Starting a Home Vegetable Garden
One of the silver linings of the COVID-19 cloud is that it has put food security issues in the spotlight and motivated many people and community groups to start vegetable gardens. For those with limited or no prior gardening experience, it can be a daunting task. This article presents basic guidance to help new gardeners get started, at a scale and style that fits available space and commitment levels.
Gardening can be fun and satisfying, but it requires dedication. Starting small and manageable is a good idea. Learn as you go and grow the garden as you learn.
Sunlight is a critical variable for every garden. A minimum of six hours of direct sun per day is recommended.
We have three somewhat separate, if overlapping, growing seasons in Virginia. Cool weather annual vegetables can be grown in the spring and fall. Warm weather crops grow during summer into fall. Edible plants like asparagus and strawberries can be grown as perennials. Even a small garden, well-planned, can provide fresh produce for most of the year.
The article presents three garden style options, one of which will be appropriate for most aspiring vegetable growers:
- Container Gardens: If space or ambition is limited, a productive container garden can be assembled on a balcony, deck, patio, or just about any area so long as it receives 6 or more hours of direct sun per day.
- Raised Beds are appropriate for a range of outdoor garden spaces. They can be built from many different materials, sized to fit available spaces and made attractive in appearance. They offer a convenient way to build excellent soil quality, while minimizing weeding, watering and maintenance effort.
- In-ground gardens can be maintained in a conventional row style or utilize a permanent bed arrangement, with paths between the beds. Many organic market farms operate using permanent in-ground beds with grass or mulched paths to provide access. Rows are good for more mechanized practices but are less space efficient. Beds require manual tending. Like raised beds, permanent in-ground beds lend themselves to intensive planting to maximize production for a given space. Permanent paths prevent walking on growing areas, reducing soil compaction.
Growing vegetables in containers is a good option for restricted spaces or as an easy-to-access addition to larger raised bed or in-ground gardens. Containers can be quite attractive, using companion planting techniques where a mix of plant sizes and colors are arranged with presentation in mind. Since they can be located close to living spaces, they offer easy access to herbs and other often-used crops.
Important issues include:
- Sunlight: Six hours of direct sun per day is a practical minimum for successful growing. Leafy greens might get by with a little less, but fruiting vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and eggplants like at least eight hours.
- Container selection: Containers can range from 12-inch diameter flower pots to half whiskey barrels. Depth is an important consideration. Crops like lettuces, spinach, chard, and most herbs require at least eight inches of soil depth for root growth. Larger plants like peppers and tomatoes prefer a minimum depth of about 13 inches and a diameter of at least 15 inches.
Bigger is generally better. It allows for freer root growth and requires less frequent watering. Containers can be purchased, built, or recycled. All containers need drain holes. Wood, clay, and unglazed ceramics require more frequent watering than plastic or glazed ceramic pots.
- Soil: Commercial soilless potting mixes are a good choice. They are loose, lightweight (a help if pots are moved), pH adjusted, pest and disease free, and can be purchased with a starter dose of fertilization included. Do it yourselfers can create a good potting mix with 1/3 compost, 1/3 perlite or vermiculite, and 1/3 potting soil. Vermiculite and compost retain moisture, reducing watering requirements
Raised beds are a flexible and efficient option that can fit many circumstances. Beds can be raised as much as six inches above ground level without any sidewalls. Taller beds can be bordered by wood, stone, block, logs, or other materials. Untreated softwoods have about a 5 year life. Cedar and redwood are about double that. Treated wood has a relatively long life and is ok if it is type ACQ (Alkaline copper quaternary). Don’t use treated wood types CCA or ACA, which are treated with arsenic. Don’t use creosote-treated wood.
Whatever bed height you choose, loosen soil to about a 12-inch depth to avoid limiting root growth. Higher beds require more side support material and more soil to establish, but also require less bending to reach soil level.
Bed length is flexible but they should be 4 feet or less across for 2-sided access and 2 feet across for single-side access. Goal is to reach all parts of the bed without having to step onto the soil. Beds should be level to minimize runoff and erosion.
It is a good idea to calculate the volume of soil you will need to fill the beds and price purchase options. Bags of garden soil from a garden supply outlet make sense for smaller projects. For larger requirements purchasing bulk garden soil from a reputable source is more economical. In any case, add organic matter in the form of compost, manure (not from pets), or mulched yard wastes like grass or leaves. Organic matter fuels the soil organisms that release soil nutrients to plants, while improving water infiltration, soil structure, and the bio-diversity that helps manage pests.
