How to Start a Vegetable Garden

Vegetable Garden

Are you new to gardening?  Do you want to grow your own fresh veggies and save money?  There’s nothing like a fresh crunchy carrot or crisp green peas straight from the garden.  Winter is a great time to start planning, dreaming, and salivating.

Here are 6 steps for starting a vegetable garden from scratch.

1)  Observe the sunlight in your yard

Vegetables need 4-8 hours of direct sunlight per day depending on the plant.  4 hours of sun is considered partial sun/partial shade.  8 hours or more is considered full sun.

You’ll need to watch where the sunlight falls in your yard at different times of year.  Watch the path of the sun over your site.  In the spring and fall the sun is lower in the sky and won’t directly fall on as much of your yard as it does in full summer and some plants need the long growing season that includes spring and fall.

The best place for a vegetable garden is a spot that gets direct sunlight all day throughout most of the growing season.  The north side of a house or the north side of tall evergreen trees will get less light than the south side of the house and is usually not the best placement.

There are some veggies that will grow in partial shade/partial sun so if that is what your site offers, you can choose your plants accordingly.

If you have a partially shaded site, you might try: lettuces, kale, broccoli, cabbage, peas.

2)  Know your soil

You’ll need to become familiar with the components of your soil.  Soil consists of varying percentages of sand, silt, clay, and organic matter.  The percent of each will determine which plants you can grow, how and if you need to supplement your soil, how much watering is required, and how much mulch to use.  To determine what type of soil you have you could pay to have a soil test done or simply take some time to run the soil from your yard through your fingers and compare it to other sites to see if you can spot the difference.  Or maybe just ask your neighbor with the prize roses.

Vegetable Garden

Soil texture examples

A silty-clay soil will feel like a very fine powder and will hold alot of moisture making it sticky when wet.

A sandy soil will fill gritty and won’t hold moisture.

A soil high in organic matter is desirable and will be a rich colour, hold moisture well but not be overly wet or sticky, and it will have a deep earthy smell. After handling, a humus (not chickpea dip) rich soil will leave your hands stained a little.

Troubleshooting Soil Problems

If your soil has a high percentage of sand, it will not retain moisture well.  Any water that doesn’t evaporate from the heat will flow right through the sand.  Sandy soils can be supplemented with organic matter such as compost and rotted manure to help maintain water content.  If you have the time and budget you could also buy some loam mixture to enhance a sandy soil. Its cheaper to buy loam by the square yard than to buy it in bags at the garden centre. To determine how many square yards you’ll need you can call a local supplier and tell them the dimensions of your garden. They’ll deliver, dump it on your driveway, and you get to use your wheelbarrowing skills to move it.

Soils that have too much clay have the opposite problem.  They don’t drain well and water sits around the base of the plants and the roots get waterlogged.  Drainage in clay soils can be enhanced by adding organic matter such as decomposed compost or manure or peat moss.  I don’t usually recommend adding sand or gravel to a clay soil because if you add the wrong amount you just end up making the soil cement-like.

3)  Know your season

Find out when the last frost of the spring and the first frost of the fall occur in your area.  This will be your growing season with a few exceptions.  While some hardy plants like carrots, beets, and kale will survive a number of fall frosts, more tender plants like tomatoes, green beans, and pumpkin will not tolerate any frost at all.  Tomato plants will turn BLACK at the slightest early frost.

4)  Understand your climate

If you live in Arizona, it’s not likely that you’ll find much useful information in a gardening book about growing plants in England, where it rains a lot and is generally cool. Join a local gardening group or find a local forum online and learn from experienced gardeners what plants will grow in your climate and which ones won’t.

Tough Climate vs Easy Climate

Having lived in Alberta for decades, I never had an opportunity to grow cucumber, pumpkins, or squash. The season was too short and the temperature fluctuations during the season were too extreme – we’d often get hail in July after a 30 degree day. Tender plants need consist warm weather to thrive. Now that I live in south central BC its pretty much the sky’s the limit! The lush moist climate prevents extreme temperature variations during the summer, the soil is more acidic than in Alberta, and the growing season is about a month longer – I’m in heaven.

5)  Choose your plant varieties carefully

Some seed companies distribute the same seeds all over North America – California and Maine get the same seeds – not a recipe for success.  Its important to know where the seeds were originally cultivated and what environment they are suited to.  Do your best to buy local seeds or get them from as close to home as you can.

When you find out the length of your growing season (number of days between frosts) choose vegetable varieties that will mature in that time period, e.g. if your season is 110 days, choose squash that mature in 80 days not 100 days.  That will give the vegetables plenty of time to mature.

Once you find a seed company that grows seeds for your area, look closely at each seed packet.  Notice:

  • Days to maturity – how long until you can harvest the veggies
  • Sun Requirements:  Full Sun, Partial Sun/Partial Shade
  • Depth of planting – how deep to plant the seed
  • Spacing between plants
  • Spacing between rows
  • Transplant – it will tell you whether to directly sow the seed outdoors or to grow it inside first and transplant the seedling (tiny plant) into the ground
  • Germination time – how long it takes the seed to sprout leaves
  • How tall the plant will grow – different plant varieties will be different heights
  • The size of the vegetable, e.g. 4 inch carrot or 6 inch carrot
  • Organic or Non-GMO (the best choices)

6)  Prepare the soil

If there is already a bare patch of soil you can turn it with a spade.