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How to Plant and Grow Your Own Vegetable Garden

There are few things that are as satisfying to a home gardener, than to wander out to the vegetable garden, harvest and consume the fruits of their labor. Successful vegetable gardening involves far more than just popping a few seeds into the ground and waiting for a tomato to appear. Planting is only the third step of the three 'P's. Planning your garden, Preparing the soil, and Planting your vegetables!

As you sit down to plan your garden, please consider adding a few extra plants and donate a little of your bounty to your local food bank or second harvest organization. Give a helping hand to those who may not have the opportunity to grow their own.

There is no comparison between home grown food and what you buy at a store

Planning your vegetable garden

For the best success, a vegetable garden should be well planned out in advance. The site location is of the utmost importance. A spot near the house in full sunlight is the normally the most convenient spot, however, drainage, soil quality, and shade from buildings or trees may mean the garden must be located in an area farther from the house. A good vegetable garden must have at least six hours of full sun each day in order for your food crops to mature properly. No amount of fertilizer, water, or care can replace needed sunshine.

The soil should be very fertile and well draining so that water never puddles after a rain storm. While good air movement around a garden is important, windy areas should be avoided because winds can dry out or break plants.

Choose a spot close to a water supply for convenience, and to avoid having to use long lengths of hoses. Planting a vegetable garden where it can be visited frequently will allow you to monitor plant pests and the general health of the garden more easily.

Choosing Which Vegetables to Grow

Your choice of vegetables will be largely determined by the likes and dislikes of your family. If you expect to consume large quantities of a type of vegetable, it is usually more cost effective to start your plants indoors, from seeds. Some types of plants resent transplanting and must be sown directly into the garden where they are to be grown. In other instances it is best to purchase bedding plant starts to extend the growing season long enough to insure the maturity of the crop.

When planning your garden, consider what and how much you will plant. It is better to have a well maintained, small garden than a large one neglected and full of weeds. The information on Vegetable Growing Tips page will help you plan and map out your vegetable garden.

Usually, the garden should be surrounded by a sufficiently high fence with close mesh to keep out dogs, rabbits, and other animals. A fence also can serve as a trellis for beans, peas, Tomato plants and other crops that need support.

It is helpful to draw a diagram of your prospective garden, mapping out each row according to height, plant requirements and other criteria. The direction of the rows isn't necessarily critical, but often it is a good idea to have them running east-west, thereby allowing you to plant your tallest vegetable crops on the north end of the plot, and successively shorter crops in front. This helps prevent shading of the shorter plants.

If you must plant your garden on a hill, cut your furrows on a contour with the land, so that the water won't run quickly down the hill, taking with it the valuable topsoil, and the nutrients needed for your plants.

Perennial vegetables such as Rhubarb and Asparagus should be planted off to the side where they won't interfere with future plowing. Early producing crops like Lettuce, spinach, radishes, carrots, beets and onions should be grouped together with extra space for successive plantings. After they are finished for the season, this will allow you to easily rework the area for later season crops.

Preparing the Soil for Planting

Fertile, well prepared soil is necessary for a successful garden. The exact type of soil is not so important as that it be well drained, well supplied with organic matter, reasonably free of stones, and moisture retentive. The subsoil also is very important. Hard shale, rock ledges, gravel beds, deep sand, or hardpan under the surface may make the development of garden soil extremely difficult or impossible.

On the other hand, infertile soil that has good physical properties can be made productive by tilling in organic matter, lime, commercial fertilizer, and other soil improving materials. Soils should not be plowed or worked while it is very wet unless the work will certainly be followed by severe freezing weather. If the soil sticks together in a ball and does not readily crumble under slight pressure by the thumb and finger, it is too wet for plowing or working, because in this condition it will cake as it dries, making it unsuitable for young plants.

If your garden has already been cultivated and used in past years, there is little to do other than to plow in additional organic material, and fertilizers. The fertilizer may be in the form of composted manure or any good commercial complete plant food distributed at a rate of 3 or 4 pounds for every thousand square feet of vegetable garden. Infertile soil will often benefit from even larger proportions of chemical fertilization, but care must be taken not to add too much because of the danger of fertilizer burn. When manure is added to the soil, it must be composted prior to planting, because fresh, hot manure will also burn your plants.

Testing and adjusting your Soil pH

Different types of vegetables require varying degrees of soil acidity. The acidity or alkalinity of the soil is measured by pH, and must be tested and adjusted according to which crop will occupy that area. Generally, soils in moist climates are acid and those in dry climates are alkaline. A soil with a pH lower than 7.0 is an acid soil and one with a pH higher than 7.0 is alkaline. You can buy an inexpensive pH test kit at most nurseries, and many good garden centers will gladly test a soil sample for you. Once you have determined the pH, you can amend the soil as needed. The pH requirements of different garden vegetables will determine what steps must be taken next.

