How to Start a Vegetable Garden

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Illustration by Elara Tanguy
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.

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.”

Sheet Composting to Start New Garden Beds

Plants live on light, so covering them with any material that deprives them of light will cause them to die. When you cover the ground with a thick, light-blocking layer of cardboard or newspapers, and then add a second dense layer of grass clippings, straw, wood chips or another organic mulch, whatever was growing in the site is doomed. Sheet composting is slower than cutting and moving sod, but it requires much less work, and cardboard mulch in particular may offer special benefits to soil.

The last time I moved, I used alternate layers of cardboard and clumps of pulled weeds to reclaim some garden space gone wild, and I grew a decent crop of tomatoes in holes I dug into the compost layers. In other areas, I had to commit to dedicated digging to push back weeds and nettles, and then I piled on cardboard and held it in place with bricks and more clumps of pulled weeds. In my climate, three layers easily decomposed in one season. Plus, besides blocking light, I found that the cardboard invited activity from beneficial garden critters, such as night crawlers, crickets and salamanders.

The use of cardboard mulch is permitted by National Organic Program (NOP) standards. Brown cardboard with minimal printing is preferable because it has undergone less processing and bleaching compared with white or glossy cardboard. Thick folds of newspaper are also an option, but cardboard is easier to work with and quicker to lay down, especially when it’s wet.

At Wahatoya Community Farm in southern Colorado, farmers layer cardboard with compost and straw to build organic matter in newly cultivated space. At Seeds of Solidarity Farm in Massachusetts, farmers recently evaluated the effects of beds mulched with cardboard or newspaper. The cardboard-mulched beds stayed weed-free longer and showed more positive changes in soil chemistry compared with beds mulched with hay. According to project coordinator and farmer Rachel Scherer, the cardboard system allows the farm to run without machinery and with the labor of only one full-time farmer.

To create garden beds with this method, first mow the lawn as short as possible over the entire area where you want the beds. Then, that same day, completely cover the space with cardboard and cover the cardboard with a thick layer of an organic mulch, such as straw. After the sod is dead, you can uncover bed-sized sections and start working and amending the soil.

Creating Working Garden Beds

Now it’s time for the fun part: bringing the site to life with permanent garden beds. When deciding how to size your beds, keep in mind that 3-foot-wide beds are easiest to outfit with row covers or other accessories.

At the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation’s farm in Ardmore, Oklahoma, researchers have found that beds 40 inches wide or less are easiest to equip with black plastic mulch as well as row covers and other season-extension devices. In the interest of efficiency, they settled on 40-inch-wide beds with 20-inch-wide pathways between them for both raised and in-ground beds. The 20-inch-wide pathways provide ample room for a gardener carrying a bucket or tools, but aren’t wide enough for carts or other wheeled equipment. If you plan to use a wheelbarrow or cart as you garden, perhaps you’ll want wider paths for maneuverability. When deciding on dimensions for your setup, keep in mind that all of your beds and paths need not be the same size.

You’ll need to do some digging in your new garden beds to aerate the soil and improve drainage, and I recommend starting the process by hand with a digging fork. When the soil is moist but not wet, dig through the first bed you want to make, loosening but not turning the soil, and pull out any remaining weeds and grasses by hand.

Add Enriching Soil Amendments

After digging, spread on compost, which will bulk up the soil with organic matter and energize the thousands of life-forms that make up what’s known as the “soil food web.” If possible, you’ll want to cover your new beds 4 inches deep with compost. That may sound like a lot, but a big infusion is the best way to wake up sleepy soil and prepare it for active duty growing a garden. You can use bagged or homemade compost if you’re digging only one or two small beds. If you need more, ask around. Local organic farmers know where to buy the best locally made compost, which often comes from sustainably managed dairy or poultry farms.

At this point, you can dig in other soil amendments, too, keeping in mind that some soils in some climates have special requirements. For example, most soils in Alaska are low in available phosphorus and potassium, so bone meal and greensand are recommended amendments. In most areas, though, simply adding plenty of compost and perhaps some kelp meal (for micronutrients) should get your new garden off to a balanced start.

A soil test may be a good idea in helping you determine which amendments to add. About two weeks after you dig a new bed and amend it with compost would be a good time to take a soil test and have it analyzed through your local extension service. The numbers from this test can also give you important information about your soil’s pH, which may require a little tweaking. (See Why and How to Test Soil for more on testing your soil.)

Don’t worry if your soil still needs work. Experts say building truly rich, resilient soil often takes five to 10 years, and the process can vary depending on your climate. But even after one season of working and enriching your soil with organic matter, you’ll see a huge change for the better, and you’ll still be able to grow food in the meantime. Each year you’ll learn more about caring for your soil and crops, and your harvests will follow suit.

Quick Tips for Starting a Garden

• Use sharp tools when digging out tough weeds and grasses.
• Work your soil when it’s moist but not sopping wet. If necessary, water the spot well and then wait a bit for dry, hard soil to soften and become workable.
• Mow low before smothering vegetation with sheet composting.
• Dampen cardboard or newspapers before spreading them over the ground, and then layer on thick organic mulch.

Grow On!


For more great organic gardening guidance check out Mother Earth News magazine.

After you’ve settled on your garden site, map out your beds and the crops you want to grow with our popular Vegetable Garden Planner. It will even give you planting times for your exact location!

Contributing Editor Barbara Pleasant has been growing food and sharing her gardening wisdom with others for 30 years through articles, books, workshops and lectures. She currently tends her garden beds in Floyd, Virginia.