In my heart of hearts, I truly believe that anyone can garden. No matter where you are in the world or what your yard looks like, with a bit of effort, you can grow your own food.
Here is a beginner’s step-by-step guide to how to start a vegetable garden in your backyard, from scratch.
Step 1. Choose a Location for Your Vegetable Garden
You don’t need lots of land to grow vegetables.
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It’s actually a good idea to start with a small garden. When you commit to a small space first, you start with a more manageable time investment, and you increase your odds of success because you can really focus on the plants that you have.
If you’re not sure whether it’s worth it to start a garden, have a look at the benefits of gardening, you’ll be convinced.
I like to add one or two beds each spring as a way of growing the size and complexity of my garden gradually.
How much sunlight do you need to grow vegetables?
Most vegetables need six to eight hours of direct sunlight per day, but not all vegetables are the same.
Most vegetables fall into one of two categories: heat-loving or cool season.
- Heat-loving vegetables include tomatoes, peppers, spinach, beans, and cucumbers. These vegetables tend to really take off once it gets warm. Their fruits take a little longer to ripen, but they can be very productive plants, well worth cultivating. They will take as much sunlight as you can give them. The warmer, the better.
- Cool-season vegetables like lettuce, kale, cabbage relatives, and radishes will do well in areas that get some shade over the day. In the middle of a hot summer, an area with partial shade can be exactly what you need to stretch your cool-season crops a bit further into the year. Too warm, and these plants tend to bolt.
The best way to determine a good position for a vegetable garden is to observe your space. Take this area in the photo below, for example. This photo was taken around 2pm, the hottest part of the day. There are distinct shade areas – these are great places for vegetables that appreciate some protection from the hot afternoon sun.
Sun angles change with the seasons. You can use a sun calculator like SunCalc to calculate your exact sun angles, in both summer and winter. I have included a screenshot of the sun angles on the summer solstice for our area below.
Microclimates and Temperature
Gardeners often refer to maps of plant hardiness zones. Once you know your zone, you can research which varieties will perform best in your area, and which plants need a lot of attention to thrive in your zone.
Microclimates are small areas within a region where the climate is different than the larger zone. Depending on whether you live in the bottom of a valley, near the ocean, or at the top of a mountain, your yard may not be the same as your larger zone.
If you think carefully about your own backyard even, you can probably identify some spaces that are cooler or warmer than others. Areas near brick walls or asphalt driveways are often warmer than treed or shaded areas. Some areas are more susceptible to wind than others.
You can create your own microclimate by planting different varieties of plants and trees close together. You’ll be amazed at the way they improve each other’s growth, protect each other from pests, and increase pollination.
Read also: Should you shade your vegetable garden?
As a gardener, you can take advantage of the microclimates within your own yard. Plant heat-loving crops in warmer spots and plant cool-weather varieties in cooler spots. It just comes down to knowing your space.
Step 2. Prepare Your Soil
There are three main types of soil: sand, silt, and clay.
Sandy soils tend to drain water too readily which makes it difficult for plants to soak up the water they need, while clay soils hold onto moisture too well which can drown plants or cause very heavy, compact soil.
The perfect trifecta of all three soil types is known as “loam.” Very few gardeners are blessed with loam, so most of us amend the soil we have to a workable state.
- If you have sandy soil, add peat moss or coconut coir. They are highly absorptive and will balance out the sand.
- If you have heavy clay soils, compost can lighten it. Use gypsum as a clay breaker.
The best thing you can do for your soil is mulch. Mulch enriches sandy soil and makes clay soil less dense. Mulch all your plants and gardens in a deep layer. You can use many different things for mulch, like hay, straw, sugar cane trash – anything that eventually breaks down.
Steer away from things like rocks – they don’t add anything to your soil and can increase summer temperatures to the point that it burns your plants.
Read more in “16 Vital Things You Must Know Before Starting a Garden.”
Step 3. Gather Your Tools
The tools that you need will depend on the size and type of garden you decide to grow. If you grow your vegetables in raised beds, smaller hand tools are more manageable than their full-sized counterparts. If you’re planning a larger garden, bigger tools are better.
