Starting A Vegetable Garden

So, you’ve decided to grow a vegetable garden but aren’t sure where to start? Read on to learn more about how to start a vegetable garden.

Starting a Vegetable Garden

First, you must begin the planning stages. Typically, planning is done during the fall or winter months, allowing you plenty of time to figure out what you want and where you want it. You’ll need to learn more about your particular climate and soil conditions. Also, educate yourself on the different types of vegetables and their individual requirements.

Using the non-gardening season to plan will not only help you find useful information, but you can find out whether or not particular plants are worth your time, since some varieties require more maintenance than others. Vegetable guides provide information on specific plants, planting times, depths, and spacing requirements.


Choose a location in an area that will not blot the landscape after growing season has faded. Locate your garden near an ample water source and preferably close to your home. Doing so will help ensure that garden chores don’t go undone. Make sure there is adequate sunlight in an area with good drainage.


Once you have established a site for your vegetable garden, consider its layout. Do you want a small or large garden? Does your location permit room for a plot of rows, small beds, or containers? Sketch it out and begin listing the types of vegetables you want to grow.


Be sure to choose vegetable plants that will accommodate your own family needs; try to resist selecting crops you don’t really like or won’t eat. For those you do enjoy, avoid over planting, unless you plan on preserving them.

Soil prep and planting

Work the soil with compost so that it is rich with organic matter. If you are starting crops from seed indoors, you need to be done well before planting time. Otherwise, sow seeds or set plants in the garden at their appropriate planting times. Your best bet is to start small until you get a feel for what you’re doing.

If you’re planting your vegetable garden in rows, keep the tallest growing plants in such a way that they won’t interfere with the smaller varieties by casting too much shade, usually on the garden’s northern side. Leafy crops and some of the root crops, however, can be planted in areas of shade if necessary.

If you have decided on implementing beds, try a strip of area about 4 feet wide by 8 feet (1-2.5 m.) long. This way you can easily maneuver around it. You could even consider placing this size garden along the side of your home, incorporating flowers and herbs into the garden for additional use and interest. Placing the garden near a fence or trellis can also offer you the opportunity for growing vine crops as well, while taking up less space. With containers, simply group them together with the largest growers in the back and bring the smaller ones to the front.

With whatever design you have chosen, try to group crops according to their rate of maturity. By using this grouping method, you can ensure that your garden will be abundant continually since there will be other crops taking the place of those which have begun to fade or have already died out. When you follow crops, choose unrelated plants to prevent occurrence of pests or diseases. For example, follow beans with beets or peppers.

Upkeep and harvesting

You’ll want to check on your garden frequently, making sure that it has sufficient water and no weeds or other problems. To help cut down on the growth of weeds and help retain moisture, add plenty of mulch to the garden. Checking your garden often will also ensure that crops get picked once matured. Frequent picking helps increase production and extends the harvest season.

Starting a vegetable garden is not that difficult or demanding as long as the proper care and maintenance is provided. There is a great sense of pride in knowing that you have grown your own vegetables that can be shared with family and friends each year; and once they have tasted the sweet, home-grown fruits of your labor, they will be proud as well.

  • Choose a place where the soil is loose, rich, level, and well-drained.
  • Do not choose low areas where water stands or the soil stays wet. Vegetables will not grow in poorly drained areas.
  • Do not plant where weeds do not grow vegetables will not grow well there either.
  • Vegetables need sunlight to grow well. Do not plant where buildings, trees or shrubs will shade the garden. Most vegetables need at least 6 hours of sunlight daily.
  • Do not plant vegetables under the branches of large trees or near shrubs because they rob vegetables of food and water.
  • Plant the garden near a water supply if possible. In many areas a garden can grow without watering, but it is more likely to be successful if it is irrigated. Water is needed especially during long dry periods or when planting seeds.
  • Few people have the perfect garden location, so look for the best spot possible.

Figure 1. A successful garden begins with a good design.

