Planting tomatoes, carrots, or cukes for the first time? Follow these tips for planning, preparing, planting, and maintaining a successful garden.
With thanks to Faith Salmon & BHG.
Vegetable gardening at home is a great way to save money while you get up close and personal with nature. For example, even just one plant can be super affordable (think $3 to $5) and provide up to 5kg of tomatoes over the season (which can easily run you $20 or more). Growing tomatoes and other favourite vegetables or herbs from seeds can save you even more money. You’ll also find that the flavour and texture of garden-grown produce is even better than what you're used to finding at the grocery store. Plus tending your vegetable garden counts as exercise! Dig into these tips and tricks to grow the best vegetable garden.
Start With a Small GardenIf you’re a beginner, start small. It’s better to be thrilled by what you produce in a small garden than be frustrated by the time commitment a big one requires. Plus, it makes sense to learn gardening basics before investing tons of time and money in this new hobby. You’ll get a feeling for how much time gardening takes. You’ll find out if you like spending time outside planting, watering, and weeding. You’ll learn how much produce you and your family can eat over the course of a season.
A good size for a beginner’s vegetable garden is 2.5m x 2.5m, about the size of a small bedroom. Keep it simple. Select up to five types of vegetables to grow, and plant a few of each type. You’ll get plenty of fresh produce for your meals, and it will be easy to keep up with the chores. If that size seems intimidating, you can go smaller (the veggies won’t mind) or consider growing vegetables in containers, pots or a dedicated ready-made system like the Vegepod. With them you don't even need a yard; a sunny deck or balcony work fine.
Grow What You LoveWhat do you like to eat? Your answer will tell you what you should plant in your vegetable garden. Before you pick up your shovel, though, consider the following:
ProductivityThink about how much you and your family will eat and how likely you are to freeze, can, or give away excess produce. Then be realistic about how many seeds or plants you need to put into the ground. (Many beginners make the mistake of planting too much.) Vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, and squash keep providing throughout the season, so you may not need many plants to serve your needs. Other vegetables, such as carrots, radishes, and corn, can be harvested only once and then would need to be replanted.
Successive CropsPlanting both cool and warm-weather vegetables will give you a harvest of vegetables and herbs continuously through the spring, summer, and autumn. In early spring, grow lettuce, greens (such as rocket), peas, radishes, carrots, and broccoli. After you’ve harvested your cool-weather crops, plant hot-weather favorites, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and herbs. In autumn, you can harvest potatoes, cabbage, and kale.
How to Choose a Spot for Your GardenChoose your growing site thoughtfully. If you plant your garden at the back of the yard, make sure you're willing to trek out every day or so to check for droopy plants that need water, destructive pests, and produce that’s ready to pick. If you can locate your vegetable garden closer to the house, this will make it easier to harvest fresh produce or pick a handful of herbs while cooking in the kitchen or outside on the BBQ.
Don't forget to consider the movement of the sun during the course of the day. Orient your garden from north to south to get maximum sun exposure; when plants are positioned from east to west they tend to shade each other too much. No matter where you put your garden or what you decide to plant, there are three basic requirements for success: sun, water, and soil.
Plan the Right Amount of SunLike all plants, vegetables need the sun to kick-start photosynthesis. This process transforms light energy into glucose, which plants use to make substances such as cellulose (for building cell walls) and starch (a food source). The fastest-growing vegetables need full sun (at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight a day) without blockage from trees, shrubs, or fences. That’s why you won’t have much success if you plant sun-loving vegetables in shady spaces.
If your yard provides partial shade, plant vegetables and herbs that tolerate those conditions (lettuce, kale, chard, spinach, chives, coriander, parsley, and thyme). Root vegetables like carrots, radishes, and beets might also work if your site gets at least 4 hours of direct sunlight a day. Or if you have a sunny patio, switch to container gardening. That way you can place sun-loving vegetables and herbs (tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, peppers, peas, beans, corn, and squash; basil, dill, and rosemary) where they’ll do well.
