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Planning and Planting a Vegetable Garden

One of the great joys of gardening is eating vegetables straight from your garden. This article will walk you through the basic steps of cultivating a vegetable garden.

planting a vegetable garden

Planning a Vegetable Garden

Planning is an essential task for vegetable gardeners. The first step is to choose the location of your garden and the vegetables you wish to grow. Keep these things in mind:

  • You'll want to center your garden in a place that receives at least six hours of direct sunlight a day.
  • If you're planning during winter, visualize your garden during the growing season when any nearby trees have leafed out.
  • Your garden spot needs to be near a water source to provide irrigation when natural rainfall is limited.
  • A gentle slope is good for drainage and sun exposure; steeper slopes will need terracing to prevent erosion.

The next decision is deciding if you want to grow your vegetables in traditional rows or raised beds. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages.

Garden rows require less preparation. All you have to do is till, add soil amendments, fertilize, till some more and then plant your veggies. The main disadvantage is that rows require more space to maintain and manage.  Be sure to leave enough room to walk through the rows of mature plants without having to step on any plants.

Raised beds are easier to access and require less bending when planting and picking. Raised beds also provide higher quality soil control. The main disadvantage is that raised beds need to be built, which takes time and money. Plus, compact space isn't always best for spreading vegetables.

If space is limited, you can still enjoy a vegetable garden in containers. Tomatoes, peppers, carrots, radishes, leaf lettuce and other greens can flourish anywhere. The trick is to selecting a planter big enough to accommodate a mature plant.

After you’ve selected your garden layout, it’s time to test your soil. A soil test tells you which soil amendments and nutrients you need. Fall is traditionally the best time to test the soil but you can conduct this test all year.

There are two ways to test your soil. The first is to purchase a soil testing kit. The second option is to buy a soil sample pouch and send the results to a local laboratory. When choosing soil samples, pick soil from different sections of your garden. The samples you test will tell you which fertilizer to use.

Many newbies to gardening choose not to test their soil and that is fine. However, understanding what your soil needs will make for a more plentiful harvest. 

The next step is reviewing your region’s last spring frost and first fall frost. These frost dates dates help you decide when you should plant. As a rule, you’ll want to plant after the last spring frost and harvest before the first fall frost.

The final step in the planning phase is figuring out which vegetables and herbs you’d like to plant. This is a matter of personal preference. However, some vegetables are easier than others to grow. Cucumbers, green beans, tomatoes and summer squash are among the easiest to grow. Besides skill level, when choosing vegetables, there are other factors to keep in mind and many are dependent on your region.

Things to consider:

  • How long is your growing season? 
  • Do you have space indoors to start seeds?
  • Do you plan on growing a lot of vegetables?
  • Would you rather start with seedlings or use transplants?
  • Once you’ve figured out these answers, it’s time to begin preparation.

Preparing Your Vegetable Garden

raised bed vegetable garden

Prepping your soil ensures your garden is fruitful. And the best time to start is in the fall before planting in spring. Tilling and turning the soil is crucial to the growing process. Many gardeners purchase a tiller or a cultivator to assist in the process.

Before you begin, you must wait for the soil to be dry and warm. If the soil doesn’t adhere to these conditions, you could cause more harm than good.

If you aren’t sure if the soil is dry enough, here’s an easy test: Pick up a hand full of soil and squeeze into a ball. Then poke the soil. If it falls apart, the soil is dry enough. If it stays together, the ground should not be tilled.

Testing for soil warmth is also easy. If you have a thermometer, measure the soil temperature. If it’s 60 degrees Fahrenheit, you can begin tilling and planting. If you don’t have a thermometer, stick your finger into the soil. If you’re unable to keep your fingers in the soil for a full minute, then the soil is not warm enough.

While moist soil is a plus, soil that holds excess moisture is a problem. To solve this, raise the beds 3-4-ft wide by mounding the soil and flattening the top for planting.

Drip irrigation can be added to either row or raised bed garden. Raised beds tend to be more compact and efficient for a drip system.

The next step is choosing your vegetable garden fertilizer. Fertilizing enriches the soil and creates healthier vegetables that are more resistant to diseases.

Depending on your preference, you can choose organic or inorganic fertilizer. While they contain the same nutrients, their composition is different. Organic fertilizers are made from plants and animals. The nutrients are a bit heartier and require more time to break down before they become edible. Therefore, fertilizers aren’t an instant solution to nutrient-deprived soil.

Manures are considered organic fertilizers too. They are bulkier but contain fewer nutrients than other natural fertilizers. Often, gardeners choose manure because it improves the texture of the soil by raising the level of organic matter.

Inorganic fertilizers, also known as chemical fertilizers, contain a mix of nitrogen, phosphorous and potash (potassium) expressed as a ratio of 10-10-10 or 20-20-20. The levels of ingredients vary depending on the brand but it’s important to choose one with all three major nutrients in somewhat even proportions. 

Since there are several types, it’s best to read the label to ensure the fertilizer is suitable for your vegetable garden. Inorganic fertilizers usually show progress within 1-2 weeks of usage. Additionally, they are inexpensive and readily available.

Planting Vegetables

Lowe's garden center always stocks in-season plants, which make it easier to figure out which vegetable is appropriate for planting. To find out how to care for your plant, look to the tag or the seed package for information. The details you need to know include spacing (mature size, shading), succession planting, growing quantity and water requirements.

For most gardens, quicker growing plants are generally grown from seed sown directly in the garden. Lettuce, beans, carrots, squash, peas, radishes and cucumbers are the most common of this group. The most common transplanted vegetables are cabbage, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, onions and basil.

When planting, it is suggested that you put taller plants at the north or east end of your garden to ensure they don’t shade smaller plants.

When planting your vegetables, it’s also important to know which vegetables to place side by side. Some vegetables flourish well next to others. Some don't. Researching vegetable companions will ensure a fruitful crop. 

Picking Vegetables

One of the reasons people grow vegetable gardens is to enjoy the fresh-picked flavor. Most often the packet or the plant tag will tell you the harvest cycle. These are only estimates and may vary depending on your garden and the weather.

One of the disadvantages of home gardens is that often a crop will come in all at once and you’ll have too much to consume. Canning, drying or freezing are smart ways to deal with a surplus. Believe it or not, there’s an art to picking vegetables.

To ensure you don’t injure the plant, twist, cut or snap the vegetable off. Pull root vegetables carefully to avoid disturbing those that may still be maturing. Picking your vegetables also provides an opportunity for you to observe and react to possible problems in your garden.

On a daily basis, you should check for pests, pick ripe plants and make sure water levels are sufficient. Many serious gardeners keep a journal of all the activity in their garden to find improvements from season to season.

Controlling Garden Pests

One of the perils of the home garden is that the animal kingdom finds your crop just as irresistible as you. Fencing can keep out some mammals such as deer, rabbits and groundhogs – if the proper fence is installed.

Insects are a little trickier. To your advantage, many insects are actually beneficial to your garden. But harmful insects can quickly spoil a crop. The best way to counter an infestation is to figure out what type of insect inhabits your lawn and research the best remedy. As with fertilizers, pesticides come in both organic and inorganic formulas.