Nutrition Articles

A Beginner's Guide to Fruit and Vegetable Gardening

How to Start an Edible Garden

People take an interest in gardening for a variety of reasons—higher quality produce, exercise in the great outdoors, or saving money. Whether you hope to discover your green thumb or save a little green, growing your own fruits and vegetables can be an advantageous pastime. When you're just getting started, gardening can be intimidating. How do you even know where to start? SparkPeople's gardening resources will help you learn the basics, starting with the five-step process outlined in this article.

Step #1: Gather Your Gear
You should gather several gardening tools before you get your nails dirty. I cannot stress enough the importance of quality tools. Speaking from experience, it is worth the investment to buy high-quality items, as broken or insufficient tools are not only frustrating but cost you more money and time in the long run. Proper tools provide more comfort and efficiency, which means less work for you! You can find most of these items in home improvement stores, gardening supply stores (or nurseries) and online retailers. Here's what you'll need to get started:
  • Trowel - Used for weeding and digging small holes
  • Gardening gloves - As much as we like getting our hands dirty, we don’t like getting them that dirty. A good pair of gloves can also protect your hands from bugs (if you're squeamish) and prickly plants and weeds.
  • Sun hat - For UV protection, make sure this is wide-brimmed and cinches
  • Watering can and/or hose – What you need will vary depending on your garden’s water needs and proximity to your water source
  • Wheelbarrow - For larger gardens, you'll need one to transport mulch, dirt, and compost
  • Roundhead shovel - For digging larger holes
  • Rake - Ideal for spreading mulch, and gathering or transporting debris that has collected around your garden and between plants
  • Shears - Use to prune away browning leaves or snipping herbs
  • Pitchfork - This is an essential tool if you are creating a compost heap or pile
Step #2: Choose Where Your Garden Will Grow
There are three common types of gardens, all of which have their own pros and cons: traditional (in-ground), container, and raised beds. Once you've picked out the sunny spot where your garden will reside, it's time to decide on one (or a combination) of these three garden types, depending on your needs.
  • Traditional Garden
    An in-ground garden often provides you with limitless options for what you can grow, while utilizing the natural ecosystem of nutrients, bacteria, and insects already present to help your plants grow. Ideally, choose a site that receives at least 6 hours of direct sunlight and faces south.
  • Container Garden
    For those that can't plant a traditional in-ground garden, whether because of poor soil or no soil at all (apartment or city dwellers), container gardening is a fantastic alternative! There are many different types of containers available at nurseries and home improvement stores. Your containers can vary in shape, size and material to suit your gardening needs (and personality). Beyond terra cotta and clay pots, almost anything can work as a gardening container: plastic bins, untreated wood barrels, galvanized metal buckets, a hanging planter, a planter box on a windowsill—even a recycled yogurt container or an old boot! Every container is different; some lose moisture quickly and others retain heat, so research before you buy. Make sure the container has adequate drainage and the appropriate depth to sustain the roots of your plants. A container garden is ideal for using store bought organic potting soil, which is aerated, nutrient rich, and weed-free. It is best to place plants with similar moisture and sun needs in the same container. Not every plant is suitable for container gardening and not every container matches up well with every plant. Remember that deep-rooted plants (carrots, for example) require a deep pot (at least 10-12 inches). Ideal candidates for container gardens are leaf and head lettuces, spinach, green beans, peppers (require staking) onions, radishes, tomatoes (require staking), squash, carrots, garlic, and herbs.
  • Raised-Bed Garden
    Raised beds are a happy medium between a traditional garden and a container garden. The benefits of this garden include better control over the soil, more manageable weed control, and easier access for gardeners who experience pain from bending over too far or have limited mobility. Materials used to create raised beds include cinder blocks, bricks, untreated wood and even rocks. A raised bed can be anywhere from 6 inches off the ground to the height of a standard table, and generally, these beds are about 3-4 feet wide with a depth of at least 16 inches. (Make sure your beds are not so wide or so deep that you can’t reach the plants in the center.) Fill in these beds as you would a standard garden, using good soil enriched with compost. Carrots, cabbage, and other deep-rooted vegetables do especially well in raised beds because you avoid compacted dirt that could be full of obstructions to their deep roots. For more information about raised beds, look into the square foot gardening method.
Step #3: Prepare Your Soil
Next, check your soil. Poor-quality soil can seriously hurt a gardener's best efforts. What characterizes good soil? A high-quality soil for gardening will be:
  • Well-aerated, which means air circulates through it well. Dense soil, like clay, is often too thick for roots to grow properly and doesn't drain well.
  • Free of stones and other obstructions. Soil shouldn't be too sandy, either.
  • Rich in organic matter, such as compost or aged manure. Organic matter provides nutrients to plants. When a garden is rich in these resources, the soil itself will provide nutrients for the plants to grow, which means that artificial fertilizers are often unnecessary.
Simple tests are available from any garden center to check the quality of your soil, including its pH. Generally, most plants thrive in soil with a pH that is slightly acidic. (There are exceptions to this, however, such as blueberries, which love an acidic soil, and beets, which enjoy alkaline conditions.) If your soil is too acidic, try adding bone meal, dolomitic limestone, or wood ashes. To amend alkaline soil, try materials such as peat moss, sawdust, or pine needles.

