Monday, March 1, 2010

Vegetable Gardening 101: A Humble Tutorial

We routinely get emails and comments asking about vegetable gardening.  We LOVE those questions and comments, so keep them coming.  Because of all the interest and in light of the fact that spring is fast approaching, we created this page to walk new gardeners through some of the basics of vegetable gardening.  We are in no way experts, but are happy to share with you our experiences and let you walk along side us as we begin our garden this year. 

Below you will find a list of the steps we take to get our garden going.  I'll be adding steps as we go.  Some I will explain here, others I will link to posts I've written elsewhere on that particular step. 

Ready?  Are you ready?  Here we go!

Plan Your Garden.  If you are just starting out, go slow.  You do not want to become overwhelmed and start to loathe your garden before you set sight on any vegetables.  Supplement with produce from your local farmer's market or CSA as you build your gardening experience.  This may inspire you to add new vegetables to your garden next year.

As you're planning, have in mind where you wish to plant.  Unlike flowers (some like shade, some like sun), all vegetables like a lot of sun.  If you are not up for tilling up your back yard, you can plant vegetables among your flower beds if they are given adequate room to grow and plenty of sun. Keep in mind where your water source is.  If you have a dry summer, do you want to be lugging water wherever your garden is planted?  If not, rethink your location or invest in a hose.  Container gardening is another option if you are limited by space.  Keep in mind that containers dry out much faster than the earth, so you will need to water your plants (possibly daily) during the hot summer.

Some suggestions of vegetables to start with are; herbs you love, lettuce, tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini and green beans (the bush varieties don't require staking).  You can read about our 2010 planning session here.


Seeds or Plants?  Over time, you'll learn what grows well for you from seed and what is easier to buy as a plant.  When you're just starting out, buying vegetable plants is a fine way to begin.  If you decide you want 15 tomato plants (that's a lot, by the way), you may be better off buying a packet of seeds and starting the plants yourself.  If you only want one zucchini plant (they can be prolific) just buying the plant may be the way to go.  As you gain experience, you can then research different varieties of vegetables and buy the seeds of the plants you would like to grow from a catalog (when it may be hard to find that particular variety in your local garden store).

If you have your heart set on growing a particular vegetable, like lettuce, and you'd prefer to buy plants, call your local garden store early and ask if they plan on carrying lettuce plants.  If not, you may be forced to buy seeds and plant your own.

Buy Your Seeds (if you want to start your own plants).  There is nothing wrong with buying seeds or plants from your local garden store.  They will be more likely to carry seeds and plants that will do well in your growing area.  Seed catalogs are fun to drool over but can be overwhelming as you try to navigate seed zones, soil types, etc.

Make A Planting Schedule.  You have your list of what you want to grow.  You've determined what you will start from seed and what you will buy as plants. Now you'll need to determine when to plant what.  This sounds like it could be hard or complicated to do, but we think we've devised a pretty good system for you.

First of all, click here. Type in your zip code and click "Go".  Read your results and jot down your average risk of frost date.  In bold you will see dates like this..."September 30 through May 12" (not these exact dates, but written this way at the top).  For the above dates, May 12 would be your last frost date.

Now, click on this Spring Vegetable Planting PDF Jamey created based on a chart in our The Virginia Gardener Handbook (from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and Virginia Cooperative Extension Service).  Print out a copy for yourself and follow the directions at the top to determine your planting times.  This chart was developed for the mid-Atlantic area so will work for those of us who do not have extremely short (Northern US, Canada, etc.) or extremely long (Florida, southern Texas, etc.) growing seasons.

Note the different pattern blocks for each vegetable on the chart.  At the bottom of the chart is a key which explains what the patterns mean.  You may plant in the "Planting Period", plant and harvest in the "Plant and Harvest Period" (Depending on how early you planted during the planting period, you may be harvesting during this time.) and harvest during the "Harvest Period".

Note the * by some vegetables.  This meas that you should transplant (or move) outside the little plants you started from seed inside during that vegetable's "Planting Period".  If there is no *, you are to sow the seeds directly into soil during that vegetable's "Planting Period".

To know when to start your seeds inside, read on your seed package how many weeks prior to planting outside (a.k.a. "Planting Period") you should start the seed for that particular vegetable. Count backwards from your planting period to determine when to start your seeds.

