By Cassie Johnston
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So you want to start an organic vegetable garden, huh? Great! We are alllll about getting your hands in the soil and getting you growing, but, uh…now what? Where do you start? What do you do? How do you have success in your very first year?
Well you’re in luck, because we’ve been working for months on this Ultimate Guide to Organic Vegetable Gardening for Beginners. This series of posts will cover the planning, the planting, the soil, the pests, the varieties, the harvesting, the storage—it’s all here. There is a ton of information in these posts, but by the end of it, your green thumb will be ready to grow delicious, nutritious, organic produce for yourself and your family. We’ve broken the gardening process down into five major steps, each with a separate article.
Let’s dive right into the planning process!
Chances are, if you’re here reading this post, you’ve already been bitten by the gardening bug, but if you need a little more convincing, here are my favorite reasons to grow:
Savings: Once you get past the initial setup costs, you can get healthy, organic vegetables for a fraction of the cost of what you pay at the grocery store or farmers’ market. This is true even if you choose to just put in an herb garden!
Taste: You know how farmers’ market veggies taste far superior to the ones from the grocery store? Well guess what— they taste even BETTER when they’re picked out of your own garden right before you eat.
Variety: You might be able to get one or two varieties of a specific produce item at your grocery store. At the farmers’ market, a bit more, but at home? Your possibilities are only limited to how many seeds you want to buy. Blue tomatoes, purple beans, chocolate peppers, cucamelons, lemon cucumbers, black carrots—you can have so much fun experimenting with different colors, textures, and flavors!
Nutrition: Every second produce is off the vine, it’s losing nutrients. The best way to get the most nutritional bang for your buck? Pick it from your own yard at the peak of freshness. Bonus: plants get the majority of the nutrients from something we can control— the soil they grow in! Good, quality, nutrient-rich soil equals good, quality, nutrient-rich veggies for your family.
Knowledge: Do you know what went into growing that tomato you got at the grocery store? Do you know exactly where it came from, what variety it is, what chemicals were used on it, what the farmer’s name was, when it was picked? Nope. It kinda seems like we should know those things about our food, doesn’t it? With gardening, you know everything there is to know about your food.
Family Fun: Gardening is a fun family project for everyone to get involved in. It’s a great way to get kids away from screens (“C’mon, kids, let’s get really dirty and play with worms!” tends to get most kids away from their tablets), and it’s a great memory to have as a group.
Peace: You may or may not feel this, but a lot of the reason that gardeners keep coming back year-after-year is the inner peace they feel when working in the soil. There is something about literally connecting our hands with Mother Earth that brings a sense of calm to a lot of us.
Satisfaction: I won major awards. I built a business that sustains my family. I graduated with honors. Nothing—NOTHING—rivals the satisfaction of eating a veggie that you grew on your own from seed. It’s primal. It’s in our DNA. We’re meant to provide food for ourselves, and wowzers, does our brain reward us with happy chemicals when we do!
Vegetable Haters? No More!: If you have kids that are reluctant eaters, involving them in the growing (and cooking) process just might do the trick. When they see the process from seed to harvest, their pride switch gets flipped, too, and they want to try the literal fruits of their labor. I’ve seen self-proclaimed veggie haters munch on raw asparagus and raw radishes right out of the garden.
Food Security: I’m not a doomsdayer, but I do believe a few self-sufficiency skills are good for everyone to have. What would you do if the electricity grid temporarily went down in your city and no grocery stores could stay open? Or if there was massive flooding and the food supply chain was damaged for a bit? I know what I’d do—I’d just harvest dinner from my own backyard! It’s like knowing how to change a tire. Chances are, you’ll probably be able to call someone to help if you get a flat, but you definitely need to know how to change one, just in case.
Beauty: A well-maintained vegetable garden is a beautiful addition to any yard or patio. And bonus: it’s less grass to mow!
Now that you are thoroughly convinced to get growing, let’s get you into the practical details. Grab a piece of paper to take notes, and let’s dig in (har-dee-har-har)!
