Starting to grow your own food doesn’t have to be overwhelming or difficult. Learning how to start a vegetable garden is as easy as following some steps from scratch to harvest, and this post will give you a quick overview of some easy steps to do to achieve your goal!
How to Start a Vegetable Garden from Scratch to Harvest
You may feel overwhelmed with learning how to start a garden from scratch, but really, it just takes time to learn what needs to be done, and when. Here are 25 steps that will get you from point A to point B:
- Choose the location for your garden
- Measure the space you will be working with
- Think about watering
- Build raised beds if you need to and fill
- Decide the style of gardening you will use
- Test your soil
- Amend your soil
- Start a garden planner
- Find your planting zone
- Get your first and last frost dates
- Find out what grows well in your planting zone
- Find out what grows well in your area (talk to successful gardeners near you)
- Buy seeds
- Start seeds indoors
- Build watering system
- Transplant seedlings
- Harden off seedlings
- Plant seedlings outside
- Adjust watering system if needed
- Learn to test moisture level of garden and water accordingly
- Fertilize with worm tea every two weeks
- Weed between plants if needed
- Watch for pests
- Pest control
25 Steps from Scratch to Harvest
1. Choose the best location for your garden.
When you are starting a garden, space matters. It’s not that you need a large space, necessarily, but you need the right location.
Most vegetables need full sun, so you want to choose a location that gets more than 6 hours of direct sunshine. If you live in a location that gets really hot in the summer, you may want that to be morning sunshine, rather than the blazing heat of the afternoon.
Water availability is a must. Ideally, you will want to set up some sort of irrigation system, and it helps immensely to have a dedicated source of water for your garden. Having to run water out to a “dry” area on your property can be time consuming and expensive. Not to mention, it really sucks to have to haul a heavy hose to your garden a few times per week (and if you’re like me, you won’t).
2. Choose the size of your garden.
It’s tempting to think that it’s best to start with a huge garden area, but for a beginner it’s not ideal. It’s much more prudent to master important gardening concepts before you branch out to major garden square footage.
You may find that you are able to produce what your family needs with a smaller garden, using techniques designed for gardening in small spaces.
For now, starting with a 10′ x 10′ garden will give you 100 square feet to work with. A garden this size can fit plenty of food inside of it. It will need less water. It will also cut back on the amount of weeding and tending that you’ll need to do throughout the season.
3. Consider how you will water.
As mentioned before, having a water source is a must, and will ultimately save you time and money. Consider how much time you would like to spend outside watering, as well.
If it’s “not much”, then an automatic watering system like drip irrigation is an great idea However, it is an added expense. For a smaller garden plot, the expense would be less for a drip irrigation kit. An even cheaper option would be building a system from PVC. I’ve done both, and they both work quite well.
If you are looking to save money and you love to be outside in the garden, then perhaps hand watering is more up your alley. It’s really up to the gardener’s time and money to decide whether an irrigation system or hand watering is in order.
4. Build raised beds if you need to and fill
When would you need to build a raised bed garden? When your soil is too hard to garden, such a in the case of granite soil, like at our place. What makes it hard to plant in this type of soil is the fact that most plants will experience root rot due to poor drainage.
There are other types of soil that might make it difficult to grow your food, but if you can break up the soil for an in-ground bed, you can definitely amend it.
Before you build a raised bed, you will also want to know if you have any issues with gophers, squirrels, rabbits, deer, or any other mammals that will affect the way you build your raised beds.
At our house, we have a radical case of gophers due to the heavy rains we have sustained in this area over the past couple of years. Because of this, we line our raised beds with 1/2″ hardware cloth.
We recently tried chicken wire in an area we didn’t see gopher holes, but in the past couple of years, we are seeing that hardware cloth is still the best choice.
5. Decide the style of gardening you will use
It’s best not to complicate this, but the reason I’m mentioning it is for those who are starting out small. A good choice for smaller gardens is a square foot method of gardening. This method allows for plenty of harvest from a small space.
If you are not interested in learning square foot gardening on top of how to start a vegetable garden, you are free to just follow the spacing directions for planting on the back of your seed packets.
