This guest post is from Jane Sanders of DebtManagement, a writer whose two biggest passions are gardening and personal finance.

Starting a vegetable garden can be one of the most rewarding hobbies you ever pursue. Gardening is a source of relaxation and exercise, while yielding hundreds of dollars worth of fresh and delicious produce. It’s also extremely rewarding to watch the seeds you plant and care for grow into mature plants.

If you’re ready to take the plunge and start your first vegetable garden, this article will help you understand what you’re getting into and the steps you’ll need to take to make it to that first harvest.


The garden in summer

Things to Consider Before You Start

Gardening, especially for those without experience, goes a lot better if planned properly beforehand. So before you take a shovel to your front yard, here are some important questions to consider:

What kinds of produce do you enjoy?
The ultimate product of a garden is fruit, vegetables, and herbs, so it’s important to plants crops that you’ll be happy to consume after harvest. Different types of crops also take different amounts of time and effort to harvest. In general:

  • Fruit plants are perennials, meaning that the plants live on for many years but often take years of growth before they yield any fruit.
  • Vegetables are usually annuals, meaning the plants die at the end of each season, but that they’ll yield a crop immediately.
  • Herbs are known for being particularly easy to grow so they’re usually a good choice for beginners.

When you consider a crop to plant, it’s important that you research its life cycle and requirements. For beginners, the best way to start is usually annuals, so you can to see the rewards of your labor within a single growing season. A great place to start is with herbs and salad vegetables and eventually work your way up to fruit trees and other perennials.

Which plants grow well where you live?
Different plants have different requirements in terms of soil, amount of sunlight, and level of moisture. It’s important that you research which plants can grow well in the climate you inhabit to avoid planting a crop that’s doomed from the beginning. You can search the web for this information, or even better, ask experienced gardeners in your town or neighborhood which plants they’ve had success with in the past. Gardeners are usually happy to discuss their past crops and getting local information is ideal.

How much space do you have available for planting?
Another important concern is the space where your garden will be planted. Many people are hesitant to dig up large portions of their yard, or aren’t allowed to because they don’t own the property themselves. One excellent option for beginners is container gardening. This means growing plants in pots or raised beds, rather than directly in the earth. Container gardening offers flexibility because the mobility of the containers allows you to rearrange their location, keep aggressive growers contained, move plants between areas with varying levels of sunlight, and start plants indoors before the climate outside becomes hospitable.

In you want to learn more about container gardening, Get Rich Slowly has previously reviewed The Bountiful Container, a guide to container gardening that is accessible to beginners but contains enough detail to benefit experienced gardeners.

How much time and money do you want to commit?
Like most hobbies, gardening requires an investment to get started. Fortunately, you’ll be able to get some if not all of it back from the produce you harvest. The largest investment is required when you start your first garden because you’ll need to purchase tools and supplies for the first time.

Depending on the scope of your project, the tools you’ll need might include:

  • Shovel
  • Rake
  • Tiller
  • Mattock
  • Pruners

Other important supplies include:

  • Seeds
  • Young plants
  • Fertilizer
  • Soil
  • pH Test
  • Stakes
  • Containers, or lumber and other hardware for constructing containers

While some supplies need to be purchased every year, most tools will last for many years (especially if you buy quality), so the investment you’ll need to make in subsequent years will be much smaller.

Starting a garden also takes a lot of time and effort, particularly at the beginning of the season when you’ll do all your planning, soil preparation, and planting. For this reason I recommend starting small. It’s much better to take on a bit less than you can handle than to try doing too much, getting burned out, and leaving your garden unfinished. If you do well, you can always expand the following year.


Images of summer…

Purchasing Seeds and Young Plants

The first step of garden preparation is usually purchasing seeds and young plants. The easiest way to do this is usually through mail-order catalogs or websites, but you could also buy from a local supply store.

You should consider a number of factors when putting in your order:

  • What produce you want at harvest time
  • Which plants are easy to grow from seed and which ones you are better off ordering as young plants
  • Soil temperature
  • Amount of sunlight
  • Space and soil requirements

Depending on the climate in your area, you might also want to start off your plants indoors and transfer them outside once it’s warm enough. (Obviously, it’s too late in the season to do that for 2011.) It’s impossible to say exactly what the best seed order is because it depends on your personal preferences, climate, and other unique factors. Considering all this and creating your own order is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of starting a garden.

