Backyard landscaping next to a patio with a wooden bench

A vegetable garden is more than just a source of freshly picked salad ingredients, it’s also a great way to get outdoors and learn more about the work it takes to produce your own food. Here’s a quick guide to starting a vegetable garden the right way for reliable harvests and minimal headaches.

Picking the Right Location

Start with a sunny spot that receives at least six to eight hours of sunlight a day. Most of the vegetables you’ll want to grow will need that much sun to flower and fruit. Good drainage is also a must-have. Areas where the soil is covered with standing water for more than 15 minutes after rain storms end make poor spots for vegetable gardening. You want the soil to have good drainage to avoid pooling water, which leads to the rotting of roots of most vegetables and fruit plants. Rotten roots kill plants, so either look for naturally well-drained soil or try raised beds – building raised rows with lowered paths between them encourages drainage away from plant roots during heavy rainstorms.

Avoid rocky soil as well whenever possible. If you have rocky soil, you may have to till and then work to remove the rocks with a hard-toothed rake. Having too many rocks mixed in with the soil will interfere with root growth, especially in root crops like turnips or radishes.

Look for an area protected from wind as well. Strong and direct winds will knock over your plants and keep pollinators, such as butterflies and bees, from doing their job, resulting in lower yields. It is also important to keep your vegetable garden away from areas that receive a lot of foot traffic. Trampled plants won’t be able to grow successfully, even if they’re just trampled by pets.

Use professional soil testing to ensure you have fertile soil ready to support the demands of vegetables. The soil feeds your plants, so soil that has low nutrient content will lead to stunted plants that rarely flower or fruit. Soil testing also determines if you have high levels of salt or other contaminants that could interfere with your gardening efforts. Mix in organic matter like compost to promote healthy plant growth.

Choosing the Right Plot Size

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by a garden plot that is too big. Even if your plants do well, you may find yourself wasting the produce. Start with a 10′ by 10′ space if you’re a beginner. 100 square feet will still produce enough for a single person to eat almost daily during the summer or a weekly salad for a larger family. Pick just three to five of your favorite vegetables, then buy between three and five plants of each of them. Spread the plants out so there are at least two to three feet between them for easy access for weeding. Try raised beds of 4′ by 4′ or 4′ by 8′ to ensure you can easily reach the center while having enough space for double rows of plants.

Choosing the Right Vegetables

Start with easy vegetables and work your way up to the harder ones as your skills grow. Get a tasty harvest with less struggle by starting out with:

  • Lettuce
  • Green beans, especially bush varieties
  • Radishes
  • Tomatoes, with cherry varieties being the easiest to grow
  • Zucchini and yellow summer squash
  • Peppers
  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Spinach
  • Tender greens like mustards and kale
  • Peas

Don’t forget about adding some color to the garden as well. Look for non-invasive flowers like marigolds, zinnias, and native plants to brighten up the area while attracting pollinators. Some flowering plants also help discourage pests by either serving as a trap crop to distract them or by bringing in predatory beneficial bugs. Still struggling to decide what plants to focus on? Take these tips into consideration:

  • Check out your grocery list and note what vegetables you and your family actually eat most often
  • Realistically estimate how many salads or side dishes you’ll eat per week
  • Overplanting can attract pests and cause disease issues, so try planting less rather than more until you’re sure you’ll eat or share the excess
  • Don’t forget how much watering and weeding you’ll need to do to keep each plant healthy
  • Check the recommended season for growing each plant before just planting them in the summer

Spring or fall plants include lettuce, kale, peas, and most root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes. Other plants only thrive if planted in time for peak summer heat, such as tomatoes, peppers, okra, and zucchini. Consider travel plans before planting a large garden when you’ll be gone.

Know When and Where to Plant

Planting each vegetable at the right time will result in a productive and healthy garden. Knowing the planting time and harvest time frame for each plant lets you know when the garden space will be overcrowded or empty. Consider the following guidelines to help guide your planning.

Cool-season vegetables can usually handle light frost at the early or late stages of growth. This means you can put in lettuce or broccoli before other summer plants go in. However, check how long they’ll take before being harvested. If you plant lettuce in March, you can usually harvest it two to three months later and still plant another warm-season vegetable in its place. Other plants take longer, such as broccoli, and may need harvesting in the summer when it’s too late to plant more summer crops.

Warm-season vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, and squash should only be planted after the risk of frost passes in late spring to early summer. They need warm soil and plenty of daytime heat. Most will stop growing or lose their leaves if exposed to cool nighttime temperatures. Don’t plant these plants too early or late or they won’t grow as planned.

Keep tall veggies on the north side of the garden to keep them from shading other plants. Use cool-season vegetables and leaf crops such as spinach or lettuce in shady areas. If you want to add perennials such as fruit trees or bushes, make sure you don’t mind dedicating that part of the garden to the plant for at least a decade. Try staggering plantings of various plants so they don’t all ripen at once. This allows for ongoing harvests of salad crops or snacking vegetables.

Make Sure Your Landscape Is Ready to Support a Garden

Get all the landscaping improvements you need for a productive vegetable garden with help from Landscape by Design. Contact our team today for more information on our services or to schedule a consultation!