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How to Grow a Vegetable Garden

How to Grow a Vegetable Garden | Gardening 101 | Vegetable Gardening for Beginners | Growing Your Own - Vegetables

In my early twenties, as I was recovering from a long and serious depression, I made a list of the the things I wanted to accomplish over the next ten years.  At the very top was a seemingly simple wish: To grow my own vegetables.

Little did I know that it would take me more than fifteen years to finally make that dream a reality. As it turns out, my thumb is really, really brown.

For the past five years, my husband and I have been trying very hard to grow our own vegetables. To say we’ve struggled would be quite an understatement. I think we’ve made nearly every mistake in the gardening handbook—planted too early, planted too late, not watered enough, watered too much, let the bugs eat the plants, used too much pesticide and killed the plants, harvested too early, harvested too late, used the wrong seeds, planted too deep, didn’t plant deep enough, used the wrong soil….

In other words, if there was a mistake to be made, we’ve made it.

But much to my husband’s chagrin, I tend to be one of those people who only seems to learn from making mistakes. The more mistakes I make, the more I learn! Moreover, I am also eternally optimistic.  My glass is perpetually full (I like to round up), and I just know that if I keep trying, I’ll get it eventually!

Well.  I am happy to report that after five long years, my optimism has paid off.  This year, for the first year ever, our garden was finally a success!

How to Grow a Vegetable Garden | Gardening 101 | Vegetable Gardening for Beginners | Growing Your Own - Vegetables

And luckily for you, my failures are your gain, because now I’ve got some surefire garden growing tips to share that will hopefully allow you to avoid some of my same mistakes! Granted, I’m still learning, but here is what I’ve discovered so far about how to grow a vegetable garden (even if you’ve got the brownest thumb in the world!)

Pick the Right Location

For the most part, vegetable gardens need a lot of sun. Be sure to find a spot in your yard that has a sunny, southern exposure, if possible, & not too much shade. Drainage is also important—your garden should not be located in a low spot that might flood during heavy rains.

How to Grow a Vegetable Garden | Gardening 101 | Vegetable Gardening for Beginners | Growing Your Own - Vegetables

Dirt Matters. A Lot

Gardening is the culmination of many different factors coming together—sunlight, temperature, water, the time of year, type of seeds you use, etc. But even the best location and perfect amount of rain won’t matter much if the dirt you are planting in is no good. Rich, fertile soil makes all the difference in the world!

How to Grow a Vegetable Garden | Gardening 101 | Vegetable Gardening for Beginners | Growing Your Own - Vegetables

Depending on what you are starting with, it may take quite a bit of effort to get your soil up to par. Raised beds are great because you can not only control the soil, but the drainage as well, plus lay down some sort of weed protection barrier. We have not yet tried raised beds, but have instead dug out deep holes in our garden plot and filled them with better soil. However, next year I am thinking of using these inexpensive raised beds so that I can add a layer of newspaper to minimize weed growth.

This year we followed the “Mel’s Mix” guidelines provided in our Square Foot Gardening book, (named for the author, Mel Bartholemew), which recommended combining 1/3 compost with 1/3 peat moss and 1/3 vermiculite. Since we didn’t have any compost, we used black cow instead, which seemed to work really well. This mix is lighter than soil, retains more moisture, and has better drainage. In the past year we have also started composting, using this rotating double-bin composter, in the hopes that our soil will be even better next year!

How to Grow a Vegetable Garden | Gardening 101 | Vegetable Gardening for Beginners | Growing Your Own - Vegetables

Get Good Seeds

I did a lot more research on seeds for last year’s garden, and the one company that kept popping up on all of the “best seed company” lists, was SeedsNow.com, which offers 100% Pure GMO-Free Non Hybrid seeds, which allows you to save your seeds after harvest. This may or may not be important to you, but I like to know that in the event of some major catastrophe, that the seeds I am using are sustainable for the future, and not just for one-time use.

How to Grow a Vegetable Garden Raised Beds

Plant Well

Planting can tricky and a little bit overwhelming. First you have to figure out where to put everything! For the past few years, we had just randomly planted rows, without really knowing where to put what.

This year, however, we took a different tack and followed the square foot gardening method, which recommends dividing your garden plot into 1’x1’ squares. Depending on the crop, some squares will have one plant per square, while others will have, two, four, or even up to 16 for small items like radishes and green onions.

How to Grow a Vegetable Garden | Gardening 101 | Vegetable Gardening for Beginners | Growing Your Own - VegetablesThe Square Foot Gardening book gives some really good guidelines and suggestions for where to plant what, but I also liked using the GardenMinder app on our iPad to help plan the garden. I was able to print a map, as well as print planting instructions for each item, which was incredibly helpful!

It is also important to make sure you plant at the right TIME. This has been tricky for us here in Florida, as our growing season is very different from the rest of the country! This year it got too cold for my zucchini, but then too warm for my broccoli and cauliflower. Thus, next year I will adjust accordingly.

Fertilize, Fertilize, Fertilize

Last year I hosted a gardening event on behalf of the Home Depot. While I was there, I had a chance to chat with a few of their gardening experts, who explained that one of the biggest problems for most novice gardeners is that they don’t fertilize nearly enough!

In most cases, an all purpose fertilizer will work really well—try Dr. Earth’s All Purpose Organic or Miracle Gro Organic All Purpose Plant Food—but it is also a good idea to test your soil on a regular basis to make sure the pH level is in the correct range. A pH level that is too high or too low will seriously affect your plant growth. We use this electronic soil tester to make sure our pH levels are where they should be.

