Want to know how to start a DIY vegetable garden even if you’re a beginning gardener? We’ve created a step by step guide to help you get your first vegetable garden off on the right foot from the beginning.
You’ll learn how to start your vegetable garden from seeds in your own backyard and grow your own food! This is EVERYTHING I wish I had known before building out my first fruit and veggie garden.
I often get asked how to even get started with vegetable and fruit gardening….especially if you weren’t born with a green thumb attached. You don’t need to be born with a green thumb…just be willing to start small and learn along the way. Don’t worry, we’re going to show you how to do it all step by step!
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In this guide I’m going to show you how to start your first vegetable garden. From picking good soil to picking easy to grow fruits and vegetables. This step by step guide will make it easy for even absolute beginners to start a successful garden. With my help you’ll be able to grow vegetables to put on your table everyday this summer and fall!
Let’s talk about why THIS is the year you should start your first vegetable garden.
|Why You Should Start a Vegetable Garden…|
1. Control How Your Food is Grown & Managed
Unfortunately, we live in an age of genetically modified seeds (GMO), chemically managed farming & food born illnesses. The most obvious reason to start a fruit and vegetable garden is to have control over one of your food sources and how that food source is managed. By starting a vegetable garden at home you can grow fruits and vegetables that are organic, pesticide free and GMO free. You can feel confident that the food your are feeding your family is safe.
2. Learn a Transferable Skill & Spend Quality Time With Family
As if organic gardening wasn’t reason enough to start a vegetable garden…..I can promise that you will feel a huge sense of accomplishment by growing your own food. Self-sufficiency and self-reliance is becoming a lost art. In addition, the skills that you acquire can be passed on to your children. Planning and growing a garden is a great family and team building exercise!
3. Emergency Preparedness
Not to be an alarmist, but have you thought about an emergency that could cause food insecurity? What if there was a natural disaster or a terrorist attack that compromised the U.S. food system? Would you have the skills to survive? In any apocalyptic nightmare (however small the chance may be), having the knowledge and skills to save seeds and grow your own food would be an invaluable asset.
4. Create a Sustainable Food Source with a Lower Carbon Footprint
It takes a lot of energy/fossil fuels to get your fresh fruits and veggies from point of harvest to your grocery store. Table grapes (off season) for instance can be shipped all the way from Chile! It’s staggering to think about how much energy went into getting those common table grapes from South America to the U.S.!?!? When you grow your own food in your own backyard you are cutting out a large part of the carbon footprint our food sources can make.
|Step 1: Essential Vegetable Garden Tools|
Thankfully, vegetable gardening is a super budget friendly hobby to jump into. There are a few essential tools that you’ll want to have on hand in your first year for your first garden. There are lots of gadgets in gardening I could gush about but in the beginning you’ll just need a few things to get started.
If you don’t already own quality metal garden tools it’s worth it to make the small investment now. These tools should last you a lifetime if cared for properly (store in a dark, dry place when not in use). I highly recommend Fiskars Garden Tool Trio which has everything you need to dig, weed and cultivate. I use this exact set and it has stood the test of time.
Garden gloves don’t last forever (especially if you plan on doing a LOT of gardening) and will require occasional replacement. I like to use stretchy, rubber dipped garden gloves (to prevent moisture wicking. I think it’s important that garden gloves are close fitting around the wrist area so dirt doesn’t get in. I use an eco friendly product that meets all these requirements which I loving call “bamboo gloves”. It’s made of bamboo which is a sustainable manufacturing raw material. These gloves are literally the most comfortable and breathable glove I’ve ever worn and come in all sizes for men and women. Check them out here where they are formally known as Pine Tree Tools Bamboo Working Glove.
Gardening and pruning go hand in hand. It’s worthwhile to invest in a quality pair of pruners. You’ll not only use them around the garden but around your home as the rest of your garden grows. I’ve had the same pair of Corona pruners for over ten years now and I highly recommend them. I take them for sharpening occasionally and they have served me very well. Keep any pruners stored in a dry place and they will serve you well for many years.
