If you’ve never grown a vegetable garden before or if you’ve only dabbled with the occasional potted veggie plants, fully committing can be an intimidating prospect. So, let me put your mind at ease. Everything will be OK. If you plan a little and set aside a bit of time for regular maintenance, you will succeed in your garden. You’ll probably hit a few speed bumps the first year, but you’ll learn a lot, and you will have the satisfaction of eating your own vegetables.
The three essential factors for a successful vegetable garden are sun, water, and protection, but here are a few other helpful tips for getting started:
1. Like all good things, it starts with a healthy foundation.
Nutrient-rich soil is key for growing healthy vegetables. If you’re filling empty raised beds, it’s worth buying good planting soil from your local garden shop so you have a weed-free starting point. (Plus, it’s great to make friends and support your local shop – they will have expert tips for growing in your area.) If you are turning an existing bed into a vegetable garden, you may want to work-in a bag or two of soil conditioner. Or, to save money a great way to renew nutrients is by burying your leaves. In the fall, mow over your fallen leaves, then bury them 6-8” down in your bed, or layer them over the top then work them down by doing multiple passes with a tiller before the ground freezes.
2. In the battle against pests, take the high ground and fortify your borders.
Do you think bunnies are adorable fuzzy neighbors? When you see a deer in the yard do Disney-esque memories start playing in your head to a cheerful tune? Just wait till you start your vegetable garden, you may develop a new perspective on these agile, hungry nemeses. Raised beds/boxes are a great option for beginner and seasoned gardeners – fewer opportunities for weeds, natural protective border (though I still recommend chicken wire above this if you have bunnies or deer), less back pain, and control over possible soil contaminants.
3. Know your bugs.
When it comes to vegetables, there are good bugs, and there are bad bugs. For some of the best bugs see tip #7 – because we need BEES. For the bad bugs, enter aphids, AKA “gardeners arch nemesis #1” and slugs, or “Ugs” as my toddler calls them. Unfortunately, both these bugs are common just about everywhere in the U.S. Let’s begin with slugs. The way my mom taught me to deal with these pests is to put a small saucer or tuna can in the garden and fill it with beer. The slugs climb in and drown themselves in a drunken stupor. It might sound crazy, but I swear it works – and it doesn’t need to be the good stuff, you can use your cheap beer. Also see tip #4 for another way to deal with slugs – *hint* it’s snakes. Getting rid of aphids can be fun too. When I moved to Colorado, I learned it’s common practice to buy ladybugs and release them into your garden in late spring and they will take care of the aphids for you. You can order small buckets of these beneficial beetles online or pick them up at your local garden shop, then store them in your fridge until you’re ready to release them (try not to think too hard about a couple thousand bugs escaping in your fridge…they basically don’t move in the cold). Then just before nightfall, water your garden well and sprinkle the ladybugs throughout. With a nice damp environment and local aphids to feast on, the ladybugs will settle in and make your garden their home.
4. Embrace the slithery.
Unless snakes are truly the things your nightmares are made of, there is no downside to good ole garters in your garden. Yes, the beady eyes and slithering startle me every time, but these effective little hunters will decimate many of those problematic bugs listed above. And despite encouraging my husband to pick the little guy in this photo up to show our son, I don’t recommend picking them up in general – they emit a horrendous odor on your hands, and frankly you want them to continue living unbothered in your garden.
5. Mother knows best.
For the Middle and Northern U.S., Mother’s Day marks the time when you are generally safe from snow and frost to plant your garden.
6. Set yourself up for success with hardy growers.
For your first go, I highly recommend choosing vegetables that are easier to grow and maybe throw in one of the more difficult ones to play around with while you get your feet wet. These are the ones I suggest before you move on to the more finicky species: tomatoes, zucchini and squash, cucumbers, peas, and potatoes.
7. There’s no shame in starting with starts.
Sure, growing plants from seed is a great feeling of accomplishment, but it also requires more advanced planning and patience than picking up healthy starts from a local shop. If patience and pre-planning aren’t your thing, or if you feel more confident in picking up starts, go for it! This is often the most popular route anyways, especially for tomatoes.
8. Expect big things.
Remember that your little seedlings or starts have months more growing to do. Place your stakes and tomato cages at the same time you plant so as not to damage roots or branches later when the plants are larger. Support heavy branches with Gear Tie Reusable Foam Twist Ties and prune off over abundant growth if needed. Zucchini plants will be enormous and cucumbers and other vine vegetables will take up most of your garden space if you let them, so I recommend placing a trellis for them to grow up rather than out – this also helps keep the slugs off them.
9. Don’t forget the flowers.
A common problem in vegetable gardens is poor pollination – if your plant doesn’t have cross pollination, it won’t fruit. Bees are the answer (wind can help too). One of the best ways to attract them throughout the growing season is by having flowers near your vegetable garden to bring them round. Most flowers will attract bees, but if you want specific suggestions for the best, check out this article by the Honeybee Conservancy: “21 Flowers That Attract Bees”.
10. Herbs for the win.
I love having a kitchen garden on our back deck where I can easily pick fresh herbs for our meals. Mine is separate from the vegetables, but there are many benefits to planting herbs in with your veggies, a practice called companion planting. For detailed info on companion planting with herbs, check out this article by the Gardening Channel: “Herbs that Pair Perfectly as Growing Partners”. Many herbs help to repel unwanted insects and even rodents, while the flowering ones tend to be great bee-attractors. You don’t want the ones you cook with to flower though (pick off they buds when they start) as it negatively affects the taste. So, if you have the space, plant twice as many as needed and let half go to seed for the bees while keeping the others pruned for eating. If you are looking forward to fresh mint for your mojitos, plant it in a pot – it’s invasive and while it smells delightful, it will take over everything if planted in the garden! And, if you’re not much of a cook, you can plant a cocktail garden instead, because of course that’s a thing now: “Grow a Cocktail Garden”.
Those are my tips for getting your vegetable garden started. I hope you’ve learned something new and are feeling excited and confident about planting. Please feel free to leave your own tips in the comments below for the community.