How to Grow Your First Garden

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.
More about...Food, Home & Garden

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Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

This is great advice for an intermediate level garden.

I think for a first garden it’s ok to start with a little pot of basil. Maybe a few tomato plants. It’s ok to start small and basil is very forgiving.

Extensive square foot gardening is something to grow into with confidence. We’re not quite there yet.

Pamela
Pamela
9 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

You definitely don’t want to overwhelm yourself and make a gardening into a burden. But I’ve found square foot gardening easy to manage. I started with one 4 x 4 square in my front yard. Right now I have peas, lettuce, spinach, and carrots coming up. It’s a big variety and it’s plenty of produce for my small family of two. And it takes less watering than using pots. I got the Square Foot Gardening book by Mel Bartholomew and followed it to the letter so I didn’t have to think too much. I’d encourage you to check it out… Read more »

Charlene
Charlene
9 years ago
Reply to  Pamela

We are doing the Square Foot gardens this year – first time gardener here. I have NO gardening in my background, while my husband grew up on a farm. I purchased the book and made my husband pinky-swear that we would follow it exactly. He got some endorsements from friends (one of whom is a farmer doing it himself) and he just finished building the boxes. We have two – one for him and one for me. That’s just in case I kill mine we can at least eat from his! LOL I’m sticking with easy stuff: basil, peppers, squash… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago
Reply to  Pamela

Thanks for this. I’ve put this book on hold at my local library. The gardening project currently resides in my (infamous) “chore cloud” which means that without reminders it will probably get started in the mid-winter of 2021– even the pot of basil I’ve been meaning to get started.

Oh yeah. I know nothing about this. A book should help.

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago
Reply to  Pamela

We do have a small square foot garden (and have the book)– we’ve been gardening for years, just not this extensively yet. We do a little more every year. And we started with basil in a pot, which is definitely a confidence builder (not to mention rewarding on its own).

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

Oh, basil would be rewarding for sure– it smells soooooo good! If it was possible, I would mainline it.

John
John
9 years ago

I think it is interesting that I share those same two passions along with distance running and playing a musical instrument. Is there a personality type that gravitates towards deferred gratification? For success, all of them require time, work, a methodical approach, faith, and nurturing.

Peas, spinach, and lettuce should start sprouting this weekend in my cold Michigan garden.

Charlene
Charlene
9 years ago
Reply to  John

I don’t think we’re drawn to the delayed gratification (musician, writer, online marketer, and more here) as much as we’re appreciative of the journey. I get great satisfaction from conquering one piece of code, two lines of music, finding the perfect word. The final results just give me more encouragement to begin another project :> I’ve never gardened, so am looking forward to learning and implementing the steps.

Lucas
Lucas
9 years ago

I’ve bookmarked this post! My fiancee and I are moving into our first real house in June, and I’d love to start a little garden. Containers weren’t an option I’d thought of before, but after reading this article I think they’d be perfect for our space (small back yard that primarily consists of a patio) and level of experience (0).

Marilyn
Marilyn
9 years ago

Thank you for writing this article! I have some really thick window sills in my apartment that I could start a container garden with. I’m sure I can grow some basil or tomatos. Bring on the pesto!

One small problem. Actually a 10 pound problem. Kitty. Rambunctious. Possesive of window sills. Perhaps this is really a non issue I’m making into one. Solvable with a big, big pot?

RMJ
RMJ
9 years ago
Reply to  Marilyn

We have pretty much the same situation – nice porch, lots of containers with herbs, two kitties. We don’t have any trouble with them at all. They sniff and rub on the plants, but don’t eat or tear them up. In fact, they very much appreciate it – especially the catnip, which we get specially for them. 🙂

Nancy L.
Nancy L.
9 years ago

In my area, this article would be subtitled “How to feed our woodland friends”, lol. The deer, raccoons, squirrels and other beasties make quick work of gardens!

Lisa
Lisa
9 years ago

Another good idea when you’re deciding what to grow is to think about what you love to eat. There’s no point growing lots of something if you don’t end up eating it. We’re going to put in a few different varieties of lettuce this year because we eat a lot of salads in the summer.

Brad
Brad
9 years ago

Great article. Every garden starts somewhere and this year will be my first. I have a southern exposed balcony in Chicago and have been building Sub-irrigation planters (SIPs) which will minimize the amount of time I need to devote to watering. I encourage your readers to check out:

http://greenroofgrowers.blogspot.com/2008/07/how-make-two-bucket-sub-irrigated.html

I was able to score a boatload of free buckets from Whole Foods (they are just recycling them anyway)and now have 10 container planters for this year with minimal effort.

cerb
cerb
9 years ago

Talk to local gardeners and learn as much as you can from them. I live in a semi-arid climate where water is expensive and gardens often cost you money rather than save you money, where cool weather crops such as peas and lettuce are planted in the fall, and the soil is an alkaline decomposed granite. Generic gardening advice often doesn’t apply here, and that’s why it’s such a good idea to pick the brains of locals.