How to Grow a Vegetable Garden | Gardening 101 | Vegetable Gardening for Beginners | Growing Your Own - Vegetables

Water Often

The rule of thumb in temperate climates is that your garden should get about an inch of water per week. You can measure this with some sort of rain gauge. However, in hot climates, especially for gardens that get a lot of sun, you will have to water a lot more than that! I definitely had to water my garden at least once a day or it would start to wilt very quickly! One tip I learned from a reader on Instagram was that watering during the hottest part of the day is a very bad idea, as it can actually burn the plants!   Try watering in the morning or at dusk.

How to Grow a Vegetable Garden | Gardening 101 | Vegetable Gardening for Beginners | Growing Your Own - Vegetables

Keep The Bugs at Bay

There’s nothing worse than seeing all your hard work in the garden literally get eaten away! We had previously tried Sevin powder to repel bugs, but ended up burning our plants by using too much. However, this year we discovered that essential oils work even better for repelling bugs & pests in the garden!

For an easy, all natural bug-repellent, we simply mixed 10-15 drops each of Rosemary, Thyme, Peppermint, and Thieves with water in a small spray bottle, shaking well before each application. (Be sure to use only 100% pure essential oil—for more information, check out this THIS POST!)

Successfully growing a vegetable garden can sometimes feel like a daunting prospect, especially when you are just getting started. A few failures can make you reluctant to try again, but the truth is that gardening often takes a lot of trial and error to finally get it right. In the end, however, there is nothing quite as satisfying as being able to enjoy fresh produce you have grown from scratch!

Hopefully these practical tips from my own garden will encourage you to give it your first shot, or try it one more time. Happy gardening!

 *   *   *

Did I miss anything?  What are your best gardening tips?

How to Grow a Vegetable Garden | Gardening 101 | Vegetable Gardening for Beginners | Growing Your Own - Vegetables

20 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    April 20 at 01:43PM

    Hi, regarding the essential oil bug mixture, do you spray it on the ground around the plants?

    • Ruth Soukup
      April 20 at 07:11PM

      I spray it directly on the plants, but also around the base!

      • Jane
        April 21 at 04:18PM

        I can’t wait to try this!! This has been our main problem in the past. (We live in Florida too!) How often do you spray it on your plants?

  2. April 20 at 04:00PM

    You’ve hit the big ones! The problems I’ve seen people have had to do with the quality of soil/fertilizer and not having a sun. Essential!

    I want to start raising the quality of my seeds…and start saving them. I like the sustainability of it.

  3. Gardening teaches kids a lot. I always allow my son to plant and water and take care of the veggies. He is just 4 and so proud of himself as he feels he has accomplished something. It also depends where you live, because we have lots of snow here. However, I have a small “kitchen veggie corner” as well where I grow just green lettuce and tomatoes and other herbs.

  4. Amanda
    April 21 at 08:51AM

    I am trying something new this year, a method which comes highly recommended. It isn’t a new-fangled complicated system. In fact, it’s pretty old, and couldn’t be more simple. http://www.amazon.com/Gardening-Without-Work-Aging-Indolent/dp/1626549532 <–Here's the link to the book called Gardening Without Work by Ruth Stout. Not only is it hilarious, written by a lady in her 70s with quite a bit of wit, but I'm already seeing great results in how enriched the soil is after having a very deep layer of mulch on my garden since winter. I can't speak from experience yet, but I'm hopeful for good results!

    • Carla Schuchman
      January 1 at 04:09PM

      Isn’t Ruth Stout great? I first picked up her book decades ago and have had to buy more of them through the years to replace ones I loaned out or gave away to others. It was fun to just sit back and read the book for enjoyment’s sake alone.

  5. April 22 at 07:51AM

    Water and paying attention are my best tips. Be sure to note if the garden needs water. I always love when God does the watering though! 🙂 And I’d encourage anyone trying to garden to check it daily. Pay attention and watch the progress. There are so many beautiful scriptures about gardening. Love planting!

  6. April 23 at 09:12AM

    Ah, you don’t have to haul them around the garden perhaps get a new start off, of another one.
    Once I have gardener all the compost on top of the pile from the edge,
    I want to contrast that with the horizontal. There are few things
    more satisfying than being able to provide for their children. Don’t plow it When you notice a site.
    And I started with a little more colorful, courtesy of a group of London gardeners.

  7. April 23 at 12:33PM

    Great tips here! Last year we had aphids take over our green beans. The hubby put ladybugs on the plants but they didn’t eat the aphids fast enough;0) We ended up using neem oil to save the beans. Gardening is so rewarding though. We recently added two raised garden beds made out of cinder blocks. Our growing season is short here in the PNW but we make the most of it!

  8. April 24 at 10:52AM

    Great article! This year was my first attempt ever- I have started with lettuce, rocket and scallions! Start small is my motto!

  9. wayne
    April 26 at 10:42AM

    slugs slugs slugs …… I think they get everything before I get to see it ….. unless I put down slug pellets when planting seeds directly into the garden ….. it DOES make a difference …. the essentials oils thing … how often do you spray i.e. how long does it last ….. and I assume it needs re-spraying after rain ??

  10. Anonymous
    May 5 at 08:08PM

    is the essential oil mix also against snales? they came in armies and ate just about everything I planted :-(((((( Really sad

  11. March 28 at 09:38AM

    Some lovely tips and good ideas here! My sister just started a small garden and I’m sure she’ll be very glad to have your suggestions on mind. Definitely recommending your post to her and to some friends too. Thank you for sharing this helpful information! Happy gardening!

  12. December 20 at 02:16PM

    This is a great overall article. I personally have a square foot garden and built my own raised bed. I struggle with depression as well and it is my little happy place.

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