How to Start Your First Vegetable Garden 101

vegetable garden in a house

With a backyard vegetable garden, you get to grow your own food, spend time outside, move your body, breathe fresh air, and recharge your batteries. From choosing the place, seeding, and planting to watering and weeding, it’s all within your reach, even with no gardening experience. With our tips on how to start a vegetable garden for the first time, you can begin your project with pro knowledge. 

1. Start with a small space

While relaxing and rewarding, growing your own vegetables takes time, money, and effort. If you’re a beginner, you’ll have much to learn about planting, watering, and weeding during the first year, so take it slow. Start with a small garden and a few veggies, and extend it gradually if you want to. 

Try to set your new garden up to be about 100 square feet. Depending on what vegetables you decide to grow, this space can house up to 25 plants. Mix up 3 to 5 types of veggies and herbs and do your best to learn how to grow them correctly. 

The main benefits of a small space home garden are:

  • More time to observe and care for each plant. It usually leads to healthier plants and higher yields.
  • It is an enjoyable experience that doesn’t risk becoming a drag.
  • The chance to test it all firsthand and determine how much time watering, weeding, pruning, and harvesting takes.

2. Pick a sunny spot for your veggies

vegetable garden herbs in yard of a house
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Set your garden in a place with lots of sunlight and a water source nearby. Most vegetables and herbs need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight daily. Low light makes them grow thin, vulnerable to pests and diseases, late to mature, and less productive.

If you live in the north, where the light is less intense, ensure full sun veggies receive at least 8 hours of sunlight. Always plant tomatoes, eggplants, cucumber, zucchini, chiles, pumpkins, and watermelons in the sunniest areas of your garden. The larger the fruit it bears, the more sun your veggie needs. 

Are you stuck with a shaded yard and not many sunny places? Don’t worry. You’ll still be able to plant some veggies. Choose cool-season species, also known as shade vegetables, like lettuce, spinach, radishes, and arugula. They can thrive with 3 to 5 hours of full sun a day.

3. Know your soil

Good soil makes for healthy, resilient plants and easy gardening.  Find out what you have under your feet before planting veggies and herbs. The surest, simplest method is to take a few soil samples and have them tested at your county’s Cooperative Extension Office. A basic soil test costs $15 to $20 and tells you:

  • The soil type and structure (sand, silt, clay, loam). 
  • Organic matter content. 
  • Nutrient deficiencies and how to treat them. 
  • Soil pH and how to balance it if necessary. 

If you have loamy soil, you’re lucky. It’s a balanced mixture of sand, clay, and silt particles with a moderately loose texture, good water-holding and drainage abilities, and is usually rich in nutrients and organic matter. Loam is suitable for most vegetable plants. 

Cover with a layer of compost every year to keep loam soil fertile. 

Sandy soil has a loose texture with low water-holding capacity. Nutrients wash away quickly from its structure, making it a poor soil that often needs fertilizers. It also dries fast and requires a lot of water during summer. 

Sandy soil is not all bad. Root vegetables like carrots, radishes, beets, and turnips enjoy the sandy soil’s loose structure, allowing roots to develop easily. The best amendments you can use are compost and manure. Sphagnum peat moss, coconut coir, and vermiculite improve water retention but don’t add valuable nutrients. Always consider organic fertilizers before going for a commercial blend.

Clay soil is heavy and dense. It has a high water-holding capacity and keeps nutrients well, making it a fertile soil. However, it has poor water absorption and drainage, tightening around the roots when dry, turning into rocky soil that’s hard to dig or aerate. 

Vegetables with shallow roots (broccoli, cabbage, onions, lettuce) grow well in clay. Its fertile, moist texture makes it easier to absorb nutrients and water without digging deep into the soil. 

Adding organic matter is the best way to improve clay soil texture. Compost, leaf mold, and well-rotted manure are some of the best to try. 

Silty soil is rich in minerals but typically poor in organic matter, making it prone to erosion. Suitable for various vegetables, it breaks down easier when dry and enforces less mechanical stress on plant roots. 

Its unstable structure recommends a no-till or less-till gardening method. Digging destroys the frail internal structure built by microorganisms. Amend with organic matter and plant protective ground covers during winter. 

Pro tip about vegetable garden soil: With poor soil that is hard to amend, use raised garden beds 6 inches to 2 feet high filled with good-quality garden soil, or consider container gardening

4. Install a drip irrigation system

drip irrigation system in a vegetable garden
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Choose a location close to a source of clean water. Until seedlings and transplants grow healthy roots, you’ll need to water them a few times a week. Established plants typically need less irrigation –  about 1 inch of water once a week. Even so, a watering system with a timer is a good way to save time, effort, water, and money. 

Go for a drip irrigation or a soaker hose system. They deliver water slowly close to the plant roots and are excellent for all soil types.  

Sprinklers are not the best idea for watering a vegetable garden, especially if you often water your garden in the evening. Wet leaves drastically increase the risk of fungal diseases and sunburns. Sprinklers also waste a lot of water through evaporation.  

Pro tip on watering your vegetable garden: Always keep an eye on the amount of rainfall and avoid overwatering your crops.