No matter the size of your garden, a successful growing season starts way before you plant your first seed—you gotta plan! Right around the first of the year, seed catalogs start showing up at my house and I know it’s time to start garden planning. Yes, there is still snow on the ground, but I curl up with my mug of tea in front of the fire and get to work. It’s a nice little wintertime ritual! Here’s how to get started planning your garden:
First, you’ll need to know what plant hardiness zone you’re in. That’s what will help you figure out what you’ll have better luck growing, and when to plant them. The USDA makes is mega-easy to find your zone if you’re in the United States— just enter your zip code here. Canada’s zone map is here.
Next up, you’ll need to dig a little further to find your last expected frost date. Most of your favorite veggies (tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, oh my!) do not fare well in chilly weather, so you generally want to wait to plant them outside until you know overnight temps aren’t going to drop below freezing. The date will vary widely depending on where you live, but The Farmer’s Almanac can help you out.
Now that you have your growing zone and your last frost date, you can plan your layout, containers, and varieties!
The location of your garden is the single most important aspect you can choose. And since you’re starting fresh, you can pick the perfect location from the get-go!
Probably the number one thing to consider when choosing your garden location is sun exposure. You can bring in water with a hose or watering can or irrigation system. You can amend the soil to improve its drainage or give it more nutrients. And you can put up fences or other barriers to fend off deer, squirrels, or other pests. But you can’t fake sun exposure!
Most vegetables, fruits, and herbs do best in full sun, which means they get at least 6-8 hours of sunlight a day. Some leafy greens and herbs can tolerate partial shade (4-6 hours of daily sun exposure), especially in climates where the days get hot in the summer, but almost nothing edible grows well in full shade.
So before you do any digging or planting, watch your intended garden spot to observe the light situation throughout the course of a few days. You’ll also want to be aware of any nearby trees that will fill out with leaves as the seasons wear on that might cause a shade problem. Keep in mind that depending on where you are in the hemisphere, the angle of the sun might change, too. For example, in the winter, our few front garden beds are actually shaded because the angle of the sun in so low, but come March, they are back in the sunshine again!
Generally, a south-facing garden is ideal if you can swing it, but if that’s not possible in your space, go with wherever your plants will get the best sun.
You’ll need to water your garden. Even if you live in a perpetually damp area, you’ll still need access to running water to be able to water plants on occasion (like right after you plant seedlings—more on that in a future post). Before putting in your garden, ask yourself, do I really want to be running a watering can back and forth to this spot? Do I have hose access? Would I be able to put up a rain barrel nearby? As a general rule-of-thumb, your garden will need at least one inch of water per week—more during hot times. If it doesn’t rain, how are you going to get that water there?
Depending on your growing containers (more on those in a bit) this can be more or less of a problem, but it is probably pretty obvious that you don’t want your garden in a place that is prone to flooding. If you choose to grow in tall raised beds or other taller containers, a garden that gets a bit mushy in the spring rains will probably be fine. But that spot in your yard that’s always muddy, even when it hasn’t rained in a week? That’s probably not the right spot for a garden.
There are ways to help fix drainage issues— you can create a base in your garden of sand and gravel with raised beds or containers on top. This allows the “floor” of the garden to be raised up so the water has a space to drain to. However, this set-up is a bit advanced for beginners—my recommendation from the start is to find a naturally well-drained spot.
Chances are, you’ll be using your garden the most from your kitchen. If you have a large lot, are you really going to want to walk to the other end of your property just to pick some basil? Nope. You want to use that garden, which means making it as close to where you’ll be accessing it as possible. Sometimes, this might mean breaking up your garden into a few different areas. We have an herb garden closer to our house that makes it easy to pop out and grab a few leaves of oregano for pizza, but our larger garden is a bit further away.
You also don’t want the garden to be so hidden away that you never see it—out of sight, out of mind. A well-maintained garden requires being touched almost every day in the summer. You need to weed, water, and harvest to keep things going. It can be really easy to forget a day or two (or a week!) if your garden isn’t easily visible.
We’re going to tell you how to “harden off” your plants so that they get nice strong stems that can handle some wind, but at the end of the day, they are still just plants and strong wind can really give them a beating over the long term! You want to avoid garden spots that are constantly exposed to strong winds. Or, if they are, think of having a windbreak of some sort installed—some bushes, a fence, anything that’ll slow the wind. Another added benefit of slowing down the wind: less watering! Wind dries out beds faster.
