Organigirl's Guide to Starting a Vegetable Garden

So you're ready to start your garden, but you're looking for a few pointers? You've come to the right place! Starting a garden is fun and surprisingly easy - if you aren't afraid of garden gnomes. And if you are, well, then you'll probably benefit from further investigation into the content of this blog and Organigirl's ongoing battle with the forces of darkness - cute, bearded, pointy capped, ten inch tall darkness.  But back to starting up your garden...

There are two ways to start a garden. Yep, just two. That's it. The first way to start a garden is to buy everything at once, try to grow 100 different vegetables in your first growing season, and eat lots and lots of antacids while lamenting your backyard full of brown things that aren't growing at all and definitely aren't edible. I don't recommend this method, but the gnomes are always hoping it's the one you choose.

The second way to start a garden is to start small and add to your knowledge little by little. The gnomes hate this method because you slowly encroach on their territory, winning the war by achieving small victories until they find themselves without a single square of abandoned yard in which to dwell. This is the method I outline below for your reading enjoyment.

I'm going to break it down into several simple steps you can complete one at a time, in order. Don't get ahead or you'll get overwhelmed and give up, and the gnomes will win. Would you be able to live with yourself if the gnomes won? I didn't think so. Let's go to it then.

STEP 1: "Draw Like a Kindergartner" 

I'm a firm believer in having a plan - even if it's an ugly one drawn with a crayon on a piece of cardboard. In fact, I think drawing out a quick ugly plan first is better than spending hours and hours making a perfect plan that you're going to keep trying to make more perfect until you get it completely perfect (which is impossible). Just sketch out the area you're planning to use for planting and draw in where you plan to put your raised beds or containers. Then, write down a few things you'd like to plant. 

STEP 2: "Build a Box"

If you're going to be growing in containers, then this step doesn't apply to you (go buy or build your containers instead). In this step, you're going to build your first raised bed. Check out my easy tutorial on building a raised bed. If you know what's good for you, you'll start with one raised bed and add more later.

STEP 3: "Irrigate”

We’re trying to keep this easy, right? I know you’re probably picturing yourself standing outside every morning in your overalls with your wide brimmed gardening hat and fancy pants gardening shoes with your hair waving in the gentle breeze as you hum a tune while watering your thousands and thousands and thousands of perfect, pest free vegetable plants, BUT I can all but guarantee that it isn’t going to happen. Why set yourself up for failure? Setting up an irrigation system for your raised bed (especially if you’re starting with ONE, as I recommend, and not twelve as I don’t recommend) is cheap (really!), easy, and something you’re going to want to learn how to do if you’re planning to eventually have a glorious oasis of edible wonders filling your yard and feeding all of humanity at some point in the future. Check out my simple tutorial on how to irrigate a raised bed here, and later you’ll thank me.

STEP 4: “Buy Seeds”

Okay, here’s where things start to heat up a little. I know it’s exciting, but don’t go crazy and order one of everything in the seed catalog - you’ll waste money and get depressed when you realize that there isn’t enough time in the world to plant and care for a thousand different varieties of vegetables. Below are a few ideas for vegetables to plant in your first box, and while you get your hopes up, don’t forget to make sure that what you purchase can be grown in your area.

Radishes - Radishes are one of the easiest vegetables to grow. If you want a variety that grows fast, choose “Early Scarlet Globe” and you should be harvesting within a month of planting your seeds.

Arugula - Arugula (also called Rocket or Roquette) is a peppery, leafy green that grows like a weed - fast! Once it gets going, you can keep harvesting leaves off your arugula plants and the plants will replace them so fast you’ll wonder if you really harvested any at all.

Lettuce - Lettuce is easy to grow and a good vegetable to start with because not many people are averse to it. While I know people who don’t care for beets or okra, I don’t know anyone who won’t eat lettuce (though I’m sure there are a few of you out there, and if you’re one of those people, then forget about lettuce and go for something you’d eat instead). There are many varieties of lettuce. Some can be harvested a leaf at a time and some are usually harvested by taking the entire plant at once. My favorite lettuce is Tom Thumb. It’s a bright green lettuce that grows as a small, softball or grapefruit sized head which is perfect for a salad for two or enough side salad for a small family. The flavor is nice and mild - not too crazy or bitter.

Peas - You’ll need a trellis to grow peas, but a simple wooden trellis from the hardware store will do nicely and isn’t expensive. Best of all, you can reuse it for several years and installation is a snap. To see how I trellis peas, check out my post about it here.

