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Easy Instructions: Starting A Vegetable Garden for Complete Beginners

Updated on May 5, 2014

Harvested from the garden

The two melons on the left are cantaloupes. The tomatoes are an assortment from Heirloom to cherry.
The two melons on the left are cantaloupes. The tomatoes are an assortment from Heirloom to cherry.
Fresh tomatoes make delicious snacks.
Fresh tomatoes make delicious snacks.

Starting a vegetable garden?

Since you're reading this article, you've probably already decided to try to start your own garden. Don't worry if you have doubts about starting or maintaining an organic garden. Whatever your space and your budget, trust me, there's room for a garden somewhere.

The picture on the right is of tomatoes (and a couple of cantaloupes) from the garden at my home. What are now large bushy behemoths used to be cute little tomato plants that fit in the palm of your hand. Yeesh. But I'm not complaining - there are dozens upon dozens (literally) of tomatoes hidden in that forest.

Our garden is composed of two medium sized beds, about ten feet long and four feet wide. This is actually not a small amount of space. This bed is already producing more than enough vegetables for three people, and it's not even the peak of the harvest season yet! Only the peppers, cucumbers, and early tomatoes are ripe, leaving the eggplants, cantaloupes, and vast majority of the tomatoes still unripe.

The point of mentioning our garden is not (just :D ) to brag, but to prove how much crop you can get from a relatively small amount of space. Two 4x10 beds, though fairly large, is not a huge portion of the yards of most suburban Americans. However, you don't need a space nearly that large to have a well-producing vegetable garden. Anything from a windowsill to a balcony to a pot by a sunny window can be a garden. Which brings us to the first step -

Locations for a Garden

This could be a vegetable garden!
This could be a vegetable garden! | Source

Step 1: Plan your garden

Do you have an acre of rich, brown soil? Or do you have a small apartment balcony with nothing but a couple of dusty spiders? If you're the first, then you're a lucky bastard, but if you don't have even the balcony, don't worry. No matter where you live, there's always a way to fit in an organic garden.

The four major concerns you'll want to keep in mind while planning are 1.) how much space you have, 2.) how much time for maintenance you'll have, 3.) what the climate and soil are like, and 4.) what kind of pests you have in your area. These vary greatly on individual situations, and so I won't go to in depth here. Some brief Internet browsing after you've chosen your plants should completely suffice.

Consider that planting from seed takes much longer than planting young plants from a nursery or Home Depot. Though in many ways I think it's more rewarding (you get to watch them grow and if you have kids, they will too), it can take much more care to maintain. Just something to bear in mind. Also, most plants are tougher than they look on paper (so no worries, your lavender does not need sun lamps), so you have a little flexibility.

Now, let's get back on track and begin with addressing concern #1.


It only takes a corner of a balcony, and the pots can be quite small.
It only takes a corner of a balcony, and the pots can be quite small. | Source

Urban homes, apartments, and other challenging locations

Let's begin with the most challenging - city homes and apartments. Aspiring suburban gardeners usually don't have too much of a problem. I can sum up my recommendation for you right here in this paragraph: build as big of a bed as you can maintain, bearing in mind whether you can/want to hire a gardener and if you can water regularly. Also, the choice of plants is of course important, but let's save that for later. For now, back to the apartments.

Generally, living in a city and/or an apartment means you have less space, or at least less yard. But urban gardens, creatively designed, can be every bit as rewarding as one in the suburbs.

Do you have a balcony or terrace? No matter how large it is, this is a great space for a small garden. Depending on the space available, you could have anything from a few pots to a couple of beds. If the balcony is sunny, even better. The picture on the right is of a potted tomato plant that's growing in my courtyard of a backyard. It's in pretty decent shape; it gave 5 or 6 tasty tomatoes so far (just beginning the harvest season here), which worked nicely as afternoon snacks.

That pot could easily fit on the corner of even a small balcony, though there are plenty of other alternatives that don't even need that. Any windowsill or sunny coffee table can be a small garden - you just need to find the right plants to fit the spot. The problem generally isn't the spot per say, but the wrong plants for that spot. Every situation is different, and I'm sure that your imagination and the Internet can inspire you to some unique solutions that will fit your situation. (That said, feel free to post questions or ideas in the comments section of this hub.) That brings us to the next concern in planning.

Vegetables!

So many choices...
So many choices... | Source
Source

Seeds for the garden

Ferry Morse Large Vegetable Garden, 17 - Piece Set
Ferry Morse Large Vegetable Garden, 17 - Piece Set

This is a lot of seeds, so it's really meant for a large garden. This includes beans, broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupe, carrots, corn, cucumbers, lettuce, okra, onions, peas, peppers, radishes, squash, zucchini, tomatoes and watermelon. A variety!