Essential Gardening Tools
Shovels + Trowels
Excellent for digging holes, excavating new beds, and adding compost and other soil-enriching amendments
Pruning Shears + Loppers
Hand-held shears are perfect for harvesting vegetables and pruning plants.
Gloves are essential in preventing that very persistent halo of dirt around your nail beds. I’m a big fan of leather gloves as they’re thick enough that I can pull thistles and brambles by hand.
Handy for spreading hay over your beds as mulch. They can also be useful for digging out potatoes or rocks and integrating compost deep into your soil without disturbing the soil too much.
I’m always using them to move potting soil, dump handfuls of weeds, or carry a harvest of fresh fruit into the house. It’s nice to have a few different sizes. My favorite is a horse feed bucket.
A good wheelbarrow can save you a lot of walking. In the summer and fall, I fill mine with weeds and trimmings for the compost pile. In the spring, I load mine to the brim with compost and mulch to distribute over my beds.
Watering Can + Hose
Watering is essential to successful gardening. You can use a watering can or a hose. It’s nice to have a watering method that is gentler for young seedlings and a higher-flow method for mature plants.
Step 4. Decide Which Vegetables to Plant
First and foremost, you should grow what you love to eat. The greatest joy of gardening is eating the produce that you’ve grown. The flavors of homegrown produce are incredible compared to store-bought veggies.
Easy Vegetables to Start With
If you are a beginner or even a more experienced gardener who has a lot going on, you’ll want to choose some easy-to-grow plants that will more or less take care of themselves.
Here are ten of the easiest vegetables to grow:
- Zucchini (Summer Squash)
- Swish Chard
Plant a Combination of Cool and Warm Season Vegetables
Each year is different. Some summers seem to stretch forever. Heat-loving tomatoes ripen on the vine for weeks on end. Other years, summer months are more like summer weeks, and everything has to be picked early to avoid death by frost.
Because there are no guarantees in gardening, I try my best to plant a variety of warm and cool-season crops. Usually, this means that even if it’s a terrible year for heat-loving veggies, I’m likely to get a bumper crop of cool-season plants.
Annuals, Biennials, and Perennials
Plants come in a few different kinds: annuals, biennials, and perennials.
- Annuals are plants that complete their lifecycle in one year. Examples would include lettuce, tomatoes, and radishes. At the end of the season, the plant dies back completely, and you need to restart from freshly sown seeds the following spring.
- Biennials take two years to complete their lifecycle. Usually, gardeners grow biennials as annuals and eat them before they start the reproductive phase of their lifecycle in year two. You would only bring the plant into its second summer if you had seed-saving intentions. Examples of plants in this category would include celery, cabbage, and kale.
- Perennials are a gift to the busy gardener. Perennials are plants that come back year after year. Some perennials can live for decades, and often, the older they are, the better they produce. This category includes rhubarb, asparagus, raspberries, honeyberries, blueberries, grapes, and globe artichokes.
Most fruit and nut trees also fall into the perennial category. A healthy fruit tree can be astonishingly productive. The apple tree in my front yard can produce a few hundred pounds of apples over the course of the summer.
I love growing avocado trees from seed. Seed-grown trees tend to be tougher than grafted trees. They take a little longer to start fruiting, but they are less susceptible to pests and disease, grow faster, and are more resilient.
Perennials can be slow to start, and you may have to wait a few years before they really take off, but once they are established, it’s often as simple as harvesting the fruit.
Your garden zone can be an important factor to consider here, too. Not every plant can be grown as a perennial in every climate. Some plants are too frost-tender to succeed as perennials in cold northern areas.
How much should I plant?
If you have never grown a certain vegetable before, you may wonder how many plants to grow. The first year that I gardened, I planted an entire packet of zucchini seeds.