Provide Plenty of WaterWatering wisely is key to garden success, especially in warm, dry regions. During the first few weeks after seeds germinate or seedlings are transplanted, frequent watering keeps plants strong. Once your plants are established, it's a better idea to give your garden a long drink every few days rather than a little sprinkle every day. Then the water will move deeper into the soil, which encourages roots to grow deeper, where they’re better protected and better able to access nutrients they need to stay healthy.
Factor in your weather conditions and the composition of your soil to determine when you should water. Clay soil dries out more slowly than sandy soil. Sunny, windy conditions dry out soil more quickly than cool, cloudy weather. Still not sure? Feel the soil 3 to 4 inches down from the garden or container surface. If it feels dry, it’s time to water. It's important to do this even on rainy days, because sometimes rain water will run off rather than soak in to the soil, which does nothing for your garden.
Start Plants in Rich SoilFor the best harvest, your vegetable garden needs the best soil you can give it. Rich, healthy soil is something you know when you feel it: It’s easy to dig and drains well.
If it’s not clear which type of soil you have, you can work with a local garden centre (such as The Garden Shed Nursery) to engage with a soil-testing lab for help. But you can also investigate soil type yourself by examining its texture. Pick up a trowel's worth and put it in your hands. Does it feel gritty? Too much sand. Is it powdery? Too much silt. Is it sticky when wet? Too much clay. The combination of these three types, and in which specific proportions, determines the texture of your garden soil. That texture affects drainage and the availability of nutrients.
You want soil that is dark, crumbly, and literally full of life. Fortunately, no matter what the texture may be, all soil can be improved over time by incorporating organic matter into it. Take sandy soils, for instance. They're made up of large soil particles, so water and nutrients run through gaps relatively quickly. Adding organic matter (typically compost) to sandy soil helps fill in the spaces between sand particles, which helps retain both moisture and nutrients for plants to use.
Clay soils are just the opposite. They contain very small, densely packed particles that hold moisture but don't allow much air space for plant roots. Compost helps separate those tiny clay particles so water can drain more freely and plant roots can get needed oxygen.
To prepare your soil for planting, spread any needed amendments like compost and work them into the soil with a tiller or spade. Avoid stepping on freshly tilled soil or you’ll compact it and undo all your hard work. Then rake the surface smooth and water thoroughly. Allow the bed to rest several days before you plant so the soil amendments can do their work.
Planning Your Vegetable Garden LayoutChoose either row cropping or intensive cropping (there are benefits to each!) when you plan your vegetable garden’s layout.
Row CroppingPlace plants single file in rows at least 18 inches apart so you can walk easily between them. This approach makes the most sense for large vegetable gardens because rows make it easier to use mechanical equipment, such as tillers, to battle weeds. The downside is that space set aside for footpaths cuts down on the number of vegetables you can plant.
Intensive CroppingBoost your garden’s productivity with intensive cropping, which means that you space two or three plants close together in a bed about 4 feet wide (aka a wide row). Seeds are sown or transplants are placed so that their leaves will barely touch at maturity. This approach, which uses almost every square inch of the prepared soil, works well for most types of vegetables, excluding the ones that vine (such as cucumbers). The downside of this method is that you have to weed by hand because the plants grow so close together.
The square-foot method, in which you subdivide a raised 4x4-foot garden bed into 1-foot squares using a physical grid (such as lattice strips), is a specialised version of intensive cropping. You’ll need 8 cubic feet of top-quality garden soil to fill such a bed with 6-inch-high sides. The planting formula is simple: 1 extra-large plant per 1x1-foot square; 4 large plants per square; 9 medium plants per square; and 16 small plants per square. Mix and match at will.
Testing and Fixing Your SoilWithout ideal soil conditions, your vegetables will suffer. Before you start planting, it's best to test your soil. No soil-testing kit on hand? You can manually test your soil in three easy steps:
1. Soak Soil and DigSoak the soil with a hose, wait a day, then dig up a handful of soil to test.
2. Squeeze the Soil HardIf water streams out, you'll probably want to add compost or organic matter to improve the drainage. Testing the soil temperature will also help in determining drainage.
