If you’ve ever dreamed of growing your own vegetable garden, there’s no better time than now to get started.
The sun is out, the temperature is climbing and the trees and flowers are budding everywhere you look.
But, before you get started, there are 5 essential steps you must take before taking the plunge.
Skip these steps and you’ll end up wasting more time, money and energy than it’s worth.
But take the time to go over these 5 steps and you’ll be reaping such a bounty of vegetables you’ll wonder why you waited so long to get started.
Five Tips for Starting YOur Vegetable Garden
1. Learn Your Soil
Before you begin digging in that garden of yours, be sure to figure out what type of soil you’ve got.
Believe it or not, there are 6 distinct soil types:
Although many of us newbie gardeners would think that dirt is well…. dirt… think again.
Little did I know realize at the time how important the soil composition is to a garden-it’s literally what can make or break your crop.
My Failed Lesson in Soil Management
I didn’t realize that I had what you’d call a very clay like garden soil which is great for hydrangeas and rhododendrons and mint (Oh boy, do I have mint!), but not so great for veggies like tomatoes or basil.
These type of seedlings need a more loamy (Yes, you read that right. L-o-a-m-y. Like “foamy”) soil.
Loamy soil lifts up easily, is fluffy and therefore aerates well. This is the kind of soil that worms love and therefore many of your veggies will love.
Clay soil, like mine, can stay too compact thereby freezing my tender seedlings to death. After I killed off most of the herbs I’d planted my first year, I purchased planter boxes like these instead.
Rather than go through the hassle of mixing in a little bit of sand, peat moss and compost, the way many professional gardeners recommend, I found it easier to dump some pre-mixed soil bags into planters like these.
2. Watch for Soil Drainage and Erosion
Another thing to figure out besides which type of soil you’ll need for your garden is to figure how your garden “sits”.
This will determine how well your garden will drain out water and erode over time.
Before I realized that my garden was set on a slight downward slope, I watched as my rich composted garden soil just washed away…
Talk about seeing your money (not to mention your efforts) go down the drain!!!
This is why I prefer to take the “garden-in- a-box” route.
These planters are really easy to set up and helps you get started right away. The only caveat to this is that they’re not cheap and depending on what you get, the wood will deteriorate over time.
The other expense you’ll have to consider is that the soil even in these planters will deplete over time–especially if you leave them uncovered during the off seasons.
This is why I suggest that you start with one or two at most and then add a few more each successive year as you gain more insight and experience.
3. Study Your Light Patterns
One major reason why many vegetables gardens fail in the beginning is that novice gardeners haven’t taken the time to study how the sunlight moves throughout their garden each day.
The thing about natural light is that it changes over time and from season to season.
I failed to factor that in when I first started growing herbs in my garden and realized much too late that too much sun for too long can literally burn these plants to death–especially during extreme temperatures.
So even though my climbing vine veggies, like my cucumbers, thrived the hotter and sunnier it became, the basil and tomato plants next to them just wilted away.
In retrospect, the other mistake I made was that I planted way too much tomato and basil. Notice how those tomato plants are all scrunched together in that photo?
3. Grow Only What You Can Eat and No More
If there’s too much of a good thing in gardening, it’s growing more than you can eat.
Last year, I grew so many cucumbers, my neighbors and friends had to fend me off from pushing more veggies on them than they could handle (Oh more cucumbers? Oh….No… I really couldn’t…).
Although I did end up pickling most of them and enjoyed them for many months after the growing season,
I highly recommend only growing what you can eat and moreover, what you’d use up.
For instance, I found that having a ready supply of scallions and Korean lettuce last year, something I use day in and day out, was sheer joy.
But having too many sugar snap peas on the other hand? Especially when we don’t eat them as much daily? This wasn’t as good–even though I ended up making a lot of sugar snap pea side dishes out of them.
I’d have much preferred to use that patch of dirt for those veggies that my family couldn’t get enough of– like squash or eggplants or even peppers. Ohhh, those peppers…
The same goes for those mangle of tomatoes I mentioned earlier.
Even though the previous year I made a huge batch of home made salsa out of those tomatoes (my mouth is watering just thinking about them!) all I got out of the crop last year were just a bunch of unripened green tomatoes no one wanted–not even my resident groundhogs!
4. Learn Your Zone
THE one thing that you must know before you sow anything in your garden is to figure out which zone you live in.
As my failed tomatoes taught me last year, one good yield will not guarantee another successful crop the following year.
This is why it’s important to know when the last frost begins and ends in your neck of the woods.
As you may have already noticed on the back of every seed packet, different zones require different planting times.
Here’s where you can look up which zone you live in.
Your zone will determine which plants you can start seeding and when.
For instance, depending on when the last frost date was, you can begin planting cold tolerant veggies like lettuce and kale. But for tomatoes and peppers that need warmer temperatures (50 to 60 degrees) to germinate–you’ll need to wait until mid to late May.
As for me, I started my tomatoes way too late in the year. That’s why they didn’t do as well this second time around.
However, knowing which zone you live in will only get you so far, since the weather will fluctuate from year to year. Like this year, we’ve had non-stop rain for the last 3 weeks with only a few days of full sun both April and May.
All I can say is that I’m glad I didn’t plant any tomatoes this year.
5. Beware of Pests & Critters
Besides the weather, another huge unpredictability factor are those pests and critters that love veggies as much as you do.
The first year I planted an herb garden on my porch planter, the chipmunks and squirrels went to town on them-pulling out every single one and chewing up the roots until there was nothing left but a huge mess.
The following year, we had an unfortunate run in with a couple of skunks as well as a groundhog that took up residence under our side deck.
Apparently, this groundhog loved the sun ripened tomatoes as much as we did. As soon as one ripened to its plump red glory, “Phil” decided it was chow time.
After trying every ground hog deterrent possible (traps, coyote urine… you name it, we tried it), we decided to chuck our individual planter boxes and build a garden enclosure.
With its own latch and sturdy lining of chicken wire, no backyard pest can infiltrate–except for my son who likes to play with his toy soldiers there (Why do boys love playing in the dirt so much?)
As for the slugs and aphids which can really wreak havoc on your tender leaves, having flowers all around your planters is another option.
According to many expert gardeners, this is one way to attract enough pest eating bugs like butterflies to dwell there along with other insects like bees to keep pollinating those crops again and again.
More Tips For Starting Your Vegetable Garden
Besides soil, drainage, sunlight, climate zones, and pest control, there are a couple of other factors to keep in mind before you go full force with the gardening.
As with any fruitful endeavor, you’ll need to set aside some time and money to ensure a successful outcome.
But just as our pest control issues decreased over time, the cost will get less and less the more experience you have.
Plan Out Time, Money and Effort
Compared to last year for instance, when I spent about $500 to set up the enclosure, I only spent $60 total this year for the soil and new seedlings. The reason was that I was able to use up what I had left over from the previous year.
The other more important thing to consider, however, is how much time and effort you’re willing to put into this venture.
Although when you first start off, seeing your first seedling sprout will be enough motivation to keep you going, weeding and maintaining your garden can become a chore if you don’t plan for it from the start.
Have A Watering Plan
You should also figure out when and how you’ll water the garden daily.
Although you can use a sprinkler system hooked up to a timer, like I did, you’ll still need to water by hand every now and then just to even out the distribution.
Without considering these factors first, it will be hard to have a successful thriving garden year after year.
But I have to say that the benefit of feeding your family something you grew with your own two hands is totally worth it!
So what about you? What will you be planting this Spring? Let me know in the comments below.