How to Plant a Vegetable Garden:
A Food Lover’s Guide
When First Lady Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden last spring, I began to dream about how it would feel to walk outside into my own garden bursting full of cilantro, eggplants, and tomatoes. My dreams swiftly morphed into full fantasies of how wonderful it would be to make a quiche packed with vegetables from my own garden, a Caprese salad with homegrown beefsteak tomatoes and basil, my own Swiss chard tossed with marinara sauce and whole wheat rigatoni. Just thinking about the smell of freshly picked arugula filled me with such a sense of excitement that I wanted to run outside to dig up the yard and start immediately. I was determined to have a real garden brunch, and, like the First Lady, wear my cardigan and pearls. When my guests bragged about how juicy my jumbo homegrown vegetables were, I would answer, “Oh, the vegetables? They’re from my garden,” as if my endeavor was effortless and I had a naturally green thumb. But was I really capable of growing something?
My Sicilian grandfather had been gardening all his life. Zucchinis, eggplants, tomatoes, Swiss chard, he knew how to plant everything. He took full advantage of his harvest, using the vegetables to whip up healthful, delicious dishes at the restaurant he owned and operated for over seventy years. I knew this year would be no exception, even at 91 years old. For as long as I had known him, he seemed serene, wise, and happy. Maybe it was time for me to follow his example.
Thus, I promised myself that I too would plant a vegetable garden this year. No matter how small, I would attempt to boldly go where I had never gone before: outside, in the mud, into what I hoped would become a garden. The thought of frying zucchini from my own garden trumped any fear I had of getting dirty. To make sure that I was equipped with the knowledge I needed to succeed, I sought out the gardening experts to explain what someone as clueless as me would need to know about planting a vegetable garden. I also wanted to know, why did the love gardening so much? Here is what they had to say:
What are the benefits of planting your own vegetable garden?
Paul Simon, Landscape Horticulturalist for the National Gardening Association, says the reasons for planting your own vegetable garden are plenty because a vegetable garden: 1) saves money and saves time by eliminating your need to go to the grocery store; 2) is a great outdoor hobby; 3) is an engaging and quality time exercise for the family; 4) the idea of growing and producing your own vegetables is a positive endeavor; and 5) not only brings families together, but communities as well.
There is another benefit to planting your own vegetable garden: harvesting and tasting the fruits of your labor. “I like to do it because I like to eat,” says Sally McCabe, an educator with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society for over 25 years. “There’s also a real basic connection between people, soil, and plants. When we’re in the garden, we have so much less tension.”
McCabe said that the number of students enrolled in her class “Philadelphia Green Garden Tenders” where people learn how to plant community gardens, has more than doubled in the past two years alone. Simon agrees that there has been an increase in the amount of people planting vegetable gardens, especially as more and more families are finding ways to save and cut-back on their expenses during these troubled times. “A vegetable garden can easily produce and provide what many families need during the growing seasons,” said Simon. “This not only saves a family as it provides an alternative to store-bought items, but also saves them from taking a trip to the grocery store.” He added that gardening helps families spend more quality time together.
Barbara Hobens Feldt, author of “Garden Your City,” lists a numerous benefits to planting your own garden, including exercise, good health, beauty. She points out that gardening has educational value and can be an excellent source of fun and an opportunity to socialize with other people in the community. “I enjoy helping nature take her course and helping others realize how simple it is to grow a seed, nurture a plant, and grow organic good,” said Feldt. And of course, she notes that planting a vegetable garden aids wildlife and the environment.
There is also a general consensus that gardening makes people happy. “In Philadelphia right now, daffodils are up and people are so up!” said Feldt. Simon, who has designed elevated handicap accessible raised gardens for senior and assisted living facilities, agrees. “I know that many hospice centers and senior living facilities have made gardening an important activity and more so today than ever,” he said. “I am certain the people using these gardens and involved in this activity may have an elevated level of enjoyment …”
I would like to plant my first vegetable garden. Where do I start?