3. Open Your HandIf the soil hasn't formed a ball or falls apart at the slightest touch, the soil too sandy. Add organic matter to improve sandy soil. If the ball breaks into crumbs when you poke it, like a chocolate cake, your soil is in ideal condition. If your soil doesn't drain well, your best bet will probably be to install raised beds as opposed to sunken beds.
Choosing Vegetable VarietiesWhen selecting which vegetables you want to plant, pay close attention to the description on the seed packet, tag, or label. Each variety of vegetable comes with specific benefits. Some produce smaller plants ideal for containers or small gardens. Other varieties offer better disease resistance, improved yields, or better heat or cold tolerance. Start by choosing veggies you like to eat, then look into their sizes and care needs.
You may want to try two or three varieties of the same vegetable. If one variety doesn't perform well, you'll have other varieties of the same vegetable to make up for it. Then be sure to plant the best-performing vegetables the following year, and choose other varieties to try.
Seeds vs. TransplantsDecide whether you want to start vegetables from seed or purchase young plants from a nursery. If you’ve decided on seeds (e.g., peas, beans, squash, lettuce, mesclun mix, beets, or radishes), note that most annual vegetables should be started indoors about six weeks before the last frost in your region. Some plants (such as carrots, beans, and peas) can be sown directly into the garden. Check the seed packages for specific directions.
You might prefer to buy seedlings from a nursery or garden centre and transplant them into the garden. This method works best for slow-growing plants such as broccoli, celery, and kale. Note that transplants will mature sooner and give you an earlier harvest than starting plants from seed. Because they’re stronger when put in the garden, transplants also do a better job of resisting pests during the growing season.
Caring for Your Vegetable GardenAfter putting all that effort into planning, preparation, and planting, it would be a shame to let the garden wither away over the course of the growing season. Follow these steps to keep your garden going strong.
Stop Weeds in Their TracksWeeds compete with your vegetables for light, water, and nutrients, so it's important to keep them to a minimum. Use a hoe or hand fork to lightly stir, or cultivate, the top inch of soil regularly to discourage weed seedlings. A mulch of clean straw, compost, or plastic can keep weeds at bay around larger plants like tomatoes.
Feed Your Future FoodFertilising your vegetables helps to maximise yields. Organic gardeners often find that adding high-quality compost at planting time is all their vegetables need, but you can supplement with a high quality liquid fish fertiliser as well.
Resist Pests and DiseasesSome problems require special solutions, but in general, follow these guidelines for keeping pests away from your veggies.
Keep Animals OutBig pests, such as possums and rabbits, can disrupt vegetable gardens of all types. Possums are tricky given their capacity to climb but a fence needs to extend 6 inches beneath the soil to stop rabbits from digging their way in.
Deter Destructive InsectsPicking off large insects and caterpillars by hand (and dropping them into a bucket of sudsy water) is a safe, effective way to deal with limited infestations. For bigger quantities of insects, try a natural and chemical free solution such as a Neem oil concentrate that you can find at most nurseries.
Fight Fungal DiseasesReduce the likelihood of fungal diseases by watering the soil, not the leaves of the plants. If you use a sprinkler, do it early in the day so the leaves will dry by nightfall. If a plant falls prey to a disease, promptly pull it and throw it in the trash; don't add sick plants to your compost pile.
Additional disease preventatives include growing vegetable varieties listed as disease-resistant and changing the location of your plants each year. The latter idea helps stop diseases from gaining a permanent foothold in your garden.
Harvesting VegetablesHarvesting your vegetables is what gardening is all about. Many vegetables can be harvested at multiple times during the growing season. Leaf lettuce, for example, will continue to grow and produce after you snip some of the tender, young leaves. Summer squash (zucchini) and cucumber can be harvested when the fruit is a few inches long or larger.
The general rule: If it looks good enough to eat, it probably is! With many vegetables, the more you pick, the more the plant will produce.