Providing the Right Light and Temperature

Most fruiting vegetables, like tomatoes and peppers, need full sun, meaning at least six hours of direct sunlight each day. But some gardeners might overestimate how much sun an area really gets. For your veggies to thrive, you'll need an accurate assessment. Check the location every 30 minutes throughout the day to confirm how long the sun directly hits the spot where you want to put your vegetable container garden. You can also use a sun calculator to get an accurate assessment.

If you live in a hot climate, you might need to shade your plants during the heat of the afternoon, so they don't overheat. Also, it's best not to use metal or dark-colored containers because they can become very hot and cook your plant's roots.

On the flip side, many vegetables don’t like cold soil. So if you live in a cool climate, avoid putting your containers outside full time until you know the temperature will be reliably warm. For many plants, the soil needs to be at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit. You can use a thermometer to find out the temperature of your soil. In addition, always make sure to harden off your seedlings (gradually acclimate them to the outdoor conditions) before you put them outside permanently.  

Maryland Grows

Leafy greens growing last spring at the Derwood Demo Garden (currently closed). Greens like these can be planted now.

[UPDATE: The situation with Covid-19 is changing rapidly in Maryland. Since this article was published, Maryland Governor Hogan issued a stay-at-home order for Maryland residents, effective March 30, 2020 at 8:00 p.m. This prohibits trips outside the home for non-essential items. We encourage you to follow current state guidance and use home delivery options for supplies.]

In this time of uncertainty, many of us are reaching for a trowel. But if you’re a beginning gardener, or have never grown your own food before, you probably have a lot of questions. Please make your first stop the Home and Garden Information Center – read the vegetable gardening information, and feel free to ask an expert.

You may be thinking about starting a garden because of worries that the food chain will be interrupted. Or because you have children at home, and planting seeds and watching them grow is a great lesson. Or because you need a distraction and some exercise. Whatever the reason, we encourage you to jump right in. But if you’re starting from scratch, here are a few caveats:

  • At this point, there’s no reason to worry that you’ll need to sustain yourself with a Victory Garden, and that’s a good thing, because it is difficult to produce a family’s needs from the garden you can start this year. Consider your home-raised produce a supplement.
  • You will most likely need to spend some money beyond simply buying seeds, unless you’ve already prepared your soil or filled some raised beds and containers.
  • You will probably need to make some trips outside your home, although delivery of materials may also be a possibility.
  • Remember that gardening does require regular maintenance you need to keep up with weeding, watering, and harvesting.

That said, let’s get started. First, as of the date of this blog post, garden centers, nurseries, and big box stores have been declared essential businesses and therefore can still be open in Maryland. However, a few have closed to the public and others may follow, so always call before you visit. This way you also find out about availability of items, changed hours, health protocols, and delivery options. If you live in a different state, please check current regulations.

Many online retailers are doing a booming business in gardening supplies right now. As long as stock doesn’t run out, most of what you need for gardening can be ordered online and delivered to your door, but prices may be higher, particularly for bulky items like soil and compost. Local is better for those materials.

Where to put your garden

Your garden should be sited in the sunniest space available (at least 6 hours a day of full sun) and close to a water source. Container gardens can be grown on a deck, balcony, patio, or any other space. Raised beds can be tucked in close to your house in-ground gardens can be of any size. (More on garden planning here.)

In this region we have lots of animal friends who like to munch on your garden plants. If you don’t have a fence around your property already, you will likely need to fence your garden area. There are lots of fencing options, but if you’re in a hurry a quick fix of stakes and plastic or wire fencing is better than nothing.