5. Don’t ignore the wind

Air currents are essential to limit fungal diseases and help plants grow more robust.  But, if too intense or persistent, winds can damage your vegetable plants. 

Powerful air currents can break young plants, dry out the soil, force leaves to protect from dehydration by closing their pores, and hinder pollinators in their work.  

Avoid placing your garden in a windy area. If there’s no other choice, install windshields or plant shrubs for windbreaks. 

6. Choose easy-to-grow plants for your region

carrots and radishes planted in a vegetable garden
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Lettuce, radishes, spinach, arugula, peas, and green beans are excellent starter vegetables. They have a short growing season of under two months and are less picky about soil and weather. While also a short-season crop, carrots are a fifty-fifty bet, depending on the soil. They love a sandy texture and can be challenging to grow in clay. 

What about tomatoes? Despite their longer growing season, tomatoes, peppers, and squash are also suitable for beginner gardeners. Not so demanding and resilient to transplanting, these veggies are often considered excellent first garden options. 

What to avoid on your first try? Onions are picky about light. Depending on the variety, they need about 12 to 16 hours daily and grow small and dry if not watered properly. 

Sweet potatoes only grow well with 100 days of hot weather because they need hot soil. They’re an easy crop in the South, growing like crazy without much intervention, but a complicated task in the North.  

Artichokes, cauliflower, celery, and head lettuce are also at the top of the hard-to-grow veggies list you should postpone until you have more gardening experience.

7. Focus on your favorite or hard-to-find, expensive veggies

Remember you’re working with a small garden space, limited time, and a specific budget. Invest your resources in valuable plants. The best vegetables to grow are always the ones you love eating and that are easy to preserve.  

Two smart criteria for deciding what to plant are availability and price. On top of your list, put veggies you love eating but that are harder to find in grocery stores or tend to be expensive.  

8. Have a clear garden plan 

Put your ideas on paper. It’s the easiest way to create the best layout for your small backyard garden. Sketch the planting beds and the walkways you’ll use to go around them. 

Make the garden beds no more than 4 feet wide so you can reach inside without stepping in. Beginner gardeners often go for 4×4 or 4×8 veggie beds. They offer enough space for planting and are easy to access without stepping on the soil. 

4×4-foot garden plan:

Garden Plan by Sinziana Spiridon

4×8-foot garden plan:

4 x 8 Garden plan
Garden Plan by Sinziana Spiridon

If the garden bed is near a wall or in a corner, reduce the width accordingly. Consider that you can access the plants only from two or three sides.

Choose a place for each plant and mark it on your garden planner. Use indications from seed packets and pot labels to leave enough space for each plant. 

9. Try a square-foot garden plant spacing chart

Sometimes, measuring and placing plants freely across plant beds can become complicated. Simplify it by using the one-square-foot spacing chart. 

To make the chart, divide your garden plan into one-square-foot sections and decide what veggies or herbs you want to place in each square and how many. Write the plants’ names and numbers in each designated space. 

Here are a couple of tables with the most common starter vegetables and herbs and how many you can put in a one-square-foot area.

Vegetables Maximum Number of Plants per Square Foot
Tomatoes1 per 4 square feet
Pole Bean8
Arugula 4
Swiss Chard4
Squash1 per 2 to 4 square feet
HerbsMaximum Number of Plants per Square Foot
Rosemary 1

10. Use vertical gardening to optimize space

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Buy climbing varieties of peas, green beans, cucumbers, and squash and grow them on trellises or vertical cages. It’s an excellent way to optimize space in a small backyard. Also, use cages if you plant indeterminate tomato varieties. If you leave them unsupported, they will sprawl over the ground and hinder other plants.

Check how tall and large your vegetables grow and search for trellises and cages high enough to house the mature plants. Place them to avoid shading other sun-loving veggies. 

For example, if your garden receives the most sunlight in the morning and mid-day, the northwestern side is the best place for trellises and tall plants. If the garden gets most of the light in the afternoon, put tall and climbing veggies in the northeastern corner.

Is your garden spot beside a wall or a fence? Use the structure to install vertical garden planters for herbs and shallow root veggies. It’s a good strategy to improve yield per square foot. 

11. Stagger the crops to boost yield

Succession planting is a smart and easy way to ensure repetitive and continuous crops on the same land. Start with fast-growing cool-season vegetables in early spring. Plant lettuce, radishes, spinach, arugula, and carrots. 

Harvest until late spring to early summer, free the space, and then start the warm-season crops like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. These are ready for picking from late summer to early fall. After harvesting the warm-season veggies, plant some lettuce, spinach, and other cool-season species for a second crop. 

Another way to use this technique is to plant successive rounds of the same vegetable. This works great for fast-growing one-time-crop veggies like radishes and carrots.

For example, you can seed one row of radishes now, the next one after 7 to 10 days, and so on. This way, you have fresh radishes all spring, and collecting one row at a time, you make space for other veggies.