While working your garden you’ll inventively need a place to sit or kneel on. I’m completely over the moon with this 1.5″ thick, large foam pad I found on Amazon a few years ago. I store it in a dry place when not in use and it’s held up very well.
|Step 2: Build Your Vegetable Garden From the Ground Up|
So I’ve been gardening nearly my whole life…my mother taught me and her mother taught her. We’ve all hunched over the ground for decades cultivating, planting and worst of all pulling those damn weeds. A few years ago I converted my entire garden to raised beds and it’s been the best decision (garden wise) I’ve ever made. If you’re just starting out, please take my biggest piece of advice in this article and create your first garden in a raised bed. Place any raised bed in the sunniest location you can. This will be a southern facing location with as little shade as possible.
The benefits of of a raised garden bed are numerous:
1. Soil Warms Faster Extending the Growing Season
The soil warms faster than the ground in the spring allowing your seeds, seedlings and starts to sprout and grow faster than direct ‘in ground’ plantings. This is critical if you live in the northern territories and have a shortened growing season (this is certainly the case for me in WA state).
2. Higher, Dependable Soil Quality
Soil quality in the average backyard is actually quite poor due to the use of fill dirt in modern construction methods. Soil PH can be severely off (ideal is 6.0-7.0) and nutrients are non-existent when soil hasn’t been prepped for growing. Adding purchased, quality organic soil to a raised bed eliminates the guesswork in soil preparation for veggie and fruit gardening success. The soil is already PH balanced and has all the nutrients to provide for a years worth of fertilized gardening. Purchased soil won’t have weed seeds or potential remnants of weeds from ground soil. This means less weed pulling overall.
3. Better Ergonomics Mean Less Aches and Pains
Take it from me, raised beds put your body in the best ergonomic position. Bringing the soil level higher (ideally 1 foot high) means less hunching over to work in your garden in a poor body position. Your back, neck and arms will thank you!
4. Less Weeding & Easier Weeding When You DO Have to Weed
As previously mentioned, raised beds result in less weeding overall. Inevitably you will have a weed or two from time to time and several every spring. Purchased soil doesn’t compress like most ground soil making any errant weeds quick and easy to pull with loose healthy soil.
I can recommend a few VERY well priced, highly rated, raised garden beds to check out. I like the following products because they are durable (made of galvanized steel which won’t rust and degrade easily) and bring the soil height up significantly (to 12″ inches tall). There are a variety of sizes to choose from to fit nearly any space and can be delivered to your door.
|Step 3: Select High Quality Soil|
I cannot possibly stress this enough, soil is absolutely crucial for starting your vegetable garden off on the right foot. I’ve been exclusively using only one soil for my raised beds over the past few years and it’s Kellogg’s Organic Raised Bed and Potting Mix. I can’t say enough about this soil. The yields I’ve had are nothing short of spectacular. It has the perfect balance of moisture retention and PH. It’s completely organic so you won’t have to worry about what your food is growing in.
Thanks to the wonders of technology you can order Kellogg’s online directly from Home Depot and have it delivered to your front door by next day. No more lugging heavy, dirty bags of soil from the store to your vehicle and then up to your home. No backaches, no swearing and no dirty vehicle to clean up!
I’ve wasted so much money and time over the years on bulk soils in the past. They’re cheap for a reason….there’s no nutrients and the guesswork to build up the soil can take years to get right. On occasion I’ve found that the soil is full of weed seeds which means more work. When you’re new and you just want to get to the fun part (growing awesome, organic food)….start with the best possible soil.
|Step 4: Buying Vegetable Starts vs. Starting From Seed|
A few months ago I put together a list of the EASIEST fruits and vegetables to grow for absolute beginners like you. I highly recommend that you scroll through this list before you start your first foray into gardening.
Thankfully, everything on my beginners list is super easy to start from seed with the exception of tomatoes. Even as an experienced gardener I find it challenging to grow tomatoes from seed and successfully transition them to the outdoors. In fact, I don’t even fuss with trying to grow tomatoes from seed…I just buy tomato starts that are well established & hardened off to the cold. I recommend the same for you if you’re just starting out.