Bella
Bella
9 years ago
Reply to  cerb

+1 for those living in High Desert (or even low desert) it is not by default more ‘green’ to have your own private vegetable garden. And it’s definitely not more frugal if your water is expensive.
We trade with relatives who live somewhere a little more plant friendly (Portland) and by trade I mean, we buy what they have frozen or canned, leftover and bring it back, since we’re already traveling – no extra waste.
Support the local CSA, try to eat in season, sometimes recognizing good enough is all you can do.

Laundry Lady
Laundry Lady
9 years ago

This is my second year with a square foot garden, after two years of unsuccessful attempts using my own soil. The best sunlight in my yard is on the patio. Since the patio is in poor repair I put a couple of raised beds on it and the results were much better than trying to grow in the patchy shade of my yard. Even with a raised bed though, I still have to cover with chicken wire to prevent the squirrels from stealing my seeds and digging up my transplants.

Erin
Erin
9 years ago

This will be my third year of city gardening. I think I had beginners luck because I had so many tomatoes (from only 3 plants), I couldn’t give them away! Last year was terrible with plant disease and I was only able to harvest a couple dozen fruits. I’m hoping for a better turnout this year, but we’ve already had so much rain that it’s looking similar to last year (too much rain in April & May, completely dry the rest of the season).

average guy1
average guy1
9 years ago

If you want to know about self-watering container gardening, you need to look at this site (no affiliation):

http://www.urbanorganicgardener.com/

Videos on how to make all sort of self-watering containers.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago
Reply to  average guy1

This was great, thanks for the link. I think this is the way for me to get started– no building, no overwatering (my frequent sin), little investment, and fits pretty much anywhere.

average guy
average guy
9 years ago
Brandon
Brandon
9 years ago

This is a great post. Starting your own garden is a great way to go green and save some green at the same time!

Ginger
Ginger
9 years ago

I too think this is a bit too advanced for a first garden. My first garden we only bought plants as well as got a few from freecycle because seeds are harder. Also, we started with easy plants like basil and tomatoes. We did plant some mint and jalapenos that we got from freecycle but I would not have bought those for my first garden.

Frugal Living
Frugal Living
9 years ago

I tried to grow a green garden once, but it did not seem to turn out the way that I initial thought.

Michael
Michael
9 years ago

“it’s important to plants crops that you’ll be happy to consume after harvest” We’ve got a pretty decent garden (25×25 feet, plus a few extra patches in the yard) and we’ve been working on finding the right balance between what will grow well and what we’ll eat (and preserve). For example, last year we had two or three summer squash plants, and they produced WAY more squash than we could eat. We had 30 or more tomato plants though and would’ve eaten and canned even more if we had grown them. Until you actually HAVE 5 large ripe squash per… Read more »

J
J
9 years ago

Keep a lookout at lowes or home depot for broken bags of dirt – sometimes they sell them cheaper. Although home depot can be weird about it, I find sometimes they’d rather toss it in dumpster than sell it at discount – so I got to lowes when I need dirt now, mine sells them for half price

Pat S
Pat S
9 years ago

Last garden I had didn’t fare so well… I guess I don’t have the green thumb.

fetu
fetu
9 years ago

Next time you buy green onions at the supermarket…chop the root part off and plant them in a tub of soil mixed with organic matter. Then just keep cutting the leaves off as needed. You will not have to buy green onions again and have an easy garden start.

Charlene
Charlene
9 years ago
Reply to  fetu

I read that you can do the same thing with celery. Instead of pitching the base into the compost bin, bury it and water heavily. Soon you’ll have new stalks to cut as needed. I’m hoping to give that a try, in addition to the green onions. Now I’m really excited about getting my garden planted!

SB (One cent at a time)
SB (One cent at a time)
9 years ago

I still live a rented apartment, and searching for our first home. I am looking for a home with space for a setting up a kitchen garden. have you ever heard about making a compost by cultivating earthworms? Just feed them with papers and keep the place moist, you will have an excellent compost. My pots are regularly fed with the compost, and I am getting the best flowers in my neighborhood.

average guy
average guy
9 years ago

another site about self-watering containers:

http://www.globalbuckets.org/

What is interesting about this site is not particularly their design (which in some cases is similar to elsewhere) but the people behind the website, and why they are doing it. Also very nice videos.

Highly Recommended.

Brandy
Brandy
9 years ago

I noticed that you didn’t mention using natural fertilizers and I wanted to bring it up in case people don’t know about it. Chemical fertilizers can be very disruptive to the local environment, so if you can, please use natural fertilizers! Worm poop and compost can work wonders 🙂

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