Considerations for an in-ground garden include:
- Choose level ground with loose, well-drained soil and 6 or more hours of sun per day. In the Virginia Piedmont, our soil is typically clay, neither loose nor well-drained. The soil can be fixed, but the sun likely can’t.
- If slopes are the only option, establish beds across the slope and terrace them to minimize runoff and erosion. Use wood, stone or similar materials to support the soil on the downhill side.
- Maintain distance from trees or shrubs that will compete with the smaller vegetables for water and nutrients.
- Avoid unprotected windy areas and the bottom of slopes where colder air collects.
- Locate near a water source. Hauling water to the garden during summer heat is a serious de-motivator.
- Consider fencing needs. Different varmints require different fence mesh and heights. A three-foot high fence can keep rabbits out, but deer require something closer to eight feet. Squirrels and chipmunks can circumvent just about anything. If you plan to expand the garden over multiple years, but need to fence in year one, fencing the larger area now and increasing the cultivated area over time may make sense.
- Garden size:
When we moved into our current house, five years ago, I built four 4×6 foot raised beds. We grew tomatoes, lettuce, greens, carrots, and cucumbers.
This year we built the garden in the design sketch at left and photo at right. It has grass access paths, permanent in-ground beds, and is 480 square feet total. By succession planting in spring, summer and fall, it will supply plenty of vegetables for a family of four for much of the year.
- Soil Preparation:
- The one time that tilling may be recommended is when starting a new bed. It provides an opportunity to loosen compacted soil and add organic matter, a critical step to building soil health. This can be done with a tiller, or by turning the soil with a shovel. The turf can be scraped off and composted, or turned under and allowed to decompose. Working chopped up leaves into the soil at the same time is a good idea. Give them a few weeks to break down before planting.
- Another option is occultation. This requires scalping the grass with a lawn mower and covering it with a black plastic tarp for several weeks to kill grass and weeds. Remove the tarp, rake off dead vegetation, cover with several inches of compost and plant into the compost.
- A third option if you have six months to a year before planting is sheet or lasagna mulching. This requires alternately layering organic carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials to a foot or more high, and letting soil organisms decompose the organic matter while carrying it below the surface. When it is decomposed, plant into the surface material.
- Getting a soil test prior to planting is important. They are an inexpensive way to learn what the soil requires in order to provide needed plant nutrition. Call your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office to get a sampling kit and advice for testing your soil.
Advice for All Garden Styles
What to plant
- Plant what you like to eat
- Plant amounts based on your intentions to eat fresh and/or to preserve (can, freeze, dehydrate etc.) some of your harvest.
- Items like salad greens can be planted in stages. A new planting every two weeks will provide a steady supply over an extended period.
- Starting with seeds is inexpensive, but requires more attention until seeds germinate and plants become established. Transplants, while more expensive up front, provide more certainty and faster time from planting to harvest.
How to plant
- Prepare seedbeds by driving a digging fork into the soil as deep as possible, and rocking it back and forth to loosen compacted soil while minimizing damage to soil structure and organisms. Remove debris from the surface and rake smooth.
- Follow seed depth and spacing directions from the seed packet. For intensive planting, ignore row spacing and use seed-to-seed spacing in both directions. The goal is to space plants so that mature vegetation of adjacent plants just touches, shading soil and reducing weed growth.
When and How Much to Plant
- In the Virginia Piedmont, Hardiness Zone 7a, we have three planting times each year: spring, summer and fall. Cool weather crops, including lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, greens, and cabbage family crops, can be planted as early as March 1 for spring harvest and again in early- to mid-August for fall harvest. Summer vegetables, including beans, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and eggplant require warm soil and are damaged by frost. Planting time is late April and early May for summer harvest. The Virginia Cooperative Extension publication Virginia’s Home Garden Vegetable Planting Guide provides planting times for many vegetables and suggests quantities for each.
Where to plant
- Place taller plants on the north side of the garden to avoid shading shorter crops
- If vining crops like peas, snap beans or cucumbers are trellised, a good space saver, be careful not to shade smaller plants.
- Vine crops like melons and squash whose fruits are too heavy to be grown on a trellis need a lot of space and shouldn’t be squeezed into a small area.
- Companion planting, grouping certain different items together, can provide benefits, including diversifying soil nutrient demands, reducing pest problems, and increasing yields for a given space.
- Intensive gardening methods, including close spacing, vertical gardening, inter-planting, and succession planting help get the most production from a given area.
- Keeping a journal is a good idea for planning space use and guiding future crop rotation, an important practice to minimize year to year soil borne disease transmission.
- After seeds are planted, keep them moist until germination. Once moistened, if they dry out, they will likely not germinate. Maintain moisture for seeds and transplants until plants are well established.