If you’re getting a late start this year or just don’t have the patience for seed starting think about buying vegetable starts further into the spring. Keep in mind each plant can run $4-6 Each (depending on if it is organic or not). This can add up quickly and you may not find a huge variety to choose from at your local market or hardware store.
The expense of starts alone is why I start almost all my plants from seed (sans tomatoes). One seed packet can produce 10+ plants in most cases for $2-3 a packet. There is a HUGE variety of seeds sold online and in stores. Vegetable starts are so expensive that it’s just not cost effective to fill a large garden with them (small is still probably fine).
You’ll want to grow seeds that are appropriate for your growing zone. You can find out what your climate zone is HERE. Each seed packet will have zone information, details on when to plant, where to plant (start early indoors vs start outside after last frost) and how deep to plant. Read each packet carefully before planting.
|The Case for Organic, Non-GMO, Non-Hybrid|
If you haven’t noticed already my preference is always for organic sources. From soil to seed I want to know that my vegetable garden isn’t laden with potentially harmful chemicals or genetically modified in any way. You’ve probably seen in the news recently where common weedkillers used in home as well as on large scale farms have been linked to cancer. Large settlements are being awarded to cancer victims on almost a weekly basis throughout the U.S.
My husband’s family lives in rural, small town, farm rich Iowa. His hometown is very small which is why I find it surprising to see extremely high number of cancer deaths in such a small community. 80% of local residents spent a lifetime as large scale farmers (or working on farms) using many of the chemicals believed to be cancerous today.
There’s little doubt in my mind that those chemicals seeped into the water table eventually and by drinking that water nearly everyone has been put at risk. In addition, the spray/atomization of these chemicals could easily drift through the air and be breathed in by local residents.
Over time, pests and noxious weeds became resistant to many of these engineered chemicals. Large companies began genetically modifying seeds to create resilient strains. In some cases, to protect intellectual property they created hybrids which only produce sterile seeds. The problem with all of this is that we don’t know what the effects are of all this genetic engineering yet on the food supply and more importantly those who consume it.
It’s for all of these reasons that I only use 100% organic, non-genetically modified, non-hybrid soils, seeds and starts whenever possible. This is a decision that you’ll have to make for yourself but I want to try and impart the reasons why you should make this decision early. Organic means starting with organic soil and every decision from there has to be organic in order to preserve the safety of your garden from potentially dangerous chemicals.
There are some really great 100% organic, non-genetically modified, non-hybrid seeds available online that I can recommend if you want to get started on the organic path. The prices are actually better than I’ve found in the big box stores. If you were to purchase all these seeds you’d have to pay nearly triple the amount. All of these seeds are produced in the U.S.
|Step 5: How to Start Seeds & Transition Outdoors|
If you are starting seeds indoors for the first time I highly recommend using an off the shelf mini greenhouse. These mini-greenhouses are budget friendly and great for first time gardeners because everything you need (with the exception of seeds) are provided in these kits. The kit can be used for multiple years with only the soil needing to be replaced.
Kits include the greenhouse itself, seedling pots & dirt. The greenhouse creates the ideal warm & moist environment for new seedlings to thrive. No guesswork needed on behalf of a beginning gardener.
I personally like the 72 Plant Burpee Seed Starting Mini-Greenhouse. If you’re not perfect at watering your seeds on schedule this package takes some of the burden off your shoulders by keeping your seedlings moist for longer. This budget friendly package contains everything that you need to start 72 plants including soil. The clear cover creates a perfect mini-greenhouse environment to keep moisture and heat close to your seedlings.
Place your mini-greenhouse in a sunny south facing window to maximize sunlight. If you don’t have a south facing window or you live in a northern climate with minimal winter/spring sunlight (such as AK, WA, ID, MT, ND, SD, MN, MI, IA or ME) it is absolutely essential to supplement with a grow light bulb. A grow light will provide a UV light similar to that of the sun (in fact you don’t need any sun at all with a light like this).
When your seeds sprout you’ll want to use a plant mister to mist the seedlings. Pouring water from a watering can or glass could permanently damage or destroy those very delicate seedlings.