6. Test your soil
Most areas seem to have their own type of soil. In the area we live, many properties have granite soil on top, with clay down below it. It’s not conducive at all to growing a garden, or even trees. On the other hand, when we lived about 12 minutes away from here, the soil was completely different, and much better for growing food.
Whatever soil you have, if you plant to use it for a garden, test it. This will give you basic information on what to add to your soil, and if there are any deficiencies.
7. Amend your soil
If you are able to plant directly in your ground, you will definitely want to till plenty of compost into your soil. This will add nitrogen to your soil, which really needs to be replenished every season anyway.
If your soil is prone to packing hard, it’s not a bad idea to add something to create structure and allow for easier root growth. Good sources could be wood chips (be careful, though — this can cause acidity and lower pH, and it can deplete nitrogen in the soil as they break down). A safe option would be outdoor organic raised bed soil.
If your soil is in pretty good shape already, you might be okay. Still, adding compost is needed every season. (I cover preparing soil for planting more in depth in this post.)
8. Start a garden planner
Starting a garden planner is going to be the best way to help yourself learn about your garden space, the veggies you like to grow and eat, and everything else around growing a vegetable garden.
It’s as easy as writing down what you are growing this year, what happened, and what needs to be changed next year. You can also keep drawings of your garden plans, old seed packets of plants that did exceptionally well in your garden, what worked in pest control, and myriad other things.
Having information specialized to your own planting zone, gardening experience, microclimate and eco-system of your garden will provode one of the quickest way to learn exactly what to do from year to year to grow fantastic harvests.
If you are interested in a premade garden planner, I created one that I use every year here.
9. Find your planting zone
Do you know your planting zone? This is the single most important piece of information on how to start your own garden. It will tell you when to expect your first and last frost dates, what you can plant (and when) in your area, and what won’t grow in your area. It’s valuable information!
The cool thing is that there is tons of free information on the internet for finding the information you need. To find your planting zone, you can check out the USDA Hardiness Zone Finder. There you can plug in your zip code and find out your zone number.
You can also get a planting calendar (includes info on first and last frost dates), find gardening events in your area, and visit their plants database.
10. Get your first and last frost dates
Your first and last frost dates are important to seed germination, plant growth, and harvesting times. If you plant your seeds too early, they won’t have the right temperature soil to germinate.
In the event your plant does grow, it may be stunted because of lack of sunshine or too much heat. Planting too close to your first frost date isn’t a great idea. It may cause your plant to be unable to give you a harvest in time before it freezes.
11. Find out what grows well in your planting zone
As mentioned before, you can grab a planting calendar when looking up your zone. This will help you know when you should start your plants indoors, when you can plant outdoors, and when you can harvest your vegetables. (I cover this in this post)
12. Find out what grows well in your area (talk to successful gardeners near you)
You would think that gardening and growing food would be just about checking your planting zone’s list of what grows in your area. It’s not quite that easy. It’s not hard, it’s just a matter of trial and error.
Occasionally, there are books that speak directly to the area that you live, but in all honesty, the smaller the area you study, the more accurate the planting recommendations will be.
One shortcut to the trial and error method is to connect with other gardeners where you live and ask them what has grown well in their gardens.
13. Buy seeds
It’s best to think through which garden produce would be most useful to your family. Often, new gardeners are so excited to get started and choose commonly grown vegetables. This is a good idea if your family likes to eat those vegetables. Not such a great idea if it doesn’t get used.
Once vegetables have been chosen, think about how you plan to use them. Do you plan on preserving your food? Perhaps you might think about growing enough to eat fresh, as well as put up for the rest of the year. Great vegetables for that are carrots, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs.
Where will you shop for your seeds? You can purchase non-GMO heirloom seeds at places like Botanical Interests or SeedsNOW! for a decent price. Alternatively, you can shop at the local dollar store to get them as well.
14. Start seeds indoors
You can plant seeds indoors roughly 4-6 weeks before your last frost date, which can give them a strong start before they are planted in the garden. There is a learning curve and it will save you a lot of money in the long run if you can master this.
Here’s why: Depending on which veggies you’ve decided to plant, it would be pretty easy to spend at least $30+ on these pre-grown plant starts. If $30+ doesn’t sit well with your budget, you can opt for starting your plants from seeds.
What if it’s too late to start seeds indoors?