{This chart is an incredible resource.  We have not been able to find anything else like it on line.  Jamey says that it is the one gardening tool he cannot do without.}

Next, find yourself a separate calendar that you can use just for gardening.  We have ours hanging in the kitchen.  Write in when you will need to plant seeds indoors (if you are starting seeds) and when to transplant out your started or bought plants.  It is also helpful to record on the calendar how many plants or seeds you planted as you go for reference the following year.

Make Your Starter Pots (if you are going to start plants)Here is a little tutorial on how to do this. There are many benefits to using these little paper pots in addition to them being easy to make and free!  If you are using plastic pots, removing the plant may damage the root hairs of the plant- paper pots leave those intact because you plant the entire paper pot in the ground.  It decomposes faster than a peat pot, allowing the plant to send it's roots out faster. 

Making a Map & Companion Planting.  We make a map of our garden each year before we begin planting.  It allows us to make sure we are leaving enough room for everything and it considers certain things we've learned (like that tomatoes like being planted in the same place every year and tall corn will shade shorter plants if planted on the wrong side of it).  Another thing to consider is which plants benefit from being planted next to each other or away from each other.   You can read more about companion planting here.

Planting Seeds In the Dirt.  According to our planting schedule (see above), it was time to get some seeds in the ground.  Getting your soil ready is important and can be as simple as "fluffing-up" the soil with a hoe or gardening fork.  Loosening the soil (several inches down) in this way breaks up dry or clay-ish clumps that could hamper little roots' growth.  If you have been making compost and it's ready for use, you can mix this into your ready soil as well.

Once your soil is prepped, follow the instructions on your seed packets carefully.  Planting them to a certain depth and spaced a certain distance apart is important and your seed packet will tell you exactly how to do this.

If you can hardly wait to eat a certain vegetable (for us, it's lettuces and spinach), you can plant them a bit early, but you must have a cover for the seeds/plants to protect from frosts that may still occur.  Here is a link to the first stage of our plantings, done last week. 

A bed of prepared soil and planted garden peas.

Starting Seeds Indoors.  Click here if you would like to see our indoor seed-starting set-up, find out what kind of potting soil and lights we use as well as to read about how Jamey rigged-up a warming box (certainly NOT a requirement for seed-starting- just an experiment:-)).  

As you will see, we use all manner of planting containers.  For very fine, small seeds, we sometimes use larger trays (like the one below) and divide the plants later.  For others we use planting trays and for others we use newspaper pots (read above how to make these).  We use what we have on hand as we are always trying to keep costs down.  Growing our own food is supposed to save us money, right?


Moving Plants Outside and Into the Ground.  This is getting exciting, isn't it?!  You've got your planting schedule handy, right?  (If you don't, see above to get yourself one.)  Keeping in mind when it's safe in your area to move your plants into the ground, you will want to "harden off" your little baby plants.  Hardening off simply means getting the plants acclimated to outdoor living before putting them into the ground.  Hardening off can occur over one to three weeks (your choice), but make sure that you aren't planting your plants prior to your average frost date.  You don't want to leave your plants outside and vulnerable to harsh conditions after all the care you've given them.

Here is an excellent article I want you to read over at Mother Earth News. The article isn't long or complicated and it provides valuable information on this transition step between inside and outside.   Especially take note of the three sections entitled Harden Off Plants, Prepare to Transplant and Handle With Care.  These sections will get you from transition to planting.

Here are a few pictures of some of our plants starting the hardening off process.  Of course, those that can be planted earlier can begin the hardening off process earlier.  The others will need to stay inside until they are closer to their plant date.

On a lovely, warm day some of the larger plants were set outside for some sun.

In order to leave them outside overnight (we are still prior to our last average frost date), they will need some shelter, so this cold frame will do the trick.

Planting Time!  Once your planting schedule tells you it's time, get those little plants (that you've started of bought) into the ground.  Check your seed packet or plant stake for specific plant directions (how far apart to plant them, etc.).  Don't forget to water them regularly at the beginning while they are getting established.  Keep a close eye on them afterward.  As soon as they look wilty or if you've had no rain for a few days, give them a nice, long drink.

Using some form of mulch around your plants will keep you from having to water so often, so consider straw or grass clippings.  Keep the mulch back a little ways from your small plants, moving the mulch in closer as the plants grow tall.  