When your seedlings reach the top of the clear green house it’s time time to slowly transition the seedlings out of the greenhouse environment. Start this transition by propping up one end of the clear greenhouse cover by 1 inch to let ambient air in for a few days. Every few days, increase the amount of ambient air by increasing the height of the propped up end of the clear greenhouse cover.
When the overnight temperatures are above 50 degrees you’ll want to transition your seedlings outdoors in a south facing sunny location or plant them in your garden directly.
Grow Light Bulb (for northern climates with low sunlight)
|Step 6: Frost/Cold Weather Protection|
When your garden and seedlings are young in early spring it’s important to be vigilant about frost and cold weather protection. Literally, as I’m writing this in the last day of April we had overnight lows of 29 degrees! This is somewhat unusual for us but young plants and seedlings need to be protected if there is a potential for below freezing temperatures like this.
If you’ve already planted or transitioned seedlings outdoors you can simply tent them with clear plastic sheeting. Make sure the sheeting doesn’t crush or touch the seedlings. Use a stake or object of some sort to provide a plastic sheeting “tent” over seedlings. This “tent” will keep warm air inside around delicate seedlings.
|Step 7: Seeding Directly in the Garden|
Whenever you purchase seeds you’ll want to note the time to harvest/maturity and whether they should be started indoors or outdoors. In the previous step I talked about starting seeds indoors and transitioning them outdoors. There are some seeds that will require an earlier start indoors if you have a short growing season (if you live in the north half of the country). Some long maturity examples are pumpkins, carrots, potatoes tomatoes and larger squashes.
For those who live in the northern part of the country you’ll need to wait for temps at 50 degrees or greater to plant directly in the garden….this usually happens much, much later in the year (around May 1st). Freezing temperatures and close to freezing temperatures can damage seed cell walls and destroy them.
If you have a long growing season (like the southern half of the country) you can place your seeds directly in the garden when temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees (which can be mid-March for much of the south). One advantage to southern gardening is that you can almost have 2-3 vegetable harvests! So if you fail at something the whole season isn’t lost….just try something else!
Direct garden seeding is always an option if you’re getting a late start on your garden. Be sure to choose seeds/starts that will mature before cold overnight temperatures set in. There are plenty to choose from with short maturities….just read the back of each seed packet to be sure. Some examples that come to minds are pole beans, radishes, sugar snap peas, strawberries and lettuces.
|Step 8: Vegetable Garden Care and Maintenance|
If you are starting with high quality soil like I’ve recommended above you should be able to enjoy an entire vegetable growing season without needing to fertilize. After your first year, I highly recommend a fantastic organic fertilizer I’ve been using for years by Dr. Earth. For my fruit and veggie garden I use Dr. Earth’s Organic Vegetable Garden Fertilizer. It’s all natural so I don’t have to worry about any kind of harmful chemicals entering my food.
If by chance you are using bulk dirt or direct planting in ground with topsoil I STRONGLY recommend that you use Dr. Earth’s organic vegetable garden fertilizer in your first year and beyond.
If you are starting with fresh, newly purchased dirt you shouldn’t see anything outside of an occasional weed or two your first year….but it’s important that you remove weeds while they are still small. Weeds steal valuable water and nutrients from your soil and vegetable plants. Be sure to nip those weeds in the bud ASAP!
In the fall, after this year’s growing season I highly recommend covering your planting bed(s) with black plastic sheet and weighting the sheet down with large rocks to keep it from blowing away. If any seeds managed to make it into your planting beds over the summer the black plastic sheet will rob them of water and sunlight. When you return to garden next year simply remove the sheet and add your seedlings or starts. It’s less work for you every spring if you take the time to cover your planting beds in the fall.
I hope this article has you thinking about organic approaches to gardening and inspires you to start your first garden this year! Don’t forget to check out my list of super easy to grow fruits and vegetables for beginners before you leave today! And if you’re looking for something unique to plant in your garden check out my list of creative vegetable garden plantings. If you like what we do here then join the thousands of email subscribers and never miss another cool post! Scroll to the bottom of this page and leave us your email!
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