starting a vegetable garden

How to Start a Vegetable Garden from Scratch

Growing a vegetable garden is a great way to get fresh vegetables.  You can grow the vegetables you like and eat them right from your garden.  Fresh vegetables taste a lot better than ones from the grocery store and there are many different types you can grow together.

Growing a vegetable garden may seem a little overwhelming at first but if you follow the steps carefully, it isn’t hard. The steps include: 

  • Choosing a site 
  • Getting rid of the grass on the site 
  • Tilling the site 
  • Incorporating compost into the soil on site 
  • Doing a soil test 
  • Setting up irrigation 
  • Planning what to plant where 
  • Buying the seeds and plants 
  • Planting 
  • Fertilizing the plants so they grow 
  • Controlling Problems 
  • End of season site care 

Many of these steps only have to be done the first season your start your vegetable garden.  The ones that are repeated each growing season are not hard to do. 

Starting a Vegetable Garden

Let’s see what are the steps to follow to start a vegetable garden from scratch. Bookmark this article and come back often to read it because we keep updating it as we discover and experiment new methods.

starting a vegetable garden

1. Choosing A Site for a Vegetable Garden 

This is the most important part of starting a vegetable garden from scratch.  If the site of your garden isn’t a good site, you will struggle to grow anything.  Your site needs to have at least six hours of sun a day, be close to a water source, and be close to your house where you will see it every day. 

In addition, the drainage of the site you pick.  Do not put the garden in a place that is slow to drain after rain.  Vegetables need moist soil but do not like wet feet.  Of course, the other extreme, placing them on a steep slope, means the water will not have time to absorb before it runs off.  Look for a level area that drains well and meets the other requirements for a garden site. 

Raised Beds 

You may need to build a raised bed for your garden if your soil is too quick to drain, such as sand, or is heavy clay, such as black gumbo or red clay.  The advantage of a raised bed is that it drains well, and you can fill it with fertile soil so your plants can grow well.  You can now buy kits to make raised beds at many big box stores.  You can also purchase soil and compost there to fill the raised bed.  You put newspaper or cardboard at the bottom on the raised bed, then alternate layers of soil and compost.  End with compost on top.  It costs $150 -$200 for the lumber, soil, and irrigation for one 4X8X1 foot raised bed. 

2. Getting Rid of the Grass 

If you are not using a raised bed, you will probably have to get rid of the grass that now occupies your garden site.  There are three recommended methods for doing this. 

  • Double Dig This is the most labor-intensive method, but it is also the method with the best results.  Mark your garden site with stakes at each corner.  At one end, dig a trench one foot deep all the way across the site.  Save the soil and grass you dig up in a wheelbarrow.  Move over and dig a trench next to the original trench.  Put the grass and soil you are digging up in the first trench.  The grass should be on the bottom with the soil on top.  Continue across the plot.  At the end of the plot, dig the last trench.  Put the dirt and grass from the first trench into this one.   
  • Solar Method  Water the garden site and clear debris from it.  Cover the entire plot with clear plastic polyethylene tarp material.  Use rocks along the edge of the tarp to hold it down.  Put soil along the edges on top of the rocks so it doesn’t let out moisture or heat.  Leave the tarp down for at least a month.  The heat of the sun goes into the tarp and creates a very hot area that boils the roots to death.  The disadvantage of this method is it takes a long time to work, and it works best during the summer. 
  • Broad Spectrum Herbicide  The quickest way to kill the grass on your garden site is to use an herbicide with glyphosate in it.  Glyphosate is the active ingredient in RoundUp®.  Glyphosate is the most used herbicide in the United States.  It must be put on growing grass and weeds.  The herbicide goes down to the roots and kills them.  Any herbicide that misses the grass becomes inert upon contact with the soil, so there is no residual effect.  Generally, the glyphosate is spread over the garden plot and then spread again two weeks later.  The Environmental Protection Agency and the manufacturer of glyphosate says it is safe and effective.  There is some new research that shows that it may cause cancer, however, so use caution when using. 

3. Tilling the Site 

Before you plant your seeds or plants, you need to prepare the bed where you will be doing so. You will need to till down the site to a depth of 6 inches a couple of weeks before planting. The easiest way to do this is to rent a rototiller from an equipment rental company. Once the bed is prepared, you will be able to rake the soil instead of having to till it. 

4. Incorporating Compost  

It is important to mix in about three inches of compost into the tilled-up area.  This fertilizes the soil and it also aerates the soil.  Compost also holds water and slowly releases it to the roots of the plants around it. 

Related: How to Prepare the Soil for a Vegetable Garden

testing soil

5. Doing a Soil Test 

It is important to do a soil test at least once a year.  Ideally, you would do one before every planting season.  You can get the sample bags and the instructions from the Extension Service.  When you send off the sample be sure and mark that you are growing vegetables.  When you get your results, typically about two weeks, you will see what nutrients are in your soil and what needs to be added. 

irrigation system

6. Setting Up Irrigation 

Vegetables like for example lettuce need a lot of water.  It is not feasible to carry water in buckets.  You can use a sprinkler to water the vegetables, but a lot of the water is wasted by evaporation.  Drip irrigation is the preferred method of watering vegetables.  Drip irrigation delivers water right to the roots of the plants with minimal evaporation or waste.  Many big box stores sell irrigation equipment and have videos explaining how to install it on their YouTube channel.  Extension usually has videos explaining what you need and how to put it together on their channels, too. 