In case you didn’t know, zucchini may be the most productive plant in the world. I was overwhelmed by more than one hundred zucchinis that summer. It was complete zucchini madness. I stuffed zucchini into every dish I could think of and still had so many that I was giving them away to anyone who stopped by.
It was so crazy that I wrote an article about how to eat zucchini in 87 different ways!
To feed the average family of four, this is an approximate guide to how many plants you would want to have. Keep in mind that there is no accounting for personal taste. If you really love something or want extra for preserving, plant extra!
Number of Plants
How to Grow
20 – 40
Succession Plant ♥
3 – 6
3 – 6
50 – 100
3 – 6
5 – 8
5 – 8
5 – 10
30 – 70
60 – 90
5 – 8
20 – 30
4 – 8lbs
30 – 50
5 – 8
3 – 4
♥ Succession planting refers to the practice of planting a small number of seeds at one time and then returning to plant more later. This spreads out the harvest so that you are not inundated by a huge volume of one type of vegetable in a short period of time.
Keep in mind, there can be a big difference in how productive a plant is depending on the exact variety you choose. There is a reason Sweet Million tomatoes have the word “million” in the name. Moneymaker and Mortgage Lifter are other particularly productive varieties.
Once you’re growing enough vegetables for your family, consider growing some for your animals, too!
Step 5. Plant Your Vegetables
How to Grow Vegetables from Seeds
Not all seeds are the same. Tomatoes and peppers can take weeks to germinate, while beans, peas, and radishes can come up in a couple of days.
You should always refer to the back of the seed packet for specific instruction, but here are a few tips and tricks that apply to most seeds:
Seed Sowing Tips
- Seed size determines how deeply you sow your seeds. Generally, place seeds in a hole that is two times the seed width. So, if a pea is 1/4″ in diameter, your hole would be 1/2″ deep.
- When sowing tiny seeds that only need to be 1/4″ or 1/8″ below the surface (carrots for example), scatter your seeds over the bed, then sprinkle a fine layer of soil over the top of your seeds, and then press everything down firmly. It is far easier to sprinkle 1/4″ of soil than dig a hole 1/4″ deep.
- Soaking seeds overnight in water or applying heat from the bottom speeds up germination times. I have an electric heat mat that I use to give my tomatoes, peppers, and cabbages a boost when I start them.
- Some seeds need light to germinate, so you wouldn’t want to cover them in soil. It’s always a good idea to read the back of the seed packet so that you catch things like this. Many lettuce varieties, for example, need some light to germinate.
Once you’ve sown your seeds, maintain consistent moisture until the seedlings are established.
It’s also a good idea to read up on germination times. That way, if seeds aren’t coming up after their germination window, you can resow and not lose time waiting for plants that aren’t coming.
Do I need to plant everything in the seed packet?
When you buy a package of seeds, you may think that you need to plant all of the seeds in the package or else they will not keep for the following year. This isn’t necessarily true.
While age is an important aspect of germination, most seeds will keep a few years before germination rates decline in any significant way. If you have a good germination rate from a package of seeds one year, you are usually okay to sow again the following year.
The fridge is generally the best place to keep your seeds for next year. Make sure they are in a moisture-proof package.
How to Grow Vegetables from Scraps
Not all vegetables are started exclusively from seed. Many plants have clever secondary methods of reproduction.
Potatoes are typically started from the previous season’s tubers. Anywhere a sprout emerges, a new plant will grow. I like to cut one potato into a few chunks to maximize the number of plants I get from each tuber. I have successfully planted potatoes and sweet potatoes from the back of my pantry and those from the garden center.
Garlic is grown from the cloves of the previous harvest. The longer garlic is grown in one location, the more finely attuned it is to grow in that location. It’s not unusual to find varieties of garlic that are unique to your microclimate and more resilient to life in your specific area.
You can even start plants from grocery store trimmings! Celery, green onions, bok choy, and lettuce will all develop new growth when placed in clean water in a sunny location. Save the seeds from grocery-bought vegetables and fruit too – you can sprout all of these for free plants!