“I would start with a basic clean up and clearing of an area for your garden,” recommends Simon. “Make sure you identify an area that also gets plenty of sunlight. And be sure to till up the soil and inspect the soil conditions and quality,” he said.
According to Simon and all the gardening Gods, the basic rule is this: find a space with a generous amount of sunlight. “Pick a site with full sun,” says Russell Strover, a Penn State Master Gardener Volunteer and Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Volunteer.
(The Penn State Master Gardener program is a volunteer program of Cooperative Extension, where selected individuals receive about 40 hours of training from the University staff and faculty. In exchange for their training, these individuals volunteer for Cooperative Extension where they teach the public about good research based gardening practices. Cooperative Extension is a great free resource for folks needing any kid of horticultural information or advice. Just about every county across the country has one. For more information on this program, click here. To visit the Penn State Hort Blog, click here.)
In addition to sunlight, multiple other factors must be taken into consideration when planting a vegetable garden. “Different plants have different needs,” says the K.Padmini of the FlowerExperts.com. He recommends taking into account seasonal plants, the height they grow, the temperature, and the water needs.
But no matter where you start or how you plan your garden, start small and stay calm. “People should start small enough,” recommends McCabe, “so that it doesn’t overwhelm you and you have time to enjoy it.”
How much space do I need?
There are several places where one can plant a garden. “Most beginners are too ambitious” says Strover. “It is best to start small and grow your garden bigger as you get more experience.” Whether you live in the city or the country, gardens can be planted in any space. “Gardening in cities is so wonderful, so unexpected and fun,” said Feldt.
In the ground. “Your first in the ground garden should probably be no larger than 4 by 8 feet,” said Strover. If you decide to plant directly in the ground, see the special instructions for preparing your soil below.
Tubs. Strover recommends first time gardeners start in large tubs, as they avoid the labor intensive step of preparing soil from the ground. “These are available from nurseries that plant trees, probably at no charge,” he said.
Pots. “Any vegetable can be adapted to growing in a container or pot,” said K.Padmini. “Herbs will grow in containers with minimal care.” If you decide to plant in pots, Joe Ziccardi, Horticulturalist from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, advises placing them in the right light conditions that the plants require and to make sure that there are drainage holes in the containers.
Raised Beds. For first time gardeners, Strover also recommends planting in a raised bed made of 2X6 inch boards. Boards made of cedar will last the longest, but he says that Pine will also last a few years.
To learn more about gardening in cities and other small spaces, “Gardening Your City” by Barbara Hobens Feldt, www.gardenyourcity.com.
What basic tools do I need?
“The garden tools you need depend upon the type of plants you are intending to plant,” said K.Padmini. “Some of the basic garden tools can be a shovel, a spade, a garden fork, measuring tape …”
Strover also recommends investing in basic gardening tools including garden fork, a garden rake, and a trowel for planting. “All the gimmicks that promise to make your work easier make people who market them rich, but really don’t work well,” he said. “A Mantis cultivator is one exception, but will take years to achieve a payback in vegetables to offset the cost.”
Strover also recommends investing in string to aid in making straight rows of your vegetables and ensuring they have enough space. “Tie a stick at each end [of the row] so you can lay out the row and stabilize it while you make your plantings,” said Strover.
How do I prepare the soil?
The amount of work required in preparing your soil depends upon where you are planting. If you are planting on the ground, you will need to remove any grass it with a spade or a flat shovel, says Strover. But be warned: “This is hard work. An alternative approach is to turn over the grass a year before you wish to start your garden. Another approach, which is non-organic but will ease your workload and work quickly, is to use a vegetation killer like Roundup. After spraying the area with Roundup, the soil can be turned over in one week,” Strover said.
Once the site is cleared of grass, Strover recommends having a soil test performed to make sure your soil has the right pH levels (level of acidity or alkalinity). Most soil will be deficient in organic material which will help your vegetables grow, but this can be fixed. “Composed leaves or peat moss about an inch thick will help to cure the deficiency,” Strover said. NGA expert Simon also echoes this advice. “For first time gardeners, you should probably add compost to the soil and make sure you have removed any weed growth that starts developing early in the garden so weeds are not competing with your planting.” According to the Flower Experts, an ideal garden soil should contain at least 20% organic matter. Sawdust, bark dust, manure or compost can be added to the soil”
What should I plant?