Only after the site has been prepared, and the soil and conditioners mixed, watered well and settled should you test the pH of the soil. The tested soil should be dry. If a soil test reveals that you need to make corrections to your soil pH, you can use materials commonly available at your local garden center.

If your soil needs to be more acidic, sulfur may be used to lower the pH. For raising the pH, lime is most commonly used. The amount of either material used will depend on the amount of change you need to make. The recommendations provided on the product label will help you determine how much to use. A general rule of thumb is to add 4 lbs. of lime per 100 sq. ft. of garden for every pH point below 6.5, or 1 lb. of sulfur per 100 sq. ft. for every pH point above 7.5.

Sawdust, composted oak leaves, wood chips, peat moss, cottonseed meal, and leaf mold lower the pH, while ashes of hardwoods, bone meal, crushed marble, and crushed oyster shells raise the pH. The best way to adjust pH is gradually, over several seasons. Most garden vegetables do best on soils that are slightly acid and may be injured by the application of excess lime. For this reason lime should be applied only when tests show it to be necessary.

If the soil is excessively alkaline, you may find that you are better off to build a raised planting bed using topsoil purchased from a nursery.

Once your soil structure, fertility and pH have been established, the soil should be tilled one last time, and then raked smooth.

Planting Your Vegetable Garden

Using your garden layout map which you created in the planning stages, use stakes to mark out where different rows will be planted. Build your trellises or set in stout stakes for climbing plants such as peas and beans. Create mounds on which you will put in the vining plants such as cucumbers, pumpkins and melons. Don't forget to establish your pathways early so that you won't be walking across areas which will be planted. You don't want to be compacting the soil which you have worked so hard to fluff up.

You are now ready to sow your seeds, and to put in your vegetable bedding plants. Planting depths and spacing are critical, so don't crowd to many plants into the allotted space or you may end up with spindly plants and no food. Be sure to place a tag or marker on each row or area so that you will know what to expect will sprout there and when! Water your garden thoroughly the day before you intend to plant.

Sowing Vegetable Seeds in the Garden

Stretch a string between the two stakes you set to mark the row, or use a straight piece of lumber, and use it as a guide to open a 'V' shaped furrow with the corner of your hoe. Set the depth to the recommended requirements on the seed packet. Tear the corner of the seed package off and use your finger to tap the package lightly as you move down the row, carefully distributing the seeds evenly. Larger type seeds may be placed individually in the row.

You will want to plant extra seeds in each row to allow for failed germination, and for thinning. Cover the seeds with fine soil (no clods or rocks). Firm the soil over the seeds to insure good moisture contact, and to help retain the moisture in the soil.

Water thoroughly using a gentle spray so that you don't disturb or uncover the seeds. Seeds need moisture to germinate, so it is important to keep the soil evenly moist until the seedlings are sprouted and growing. When the seedlings have emerged and developed their second or third set of true leaves, thin them as needed so that you keep the strongest plants, leaving the remaining ones spaced as directed on the seed package. It is best to thin while the seedlings are still small, so that you aren't disturbing the roots of the plants which will remain.

Vegetable Bedding Plants

If you purchased bedding plants, or started your seeds indoors in pots dig a small hole which is slightly wider and deeper than the root ball of the new plant. Water the plant thoroughly prior to planting it out in the garden to lessen the shock of transplant. Gently tap the pot to loosen the roots and remove the new plant. If the root ball is tangled and compacted, use your finger tips to gently loosen the outer roots. Set the plant into the hole sightly deeper than it was growing in the pot, and firm the soil in around it, making certain that there is good soil/root contact. Water thoroughly!

Maintaining your Vegetable Garden

  • During dry periods, vegetable gardens need extra watering. Most vegetables benefit from an inch or more water each week, especially when they are fruiting.
  • Mulching between the rows will help to control weeds, conserve moisture in the soil, and provide you with pathways to access your plants. Black plastic may be used, or you can utilize grass clippings, straw, wood chips, or garden debris.
  • Throughout the growing season be vigilante against insect pests. Discovering a bug problem early will make it much easier to take appropriate action and eliminate the pests. Do not use pesticides once the plants have fruited unless it becomes an absolute necessity, and be sure to follow the manufacturers recommendations.
  • Weeds rob your vegetables of water, light and root space. Keep them pulled out regularly (try to get the entire root) and the job isn't too bad. If they are allowed to go to seed, you may be dealing with thousands of weeds instead of a few.
  • Once you have harvested your crop, put the spent plant and other vegetable matter into your compost pile so that it can be recycled into your garden again, next spring.
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