You have a choice of purchasing plants at the local garden center, which is the obviously easier way to get your garden planted. Again, more expensive than seeds, but it’s a good option for last minute gardening.
In late winter and early spring the garden centers are chock full of 6-packs of various easy-to-grow plants that are perfect for the beginning or seasoned gardener. I do that sometimes, but inexpensive options for what I want aren’t always available, depending on the time of year.
If it’s warm enough, you can plant your seeds outdoors. As an added advantage, starting seeds directly in the soil will cut down on transplant shock, which matters for plants like squash varieties.
15. Build watering system
If you have chosen to build an irrigation system, I’m going to high five you right now. For me, an irrigation system is the difference between a live garden and a dead one.
There are some decent options for watering systems, like the DIG or Rainbird (and other) systems, which can be expensive, but they are super versatile. You can get these in kits which I recommend for first time users.
Less versatile, but also way less expensive is a PVC drip irrigation system. All that’s needed is a few PVC pipes and connectors, a drill, a hose, and some way to connect the hose to the system. It’s no more labor intensive than setting up one of the abovementioned systems, just different. It’s also easier to change up if you want to.
When you build your system, you will want to consider what kinds of plants you are planning to grow, and build your system accordingly. If you are going square foot gardening, you will need to get water to each square foot. If you are planting in rows, you will need to make sure to place your holes or emitters the same amount of space apart as you would your plants.
16. Transplant seedlings
You will likely need to transplant your seedlings up at least once before you plant them in the garden. Here’s those instructions. Care for them until they are about 4-6 weeks old, or until your last frost date.
17. Harden off seedlings
Once your seedlings are nice and strong, and your last frost date has passed, you’ll need to harden them off to acclimate them to the outdoors. You can then plant them outside in your garden that you have prepared.
18. Plant seedlings outside
Once the frost has passed and there is plenty of sunshine, it’s time to plant. When it’s time to plant your seedlings in the garden, you can use these instructions, and for more a few time saving ideas for the busy homesteader, you can check out this post.
Make sure you consider where your irrigation system holes/emitters are, and plant your seedlings near those.
19. Adjust watering system if needed
If you built your irrigation system and need to adjust it some, you can do that now. It’s best if you don’t have to do this step, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Take care of that now.
20. Learn to test moisture level of garden and water accordingly
Different plants will have different water requirements. Mostly, you can put everything on the same watering system, but you won’t want to over or under water your garden or you may lose some of your precious plants.
If you want to check your garden for water needs, you can pop your finger into the soil a couple of inches down. If the soil is wet, you can skip watering. If not, go ahead and water.
I tend to opt for watering for a short time every day, but that’s not the best way to get your plants’ roots well grounded. Watering a 1-3 times per week for about 10-20 minutes should be a good place to start. After a while, you will be able to tell what works best for your garden and adjust accordingly. (This is a great time to mention jotting things down in a garden planner again.)
21. Fertilize with worm tea every two weeks
Fertilizing every couple of weeks is a good idea, and worm tea is gentle enough for seedlings, and nutritious enough for large plants. It’s an all-around great thing to use, and can be easily made (recipes here).
22. Weed between plants if needed
If you are using the square foot gardening method, you will not need to do much weeding because the plants will be closer together than with traditional garden layouts.
However, it’s a good idea to keep up with weeding every week to make sure the weeds aren’t stealing nutrients from your plants, or dropping seeds in your garden (this happens after they flower).
If you are getting a lot of weeds, you may want to consider mulching. (Info on that here.)
23. Watch for pests
Take a stroll around your garden every morning if possible, or at least every week. Early morning is the best, when it’s light. Examine the tops of your tomato plants to see if you can spy any hornworms eating the leaves.
Look at the base of your plants to see if you have ants around your plants, because if you do, it’s a good chance they are harvesting aphid nectar.
Which brings me to aphids — check the back of your zucchini and other squash leaves for clusters of tiny little bugs by the spines of the leaves. These are probably aphids and will need to be removed from your plant.
24. Pest control
Did you find some pests? Here are a few videos that might help:
Now that you know how to start a vegetable garden, get started today! And don’t forget that I have my vegetable Garden Planner that will help you keep your gardening notes together in one place!
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