Summer Squash - Because summer squash is often harvested before the plant starts to vine like crazy, it works well in raised beds. You’d be surprised how many squashes you can harvest from a single plant, and if you like squash you’ll be happy to discover that home grown squash beats out its store bought competitors for taste (in my squash loving opinion).

Beans - Beans are wonderful because they come in a wide variety of colors and shapes. Pole beans are fun (a simple tee pee style trellis with three tall stakes or bamboo pieces 6-8’ high tied together at the top works well), and can add some visual appeal to your garden. Gnomes, however, do like to climb bean trellises, and I have occasionally found one knocked over out of spite (or was it the wind?).  If you prefer not to trellis, you can always plant bush beans, which do not require trellising.

STEP 5: “Research the Vegetables You Plan to Grow”

Since we know that you followed my advice and made sure that the seeds you purchased could be grown in your zone before you purchased them, all you need to do for this step is research how to plant your seeds. Different seeds are planted at different depths and some have specific water and light requirements. All have recommended spacing requirements, and while the spacing requirements on packages are generally written with large scale farming in mind, you’ll still want to find out appropriate spacing for your raised bed. There are some differences of opinion among urban farmers and home gardeners as to how closely to sow specific seeds, but by reading through what other gardeners recommend, you’ll be able to make a better choice for your own garden when planting time arrives.

STEP 6: “Plant Your Seeds”

It’s finally time to plant your seeds! Follow the recommended planting guidelines you learned in step 5 closely, and don’t forget to mark what you’ve planted. I usually write what I’ve planted on popsicle sticks or tongue depressors because they’re inexpensive and they’re sufficiently sturdy. You’ll need to know what you’ve planted so that you can make sure to water each vegetable appropriately.

STEP 7: “Baby the Seeds and Seedlings”

A common mistake when planting a new garden, relying on drip irrigation alone to get your seeds started can prove a devastating error. Drip irrigation is for maintaining your plants once they’re established. Up to that point, you’ll want to water them carefully according to the recommendations for the specific vegetables you’ve planted. Some seeds need steady moisture or they just won’t germinate. Carrots, for example, must stay steadily moist or they germinate unevenly (which is why I didn’t include them on my list of good veggies to start with). Many experienced gardeners use burlap or other coverings to keep their carrot seeds nice and moist until they germinate.

You’ll most likely need a hose nozzle with a mist setting to water tiny seeds, particularly ones that are surface sown. If you use a regular hose nozzle or even a rain style watering wand, you’ll blow your seeds to kingdom come and be surprised when they all germinate in a tiny corner of the box and you have to thin almost all of them because there isn’t room for them to grow. I’ve made this mistake more than once and I finally purchased a misting head hose attachment and kicked myself for not doing it sooner.

STEP 8: “Maintain Your Box”

Once plants are established, your main duty is to watch out for bugs and make sure your drip lines are working. Don’t wait until your bed is completely infested with critters or turning brown from lack of water. Keep an eye on your precious garden! Check your plants periodically for signs of pest damage and for tiny insect eggs on the leaves of your vegetable plants. Not all bugs are bad, so don’t get nervous if you find a few, but if you start noticing damage, take action.

You’ll need to check irrigation regularly as well. Check your bed just after or during watering to make sure that the drip lines are working and working efficiently. It’s as easy as just looking to make sure the ground is wet around each drip line and that there are no dry spots that didn’t get watered.

In addition, make sure that you remove weeds if they appear. Some vegetables such as carrots can be damaged if you pull weeds right next to them, so try to cut the tops off of any weeds that are too close to your edibles or that cannot be pulled easily - rather than just pulling them outright. Mulching is helpful for keeping weed growth down, but be sure to pay attention to the needs of the various crops you grow - mulch can affect the temperature of the soil and some plants like the results of mulching more than others.

STEP 9: “Harvest”

Finally, the time has come to enjoy the fruits of your labor! Harvest comes at different times for different vegetables. Some vegetables are harvested all at once, but most can be harvested over weeks or even months. Don’t neglect to harvest when vegetables are ripe because some vegetable plants, like peas, will stop producing if ripe vegetables aren’t harvested. Keeping vegetables harvested appropriately is an easy way to extend your growing season.

Once you’ve had your first successful season in the garden, you’ll be ready to add to your knowledge and expand your growing space. Here are some next steps for you to consider:

Establish your crop rotation.

Start learning to save seeds.

Add an additional box.

Learn about different varieties of vegetables and read some seed recommendations.

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