You should plant whatever your heart or taste buds desire! Just be careful to take geography and timing into account. Luckily, this is not rocket science as what will grow and what will not grow has already been determined for us. The United States is divided up into different gardening zones according to temperature and given a number. If you stay in your zone, you should be safe. “You need to determine when the vegetables you want can be planted,” Strover said. “Some are hardy and can be planted when it is cold. Others are tender, like tomatoes, and cannot be planted until all chances of frost are gone, like mid-May in Eastern PA.” To find out your zone, visit the American Cultural Horticultural Society website, www.ahs.org.
If it is early in the season and the ground is still cold, K.Padmini recommends planting beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, lettuce, peas, potatoes, radishes, spinach and turnips. “In warmer in season,” he says, “try beans, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, melons, peppers, pumpkins, squash and tomatoes.”
For maximum enjoyment of your garden, McCabe recommends planting a good mix of vegetables in your garden at different times, called succession planting. Succession planting refers to several different methods of planting which will maximize your use of space and time during the growing season. For example, when one crop is ready to harvest, another plant is planted in the same space, or several different plantings are going on at one time. “Good gardeners mix their variety so they will have a good garden of vegetables that peak at different times,” McCabe said. “I keep a garden full of a lot of stuff for as long as I can.”
What are the easiest vegetables to plant for a first time gardener?
“Tomatoes tend to give people the most satisfaction,” says McCabe. “You can plant them anywhere and they will keep churning out tomatoes. Herbs are magical too because you can pick them when you are ready.”
K. Padmini says that lavender, mint, chives, basil, ginger plants, oregano, parsley are herbs that are all easy to grow with little maintenance.
Ziccardi recommends planting easy annual herbs like basil, calendula, coriander (cilantro) and dill; and perennial herbs like sage, parsley, chives, and rosemary.
Do I plant vegetables from seeds or flats seedlings/young plants I can buy?
If you are looking to save money, packets of seeds are definitely the cheapest way to go. However, it may be easier for a first time gardener to start from flats of seedlings. Strover recommends buying starter plants if you want to plant just a few plants of a vegetable.
For a gardener in a cooler climate, it may be difficult and almost impossible to start plants from seeds since the growing season is shorter and there will not be enough time for the plants to bear fruit. This can be avoided by starting seeds in pots inside and then planting them outside when the climate is warm enough. “With seeds, you need to decide which ones should be given an early start inside and which should be planted directly outside, like beans,” said Strover. “Then a plan needs to be laid out with a schedule for starting seeds and planting. This plan also lays out where each vegetable is planted.” Strover, “Starting seeds has the advantage of being able to select from more varieties. Usually it is less costly to start from seeds. Plus it gives you something to do when it is too early to work out in the garden.”
I love flowers too. Can I plant these alongside my vegetables?
“Yes, you can grow flowers alongside the vegetables,” states K.Padmini. “But we should be careful that we may need to spray some fertilizers or pesticides for the vegetables, which should not harm the flowers adjacent.”
If I plant my own garden, does this mean that my vegetables are organic?
No. An organic garden is one in which no petroleum based additives are used (i.e., no artificial fertilizers, no chemical pesticides, no high processed matter), explains McCabe, noting that most community gardens are required to be organic. “And if you have kids or animals in a garden, you want it organic as possible.”
Most gardeners recommend staying organic because it’s safer, it’s better for the environment, and also because it helps your vegetables to obtain their maximum flavor potential. “Organic only,” said Barbara Hobens Feldt. “You’re your bite into YOUR first tomato or cucumber and you will be hooked – flavor galore!”
