How to Start a Vegetable Garden

Discover labor-saving tips for how to start a vegetable garden, including choosing a good garden site, removing sod, sheet composting, and more.

  • Garden Site
    Choose a garden site that drains well, gets ample sunlight, and offers a rich layer of topsoil free of immovable rocks. Remove any sod by smothering it with sheet composting. To try this easy method, just lay cardboard on your lawn where you want your new garden beds, and then cover the cardboard with a thick layer of straw.
    Illustration by Elara Tanguy
  • Removing Soil
    Want some lawn gone? Remove soil in strips with a rented sod cutter, or dig out squares with a finely sharpened spade.
    Illustration by Elara Tanguy

  • Garden Site
  • Removing Soil

You’ve had your eye on a certain space in your yard for a while now, thinking about revamping it into a garden, and the weekend weather forecast couldn’t be better. You’ve been brainstorming what you want to grow, envisioning the harvests ahead. The time has come to dig in and discover how to start the vegetable garden of your dreams — but perhaps you’re not sure exactly how to get started. Right on time, MOTHER is here to help!

Choosing  a Good Garden Site

First, ask yourself a few questions about the potential site. Have you watched to see what happens after a heavy rain? If water doesn’t absorb into the ground or run off after a couple of hours, the site could have a drainage issue. Evaluating the sun pattern is important, too, because most veggies and herbs need at least eight hours of full sun each day.

After you settle on a site with good drainage and plenty of sun, you’ll want to gauge the depth of your topsoil, which can vary from a couple of inches to several feet. Use a sharp spade to dig a few holes about 1 foot deep in the site where you want to start your vegetable garden. Topsoil is usually darker in color than subsoil, which tends to be much harder, too. If the soil is so hard or rocky that digging is impossible, drive a rebar stake into the ground in various places to see what you hit. I’ve started two new gardens on mountainous land and have learned that I can remove rocks that are small enough to lift, but boulders are forever.

After you’ve done some poking around, choose spots with the best topsoil, avoiding any buried boulders, and begin imagining your garden’s size, shape and design. If you’re losing hope because you’ve found that your promising puddle of sun has scant topsoil or sits atop huge rocks, opt for raised beds. In-ground beds tend to work best where topsoil is deep because plant roots stay cooler the deeper they reach into the soil, but raised beds make gardening possible even in soil-less sites. (See Six Ways to Build Raised Garden Beds for more on gardening in raised beds.) If you’ve found a good in-ground site, though, your next step is to start clearing the way.

Remove Sod and Existing Vegetation

Vegetables and herbs don’t like sharing space with other plants, so you’ll need to eliminate all vegetation on the site, starting with any woody plants and invasive shrubs. As you work, be sure you’re digging the whole plants out, roots and all. If you have a number of tree seedlings and brambles to dig out, consider using a tool called a Brush Grubber, which attaches to a tractor or utility vehicle. Or, dig your way through the job with the help of a sharp mattock, machete or axe.

After the woody plants are out, take stock of what you have. You can dig out dense mats of lawn-quality grass in sheets, which won’t be difficult to do if you use a sharp, flat-bladed shovel. You would be wise to rent a sod cutter if you need to lift a lot of lawn, but keep in mind that cutting strips of the sod is merely the first step. After they’re cut, you must pick up and move the heavy pieces, which will only make sense if you have a good use for them. Factor in that using a sod cutter will cost you about a half-inch of good topsoil that holds plenty of organic matter from years of hosting grass. If you’d rather keep that topsoil, opt to kill existing sod and vegetation by smothering it, which is sometimes called “sheet composting.”

2/13/2019 8:51:53 PM

Cardboard and newspapers do not block all unwanted plants. Beds raised off the ground are the only way I can garden thanks 'in whole' to the person who planted the Trumpet Vines on the other side of my fence.

3/17/2016 6:48:16 AM

Very nice article. I've been gardening for over 30 years. Cardboard and mulch over cardboard to kill off weeds in a garden area is a great idea. Most retail stores bale their cardboard boxes but if you ask, you can sometimes find some that will keep some aside for you if you keep your promise to pick them up.

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