If you’re having trouble figuring out a good spot for your garden, maybe you already have one if you have landscaped flower beds. Edible landscaping is replacing or supplementing your current landscaped beds with edible plants. It’s a simple way to get started with gardening because the bed is already prepped and prime for growing, it naturally flows with the landscaping you already have, and it’s a great way to get veggies into the ground if you’re limited on space. Plus, some veggie plants are even more beautiful than flower plants! I’m not an expert on edible landscaping, but we’re loving these two books for inspiration: The Beautiful Edible Garden and Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist.
I started my gardening journey by growing in pots and hanging baskets on a sunny, west-facing concrete apartment patio. If that’s the only space you have, you absolutely can make an incredibly bountiful garden! We’ll cover container growing in a bit, but just know that just as long as the sun hits an outdoor spot at your home—you can grow in it!
Now that you’ve picked a spot, you have to figure out what you’re going to actually grow in. There are nearly an infinite amount of types of gardens out there, but they simplify down to three categories. We’ll talk about the pros and cons of each one a bit here, and then you can decide which one (or a combo) is right for you and your space.
The classic. Cut out your grass, till up the soil, plant, and grow! That simple, right? Well, not really. Growing in the ground can actually be one of the more complicated ways of growing. But let’s talk through the pros and cons.
If you do want to grow in the ground, my recommendation is to do wide raised rows in the ground—this does require more work (it’s called “double digging” where you actually dig more soil out from your rows to create taller beds), but it results in deeper beds with more loam (which is the word for nice, fluffy, soft soil). The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible is my favorite book that explains exactly the steps for creating wide raised rows directly in the ground. The author’s gardens are beautiful!
Growing in raised beds is what I think most people envision nowadays when they think of having a kitchen garden. Raised beds are rectangle or square structures with four sides that are filled with soil to grow in. They can vary in height and size. I’m not going to lie, I’m partial to raised bed gardening because it’s what we have in our garden right now! We love ours, but of course, like everything, there are trade-offs. Let’s go through them.
Growing in containers is the option if you’re limited on space or live in a rental where you can’t install a permanent garden. You’d be amazed at how much you can produce from just a few strategically planted pots! Here are the pros and cons:
We actually use a combination of all three growing methods in our garden, and it works well for us!
Now is where you get to get out a pencil and graph paper, an online vegetable garden planner, or even just your favorite graphics program and have some fun! Measure the entire growing space, and draw that out first, and then start to play around with different bed shapes, sizes, and orientations.
I actually usually do this in Adobe Illustrator—my design background just makes AI really easy for me to use. I can move beds around, change orientations, and change sizes really quickly. Once I’ve landed on a landed on a layout I like, I save it. This is my bird’s-eye garden layout for our current garden.
And then, once I have the beds and container sizes determined, I make inset layouts to actually plan what plants and varieties go into each bed. We’ll cover this more in a later post, but I like having these printable sheets made so I can write out what I’m going to grow each year.
Building your garden might be as simple as setting out a few purchased containers, or it might be as complicated as double digging a half acre of your backyard. Either way, it’s time to get started.
I always recommend starting your garden building process in the fall—not only is this time of year a lot less full of yard work chores than the spring, but it also allows for your garden to settle in and for any organic matter you add to your soil to decompose before you plant in the spring. It also means that you can get plants in the ground as soon as the soil can be worked and your planting dates have arrived. If you’re working on your beds in the spring, you might be a bit late to get your plants in the ground.
A garden is only as good as its soil. Many first-time gardeners assume that you can just plop a plant into any old dirt and it’ll grow beautifully—and that might be the case if you’re lucky enough to have nice, fertile soil. But most of us have to amend our soils for both nutrients (adding in the goodies our plants want to “eat”) and condition (the way the soil feels—heavy, clay, sandy, loamy, etc.).
To make sure you have good soil in your garden, you can go one of two ways: you can either amend the soil you already have on hand or bring in new soil. We’ll cover each below.
By far the most affordable way to go is to use the soil you already have on hand. I will say that using the soil you already have is not recommended for container gardening. You can make it work with a lot of adjustments, but in general the soil you use to plant in the ground or raised beds is just too dense for pots, and will compress too much over time. That means your plants won’t get the air and water they need to their roots to grow successfully–whomp, whomp. Instead, you’ll need to pick up or mix a soil specifically blended for container gardening.