When starting plants this way, you want to keep the bottom two inches of the plant intact and submerge the lower half of it in water. It’s important to regularly change the water. After a few days, you should start to see some new growth.
One the fruits that is so much fun to grow from scraps is pineapple. Simply twist the top off and cut the bottom leaves off to make it easier to plant. Leave it to dry for an hour or two and plant in a pot or straight into the garden.
The flavors of foods grown from scraps tend to be a little different. Often they’re a bit milder. You won’t get huge yields from this type of window-sill gardening, but it’s a fun project to do, especially with kids.
I like to propagate my tomato trimmings using a similar method. After I’ve taken the “sucker” branches off of my larger tomato plants, I put them in a jar of water. After a week, the root systems on these plants are significant enough to place them in the soil. It’s remarkable how quickly they catch up.
They’re the easiest tomato plants you’ll ever start!
There are many ways to lay out a garden. Rows are traditional, but if you are planting in a raised bed, consider a triangle pattern, as this allows you to fit the most equally distanced plants.
If you have an in-ground garden or are building raised beds, try a keyhole garden. These are similar to row gardens, but they lose less space to walkways.
Intensive Planting vs. Wide Space Planting
Intensive planting involves putting plants as close together as you can, while still providing enough space for plants to mature. If done effectively, this minimizes the amount of space weeds have to grow and maximizes the number of plants you have per bed.
Wide space planting gives plants more than adequate room to develop. The benefit of this method is that plants don’t have to compete for space, and they can grow larger without being inhibited by the plants around it. This method can require more weeding.
Step 6. Care for your Vegetables
Whichever vegetables you choose, you need to give your plants adequate water and nutrition.
So often, water is the secret ingredient we need to make our gardens thrive. Thirsty plants are stressed ones, and stressed plants are more likely to suffer pest damage, fall prey to diseases, and ultimately fail to produce a healthy harvest for you and your family.
Water deeply rather than frequently. This will encourage the plants to form deep root systems, which makes them more resilient in the long run. It also means that if you miss a watering session, your plants won’t wilt so readily.
The fruit trees in my yard are on the “Tough-Love Watering Schedule” in which I water them rarely, and when I feel like it. It sounds harsh, but the goal is to get them accustomed to irregular waterings—which is true to nature.
When I do water these trees, I soak the earth very deeply. This pushes them to sink their roots deep into the ground which not only helps them seek water better during droughts, it also helps them stay stable during wind and snowstorms.
As the summer goes on, leaves may yellow. This can be a sign that plants need fertilizing.
There are many ways to add nutrition into your soil, including additions of:
- Kitchen scraps
- Compost tea
- Epsom salt
- Organic fertilizer mixes (pelleted or liquid)
- Worm farming
Each method takes a different amount of time, but usually, liquid fertilizer additions are more quickly accessed by the plant.
To identify which minerals your soil is missing and to get a complete picture of your soil health, a simple soil test is needed. Soil tests are performed by a lab and tend to be fairly inexpensive.
Some plants are as easy as sow it and forget it. Others take a little more finesse and grooming.
We prune plants in our gardens for a number of reasons, including:
- Improving air circulation around plants that are sensitive to fungal infections
- Encouraging a plant to focus its energies on a different aspect of development (ripening green tomatoes, for example)
- Keeping plants a manageable shape and size
- Preventing “bolting” or unwanted blooming
Tomatoes and squash will develop fungal diseases if they don’t have sufficient airflow. Many gardeners struggle to keep squash leave free from powdery mildew, and pruning is one way of helping with that.
If you are growing indeterminate tomato varieties (“rambling” ones that don’t grow to a certain size), trim off the sturdy little branches known as “suckers.” If you don’t limit the growth of these tomatoes into a single stem, they will quickly branch out all over your garden. I’ve been there, and it’s a little wild!
Pruning can be a complex topic, but it’s also a powerful tool that can have a big impact on the productivity and health of plants.
If you don’t have time to learn the nuances of pruning, the most basic idea is to remove sections that are dead(ish). If it’s browning or has signs of disease, then that leaf isn’t helping the plant the way it should be. Removing the leaf will encourage the plant to focus on new, healthy growth.
