10 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Starting a Vegetable Garden

Reader Contribution by Benedict Vanheems
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Photo by Getty Images/AleksandarNakic.

Tip 1: Keep It Light

Plant most vegetables, fruits and herbs somewhere they will receive at least six (preferably eight) hours of direct sunshine daily. Some shading is beneficial in hotter climates.

Some cool-season crops, for instance spinach and cabbage, will grow well in partial shade too.

Tip 2: Convenience

Site your garden somewhere you can see it from the house. That way it won’t accidentally become neglected, as you can see what needs doing, when it needs doing.

Make watering faster and easier by growing your garden close to a water source, or install water barrels if allowed in your area.

Tip 3: Enrich Soil

Enrich your soil with regular additions of organic matter such as garden compost and manure. Manure must be composted for at least six months before using because fresh manure contains weed seeds, may harbor disease, and can negatively affect plants due to its very high nitrogen content.

Add organic matter at least once a year, but ideally more often. Simply lay it on the soil surface as a mulch. Over time, this will enrich soil, help it drain better, and make for a healthier environment for roots. Don’t rely on fertilizers – while they can be used for a short-term boost, organic matter is needed to build long-term soil health.

Tip 4: Take Your Time

Don’t plant too soon, or tender seedlings will be damaged by a sudden frost or may struggle to grow well.

In most areas your last and first frost dates define your growing season. Our Garden Planner automatically works out your frost dates based on your location, and uses this to recommend when you should be sowing, planting, and harvesting the plants in your garden plan.

Tip 5: Start Well

Once your soil has warmed up and dried out enough to become workable, it’s at last safe to start sowing outdoors. Seedbeds must have a fine, crumbly texture.

Get a head start by sowing under cover into plug trays or pots, but make sure your seedlings get plenty of light or they will fail to thrive.

Tip 6: Keep Plants Well Watered

Most plants need an average of 1-2 inches of water a week. It’s better to water heavily occasionally than a sprinkle every day. This makes roots grow deep into the soil to seek moisture, which results in more robust plants.

Plants in containers will dry out faster, so keep a close eye on them and water as needed.

Tip 7: Remove Weeds Promptly

Remove weeds regularly so they don’t have time to set seed and spread.

Using a sharp hoe, hoe close to the surface between rows to avoid damaging the roots of nearby crops. Hoeing is fast and easy, and you can simply leave severed weeds on the soil surface to wither in the sun. Hand-weed within rows.

Mulching with weed-free organic matter helps keep weed seeds that are on or near the soil surface from germinating.

Tip 8: Pick, Pick, and Pick Some More!

Some plants that produce fruits or pods – for instance beans, zucchini and tomatoes – must to be harvested regularly to keep them cropping. Stop picking, and they’ll stop producing, so check plants and pick regularly to encourage a steady supply.

Tip 9: Don’t Overdo the End-of-Season Tidy Up

Leave stems of seed-bearing plants such as coneflowers standing to help feed birds over winter. Ornamental grasses can be uncut until spring to add movement and structure to the garden as well as valuable overwintering sites for beneficial bugs such as butterflies.

Add fallen leaves to compost heaps, turn them into soil-enhancing leafmold, or use them as a winter blanket over tender perennials.

Tip 10: Take Notes

Record when, where and what you grew, and note down any pests, diseases, or failures you experience. Then plan to do better next season!

Our free Garden Journal makes taking notes and photos of your garden a breeze. Quickly and easily record when you planted, watered, tended and harvested your crops so you can compare from year to year in the future.

Get More Tips with These Great Gardening Resources

Our popular Vegetable Garden Planner can help you map out your garden design, space crops, know when to plant which crops in your exact location, and much more.

Need crop-specific growing information? Browse our Crops at a Glance Guide for advice on planting and caring for dozens of garden crops.

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