If you are going to grow in the garden or a raised bed, you can use the soil you have on hand. The first step is to get your hands on the soil and feel it. What does it feel like? Does it stick together like it has a lot of clay in it? Does it fall through your hands like it’s sandy? Does it hold water like a sponge? Does it turn into mud the second you add water to it? This is called the soil condition, and what you’re looking for to grow most vegetable plans is a soil that is what’s called “loamy.” This means it’s crumbly, fluffy, and drains water well. When it’s wet, good soil should form into a loose, crumbly ball, and not feel muddy or like you’re working on a pottery wheel.
There are a number of ways to change your soil condition, but the main one is by adding either organic matter (i.e. compost, chopped leaves, peat, coco fiber, etc.) or sand. We have clay-heavy soil, so we tend to add lots of compost and some sand to each bed every season to help loosen up the soil and help with drainage. It’ll take a little bit of trial and error to figure out which amendments will get your soil condition right.
There are three main nutrients in garden soil that you have to keep an eye on: potassium (K), nitrogen (N), and phosphorous (P). In general, most garden plants like balanced levels of each nutrient in the soil. Once you are a little more advanced, you can start to play with the nutrient levels in your beds—greens, for example, do well with a bit more nitrogen—but for now, you want your nutrient levels to be in the adequate/normal range.
The same is true with the pH or acidity of your soil. Most plants like to be around a neutral pH—the 6.5 mark. Some plants do better with a touch more acidity or a touch more alkaline, but that’s something to explore later on in your gardening career. Get your garden soil to neutral acidity, and you’ll be in good shape.
So, how do you know what the nutrient and pH levels of your soil are? Well, you test it! Just like everything in life, there are more expensive and less expensive ways to get your soil tested. Some people shell out hundreds of dollars for the most accurate soil tests on the planet. For a beginner, that just doesn’t make sense! What I recommend you do instead is buy an affordable home soil testing kit.
We’ve just glanced over the surface of soil testing and amending here, but I highly recommend checking out the Vegetable Gardener’s Bible for a more thorough discussion on it. Please don’t skip this step! Knowing your soil has the right nutrients and pH is just as important as knowing your yeast is active for baking.
When you’re using soil you already have, a few things to watch out for:
No matter what your nutrient or pH levels are, the one thing that you can always do to make your garden soil better is to add in well-rotted compost. You really can’t get too much compost (we actually have just half compost, half sand in our raised beds—more on that in a sec). And it’s going to help you with both soil conditioning and soil nutrients. They don’t call it “black gold” for nothing.
If you’re growing in containers or just don’t have the available topsoil to donate to your garden project, you’re going to need to bring in soil from an outside source. If you’re working with containers or a relatively small raised bed, this is pretty easy and affordable—just grab a few bags of organic potting mix or organic garden soil from your local garden center, plus feel free to add in some organic compost to help condition and add nutrients to the soil.
For beds that are a bit larger, you might want to buy soil in bulk or have it delivered. I’ve tried all the different kinds of soil from my local aggregate place (including the über-expensive “premium garden mix”), and I just don’t think the combo of half well-rotted compost and half sand can be beat. This is what we have in our raised beds, and this combination has been top-notch for us. The one caveat here is that the compost we get is both affordable and high quality—for some folks, getting that much compost would just be cost prohibitive. Another good option is to do one-third screened topsoil, one-third sand, and one-third compost.
No matter what you do, it’s important to top dress your beds each year with more compost or other organic matter (chopped up leaves, straw, seed-free grass clippings) to help add nutrients back to the soil.
The benefits of buying soil are pretty numerous. Most soils for sale are almost completely weed-free, and most of them are also nutrient balanced and have a neutral pH to start with. It wouldn’t hurt to go ahead and test the soils anyway, but you’re probably going to have a lot less amending to do with purchased soil that if you just pulled topsoil out of your backyard.
And that about covers it for this first step in the gardening process: getting your stuff planned out! We’ll be back later with how to choose your plant varieties, get your seeds started, and actually getting your plants in the ground. Stay tuned!
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It’s like you read my mind! This is exactly what I’ve been looking for!! Thank you. I can’t wait to dig in!!!
this was sooooooo helpful already!! thank you so much!! :)
Your garden is beautiful. Thank you for the inspiration!!!
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