- Transplants germinated indoors should be introduced to the outdoors and direct sun in small doses over several days to allow them to adjust to outdoor conditions.
- Rule of thumb is that plants require about an inch of water per week, including watering and natural rain. Fewer, deeper waterings are better than multiple surface sprinklings. More during dry periods. Raised beds require more water than in-ground, and containers require more than both. Unglazed ceramic, clay, and wooden containers require more water than glazed and plastic containers.
- Water the soil, not plants, and avoid splashing onto plants. Splashing can transmit soil diseases to otherwise healthy plants. Mulching can help reduce soil splash.
- Potting soils may or may not include plant nutrients. Fertilization will likely be required during plant growth. Most vegetables are moderate feeders. Cucumbers, squash, and tomatoes require more fertilization. Potting soils likely don’t have thriving organism populations, so synthetic fertilizers make sense. Raised and in-ground beds with added organic matter will have an active soil food web, and organic fertilizers provide a natural slow release food source. Organic fertilizers will be identified on package labelling and include blood and bone meal, cottonseed meal, fish emulsion and other materials that are derived from once living things.
- Weeding is very important to prevent invaders from stealing moisture and nutrients from crops. Pull or scrape them out before they set seed and compost them for adding back to the soil later.
- Mulching, after plants are established, will help conserve soil moisture and keep weeds down. Straw, mulched leaves, grass clippings, and weathered wood chips all work and will also help build soil as they break down.
- Plants are focused on reproduction. If vegetables are left on the plant after maturity, the plant sees its job as done and stops putting energy into continuing to create fruit. Harvest when vegetables are just ripe and remove damaged or diseased items to keep plants producing.
- Spend time in the garden regularly, inspecting plants for pests, disease, or other issues. Yellowing leaves may indicate a need for nitrogen fertilization. Pests like cabbage worms, squash bugs, and cucumber beetles can destroy a crop and spread disease. There are organic pesticides to treat invasions, but the best way to start dealing with them is to pick them off plants and squish or drown them. The internet is a good resource for identifying pests and prescribing solutions. Practice Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which advocates management of problems using the least toxic solutions first.
- Greens and root crops are not grown for fruit, and don’t need pollination. But other popular vegetables like tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, squash, peas, and others that produce a fruit containing seeds, must flower and be pollinated. Make your eco-system attractive to pollinators by adding flowering plants. Consider using native plants that appeal to native pollinators.
Give Vegetable Gardening a Try!
I hope that trying to make this article comprehensive hasn’t made vegetable gardening seem complicated. There is a lot to it, but after you get a basic understanding, it makes sense. Both Virginia Cooperative Extension and North Carolina State Extension have produced publications that address multiple aspects of starting a garden and are good references.
Vegetable gardening can be fun. For many of us, the garden is a refuge. It promotes healthy eating and connects us with our environment at a time when it is existentially important. If you are still tentative, start small. But please, start.
Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, Planning a Garden, https://agrilifeextension.tamu.edu/library/gardening/planning-a-garden/
U of Maryland Extension, Planning a Vegetable Garden, https://extension.umd.edu/hgic/topics/planning-vegetable-garden
NC State Extension, Vegetable Gardening: A Beginner’s Guide: https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/home-vegetable-gardening-a-quick-reference-guide
VCE, Home Vegetable Gardening, https://ext.vt.edu/lawn-garden/home-vegetables.html https://growforit.ces.ncsu.edu/2020/05/container-gardening-is-for-everyone/
NC State Ext, Create a Container Garden https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/how-to-create-a-container-garden-for-edibles-in-the-north-carolina-piedmont,
VCE, Diagnosing Plant Problems: https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt_edu/426/426-714/426-714.pdf
West Virginia University Extension, Companion Planting Chart: https://extension.wvu.edu/files/d/0b887573-5fcf-4d17-a47f-6de7465ad0a8/berkeley-horticulture-companion-planting-chart.pdf
VCE, Container and Raised Bed Gardening, https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt_edu/426/426-020/426-020.pdf
VCE, Intensive Gardening Methods, https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt_edu/426/426-335/426-335.pdf
Crop Rotation Tips for Vegetable Gardens, Robin Sweetser, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, October 3, 2019, https://www.almanac.com/news/gardening/gardening-advice/crop-rotation-tips-vegetable-gardens
VA Cooperative Extension, https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-708/426-708.html, Integrated pest Management for Vegetable Gardens, https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-708/426-708.html
Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, Fertilizing a Garden, https://agrilifeextension.tamu.edu/library/gardening/fertilizing/