.

“To start, you don’t have to spend a lot of money and you don’t need a lot of things,” she says. “If you want to be a gardener, wherever you are, you just have to start gardening.”

Kate Morgan is a freelance writer in Richland, Pa.

A beginner’s guide to vegetable gardening (2024)
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