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Organic Vegetable Gardening for Beginners: Planning

Brunette woman in a coral shirt and a sun hat sitting on the edge of a raised garden bed

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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.

  1. Planning and Building Your Garden (you are here!)
  2. Choosing Varieties, Seed Starting, and Planting (coming soon!)
  3. Garden Maintenance and Common Problems (coming soon!)
  4. Harvesting and Storing Produce, and Extending Your Growing Season (coming soon!)
  5. Preparing the Garden for Next Year (coming soon!)

Let’s dive right into the planning process!

Set of small pots holding labeled seedlings ready for transplanting

Why Start an Organic Vegetable Garden

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!

Hand holding a bunch of just-harvested radishes

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.

Organic Vegetable Gardening for Beginners: Woman in a coral shirt and sun hat smiling and holding a tomato plant ready for planting

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!

A fenced in vegetable garden

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)!

Organic Vegetable Gardening for Beginners: Planning Your Garden

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:

Woman in a gray shirt looking through seed catalogs for organic vegetable seeds

Garden Planning Step 1: Find your Growing Zone

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!

Brunette woman in a coral shirt holding out a bunch of asparagus in a garden

Garden Planning Step 2: Location! Location! Location!

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!

Sun Exposure

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.

Wide angle shot of a fenced in vegetable garden

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.

Water Access

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?

Woman in a coral shirt watering a raised garden bed
Drainage

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.

Access

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.

Woman in a coral shirt holding a basket of radishes and greens

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.

Wind

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.

Special Things to Keep in Mind When Picking a Location
  • Lead paint: If you’re planting close to your house and it is an older house that may have been painted with lead paint, check your soil for lead before planting. Lead doesn’t biodegrade, so it will stick around for a long time. If you aren’t sure, go ahead and test—better safe than sorry!
  • Lawn herbicides: If you’re digging up lawn to put in a garden, and your lawn has been treated with herbicide or weed-killer, you’ll likely want to opt for raised beds or containers. Those herbicides live in the soil for up to 10 years and can result in terrible crops in your garden. If you do go with raised beds, be sure to dig up the sod first before putting the beds down, and bring soil in from an organic location.
  • Tree roots: Do you know how wide an established tree’s roots can spread? They often extend far past the crown, or branches, of the tree. So when you’re choosing where to put your garden, keep that in mind—plus, you don’t want the tree casting too much shade over your sun-loving veggies!
Consider Edible Landscaping

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.

Growing on a Porch, Deck, or Patio

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!

Blue pot holding a mint plant and a painted rock that says "spearmint."

Garden Planning Step 3: What are you going to grow in?

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.

In the Ground

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.

Pros:
  • Affordable: You don’t need any materials and the only real tools you need are a simple spade and a tiller (which you can rent from most big box stores).
  • Simple to get started: You can have this kind of garden ready to plant in just a couple of hours.
  • No shape/size restrictions: You can make any size and shape bed your pretty little head dreams up! We have triangle in-ground beds in our medicinal garden.
  • Can grow a TON: If you want to grow the absolute most produce in your space, planting directly in the ground is going to be the way to do that.
  • Less watering: By being in the ground and having access to every drop of groundwater that comes through, you’ll have to water your own garden a whole lot less than if you used raised beds or containers.
Cons:
  • Soil quality: The truth is that for most of us, our topsoil quality is absolutely terrible. It will take a lot of amending (which means adding nutrients back to the soil in the form of composts, powders, and other organic additions) to get it to grow great veggies. Even if your soil nutrients are great, your soil condition (or the texture/drainage of your soil) is probably not so good from years of being walked on/mowed on/played on. You can condition your soil by adding things—like sand, peat, coco fiber, etc.—but it can be a pretty hefty investment to get regular ole topsoil to behave like a good garden soil does. We’ll talk a lot more about soil quality in another section, but just know that growing in the ground tends to be an uphill battle for a lot of yards.
  • Weeds: Grass and other weeds don’t just go away, even if you cut the sod out. Weeds are persistent as can be, and they’ll pop up the second an empty patch of soil is exposed.
  • Can look unattractive: Some in-the-ground gardens are beautiful, but just by the nature of them, it can take a lot of work to get them there.
  • Back breaking work: Both the initial labor (digging out the sod and tilling) and the maintenance (planting, weeding, and mulching) can be hard manual work that kills a back. Because growing in the ground is…well…on the ground, that can be a long way to bend down!