Types of gardens

  • Container gardens. Plant pots can be purchased in stores or ordered online. If you decide to reuse buckets or other containers not intended for growing plants, make sure they are very clean and didn’t originally contain toxic materials. Containers need to be large enough for plants to thrive for example, tomatoes need at least a 5-gallon or 14-inch wide pot, and bigger is better. Use a potting mix to fill the containers, not real soil.
  • Raised beds. You can buy pre-made raised beds online for a price. You can also make your own with purchased lumber (pressure-treated is safe) or even with non-toxic materials you may find around your yard, like cinderblocks, stones, or logs. If you have lumber but no construction skills or hardware, place the boards as you want them and drive pieces of rebar into the ground on the outside to hold them in place. Raised beds can be filled with a mix of soil and compost, or (in these challenging times) with just about any bagged mix labeled “garden soil” or “raised bed mix.” (Normally I might be fussy and pedantic about the contents of these mixes, but this is not the moment.)
  • In-ground gardens. Most of us don’t have good soil for growing vegetables without putting in some work. Whether your base is hard clay or loose sand, you will need to add some compost to get started. When starting a garden, put down a few inches of compost and dig or till it in as you grow, continue to add compost on top and let the earthworms and your own planting help it penetrate to where it’s needed. Using mulches such as shredded leaves or straw (not hay, because of the seeds) will help add more organic material to your soil. That said, the first year’s harvest may be limited if your starting soil was very poor. It may be a good idea to begin with raised beds or containers, and prepare an in-ground garden for next year. Grow your soil first! Here is some more information about getting a garden bed ready, especially if you have turf to remove.

Some things you will need to get a garden started besides the above:

  • Seeds. It’s a good idea to plan the year’s garden now and purchase your seeds before they run out, but please pay attention to the calendar and don’t waste seeds by trying to grow heat-loving plants outside when the soil and air are too cold. If you’re interested, you can learn about indoor seed-starting and get your tomatoes and peppers going now. Otherwise you can buy those plants. Some seeds can be started in a garden now, such as lettuce, radishes, kale, and other cool-season plants (but don’t try to grow those when the weather warms up). Seeds can be bought at local stores or online also consider asking on neighborhood email lists if anyone has seeds to trade. Maybe you can start a local gardening group with contact-free front porch exchanges.
  • Plants. Again, you can buy these locally or online (with shipping charges). You may be better off buying plants that would otherwise need to be started from seed indoors, like the above-mentioned tomatoes and peppers, or broccoli, cauliflower, and other cool-season plants that can go into the garden now. Many vegetables can be started directly from seed in the garden and are cheaper that way. Consult our crop profiles to find out about growing any particular plant.
  • Tools. Depending on the type of gardening you’re doing, you may need a shovel, a trowel, some pruners, a watering can, and maybe a hoe. Also, get a couple of pairs of gardening gloves that are washable. Don’t go crazy buying tools until you have settled on your own gardening style. A wheelbarrow or garden cart is great to have for larger gardens, but it’s a big investment. Start small.
  • Mulch. Mulch protects your soil, keeps weeds down, and helps you water less. Leaves, straw, compost, or other organic materials work well. You can also use bagged shredded mulch just make sure it is not forming a solid mass that water can’t penetrate. Looser wood chips work better for wider areas, and you can sometimes get these free (if only in large quantities) from tree services. If you are preparing a garden for next year, consider signing up for ChipDrop and requesting enough chips to cover a large area thickly they will decay in place and form great soil. (In that case, you will definitely need a wheelbarrow.)
  • Fertilizer. It’s good to have a basic all-purpose fertilizer on hand to deal with nutrient deficiencies in your crops. Use according to directions, please – more is not better!

  • Soil testing. We normally recommend testing your soil before you start, but this may be challenging this spring as many labs have shut down. If there is any chance that your soil contains toxic chemicals, please use containers and raised beds for your food gardening until your soil can be tested.
  • Compost quality. Please do not use manures that haven’t been fully composted (and never use dog, cat, or human waste on gardens). If you have your own compost pile, make sure composting is finished before spreading. The compost should be crumbly and fresh-smelling, and have no recognizable bits of its original components. You may be able to get deliveries of compost or soil mixed with compost from garden centers, or purchase in bags.
  • Pest control. Prepare for this you can read about various pests on the HGIC website and learn about floating row cover. First-time gardeners often have “beginner’s luck” when it comes to insect pests – they just haven’t found you yet! – but it’s good to be ready.
  • Flowers. It’s great to plant some flowers in your vegetable garden! Flowers help bring in pollinators and other beneficial insects. Plus they cheer us up with their bright colors. Also plant some herbs to make your meals more interesting, and let them go to flower – bees love those too.