DO NOT FORGET TO KEEP AN EYE ON THE WEATHER FORECAST!  Your planting schedule (if filled out as we instructed above) gives you the AVERAGE last date of frost, so it's still possible that it could frost.  This would kill your plants!  If frost (anything even close to 32 degrees F) threatens, the evening before you should cover your tender plants with upside down buckets or containers or a cloth sheet or plastic laid over stakes throughout your plants (acting like a tent, you do not want to smother your plants).

If you didn't think or know that it would frost and you wake up to frost on the grass, you may be able to save your plants if  you can get your butt in gear before the sun shines on them.  If frost has hit your plants, spraying them with water before the sun hit them may save them.  This doesn't work 100% of the time, but it has worked many times for us.

Click here to read more about our planting week, natural fertilizers and to see more pictures.  

You did it!!  Your plants are in the ground.  With some attention, they will produce food for your family, nutrients for your body.  Give yourself a little pat on the back:-).
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  1. This is EXACTLY what I needed! Thank you for all of your tips. We have an entire lot next to our home and I feel an urgent need to take a small plot and till it up for a garden, I just didn't know how to get started. You have completely motivated me to get going on this. Thank you again and I look forward to your next post!!

  2. You and Jamey are so nice to us...this is a VERY helpful and informative post. I was beginning to feel a bit overwhelmed at the thought of gardening this year...maybe because of everything else going on. gave me back my hope to grow a few things! I tend to get an "all or nothing" attitude sometimes...I was beginning to think if I couldn't plant enough to grow stores for a year then I wasn't going to do it at all. But...when I read "start small"...I snapped out of it. And I will grow a few things that I know we'll eat and enjoy. And worry about "survival" as the years go on...


  3. This is fabulous! We have had a gargen for the last three years, but after reading this I have hope that it will be more successful this year.

    You've also inspired me to learn a little more about canning/freezing. It's such a valuable resource and so smart. Like you said, it's so rewarding to carry an armload from the freezer to use for dinner!

  4. i, like michelle, have an all or nothing mentality. it's quite crippling! i have to remind myself to grow what we can feasibly manage this year (it's our first "real" garden). thanks sooo much for the paper pot tutorial. i had been saving our yogurt cups for months now for little pots. i think i'll send those to recyling now. i'm sooo excited about this "gardening for dummies" (or at least inexperience beginners) that you & jamey are doing. i can only imagine EVERYTHING else you have going on in your life. you're definitely blessing our lives and budget!

  5. Awesome! This is JUST what I was looking for! Gardening for babies who are afraid to garden. I can't wait...printing out each entry and throwing it in my binder for reference.

  6. I have only just recently found your blog and I am so glad I did. I am beginning to think my lack of success in gardening is because I am too haphazard. Do you have a suggestion for those of us in TX as to how to make the chart work for us? Thank you for the encouragement!!!

  7. YAY! So happy you wrote this! I am planning a vegetable garden for the first time in my life and have been reading everything I can about it...mostly from Mother Earth News. Your instructions make it seem less intimidating than it really is. Can't wait for "Filling Your Pots & Get Growing!!" :)

  8. wayside wanderer,
    I did a little surfing and came across this...
    I'm not sure where you are in relation to Travis County, but this looks like an excellent site:-).

  9. What a wonderful idea to do a tutorial like this. I am so looking forward to your future posts on this subject and am sure that I will come away with some fantastic information. We are going to use your pot making idea when our 4"ers run out this year rather than buying new ones. Thank you so much for sharing that bit of info.

  10. Thanks for this post. It helps me with my plans to create my vegetable garden this spring and summer.
    On saturday I will start with some sewing together with my daughter. She loves it so much to see those seedlings grow and to eat the homegrown veggies.

  11. thanks so much! this is fantastic!!

  12. Oh my goodness I NEED this and I look forward to learning more in the future. Last year's attempt at container gardening (here in central TX) didn't go well, because of the frequent watering needs and drying out and such. I'm going to have to try a different approach this year. I want to do a raised bed but I haven't even gotten started on it yet!!

  13. I have been digging through your blog and asking you lots of questions about chickens, homeschooling, and gardens. Thanks so much for all the great information!

  14. Wow great, they look healthy and delicious.

    Just like to share with you a famous quote...

    "The voice of parents is the voice of gods, for to their children they are heaven's lieutenants. " -- Shakespeare

    You can get more famous quotes at

  15. this is an extremely informative post! Thank you so much!!!!!!!!!!!!! You GIVE so much to others by sharing your knowledge and best practices.