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!

Raised Beds

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.

Woman in a coral shirt sitting on the edge of a raised garden bed full of greens, pulling weeds. Greens are a great starting point for beginner vegetable gardeners.
Pros:
  • You control it all: My favorite part of raised bed gardening—complete control! I control the soil, the plants, the watering, the weeds, even the bugs (we added worms to our raised beds last year).
  • Deep growing: Plants have surprisingly long roots. They want deep, loamy soil to spread their fingers into. A raised bed inherently gives those roots more growing space. Even more so if you create tall raised beds!
  • Easier to work with: By raising up the beds, you bend over less and save your back. Since you can control the conditions, there is less weeding, too!
  • Looks beautiful: There is no doubt about it, a well-done raised bed is a beautiful, glorious sight.
  • No tilling: Once your beds are filled with good soil, you really don’t need to worry about tilling or doing any sort of work with heavy machinery again. You’ll want to amend your soil in your beds regularly with compost, but other that just a light mixing in with a fork or a trowel, you don’t need any sort of machinery.
Cons:
  • Can be expensive: Raised beds do require materials to build. Some people upcycle pallets and make raised beds for cheap or even free, but we created what we’re hoping are beds that last 20 or 30 years for about $150 each in materials. If you buy premade raised beds, they can be even more expensive. It’s definitely an investment!
  • Time consuming to build and fill: Assembling and filling raised beds, especially big ones, can be incredibly time consuming. But it is a one-time thing—once it’s done, it’s done.
  • Need to replace/repair: Raised beds aren’t a forever thing. They are exposed to the elements and will need to be repaired and even replaced after a while. Depending on your choice of materials, you can hopefully get a few decades out of a good build.
  • Water more often: Since raised beds aren’t in-ground, water will seep and evaporate much more quickly, which means you’ll need to be watering more often.
  • Limited growing space: By adding raised beds and aisles into the mix, you are inherently reducing your growing space. However, there are ways to work with that. The Square Foot Gardening method is an excellent resource for both beginning gardeners and gardeners with limited space. It’s the method we use to lay out our raised beds each spring!
Containers

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:

Pros:
  • Take up little space: If you just have a patio or even a sunny windowsill, you can place a container there and grow some food.
  • Not permanent: If you are a renter, or live in a spot where you’re prohibited from putting in a more permanent garden, containers are a great option.
  • Low commitment: Not quite sure gardening is for you? Containers are a great way to try-before-you-buy. If you and your family like growing in a few containers, maybe you’ll expand next year! But if you don’t like it, you haven’t lost much.
  • Affordable: A few large containers and a few bags of organic potting soil and you’re up-and-running. You can easily get a container veggie garden going for less than $50 (and even more affordably if you upcycle containers and soil).
Cons:
  • Can stunt plant growth: Because the growing space and growing medium is limited in a container, you might see plant growth stunted due to being root bound or lacking nutrients. You can always size up to a larger pot and fertilize your plants, but that can be a bit of a pain.
  • Requires a lot of watering: Containers dry out much more quickly than in-ground growing or raised bed growing.
  • Limited growing space: The same thing that makes containers great is what makes them not-so-great—they severely limit your growing space.
  • Containers be heavy: Once containers are filled with soil and plants, they can be really heavy to move!
When looking for containers, it’s important to keep a few things in mind:
  • Dark containers will make the soil warm up faster, which can be an advantage for those of you growing in cooler climates, and a disadvantage for those of you growing in warmer climates. The opposite is true for light colored containers.
  • In general, deeper containers will perform better than shallow containers—width is less important that soil depth. If you have to choose between a wide and shallow container and a narrow and deep container, choose the narrow and deep container.
  • When choosing containers, make sure they have drainage holes! Many of the plastic pots sold in garden centers these days do not come with drainage holes predrilled, and you actually have to take a drill and large drill bit to the bottom to put in drainage holes. You cannot garden in a container without drainage holes! Trust me, I’ve tried.