Choosing a Location for Your Garden

The next step is choosing a location for your garden. The best spot depends on a number of factors:

  • The plants you’d like to grow. Some plants need a lot of shade, others sun.
  • The number of plants you’d like and how much space they need
  • Access to water
  • The available areas around your home
  • Aesthetics

You should research your plants and weigh the other factors when coming to a decision on where to place your garden.


J.D. and Kris dug up their yard to expand their garden in 2005.

Preparing the Soil

Once you have a space picked out for your garden, the next step is preparing the soil. This can be a laborious and time consuming process, depending on the quality of your soil and the amount of rocks and weeds in your yard. You’ll need to test the soil pH, dig up any grass and weeds that might be present, add manure or other organic material, use a tiller to mix the soil, and remove rocks and roots that could grow into weeds. You may also need to add chemicals such as sulfur or lime to adjust the soil pH. This article provides a more detailed guide to the process of digging a garden.

If you’d rather avoid this, or your soil simply isn’t suitable, you can plant your garden in containers or a raised bed. This can be a great option because the containers keep out weeds and your plants will be growing in high quality soil.

Planting

Once your garden is ready for planting, you’ll want to draw up a garden plan that specifies which plants will grow where. To do this, you’ll need to research how much space your plants will need and how they like to be planted. Some plants do better in wide rows, while others excel in thin single-file rows. Some plants should be planted in raised beds because the extra soil depth is important, others need to be planted in troughs so that they can be covered with soil as they sprout.


Raised beds (photo by johnyaya)

After you’ve made your plan, divide your rows, either by drawing in the soil or using stakes and string to make the rows. Don’t forget to rope off a walk way through your garden so you can access your plants without trampling them. Your garden should now be ready for planting.

Ongoing Maintenance

After you’ve finished planting, congratulate yourself! You’ve just completed the most strenuous part of gardening. Now that the plants are in the ground, you’ll need to conduct ongoing maintenance, which shouldn’t take more than an hour a week if you have a reasonably sized garden.

Important maintenance tasks include:

  • Watering. Forget this and your plants won’t stand much of a chance. When you bought your seeds they should have come with instructions for how much and how frequently the plants should be watered. It’s also a good idea to monitor the garden daily for signs of poor health.
  • Weeding. This won’t be an issue if you have a container garden, but if not, you’ll need to check regularly and uproot any invasive weeds that infiltrate your garden.
  • Side Dressing. This means spreading additional fertilizer around the base of your growing plants. Do some research to determine if and how often each of your crops should be side dressed.
  • Hilling. This means piling up additional soil around the stem of your plants into a “hill”. This is often done in conjunction with side dressing where the fertilizer is spread around the stem and soil is piled on top of it. Certain plants, especially root vegetables, benefit from hilling because they grow better with extra soil above the root.

As your garden grows, it’s important that you check it daily to watch for any problems. This doesn’t take a lot of time and you will catch any issues before they become bigger problems. Things to watch out for include:

  • Rotting or disease plants
  • Insects and other pests
  • Animals eating plants
  • Withering or otherwise unhealthy plants

An actual weekend harvest from J.D.’s garden in August 2006.

Harvesting

As the season progresses you’ll see your plants grow and eventually produce the fruits, vegetables, and herbs that you envisioned when you ordered your seed packets months earlier. It’s extremely rewarding to see your hard work pay off in the form of food that you grew from the earth.

When you feel that your produce is at the peak of its desirability, it’s time to harvest. Gently pick ripe produce as it matures and store it in a cool dry place in your home. If you have more than you can eat, giving some away to friends and neighbors is a great idea.

This is when you recoup your initial investment by eating fresh delicious produce for free. A decent-sized garden can easily produce hundreds of dollars worth of food each year. If you make it this far, you should give yourself a pat on the back because you’ve developed an enjoyable hobby, done good for the environment, and saved yourself money on food.

J.D.’s note: In theory, next weekend is the big garden weekend here at Rosings Park. Kris and I will attend the local garden show, and then we’ll plant most of our crops for the year. (This morning we’re at our friend’s plant swap!) In reality, the weather sucks. It’s been rotten for two months. We’re way behind. I’m not sure when the garden will get started. But I have hopes that next week we’ll be back on schedule.

This article is about Food, House and Home