12. Take advantage of companion planting

Companion planting is a popular gardening strategy, which refers to growing plants that support each other in the same place. For example:

  • Radishes, chives, and sage protect tomatoes from pests. 
  • Dill and oregano are pest repellents for cucumbers, peas bring nitrogen to the soil to help cucumbers and other plants thrive, and corn gives cucumbers a structure to climb on. 
  • Onions, kale, and calendula keep pests away from eggplants. Carrots and radishes aerate the soil when planted among eggplants while enjoying their shade. 

13. Keep a gardening calendar

Knowing and respecting the planting time is essential for good crops. Plugs planted too early in the spring can freeze and die. Seeds spread too late might not have enough warm time to ripen their fruits. 

Use the labels on seed packages and plant pots to find the best seeding, planting, and harvesting time for each plant and variety you’re growing. Rather than focusing on dates, try to find out the best temperatures to start your plants outside. This way, it’s easier to adapt to your location’s climate.

You can also look for this information online or ask at your local nursery, garden center, or Extension Office. Use it to create a gardening calendar, so you always know what’s next in your gardening project.

Pro tip about keeping a gardening calendar: If you’re growing veggies in the north, learn how to start your seedlings inside, buy plugs and potted plants instead of seeds, or install a greenhouse for a longer growing season. 

14. Get the basic gardening tools

Gardening tools placed in a garden
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You don’t need a lot of tools to grow vegetables in a small backyard, but these are essential:

  • Garden shovel
  • Square spade shovel
  • Garden trowel
  • Rake
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Gardening scissors
  • Gardening gloves
  • Watering can with nozzle
  • Garden hose with nozzle or an irrigation system

Ensure you have all of these items before you start your gardening project. Keep them clean and in good condition.

15. Learn from other people’s experience

If your friends or neighbors grow vegetables on their land, learn as much as you can from them:

  • What vegetables and varieties grow well in your area, and which are struggling? 
  • The most common vegetable diseases they deal with, when they attack, and how they treat them. 
  • What pests are more damaging? Should you install a tall fence for deer or an underground one for rabbits? Is bird netting something to consider? 

You’ll be amazed at how many useful garden tips you can get that apply directly to your area. 

16. Use the full power of mulching 

person putting mulch on a garden bed
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You’ll find mulching in most gardening guides as a golden solution for protecting the soil and improving yields. Mulch moderates soil temperatures, limits water evaporation, soil erosion and compaction, and improves the microbiome and soil fertility. 

Among the most common types of organic mulch you can use are dead leaves raked from your lawn, grass clippings, garden trimmings, wood chips, hay, straw, or even compost.  

Apply a layer of mulch once all seedlings have emerged. Make it about 2 to 3 inches thick, and keep it about 2 inches away from plant stems. You don’t want your mulch to embrace plant stems. It increases the risk of fungal disease by keeping moisture at the stem level. 

Organic mulch decomposes in time. You’ll need to apply again in 2 or 3 months. 

17. Consider a greenhouse or a polytunnel

A greenhouse offers a more controlled environment for growing your veggies with less wind, warmer nights, and a lower evaporation rate. It allows you to extend the growing season, a valuable feature if you live in Montana, Minnesota, Washington, or other northern states. 

Polytunnels are similar structures, only simpler, smaller, and more affordable. Greenhouses and polytunnels are available online and at local garden centers and home and garden stores. If you’re handy with tools and have the time, you can also build a DIY greenhouse to fit your space and needs better.

FAQ about starting your first vegetable garden

What are the best veggies to grow for beginners?

Radishes, lettuce, spinach, kale, and peas are easy to care for, have two growing seasons, and leave your summer free for a well-deserved vacation. Add tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers to your list if you’re a whole-year gardener.

How much space do I need to make a vegetable garden?

You can start with a few garden containers or a small raised bed of 4×4 feet and go up to a 12×24-foot garden. The most common projects use a 4×8 raised bed and 6×6 or 10×10-foot planted areas. Keep it small if this is your first project, and extend the planted surface gradually.

How do you start a vegetable garden on a budget?

If you’re on a tight budget, here’s where you can save on your gardening project. Buy seeds instead of plugs or potted plants and grow your seedlings. Use garden or bed soil instead of pot soil to amend the planting beds. Use clean lawn and garden debris as mulch instead of buying. Make your own compost and organic fertilizers. Keep seeds from one crop to the next.

Can you turn your lawn into a garden?

Yes, you can turn your lawn into a garden. All you need to do is remove your grass lawn and either add it to your compost bin or turn it upside down and leave it on the soil to enrich it. Test the soil to make the right amendments, create planting beds, and start gardening.

Get your vegetable garden rolling today

There you go! You’re all set. Get out in your yard and search for that perfect spot. Start planning, start choosing plants, and get your vegetable garden rolling today! Remember, help is always around if you need it. If you get stuck, Lawn Love can help you find a gardening professional nearby to troubleshoot your problems. Don’t let anything stand in the way of your delicious homegrown veggies!

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Sinziana Spiridon

Sinziana Spiridon is an outdoorsy blog writer with a green thumb and a passion for organic gardening. When not writing about weeds, pests, soil, and growing plants, she's tending to her veggie garden and the lovely turf strip in her front yard.