Beyond that, the entire permaculture of insects, bacteria, and microbes do better in well-drained soil. If your soil is too thick and does not drain well or does not hold moisture well, the answer is compost, compost, compost. Thick soil also does well with the addition of some sand.

If you are digging a garden on fallow land (or your garden needs a serious makeover), then you should prepare your plot in autumn by digging 6-8 inches into the soil, removing visible rocks, and working in as much organic matter as you can before you start to plant the next spring.

Step #4: Decide Which Plants to Grow
Deciding which fruits and vegetables to grow will depend on what appeals to your diet, which plants will fit within the size of your garden, and which plants are appropriate for your hardiness zone. Could you grow something exotic that is hard to find at your local farmers market? Is your favorite produce too expensive to buy from the grocery? Are you unsatisfied with the quality or taste of your favorite vegetables?

For the cost of a packet of seeds (usually a few dollars) your garden will more than pay for itself with the amount of edibles it will produce—not to mention be superior in nutrient content, freshness and taste to! Fresh fruits and vegetables--especially organic ones--are expensive to buy, but you could save a lot of money in just one season by growing some in your own backyard.

You can grow all plants from seeds, but many “starts” or seedlings are available from your local nursery—tiny tomato, pepper, onion, broccoli, and melon plants, started in a nursery greenhouse, are usually ready to plant directly into the soil. Buying seedlings is more expensive than buying a packet of seeds, but it's a great option if you're a fledgling gardener or want to save time as many seeds need to grow indoors for weeks before they're ready for the outdoors. If you're starting from seeds, read the label on every packet. If a label reads “direct sow,” you can sow the seeds directly into the soil, while others need to be started indoors. Either way, the packet of seeds or starter plant will include directions about the spacing, watering, and thinning practices that are most suitable for that particular fruit or vegetable.

Step #5: Ready, Set, Grow!
You've got your gear, prepared your plot and soil, and bought your plants. Next comes planting them to ensure they'll get adequate sunshine and water as they grow.

Different plants have different needs for sunlight. Sun worshippers include tomatoes, squash, beans, eggplant, corn, and peppers, while those less dependent on the sun are leafy vegetables, potatoes, carrots, and turnips. You can sow plants that need less sun in early spring or late summer when the sun is less vibrant, too. When choosing what to put where, remember to place taller plants on the north side of your plot to prevent shadows from forming and inhibiting the growth of shorter plants.

After your seeds or seedlings are in the soil, you can use additional compost as mulch to improve water retention, help control weeds, and keep the roots cool in hot weather. Other mulch options include straw, grass clippings, untreated wood chips, gravel, or stone.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature isn't always reliable enough to provide sufficient rainfall for a garden. Moreover, depending on your region, you might need to supplement it by watering your plants a little or a lot. If you notice a plant’s leaves, fruit, or buds start to brown or droop, increase the water supply. Oddly enough if a plant is water logged, oxygen is unable to circulate to its roots and the plant will show signs of stress similar to dehydration. Green leaves and stems that turn yellow or lighten in color could also be a sign of overwatering. To confirm the problem, reason that waterlogged plants do not respond positively to more water. Some water-rich fruits and vegetables, such as melons and cucumber thrive when they receive more water, while others, such as tomatoes, hate getting their feet wet too long. Always water plants at soil level in the morning, as evening watering can make them more susceptible to disease and mildew. Sporadic deep watering is more effective than frequent shallow watering. Be diligent about watering and weeding your precious new garden and chances are, it will flourish before your eyes!

Finally, start small and begin with plants that are easy to grow. This way, you'll avoid situations where the joy of your new hobby is replaced by frustration. Most importantly, relax! There will be successes and failures, but half the fun of gardening is learning as you grow!

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Member Comments

  • TANVIR71
    If you want to eat fresh vegetable starting a vegetable garden at home is a good idea. This is also helping to save your money. For this you need to some fertile soil and a few plants. But to be a really successful vegetable gardener you will need to understand what conditions take to keep your plants healthy and vigorous.
  • Hi Jenny - my 11 year old son is also called Augustine. My daughter is called Magdalen - Augustine is not a common name and I love it - obviously you do too
  • Been gardening for 40 years and love it. However, I do a lot of canning and freezing all summer long that way I have my fruits and vegetables all year long and I know what's in my food. If your a beginner start small until your familiar with what your growing. Just to tell you a story I work in a garden center that is mostly vegetables and flowers plus landscaping. We also do contract work for a very large pick your own produce farm. We had one tray left of watermelon plants from this farmer so we were told to take what we wanted. Seeing I had the most room and garden they gave me a lot. For some reason they grew like weeds and had 35 pound watermelons and a half acre of them. Needless to say we gave so many away people did not want them. They were so good I wish I had one now. There are so many stories I could tell about my gardening but what fun would that be you need to create your own garden and stories
  • SIXPETE, I just visited the self-watering container site on Pinterest. What a neat idea and one that I can try! Thank you for sharing!
  • I love to garden, but have ceased doing so. We live in a drought-stricken area.
    Coolest self-watering container garden ever--- Check out "self-watering container" on Pinterest--I had an AMAZING crop of tomatoes and cucumbers using 18 gallon totes last year.

