Vegetable Gardening for Beginners

By The Petite Plantation - April 17, 2020

Starting your own backyard garden is rewarding to say the least. Not only does backyard vegetable gardening supply you with fresh nutritious homegrown produce, it has proven to lower stress and make people generally happier.

Getting started growing your own vegetable patch can be simple and inexpensive. In this Vegetable Gardening for Beginners guide, you’ll learn how to grow your own food in a variety of styles and will have the tools you need to grow a successful veggie patch!

Vegetable Gardening for Beginners | Understanding your Hardiness Zone

Understanding your Hardiness Zone

The first step to growing a successful vegetable garden is to know your Hardiness Zone because this determines what you are able to successfully grow to maturity in your area. It would be disappointing as a new gardener to sow tomato or pepper seeds in your garden only to find out your season wasn’t warm enough or long enough to actually harvest tomatoes and peppers from the garden.

These hardiness zones are determined by the average lowest temperatures of winter and are divided into bands across the continent or zones.You can find the US Hardiness Zone Map here and the Canadian Hardiness Zone Map here.

Once you know your zone, you can now find out which plants grow best in your area! This information can usually be found on the seed packages you purchase or on the seed information section when seed shopping online.

I like to choose seeds that will grow food that our family will actually eat or preserve for the winter. If you are unsure of what to grow, check out this post on Easy Vegetables to Grow for Beginners!

Building your Veggie Garden

Building your vegetable garden can be as simple or complicated as you wish or your budget will allow. You could build raised bed boxes, plant in containers on your patio or till up a patch of lawn to get started. We will discuss the benefits and challenges to all three below!

Raised Bed Gardening is great for those who enjoy clean lines, have poor soil, or want their garden to be raised for ease of use. Garden boxes can be built in sunny locations with lumber, logs, rocks, and metal you have laying around home.

The challenge with raised bed gardens is if you don’t already have materials laying around to build boxes or have soil and compost to fill the boxes, it can become very expensive. I like to build my raised bed gardens to be 4 feet by 8 feet. This ensures I can reach the middle.

To lower the cost of soil, fill the bottom of the raised garden boxes with old logs, branches, sticks, cardboard and straw before topping with compost and soil. This is called Hugelkultur Gardening. All this organic material will decompose inside over time and feed your raised garden bed compost for many years to come! 

Container Gardening is fantastic for people growing on a patio or a rental home! You can take just about any container, add some drainage holes on the bottom and fill with potting soil to start growing! The possibilities are endless!

The only disadvantage I can think of to growing in containers is that the soil tends to dry out quicker and is harder to keep moist. One way to remedy a dry container is to take a clean empty wine bottle, fill it with water and quickly shove it upside down into the soil. The soil plugs the opening of the bottle enough that the water won’t run out, but slowly releases water over a period of time.

Vegetable Gardening for Beginners | Planning Your Garden Layout

In-Ground Gardening is the simplest way to start gardening because the soil is already in place. If you have a sunny lawn, you can have a garden! Simply dig up the grass or sod and turn it upside down, or grass side down. The grass will decompose quickly and offer your first garden lots of nitrogen to grow lush green vegetable plants. In the following years you will want to amend your garden with compost to ensure there are enough nutrients in the soil for your plants to thrive.

The disadvantage to in ground gardening can be weeds or grass creeping in on your garden and competing with your vegetable plants. Don’t fret though, regular wedding and adding mulch like wood chips, grass clippings or cardboard will surprise weeds and protect your plants from competing weeds.

Planning your Vegetable Garden Layout

Planning your vegetable garden layout is a step you don’t want to skip! Grab a piece of paper, or my Garden Planner here, and draw out your garden! When choosing where which veggies will go where, consider the following:

How much room does this plant need? 

Refer to the seed packet to ensure you have enough space for the number of plants you want to grow. For example, one broccoli plant will need about one square foot of garden space. So if you want more than one dinner of broccoli, you’ll need more room allotted for more plants.

How tall will this plant get? 

Again, refer to your seed packet and use the plants height to your advantage! For example, growing a row of bush green beans can create a nice canopy for lettuces which don’t do so great in the heat of summer. Another example is corn, try to plant your corn in an area that will not cast a shadow over the rest of your garden or on the most north area.

How long does it take to grow to maturity? 

This will also be found on the seed packet but is super helpful if you want more than one harvest. Let’s use green bush beans as an example again. You can plant an entire row of bush beans but they will all grow to maturity at the same time. If you divide you allotted space for green beans into three sections, you can plant them in ‘successions’ two weeks apart. This ensures you have green beans ready to harvest for dinner all summer rather than all at once!

To learn more about planning your garden, I have a post right here that explains How I Garden Plan.

