Starting Your First Vegetable Garden – Part 1

First Vegetable Garden

Start small with your first garden.

So, you’ve decided to grow your own produce this year.  Congratulations and welcome to the wonderful world of vegetable gardening!

Start small and go with simple plants. Vegetable gardens can be a lot of work, and if your first garden is too large it may be an overwhelming task to just keep up with it all summer.  If you start with exotic, hard-to-grow vegetables you may get easily discouraged. So, start with a few of your favorite vegetables and herbs and then build on your successes (and yes, failures too)!

cucumber plants for small spaces

Trellising plants saves space.

What you plant depends on your tastes, needs, space and time.  For example, in warm climates, green beans need to be picked almost daily to keep producing. If you don’t have time to do that, select other vegetables that don’t require as much time and effort to harvest, such as carrots that can be left in the ground for long periods of time.  If you don’t have much space, don’t select plants that spread quickly like squash and pumpkins. Many nurseries and seed catalogs offer small space” varieties of many vegetables including cucumbers and tomatoes.  So,  if you have limited space, look for those options. For instance, Harris Seeds offer “Salad Bush” cucumber, which is perfect for containers or small gardens.


Location, location, location . . .

Picking the right spot: Most vegetables require at least 6-8 hours of sunlight so that’s first and foremost in deciding where to create your garden. Good drainage is also important to keep the soil and plants from becoming waterlogged, so you’ll want to stay away from any spot that stays soggy for any length of time. If you have critter problems in your neighborhood (including stray cats and dogs) it might be better to work within a fenced area, or an areas that can easily be fenced with something as simple as deer netting.

Learning which vegetables are best for your location: Your geographic location, USDA growing zone and your first and last frost dates are important when selecting seeds and plants for your garden.  For instance, if you’re in Zone 4 or 5, the first frost hits toward the end of September and Memorial Day is generally the last frost date.  At Dave’s Garden, you can plug in your zip code to learn your approximate frost dates.

Most seed packages list the “Days to Germination” and “Days to Maturity.” Mail order seed catalogs will often do the same.  If you add those together, you can quickly determine if you have enough frost-free days to grow that particular vegetable.

Planning your garden

Most seed packs will include “Days to Germination” and “Days to Maturity” which will help in your garden planning

If you live in an area where your growing period is relatively short, unless you have the space and time to start your own seeds indoors, you’re better off buying tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower and eggplants as small plants from your local garden center.  Quick-growing vegetables like beans, carrots, lettuce, salad greens, kale, spinach, beets, squash, cucumbers and turnips can be grown by direct seeding (planting seeds directly in the ground).

If you’re in a climate that heats up hard and fast every summer, you can usually find plant varieties that are bred to hold up to high heat.  For instance, heat-tolerant tomato varieties include ‘Arkansas Traveler,’ ‘Solar Fire,’ and ‘Cherokee Purple.’

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post to learn more about what to plant when.


Diggin’ the Dirt

Soil preparation can be done as soon as the ground as thawed and not still soggy.  If it’s too wet, you can risk compacting it, which hinders plant growth. You’ll need to remove any grass but in doing so, it’s important to retain as much of the topsoil as possible.  Fine Gardening’s website some great tips on how to remove sod and grass.

Another option is to build a raised bed garden right on top of your grass/sod.  With this approach, you can layer sheets of newspaper or old cardboard over the areas that you’ve chosen and then build raised beds on top of those spots.  Our “Constructing a Raised Garden Bed” and “Easy Care Eye Level Garden” posts that can help with that process.

Raised veggie beds

Raised beds make picking salad greens very easy!

Extreme soil types range from sandy soil which drains too quickly to heavy clay soil which doesn’t drain well at all, resulting in drowned plants.  The best solution for either end of that spectrum is to add organic mater to the soil.  Doing that can be as simple as adding shredded leaves or purchased / well composted manure to your soil and mixing in well – either by hand or with a tiller.

Compost is the least expensive and best option for adding fiber, nutrients and microbes as soil builders.  You’ll fine more information on starting a compost pile in our posts:  “Taking the Compost Plunge” and “Compost Made Simple.


Seeds, seeds and more seeds  . . . Oh My!

Seed selection can be overwhelming process.  You can select “treated” or “untreated” seeds, pelleted seeds and seed tapes. Some seeds have been treated to protect them from specific soil-borne or seed-borne pathogens.  These treatments may be chemical, biological or hot water, depending on the pathogen involved. Seeds that have been treated will be marked as such on their packet and catalog descriptions will include that information as well.  Untreated seeds tend to be favored by organic gardeners.

Tiny seeds such as lettuce and carrot seeds are often sold as “pelleted” seeds, where each seed has been encased in a tiny pellet, making planting easier.  Using pelleted seeds can also reduce the need to thin plants that are too thickly planted – often a problem when planting small seeds.


Starting Your First Vegetable Garden – Part 2 and 3 include:

  • When to plant what – garden timetable
  • Where to plant what – garden layout and companion planting
  • Thinning practices
  • Protecting young plants
  • Nurturing your garden
  • And mulch, mulch more!

Click here to read Part 2

Click here to read Part 3

Vegetable garden


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