A good mulch is much like a good assistant. Mulch will suppress weeds, combat surface evaporation, prevent plant disease, protect plants from temperature fluctuations, and eventually breakdown and feed your soil.
Two to three inches of material is enough to do the job, but I encourage you to go deeper than that. The deeper the layer of mulch, the better.
Straw and sugar cane trash are my favorites (because I can get straw for free from a nearby stable and sugar cane from the neighbors), but leaves, grass clippings (best if you compost these first or you’ll end up with a garden full of grass), and sawdust will also work.
Avoid heavier mulches like woodchips or gravel, as they won’t break down over the winter.
All-natural gardening means that sometimes we do a little sharing, even if we don’t want to.
Here are some earth-friendly ways of keeping pests at bay:
Members of the cabbage family are particularly prone to aphid attacks.
Aphids live together in colonies. They often hide underneath leaves, but an aphid-damaged leaf will often contort or curl in an eye-catching way.
Sometimes you will notice ants before you spot the aphids. Ants farm the aphids for the honeydew they produce. Aphids can be prolific, and the stress they cause the plant can impact your harvest.
Put the hose into “Jet” mode and wash them away.
Recruit some ladybugs. They eat aphids. Some garden stores sell ladybugs, but often I can find enough in our yard to relocate onto affected plants.
A solution of dish soap and water sprayed over the leaves can deter aphids.
Interplant aphid-susceptible plants with fragrant plants like marigolds, garlic, dill, and cilantro.
One hungry deer can cause a lot of damage in a garden, and when they’re hungry, they’ll eat pretty much everything. Read more in 6 ways of keeping deer out of the garden.
Fencing, the taller the better, work best for these incredible jumpers. 6 to 10 feet is ideal.
Buy a border collie. Mine works just great! She works on rabbits and birds too.
These pretty white butterflies will land amongst the leaves of your cabbages and lay dozens of green eggs near the base of the plant.
These eggs will hatch into very hungry caterpillars that can cause a tremendous amount of damage.
Check your cabbages a few times per week and remove caterpillars and eggs by hand.
Place a fine mesh over the top of cabbage beds. If they can’t touch it, they can’t eat it!
I have one wonderfully wacky friend who captures white cabbage moths with a children’s butterfly net. Some years, her results are better than mine!
Slugs will munch off all the tender young foliage of the plants in your garden.
Lettuce, squash flowers, basil, cabbage, and spinach all seem to be favorites. They can cause a lot of damage, and they can be extremely prolific.
Slugs love beer, but can’t swim. Partially bury a container of beer. They will fall in and drown. There are also some great, yeast-based “fake beer” recipes that work too.
Place a wooden board out in your garden. During the day, slugs retreat to a shady space where they can hide from the sun. Each afternoon, discard the slugs that have congregated under the board.
Snakes eat slugs, and they’re easy to attract to your garden. They love to live in piles of medium-sized rocks.
Ducks will happily take care of a slug infestation for you. And they lay eggs too!
These hard-bodied grubs can live in your garden for years before they mature into a click beetle. Often, they come from areas with tall grass.
The breadth of their appetite is particularly annoying because they will readily burrow into root vegetables, but also very happily nibble entire root systems off of plants.
Two treatments of beneficial nematodes applied a few weeks apart in the summer can reduce populations to a manageable number.
Use a sacrificial carrot or potato as a trap to lure them away from other plants you value more. Regularly replace your sacrificial root veggies.
How Does Your Garden Grow?
Excited about starting your brand-new vegetable garden? Let me know if this guide helped you get started and please, show us photos of your progress. There’s nothing better than turning a piece of earth into your own productive paradise.
One final tip – work with nature, not against it. If your garden gives you lemons, make lemonade. If birds are eating all your fruit – plant more fruit. From experience, it’s easier to grow more and share than it is to stop the sharing!
Thanks so much for reading this, please leave your comments and share with your friends and family!