    I especially recommend a design that includes a tube inserted to the water reservoir and a drainage hole to prevent overwatering. But this way, you fill the reservoir and never worry about the quick drying out of soil in the dry months.

    These are fun, easy and WORTH IT!
  • arrgh... my problem is pests! and no shade in my yard. it's too much sun for even sun-loving plants if they're in containers, and anything i put in the ground gets bothered by a pest of some sort... we're bordering army corps of engineers property, so we have a gorgeous view of lush trees behind our home, but only a little yard between here and there - and there's really not much we can do to keep out all the pests! deer, squirrels, rabbits... i'm sure you could do some things but i don't know what, and last time i tended several plants, i left town for a few days and the fruit that would've been ready to pick was what appeared to be trampled and rotten... something even trampled all the vines so nothing else grew. i guess it completely dampened my spirit that year and hasn't recovered. i'd like to do containers on my deck, but i have very little space up there...
  • KLUTZY68
    You have probably heard of weed barrier and landscape fabric. They work to keep weeds down but they're very $$. Alternatives can be old sheets, black garbage bags or plastic sheets, tin foil, newspaper, brown packing paper, cardboard... Lay them out, hold them down with rocks, bricks, soil, etc. Cut a hole and plant your seedling. With foil, plastic, cardboard, and maybe packing paper, place a soaker hose underneath or water each plant through the hole (very gently, just a trickle). Newspaper and fabric will allow water to soak through. The biodegradables can be added to the compost pile. Another good way is to use no barrier but put all your grass clippings on the beds, leaving a little space around the plants. Just keep adding them all summer, the plants love them. Ask your neighbors for theirs, too. Obviously you don't want clippings that have been treated with herbicides or pesticides!
  • KLUTZY68
    Gee I wrote a long bunch of tips for you guys and it never got posted! Basically, adults buy each other your holiday gifts now, stuff for the garden. Container plants need a LOT of regular watering; Google self-watering containers including DIY. Use a purchased soil for containers; I like the Miracle-Gro mix with fertilizer, but it is not organic. Get soaker hoses if you plant an in-ground or raised bed garden; water twice a week for ~4 hours as early in the morning as possible, pref 4-8am; you can use a timer. Check square foot gardening site for handicap garden ideas. Totally agree about the tools! Look for old ones at yard and rummage sales. You probably can get by with a hoe and a garden rake (the hard type, not the flexible leaf type); I use a big spoon to dig planting holes. and yes a fork for compost. Start small with seedlings not seeds, but beets, carrots, scallions, beans and peas can be done with seeds. Pant a few things you really love to eat and see how it goes. Most of all, have fun and enjoy your lovely fresh food!
  • I'd say, keep it simple! You'll learn as you go. If you are just container gardening on a patio or balcony, or using a small, pre-existing garden bed, forget about stocking up on lots of,high-quality. pricey tools, you don't need them. Get a decent metal hand trowel. Buy or borrow a shovel and hoe, or rent a roto-tiller if you need to break up sod for a large, new bed. Garden gloves, absolutely--I rotate three pairs. Sunblock and a cheap sun hat, yes. Then improve the soil with lots of compost, buy the plants you want--and then go have fun!
  • I found that tomatoes were not a good starter plant, they required more time than I thought and it was hard to do on the balcony of an apartment. What did work was cactus, believe it or not I originally managed to kill my cacti by over watering them. Now I can manage to keep some fresh herbs alive.
  • I have a garden every year and enjoy working in it too. you can see my garden pics in my gallery and very proud to have them displayed there. I have had several tomatoes so far. My cucumbers have bloomed and will have some to be picked in a few weeks now. The temperatures have been hot, but I still get them watered and dirt broke around them.
  • Good article, but it's July! Is that planting season in either hemisphere?
    How can I save this article! I absolutely loved it and Im excited!!!!!!!!!
    There is another form of gardening too, Aeroponics! Even if the initial start up may seem like a lot these little guys are amazing and are an alternative for people who live in apartments or condos! https://organic.t

About The Author

Jenny Sigler Jenny Sigler
Jenny is a stay-at-home mom to her young children, Augustine and Olive. An avid gardener and baker, she enjoys writing about health and childcare topics to empower people to make healthy choices. See all of Jenny's articles.

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