 

Choosing plants for your garden

While browsing through some garden forums to confirm my understanding of light preferences (You're welcome, readers; only the best for you! :D ), I came across this excellent summary by "mentha" on Gardenweb. In her words:

"Sun = South
Anything you would want to bloom, or is usually a tree or shrub, most cacti, herbs, variegated plants, some orchids, and most flowering tropicals would fall under this class

semi-sun = West
Plants which need more warmth but a little less light, cacti, succulents, vines like hoyas, variegated or colored aroids, & most orchids

Semi-shade = East
Plants like Philodendron or pothos, and other solid green aroids, orchids which like cooler temps

Shade = North
ferns, moss, lichen" - Posted by mentha on Thu, Feb 12, 09 at 14:48 at Gardenweb.

This summary basically sums up all of the info that an urban gardener needs in selecting plants. You have almost complete freedom in soil types, so after selecting your plants, do some research in what soil those plants prefer, get that, and you should be good to go! Of course there's still maintenance to think about, but that comes a little later in this article.

However, if you already have a yard and are planning a rather larger garden, it's your turn to have some challenges. A large bed takes up a good amount of soil. Generally speaking, you want to make use of what you have around. Do some research into whatever plants you want to have; if it's vegetables or fruits, you'll want rich soil with plenty of nutrients, though with some sand and clay texture, which you'll likely have to purchase.

A garden slug eating

These guys will gobble up your garden. Plus, they're creepy.
These guys will gobble up your garden. Plus, they're creepy. | Source

The dirt isn't the only concern, however. Outside, you'll have to keep an eye out for the weather and whatever pests you have in the area. If you live in an area that gets frosty cold in the winter and you don't want to spend too much effort preventing your plants from freezing, don't plant - say - large amounts of blackberries. I won't get too far into any specific details; there's just too many variables depending on your climate and what you like to eat and all of those things.

Just remember, everybody's situation is a little different. Think about how much space you have, how much time for maintenance you have, the climate, and any pests in the area while planning your garden. There are many great gardening books you can look to if you have questions, and the Internet is of course a great source of information.

But don't overthink it while trying to choose the most optimal plants for your space. Plants are pretty hardy, and you can always replace the ones that don't grow very well. A long-term garden requires some patience to get perfect. Plan well and think it through, but don't be afraid to change it up when something is clearly not working or you simply have a better idea.

So many options for pots.

Source
Source

Step 2: Buy materials

Now that you have your plan, you can start leaping into action. If you're trying to figure out which season is best for planting, try this guide. For ease of reading, I will divide this up by type of garden.

Potted garden or urban garden

- Pots and/or windowsill boxes. For pots, the general recommendation is to get terracotta pots because they allow the roots to "breathe". However, those can get a bit pricey and I've seen lively gardens growing out of old plastic bottles, so anything can be sufficient. Just make sure there are drainage holes in the bottom and there's something underneath the pot to catch the extra water.

- Plants. This is a surprising one, I know, but as shocking as it may be, it's a rather important component of a garden. Please refer to Step 1 or post something in the comments if you have any questions.

- Dirt. Like mentioned before, the type you'll want to buy depends on what plants you have, but generally fruiting plants do better in rich soil. This might mean you'll want -

- Fertilizer. It's really not always necessary, but it could be very beneficial to some plants, especially if you are growing something that doesn't naturally grow in your climate.

You likely won't really need any tools (unless you have a lot of pots), but a pair of shears or garden scissors might come in handy when pruning. Besides that, you're basically good to go.

Example of garden bed

For example, this bed constructed of bricks would work nicely.
For example, this bed constructed of bricks would work nicely. | Source

Suburban or yard gardening

- Plants. Enough said.

- Garden beds. This is very much recommended. You can either have someone help you build it, hire someone to build it, or just build it yourself. There is plenty of information available on the Internet for the DIYs out there, but here is a hub on how to build a garden bed from this site, HubPages.

- Dirt/fertilizer. Chances are you'll need a large amount of dirt, so dig a little bit (ha) into finding a good deal. Many stores give you discounts for buying in bulk, and you can also buy online. Again, exactly how much dirt and fertilizer you'll need is based on what plants you have.

- Tools. A large garden will be much easier to maintain if you have a few tools on hand. If you aren't growing from seed, you'll probably want a shovel for planting. For maintenance, you'll likely want shears as well as a watering can or hose.

Potted cauliflower

Source

To structure your garden

Gardman R687 4-Tier Mini Greenhouse, 27" Long x 18" Wide x 63" High
Gardman R687 4-Tier Mini Greenhouse, 27" Long x 18" Wide x 63" High

A small, 4-tiered greenhouse. Around the size of a garage shelf. This is good for gardeners in colder climates; some vegetables will need protection.

 

Step 3: Start the garden

Sure, there's a planting season that's optimal for your plants, and some years are not as good as others to start, and this year you're already trying to learn the guitar, etcetera, etcetera. Of course you should keep those things in mind, but if you want a garden, you have to start sometime. My advice is to think it through a little bit, then just commit and begin!

Assuming you've now bought all of your plants and materials, the next step is to put them all together. It's mostly self-explanatory, so I won't go into too much detail. Mostly it involves simply putting the proper soil into your container, whether that's your garden bed or pot, and sticking the plants into the soil. There's less of an art to that than some seem to think. The only "trick" I'd recommend is loosening the roots of plants beforehand and making sure the hole you dug is deep enough.