However, staying organic can be tricky for a first time gardener who has never planted before. “The first step to an organic garden for a first time gardener is to find out where your local source of organic compost is,” said McCabe. Staying organic can also be tricky if you have pests or other major problems threatening your vegetables. “You have to notice when the first bug is there,” explains McCabe, in order to avoid resorting to chemicals and pesticides. However, McCabe gently assures me that it is alright to veer off the organic path if necessary, especially for first time gardeners. “Gardening is a compromise,” she says. “You just want to stay as close to nature as you can.”
How much watering do I need to do?
“Most of the plants in the subtropical and tropical places need at least a mug of water daily,” says K.Padmini. For vegetables, he says if the soil is dry to touch this shows that they are thirsty.
McCabe echoes similar advice, “A good gardener is somebody that knows their plants,” she says. “You don’t have to water them every day, but you do need to be out there every day. If stuff is starting to look furry, you know it’s had too much water.” She also warns, “When seeds are just sprouting, they’re the most fragile,” McCabe said. “Too much water can drown the babies.” She advises even covering them at this time with a burlap sack.
If you live in a drier climate or you want to use the purest water possible, consider saving your rainwater. “In Philadelphia, we save our rainwater,” said McCabe, adding, “It helps you to save water and to save money.”
What do I need to do to maintain my garden? What if I run into problems?
“You should have the knowledge about the type of insects or worms which destroy the plant and their remedy, which can help in controlling it before it destroys the rest,” said K.Padmini. To ward off pests, he recommends sprinkling or spraying some organic powders or sprays to avoid the unwanted guests your hard worked garden.
If you run into problems or have questions about your garden, don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are plenty of free and easily available resources to aid a first time gardener. If your garden isn’t growing well or has bugs, Strover recommends contacting your local American Horticultural Society Cooperative Extension Service. For more information, see www.ahs.org. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society offers a special free service on their website, www.pennsylvaniahorticulturalsociety.org, called “Ask a Gardener” where one can pose a question to an expert garden volunteer, like Strover. The National Gardening Association offers a similar service on their website, www.garden.org. The Flower Experts also feature a panel of experts, like K.Padmini, available to answer your questions and serve your gardening needs on their website, www.theflowerexperts.com.
Finally, when do I harvest the vegetables?
“When it looks like you would buy them at a grocery store,” McCabe said, who points out that most flats of seedlings will have instructions on when to harvest your vegetables. K.Padmini adds that it can take from one to three months to fully harvest a vegetable garden at home. Simply use your senses.
This past weekend, I finally planted my garden! In Pennsylvania, we have a shorter growing season than many other areas. I was ready to start planting in April but because the last frost occurred so late in May this year, I had to wait to plant outside. (you find this out according to the Farmer’s Almanac).
I am limited in space and don’t really know what I am doing, so I decided to stick to mostly herbs for my first garden and tomato plants. I planted my favorite herbs from seedlings I purchased at Omalia’s Greenhouse and from other starter plants given to me by my relatives. Some of the herbs I planted include basil, chives, cilantro, oregano, spearmint, rosemary, fennel, sage and thyme. I also planted chamomile and lavender. I loveeeeee the way the lavender smells and you can use it in desserts! I would loveee to make my own chamomile tea from dried chamomile tea leaves.
I planted 4 mountain fresh tomato plants from seedlings and bought a big planted cherry tomato plant that already has buds on it! The buds motivated me a little bit and helped to ease my anxiety about ending up with a fruitless garden. This gardening experience will absolutely be a test of my patience because I am powerless over these plants – I just have to wait and let them grow on their own. I am SOOOO excited!
I did plant other vegetables from seeds -zuchinnis, red bell peppers, butter lettuce, and cucumbers – but with little hope they will actually materialize into anything edible! I should have started the seeds inside about 6 weeks ago but was clueless! My grandfather, who already planted his garden this year, told me lovingly but with a shake of his head that I “shouldn’t have planted from seeds.” He did give me the nod of approval on the herb garden and said they “looked beautiful.” So in my heart, I feel I have already succeeded.
If anyone has any helpful hints or recipes, I would be more than happy to hear them! Please share! I will update my progress periodically and hopefully have some wonderful recipes come August and September to post with herbs I picked from my own garden! 🙂