7. Planning What to Plant Where 

Before you try to plant anything, do some research.  Contact your Extension service for plants that do well in the area. Do yourself a big favor and get some graph paper.  Draw your garden plot to scale.  Now draw each crop you want to grow on another piece of paper with how many feet of this crop you will plant, also to scale.  Cut out each crop from the graph paper.  Now you are ready to plan what to plant where.  

Some crops do well when planted together. Mexican marigolds keep pests away from tomatoes. Some crops need to be as far away from each other as possible.  For example, if you plant cucumbers too close to squash, pumpkins, or melons, they crossbreed and the result tastes nasty. 

In future gardens, you will have to rotate your crops by family to keep pests down.  For example, if you plant cabbage in one area, do not plant broccoli in that area the next time.  The same pests each both, so they have a head start on the broccoli.  This can get complicated, so consult with your Extension Service to learn more. 

starting a vegetable garden

8. Buying Seeds and Plants 

Seed catalogs usually come out over Christmas for the new year.  Many people happily spend hours deciding what to plant in the coming year.  They then order seeds and sometimes transplants.   Be sure not to get too carried away and only order cultivars that work well in your area.  Order as soon as possible, as places only have so much seed and the good stuff can run out fast.  You can also go to a nursery or big box store to get seeds and transplants.  Go to someplace that sells a lot of seed so it will be fresh when you buy it.  Again, get it as soon as possible as the good stuff runs out fast.   

starting a vegetable garden

9. Planting 

Some plants grow best in one season or the other.  Plant any transplants so that the plant is at the same soil level as it is in the pot.  For seeds, the seed packet will tell you everything you need to know.  It tells you how deep to bury the seed, how far apart to space the seeds, and how to thin the seeds when they come up.  Following the instructions on the seed packet is the best way to get a good yield.  After planting everything, gently water it in.  Be sure to be gentle or you can wash the seeds away and the soil away from the transplants. 

starting a vegetable garden

10. Fertilizing the Garden 

Vegetables are considered heavy feeders.  They need to be fertilized several times during the season, so they have enough nutrients to grow the vegetable you eat.  Use the recommendations of the soil test to start.  You will often have to fertilize again at bloom or fruit set and then again halfway to harvest.  Buy a fertilizer developed for vegetables and follow the directions on the package.  Too much fertilizer can burn and even kill your plants, so more is not better. 

11. Controlling Pests and Diseases 

Most locations have their own pests and diseases.  The best way to control them is to use Integrated Pest Management (IPM).  This technique uses the least toxic alternative to control the problem.  

  • Cultural controls, such as buying tomato plants that are resistant to the tomato diseases in your area, are the first line of defense.  Planting the right cultivar for your area and spacing the plants out as recommended are also cultural controls.  Generally, cultural controls are put in place at or near planting. 
  • Biological controls consist of using natural predators of the pests you are having to control those pests.  For example, Bt is a Spinosad that infects caterpillars and kills them.  Lady beetles will eat aphids.  One thing to remember is that biological controls will not completely wipe out a pest.  If all the pests leave, the predators will starve, so the pest persists at very low levels.   
  • Chemical controls are things like fungicides, pesticides, and miticides.  They directly kill the pest.  They should be the last resort.  Chemical controls often kill bees and other pollinators as well as predators of the pest as they kill the pests.  If you must use chemical controls, use them in the evening after the pollinators have gone to bed.  Spray only the affected plants, not all of the plants.  Use the least toxic chemical that will kill the pest and be careful the chemical does not run off and get in ponds, storm drains, or other water sources.  Follow the directions on the label. 

12. End of Season Site Care: Cover Crops

After the vegetable season is finished, clean up the garden.  Take spent plants out and compost them.  Clean up any debris in the garden.  At this point, you should have bare soil in your garden. This soil is susceptible to blowing away or getting washed away.  Planting a winter cover crop such as a legume helps in two ways.  It holds the soil down and adds Nitrogen to the soil.  In the spring, you just till it under and plant on top of it. The cover crop plants add organic matter to the soil. 

Start a Vegetable Garden – Final Words

Starting a vegetable garden is not hard, it just takes work and time.  Think about the site you pick and how to get rid of the grass there.  Till the dead grass in and add compost, then till again.  Get a soil test, they will save more in the costs for unneeded fertilizers than they cost. Consult your County Extension Agent for information on what grows in your area and when to plant it.  After planting, take care of the plants with fertilizer and water.  Use IPM to control the inevitable pests and diseases, then plant a cover crop to keep your soil from blowing away. Take care of your garden and harvest its bounty. If you need help, leave a comment and we will do our best to answer your question.  If you like this article, please share it on the social media channel of your choice. 


Table of Contents