  16. So I'm trying to decide how much is too much at the moment and was hoping for a few pointers?? This is our first go at gardening anything other than flowers. We live on a military base, so we've built some containers (2, 2x4 boxes for most of it and 4 buckets for pole beans and tomatoes) but we could build maybe 2 more. Right now we plan on planting 2 tomatoes, 2 pole beans, 32 carrots, 18 onions, 1 bell pepper, 1 watermelon, 1 summer squash, 1 winter squash, 2 strawbwerries and 1 collard. Problem is, I have no idea how much produce this will actually give us. It cost about $180 on materials and seeds. Are we going to "eat" our money back? Should we plant more? Thanks in advance!

    1. I am so excited for you to begin your gardening journey. I always recommend people start out small and slow so it does not become too overwhelming and it sounds like you're doing just that. As far as your questions go, even if I knew exactly how much produce you wanted out of your garden, there is no way I can predict how your plants will yield. You could get a nice basket of tomatoes from your two plants, or they might do poorly. So much depends on the weather, bugs, etc. I don't mean to scare you off, it's just very hard to predict. I suggest that you make a stab at it and keep track of how many plants/seeds you plant and your yields and then adjust accordingly for the next year. Something to keep in mind is that watermelon and both squashes take up a lot of space, so moving some of them to a flower bed might be a better idea because they would take over your boxes. Carrots like sandy soil (add some from your sand box, if you have) so they can grow long and straight. I hope this has been helpful, but the true way to know what you'll need is by trying it, keeping records and adjusting things for the following year.

  17. Such an informative post (as all are)--thank you! I'm container gardening in an urban environment (getting a head-start on learning and practicing for when my fiance and I start homesteading in the next couple of years). I've had great success thus far, but my spinach crop has been completely devoured by (I believe) aphids. Spider mites are also abundant and cabbage worms have been a bit of a problem for my broccoli, but seem to be easier to keep at bay. I've tried a castile soap spray, but it seems to be ineffectual on my spinach, so I'm curious--do you use any sort of insecticide on your plants? As always, I'm trying to keep things organic and inexpensive..

    1. We've tried a couple homemade/natural sprays for different minor pest issues over the years, but don't have any we'd say are stellar. Our biggest problem tends to be potato bugs on our potato plants and the best solution for that has been paying the kids a penny for each one they pick off. Try searching online for remedies specific to your needs. Of course, the best way to keep pests down are to keep your plants as healthy as possible. Good luck!:-)

    2. We HAD a VERY bad infestation of potato bugs so one fall after the garden was harvested my hubby cleaned our wood stove out and scattered the ashes on the garden then in the spring we tilled them in. The next year we didn't have 1 potato bug! The down side was the peas and beans didn't care for it at all so after that we only put the ashes on where we were going to plant potatoes!We had tried spraying for them and picking them off but all of this was sooo much work and we still had the problem.

  18. I couldn't get the Spring Vegetable Planting PDF. It brings me to Adobe website. I have Adobe and have never had a problem downloading Adobe documents before. Does anyone know if I can get this another way?

    Thanks for all the great information! I have always wanted to start growing my own veggies.

    1. Thanks for letting us know there is a problem. We'll get on it soon!

    2. Ditto! I would love the Spring Planting PDF if you can upload it in a different form that I can open. Thank you for all the great info!

    3. The link above has been changed and will now take you to it:-). Thanks for your patience!!

  19. I found this on pinterest and I'm SO glad that I did. This makes starting a garden much less overwhelming and complicated than anything else I've found. Thank you so much!

  20. Thank you. This is very helpful. The Lord has blessed us with a big back yard, so as first time gardeners taking on the challenge, your blog is a great resource.

  21. Thank you so much! This is really great information. I plan on making the paper pots next year. This is my first year gardening, and I am definitely learning as I go! Check out my blog about starting the garden with my daughter, Gardening With Tes.

    Thanks Again!

  22. The written piece is truly fruitful for me personally; continue posting these types of articles.

  23. Thank you so much for this post. I’m really happy I stumbled across this blog because I’m very interested in starting and developing a vegetable garden that can eventually provide a lot of food for my family. We love all types of produce and want to grow it ourselves, I’m eager to explore your blog and see what other tidbits I can glean from you!


Just a friendly reminder, if you know me personally please try to refrain from using my name. There are those who may try to locate me, break into my pantry and steal my pickled beets. Thanks:-).

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