We’ll have more posts in coming weeks to help you on your gardening journey! Stay well and safe, friends.

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener

5 Things to Know Before You Plant Your First Garden, According to Homegrown's Jamila Norman

The veteran gardener's new show premieres this summer on Chip and Joanna Gaines's forthcoming Magnolia Network

Edible backyard gardens started sprouting across the country in 2020 as COVID-19 kept people at home and on the hunt for new (and healthy) hobbies. Jamila Norman, the founder of Patchwork City Farms in Atlanta saw it first hand.

"Interest has gone through the roof. People who were like, 'I've always wanted to have a garden, but I just never had time,' well, now they're home with nothing but time," she says. "The local food movement and growing your own food, it's been building, but the pandemic really put a big spotlight on it."

Of course, not every aspiring grower has a green thumb, and that's where Norman steps in. On her Magnolia Network show Homegrown (stream the premiere on Discovery+ now and watch the full series this summer), the veteran farmer helps families create thriving vegetable gardens in their suburban backyards.

"People try and they're like, 'Oh, it's not really growing that well.' I'm like, 'Well, first, you probably should have put it in the sun,'" she says with a laugh. "The enthusiasm is always there, they've got some skin in the game, you've just got to make a few tweaks."

Here are four of Norman's best tips for first-time growers:

The Quick Start Guide to Home Vegetable Gardening

Florida's summer temperatures can be too hot even for many warm season veggies, like eggplant, peppers, and cucumbers. Check your region's gardening calendar for optimal planting dates! UF/IFAS

Starting a vegetable garden is exciting! It is also a significant investment of time, energy, and resources. The intent of this guide is to guide you all the way from planning to harvest. Your garden should reflect your goals, resources, and values. Because these are different for each person, each home garden will be different.

Whatever your goals are, this quick-start guide can help you achieve them. You can follow the steps below to reason through the choices you'll need to make before you start. By walking through the process in advance you can avoid some gardening problems altogether.

Ask yourself the questions at each step to help you plan. Follow the links for more information. (Links that take you to websites besides Gardening Solutions will open in a new window.)

Step 1: Determine your goals for your garden

Starting with a clear goal in mind. This will keep your gardening a labor of love rather than a burden. What are you hoping your garden will provide? Is it fresh produce and food security? Savings on your grocery bill? A learning experience, or maybe entertainment? Consider your reasons and then move on to the questions below.

  • Will you feed yourself and/or family? Check your local laws and policies before you begin a garden.
  • Are you hoping to grow some young gardeners, too? Consider garden activities for children.
  • Will you feed others? And make a profit? Businesses should consult the Florida Direct Marketing Guide, from the UF/IFAS Bookstore.

Step 2: Consider your resources and limiting factors

There is a way to garden in every space, but not all methods are appropriate for all spaces. A successful garden is one that takes your resources and limitations into account.

Small container gardens can be productive and beautiful for growing some of your own food. UF/IFAS

  • How much experience do you have? If you're new to gardening, you may want to start small. Consider beginning with square foot gardening.
  • How much time are you able to spend on this project? Consider:
    • Purchasing materials and plants
    • Building and filling the garden beds
    • Frequent watering, weeding, and pest control
  • How much space do you have? Here are some ideas for choosing a site and for gardening with limited space.
    • Does that space receive enough light? Most vegetables require 8+ hours of direct sunlight per day.
    • Does it get good airflow? If not, fungal disease issues could arise.
    • Does it have easy access to a water source, drainage, and power?
  • What nutrients are already in your soil? Do you plan to add soil?
    • Here is some information on working with Florida's soils
    • The UF/IFAS Analytical Services Laboratories can help you test your soil (pdf) and determine which nutrients, if any, are lacking.
  • How much money are you able to spend on this project? Set a budget and consider:
    • Soil and fertilizer
    • Tools and building materials
    • Seed and transplants

Step 3: Choose the type of garden best fits those resources and limitations

Passive hydroponic systems can be easy, affordable, and productive for growing greens in containers ranging from buckets to baby pools.