We actually use a combination of all three growing methods in our garden, and it works well for us!

Garden Planning Step 4: Plan Your Layout

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.

Grid showing the bird's-eye view of the layout of a planned vegetable 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.

Grid showing the planned layout for a vegetable garden
A few concepts to keep in mind when you’re planning your garden layout:
  • Garden paths: Think about what kinds of tools and machinery you’ll need to get through your garden paths. You don’t want to make a two foot wide path when your garden cart is three feet wide. How much space do you really need to maintain the garden?
  • Use your imagination: If you are growing in the ground, you aren’t restricted to rectangles or squares! You can make triangle beds, circular beds, or even just organic shapes that flow with the land.
  • Think about the kinds of plants you’re going to grow: We’re going to deep dive into picking your plants in a separate post, but for now, start thinking big picture about the kinds of plants you want to grow. If you’ve planned all tall beds, but you want to grow corn, how are you going to reach your harvest?
  • Check out Square Foot Gardening: The Square Foot Gardening method is an excellent resource for both beginning gardeners and gardeners with limited space. It’s the method we use to lay out our raised beds each spring!
  • Start small, but have a plan for expansion: The number one mistake beginning gardeners make is going too big, too soon. We made this mistake! I recommend starting small, but have a general idea of how you’ll expand in the future if you end up falling in love with gardening (like I’m sure you will). Whatever you think you can handle in your first year, I recommend cutting that amount of planting space in half and only starting there. And then, once you get through one entire season of growing that space and keeping on top of its maintenance, you can add on.

Garden Planning Step 5: Build your garden!

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.

Wide view of three raised garden beds made of galvanized steel and cedar

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.

Garden Planning Step 6: Make sure your soil is top notch

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.).

Hand in a gardening glove holding a handful of soil over a bed full of dirt

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.

Testing and Amending the Soil You Have

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.

Your Soil Condition

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.

Your Soil’s Nutrients and pH Levels

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.

Brunette woman in a coral shirt and sun hat smiling and holding up two hands covered in dirt, as she teaches vegetable gardening for beginners This is the one we use, and it’s a fun little science experiment to do with kids. The gist of it is that you mix the soil with water, add in some testing material, let the test develop, then check the color of the finished test against a chart. That chart will then tell you the levels of nutrients and pH in your soil. The test will also come with a booklet that will tell you exactly what to add and how much of it to achieve what you need based on the results. There are various additions for each nutrient that you can get at any big box hardware store or garden center. A simple $15 soil test is going to help your garden grow so much better!

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.

Watch Out for…

When you’re using soil you already have, a few things to watch out for:

  • Weed seeds: Most natural soil—especially if it’s been around a spot that regularly gets mowed—is rife with weed seeds that will happily sprout in your vegetable garden
  • Pesticides and herbicides: If the soil is coming from a place that was sprayed regularly with pesticides, those chemicals stay in the soil for years (some even decades) and can greatly affect the quality of your plants
The One Thing That Will Always Make Your Soil Better

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.

Organic Vegetable Gardening for Beginners: Two hands holding a handful of worm castings over a container of compost
Buying Soil From an Outside Source

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.

Hand in a pink gardening glove sifting soil through a screen

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.

Tomato plant in a garden bed

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!

Cassie Johnston

Cassie is the founder and CEO of Wholefully. She's a home cook and wellness junkie with a love of all things healthy living. She lives on a small hobby farm in Southern Indiana with her husband, daughter, two dogs, two cats, and 15 chickens.

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