However, there are a few tips that I've found really helpful, though they only apply to large container gardens. In order of application, they are:

1.) Move the container where you want it before filling it with dirt. The containers mysteriously grow a lot heavier when you pour pounds of dirt into them.

2.) Put your pot on a plastic tarp when you pour dirt into it. After you heave the pot off afterwards, the tarp can easily be folded into a spout of sorts that neatly pours the extra dirt back into the bag. Much neater than sweeping and trying to remove fertilizer stains.

3.) Buy the right size of plastic dish for your pots. Too big and they look ridiculous. Too small and you get a plastic pancake under your pot.

Hoses and hose accessories

Orbit 58228N 7-Pattern Plastic Turret Pistol Nozzle
Orbit 58228N 7-Pattern Plastic Turret Pistol Nozzle

Last thing I'm going to try and sell to you, I promise. For those who don't know, this is a nozzle for attaching on top of a hose. The reason these are especially helpful for vegetable gardeners is that, first, you can turn it to "jet" and water from a distance, avoiding the possibility of crushing plants with your hose. And second, the "spray" option helps water seeds without blowing them out of the bed.

 

Step 4: Maintain your garden

So now all of your pots are nicely placed, your bags of soil are back in the shed, and your plants are in the dirt. Whew! Congratulations!

Now all you need to do is maintain it. The challenge of this will definitely vary depending on whether you're growing from seeds or from established plants. If you want a complete guide to how to grow from seed, take a look at this article, which has goes into specifics exactly where I don't. The article above also goes into detail about how much and when to water for specific plants, along with some other things.

The best time for watering is generally agreed to be early in the morning, but if that isn't possible the next best thing is late afternoon/early evening. The only problem with the early evening watering is if your area is prone to fungus, in which case it would be better for your plants to get some sun after a watering. Seeds need watering daily, but make sure you don't splash them out with a full power hose! Daily watering is not necessary for a good amount of established plants; again, I recommend the article linked to above if you'd like more info.

Because I live in a sunny area of the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area, there are honestly few things I need to worry about personally besides the occasional banana slug. A few of the tomato plants were caged and staked, but the plants grew so bushy that the cage actually popped off. Ah, well.

Smile!

Best of luck on your gardening!
Best of luck on your gardening! | Source

Starting a garden for beginners

Because of my lack of expertise, I'm going to transfer you to a few other HubPages authors, but you can also find a great deal of information just from search engines. Thanks for reading!

Now please hold.

Press one for staking and trellising. This article is specifically about tomatoes, but it's really applicable for any plants that get heavy with fruit.

Press two for how to deal with wild animals in your garden. (ex. moles, deer, etc.) These tips are pretty handy, though I've found that deer especially can be pretty persistent.

Press three for how to deal with slugs. Ah, slugs. At least yours probably won't be bright yellow. I prefer the methods that repel rather than kill slugs, but I can't deny that the beer trick works. All of the methods in this article are legitimate and won't damage the environment or your garden.

Press four for more info on pot gardening. I know I didn't go into too much detail, but this article does. Give it a shot if you still have concerns about container gardening.

This article was just a brief overview, so if you have any other questions, feel free to contact a representative by posting something in the comments. I'll be sure to get back to you. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you found this article helpful!

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    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 4 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for sharing this useful article and encouragement. I switched from vegetables to flowers.

    • Bob Zermop profile image
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      Bob Zermop 4 years ago from California, USA

      Flowers are great too, even if they aren't as tasty; nothing brightens up my day like seeing a beautiful garden! Thanks for the compliment, and for stopping by.

    • starstream profile image

      Dreamer at heart 4 years ago from Northern California

      What a lovely and lively article you have written here. I love your hints and encouragement to new gardeners. Lately I have been so impressed with the herbs that I may start a small manageable herb garden. Thanks for all the pictures too!

    • Bob Zermop profile image
      Author

      Bob Zermop 4 years ago from California, USA

      Thank you, starstream - best of luck with your own garden plans! It's certainly worth it.

    • Nancy C Moores profile image

      Nancy C Moores 4 years ago

      I love to garden, and have been gardening until the past few months. Just going thru something hahahaaa not sure what, well yes I do know. Anyway you have encouraged me to start back again. I only garden organically, so was very glad you also encouraged this type of gardening.

    • Bob Zermop profile image
      Author

      Bob Zermop 4 years ago from California, USA

      I'm glad I brought it back to your mind. Gardening is really a good hobby, and it's not difficult to get back into it. Best of luck on your new garden!

    • Nancy C Moores profile image

      Nancy C Moores 4 years ago

      Thx so much, I got out today and planted a Blueberry bush and 3 asparagus roots that I had growing in pots, and plan to keep on planting. The best of everything to you too, and keep on keeping those hands dirty as one gardening on tv use to say Rebecca's garden that's who it was. Thx again.

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