A Beginner's Guide to Fruit and Vegetable Gardening

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? These 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 getting your nails dirty. 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: This is for digging larger holes.
  • Rake: Ideal for spreading mulch, and gathering or transporting debris that has collected around your garden and between plants.
  • Shears: Used 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 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 six hours of direct sunlight and faces south.
  • Container Garden: For those who 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. 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 six inches off the ground to the height of a standard table, and generally, these beds are about three or four 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.

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 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 six to eight 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. 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 waterlogged, 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. 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!