Begin by looking over the different types of gardens. Embrace your limitations! You can be successful with what you have to offer your garden.

  • Are you apartment bound? Micro greens, tabletop hydroponic systems, or growing with artificial lights can be successful.
  • Are you short on time? Research irrigation options, including self-watering and automated growing systems. You can also install micro irrigation on a timer.
  • Are you on a tight budget? Check out these tips for planting a moneywise vegetable garden.

Step 4: Make a list of what you would like to grow

Get started with this list of vegetables for Florida gardens. Then narrow down your list by asking yourself the following questions.

  • What vegetables do you already eat and enjoy? Read our article, Growing Your Groceries for tips on choosing what to plant.
  • What month will you start your garden? Which vegetables can be planted that month? Check the Florida garden map to find your region. Then check your region's gardening calendar:
    • North Florida Gardening Calendar
    • Central Florida Gardening Calendar
    • South Florida Gardening Calendar
    • Here are some edibles you can plant right now

Step 5: Research the crops left on your list

Most information should be available on the vegetables for Florida list. If you still have questions, you can go into detail by searching your crops on the UF/IFAS Electronic Data Information Source (EDIS).

  • What pest and disease issues are likely to occur? Consider choosing resistant cultivars. There's a list of suggested varieties in the Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide.
  • What are the plant's nutrient requirements? Learn about fertilizers, when and how to fertilize, and about adding organic soil amendments.
  • What zone is the cultivar recommended for? Reference the USDA Hardiness Zone Map to know your zone.

Step 6: Choose crops that fit your goals, resources, and type of garden

Consult with your county Extension Agent if you need help choosing your final crops and cultivars. They, and the Master Gardener Volunteers, are experts in gardening in your area.

Step 7: Design, plant, and maintain your garden

Here are some tips for laying out your vegetable garden, even in a small space.

Beneficial insects may help you control pests. Identification is key for knowing good bugs from bad bugs.

  • Learn when to water
  • Learn when to mulch
  • Learn how to stay safe in the heat
  • Learn how to practice Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
    • Do you practice proper sanitation? Learn how to sanitize your garden tools and prevent the spread of disease.
    • Can you tell the good bugs from the bad bugs? This website can help you identify pests.
    • What will you do when you find a pest? Learn more about pesticides. Use beneficial insects and natural products when possible.

Step 8: Enjoy your harvest!

After all that hard work, the harvest is a welcome finish line. It's time to prepare delicious meals, and preserve your crops to enjoy throughout the year. But what will you do post-harvest to ensure food safety?

Growing your own food is empowering and exciting. It may even provide a sense of security. Of course, gardening is challenging at times, and a harvest is never guaranteed. The best gardeners are probably those that have killed the most plants, but learned from it. Those gardeners embrace the lessons their gardens teach them season after season. Green thumbs are earned.

And remember, if vegetable gardening is just not your thing, that's okay. You can still support Florida agriculture by purchasing and requesting Florida-grown produce. Florida's farmers are working hard to feed your family. Check produce labels at the grocery store, go to the farmers market, venture out to local farms, and buy "Fresh From Florida!"

Sustainable Home Food Production Series

With renewed interest in growing produce at home, we've developed a series of articles, "Sustainable Home Food Production," to get you started.

Watch the video: Small Balcony Garden: Vegetables you must grow

Previous Article

Can You Compost Rhubarb Leaves – How To Compost Rhubarb Leaves

Next Article

Polyanthus rose: a fragrant haze of flower scattering in your garden