How to Start a Vegetable Garden

Now that you’ve bought and read all the Michael Pollan books, you are ready to get serious about going local.  You’ve even been to the farmer’s market.  You know what good vegetables and meats taste like.  And you are ready to try creating them yourself.

Nothing will give you more satisfaction and be more local than growing vegetables in your own back yard.   But you’ve killed every aloe plant your friend has given you.  So how are you going to start a vegetable garden?

You  are going to start with confidence knowing that I am here to help you along the way.  You should know that it’s ok to fail.  I’m sure that I have made some of the same mistakes you might end up making.  Just stick to the basics the first year and keep at it every week.  You’ll have vegetables in no time and it’s going to be fun.

Here’s how you start…

Choose a Location With at Least 6 Hours of Sun

Make sure you choose a location that receives at least 6 hours of sun a day.  Leafy greens and root vegetables will tolerate less, but fruiting vegetables need a minimum of 6 hours and would benefit from more.

To be honest I’m not sure the spot I have chosen gets enough sun.  I have yet to make an eggplant fruit in my home garden despite growing them for clients regularly.

Sometimes you just have to work with the space you have.  Don’t give up if there isn’t a spot with quite enough sun.  Just try to work around it.  Trim back a few trees if you can, or arrange your plants so that the fruiting ones are in the sunniest spots.

Start Small

How much space do you want to start off with?  Starting small your first year is a good idea.  Give yourself time to learn techniques and get a feel for working in the soil.  Digging a new bed is the hardest part.  If you add on a few square feet a year, you can do the work in increments.

My first veggie garden was a disaster.  I’m really glad that I didn’t go with my desire to turn my entire yard into a garden.  Everything was new to me and an experiment. I double dug my soil, added a yard of compost and planted in about 30 square feet.  I didn’t know anything about fertilizers, or planting seeds.  After the hot dry summer there wasn’t much to show from my vegetable garden, except weeds.

By my second year I read a few books and got a gardening buddy with some experience.  It made all the difference to have someone I could bounce ideas off of.  I decided to experiment with different gardening approaches, such as Mel Bartholemew’s Square Foot Gardening.  I built raised beds this time.

Despite a long hot summer I was successful.  With just 80 square feet I had an endless supply of my favorite herbs, some fabulous tomatoes, and many other good veggies.  It was a very rewarding year.  By the end people were asking me for advice and I scored my first gardening job.

Assess Your Soil

In Texas there are many different types of soil.  Soil texture can be sand, loam or clay.  The general soil structure is usually the same throughout your region.  You may call your local Master Gardeners to find more out about regional soil types.

There are micro climates and small differences that you should become aware of.  For example, many developers have fill delivered called red death that often is very rocky and devoid of any organic matter.

Test your soil for pH.  Buy easy test kits at your local garden center.  The goal is to get your soil as close to neutral (7.0) as possible.  Many gardening articles and books will suggest adding lime to your soil.  Lime will make your soil more alkaline.  If you know that your soil is already alkaline (7.5 or higher) then adding lime will not help.

Dig Your Beds

Remember: soil is the foundation of your garden. Without good soil you will have problems with growing healthy plants, watering, and pests.

Weather you are building raised beds or not loosening your soil to a depth of two feet is ideal.  If you are building your raised beds two feet high then I would go ahead and take my digging fork to poke holes and aerate the soil under your planned bed.

Be sure to remove any weeds and especially grasses before adding your soil.  Digging up the grasses will kill most, but if the roots are still intact, new ones will sprout up in your new bed.

Discard rocks over an inch or two while digging.  Some smaller rocks are acceptable and can help drainage, but too many rocks can make it difficult for roots to stretch out and grow.  They can also get in the way of growing root vegetables and distort their shape.

There is some debate over weather or not to double dig your soil.  Proponents for double digging say that it will allow you to really aerate and loosen the soil to the desired depth while allowing for the opportunity to mix compost in at all levels.

People against double digging want you to aerate the top soil with a fork, or if you have access, a chisel plow or broad fork.  Both of those can be expensive and hard to find.  Especially if you are just starting a small home garden.  Also, this method doesn’t allow thorough mixing of compost with the existing soil.  It relies on the roots of the plants to carry the compost down to the sub soil layers for you.

I like the second method for many reasons, but for the reasons of mixing in compost and getting a productive first year in your garden I would double dig first.  Then fork in compost and other amendments seasonally.

Decide How You Plan to Amend Your Soil

One helpful hint is that compost helps every situation.  If you want to skip the testing and the books, just make sure to add plenty of compost. It helps with drainage and water retention while adding life to the soil.

Ready to Plant!

Some easy to grow plants for your first year are

Easy from seed Transplant in starts
chinese cabbage
potatoes (from seed potato)
rhubarb (from roots)
spinach (germinates slowly)
swiss chard
brussels sprouts

What are you doing today in your vegetable garden?

The Aggie Horticulture website has put together a list of dates to keep in mind when planting.  If you live in central Texas check out the Travis County planting calendar.


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