Vegetable Gardening for Beginners | Basic Companion Planting

Basic Companion Planting

If you are feeling confident and comfortable with your green thumb, consider adding and extra element to your garden plan with companion planting! If you are feeling overwhelmed already, know that you can still just plant a seed and it will grow and it’s magical every time.

Companion planting won’t necessarily increase your odds of growing a successful garden, really. But it does slightly influence your plants growth and help attract pollinators to your garden.

There is a handy Companion Planting Chart included in my Garden Planner here.

An historical example of companion planting is the Three Sisters. In a mound, planting squash, pole beans and sunflowers together. The pole beans climb the tall sunflowers and the squash compliments the beans. But the simplest way to companion plant is to add marigolds, sunflowers and calendula to your garden to draw in more pollinators to pollinate plants like Zucchini and Cucumbers that rely on pollination to grow their fruit.

Starting plants from seed

In this section of the Gardening for Beginners Guide we are going to share all our best tips for starting your vegetable plants from seed but don’t feel pressured to start your vegetable plants from seed for your first gardening season. If you have a local greenhouse with plant starts available, take advantage of that! As your experience and confidence in gardening grows you can expand your skills and start from seed.

Once you have planned your garden and shopped for seeds you are ready to grow! You can find trays of seed starting pots, biodegradable pots or Jiffy Pods from your local gardening or farm store. You could even repurpose individual sized yogurt containers! Just be sure to use cleaned containers with drainage holes and a good potting mix. Potting mixes don’t actually contain any soil, but consist of a sterile growing medium that keeps the right balance of drainage that minimizes the risk of disease on your seedlings.

Refer to your seed packets for planting instructions, it will tell you how many seeds to plant in each little pot and how much soil should cover the seeds to ensure it germinates. It doesn’t have to be precise but planting too deep could exhaust the seeds ability to poke through the surface. I like to plant a couple of extra seed in each pot just to be sure. Keep your seeds moist but not saturated and in a warm spot on the top of your fridge or next to your wood stove.

Once your seeds have sprouted, move them to a warm sunny window to grow. Your vegetable plants don’t need artificial lighting if they are placed in a sunny window. They will still grow and produce fruit, although they will be stronger and less 'leggy' if you choose to supplement their light supply with a grow light hanging a few inches above. I don’t use supplemental lighting because we are off grid with a humble solar system.

Once your seedlings have grown a second set of leaves, also known as the ‘true’ leaves, you can pick the best looking seedling and trim any extra seedlings in each pot. This is also a good time to 'pot up' your plants starts into larger containers. This gives them more room to grow roots and gives them a boost of nutrition in fresh potting soil.

Vegetable Gardening for Beginners | Starting from seed

Hardening off your Vegetable Plants

Hardening off your plant starts is a process of gently transitioning them from your warm home or greenhouse into the garden where temperatures fluctuate more and they aren’t protected from the sun. If you simply place your plant starts outside and leave them, they could get sunburnt, or die from shock but if they are hardened off properly they will thrive in your garden.

You can start hardening off your vegetable plants about a week before your last frost date. I always turn to google to find out this date. This date will let you know when it is safe to plant your young vegetable plants outside without the risk of frost killing them.

Stop watering your plants about 2 days before you are going to start hardening them off. On the first day in the warmth of the afternoon, place them in an area sheltered from sun and wind for an hour them bring them back inside. On day two, leave them for two hours, on day three for three hours and so on. Each day as you increase the length of time outside, also increase the amount of sunlight they get. After about 10 days of hardening off they will be ready to plant outside!

If the temperature is going to dip down really low during this time, you can leave them inside or cover them with a plastic bin or greenhouse plastic and water them as they need it.

Transplanting your Vegetable Plants into your Garden

It's time! Your vegetable plants are ready to join the garden! I like to wait a few days after my last frost date before transplanting into the garden to ensure I don't lose any plants. I mean, it's taken weeks to get to this point and I want to play it safe!

Choose a cloudy day in the forecast to transplant to lower the shock the plants will experience. Dig a hole that is slightly bigger than the pot and place the plant inside. Fill the space between the plants roots and your garden with some earth and gently compress the soil around it. Try not to bury the stem of the plant any more than how it grew in the pot. Although, when transplanting tomatoes, I will dig a much deeper hole and plant it so the first set of leaves are just above the ground. The little hairs on the stem of tomato plants will grow into roots and this will grow into a stronger tomato plant. 

Be sure to water your transplants well and check on them often. You can expect a little wilting but they should perk back up.

If you would like a little guidance on growing a vegetable garden, I really do recommend getting my Garden Planner here. This will help you determine what your garden goals, will help you layout your garden, keep track of when you should sow, transplant, harden off all your seedings and has a journal you can look back to over the years to help you keep track of certain dates like frosts, or heavy rainfall.

Happy Planting!

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