Vegetable Gardening for Beginners

The Basics of Planting and Growing a Vegetable Garden

April 19, 2020
Girl in Tomato Garden
Travnikov/Shutterstock

Ready to jump into gardening? It can be daunting at first, but gardening is an incredibly rewarding hobby to get into. Our Vegetable Gardening Guide for Beginners will help you to plan and grow your tastiest vegetables ever. Find out how much food you need to grow to feed a family, top 10 vegetables for a beginner, and more tips.

Vegetable Gardening for Beginners

Why garden, you ask? If you’ve never tasted garden-fresh vegetables (lots of people haven’t!), you will be amazed by the sweet, juicy flavors and vibrant textures. There’s absolutely nothing quite like fresh veggies, especially if you grow them yourself—which you can!

On this page, we’ll highlight the basics of vegetable gardening and planning: how to pick the right site for your garden, how to create the right size garden, and how to select which vegetables to grow. 

Pick the Right Location 

Picking a good location for your garden is absolutely key. A sub-par location can result in sub-par veggies! Here are a few tips for choosing a good site:

  1. Plant in a sunny location. Most vegetables need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day. There are a few veggies that will tolerate some shade.
  2. Plant in moist, well-drained soil. If you have poorly drained soil (water pools), plant veggies in a raised bed. If you have rocky soil, till and remove the rocks. 
  3. Plant in a stable environment. Avoid places that receive strong winds could knock over your young plants or keep pollinators from doing their job. Nor do you want to plant in a location that receives too much foot traffic or floods easily. Plant in a location that would make Goldilocks proud.

Lettuce varieties

Choosing a Plot Size: Start Small!

Remember: It’s better to be proud of a small garden than be frustrated by a big one!

One of the most common errors that beginners make is planting too much too soon—way more than anybody could ever eat or want! Unless you want to have zucchini taking up residence in your attic, plan your garden with care. Start small, and only grow what you know you’ll eat.

Here are some tips for a good-size beginner vegetable garden that can feed a family of four for one summer, with a little leftover for canning and freezing (or giving away to jealous neighbors).

  1. Make your garden 11 rows wide, with each row 10 feet long. The rows should run north and south to take full advantage of the sun.
  2. Make sure that you have paths that allow you to access your plants to weed and harvest. The general rule is: Don’t allow more than four feet of plants without access to them. Just makek sure that you can reach the center of the row or bed easily.

(Note: If this garden is too large for your needs, you do not have to plant all 11 rows, or you can simply make the rows shorter.)

cucumbers

Choosing Vegetables!

The vegetables suggested below are common, productive plants that are relatively easy to grow. It would be wise to contact your state’s Cooperative Extension Service to find out what plants grow best in your area.

Top Ten Vegetables
(Tip: Click on a veggie’s name to see its detailed Growing Guide.)

  1. Tomatoes
  2. Zucchini squash
  3. Peppers
  4. Cabbage
  5. Bush beans
  6. Lettuce
  7. Beets
  8. Carrots
  9. Chard
  10. Radishes
  11. (Bonus) Marigolds to discourage pests and add some color!

Some guidelines to choosing vegetables:

  1. Choose what you (and your family) like to eat. If no one likes Brussels sprouts, don’t plant them!
  2. Be realistic about how many vegetables your family will eat. Be careful not to overplant. (Of course, you could always give your veggies away.)
  3. Consider the availability of veggies at your grocery store. Maybe you want to grow tomatillo, instead of cabbage or carrots which are available. Also, certain veggies are so far superior when home-grown, it’s almost a shame not to consider (we’re thinking of garden lettuce and tomatoes!). Also, home-grown herbs are far less expensive than grocery store herbs.
  4. Summer vacation? Remember that tomatos and zucchinis are growing in the middle of summer. If you’re gone part of the summer, you need someone to look after the drops or they will suffer. Or, you could just plant cool-season crops such as lettuce and kale and root veggies.
  5. Use high-quality seeds. Seed packets are less expensive than individual plants, but if seeds don’t germinate, your money—and time—are wasted. A few extra cents spent in spring for that year’s seeds will pay off in higher yields at harvesttime. If you plan ahead, buying straight from the nursery seedsmen is cheaper and higher-quality. See a list of of mail-order seed catalogs here

Radishes

Where and When to Plant?

If you are simply growing two or three tomato plants, this process is easy. But if you plant to grow a full garden, you need to consider:

  • Where each vegetable will go?
  • When each vegetable needs to be planted.

Here are a few guidelines to arranging your vegetables:

  1. There are “cool-season” veggies that grow in spring (eq, lettuce, spinach, root veggies) and “warm-season” veggies that aren’t planted until the soil warms up (eq, tomatoes, peppers). Plant cool-season crops after spring frost and then plant warm-season crops in the same area later in the season.
  2. Plant tall veggies (such as pole beans or a trellis or sweet corn) on the north side of the garden so they don’t shade shorter plants. If you do get shade in a part of your garden, save that area for small cool-season veggies. If shade is unavoidable in parts of your garden, save those areas for cool-season vegetables which appreciate shade as the weather heats up.
  3. Most veggies are annuals (planted each year). If you’re planning on “perennial” crops such as asparagus, rhubarb, and some herbs, provide permenant locations or beds
  4. Consider that some crops mature quickly and have a very short harvest period (radishes, bush beans). Other plants, such as tomatoes, have a longer period of time. These “days to maturity” are on the seed packet. Vegetables that may yield more than one crop per season include beans, beets, carrots, cabbage, kohlrabi, lettuce, radishes, rutabagas, spinach, and turnips
  5. Stagger plantings. You don’t want plant all your lettuce seeds at the same time or all that lettuce needs to be harvested around the same time! Stagger plantings by a few weeks to keep ‘em coming!

When to plant what?

Every region has a different planting time based mainly on their weather, and every vegetable has its temperature preferences, too. See the Almanac’s Best Planting Dates—a gardening calendar customized to your local frost dates. Just enter your zip code! 

For specific planting information, see our individual Grow Guides for over 100 popular vegetables, herbs, and fruit.  For each crop, we provide specific information about how to plant, grow, and harvest including watering and fertilizing and pest control!

Get Free Help From the Almanac

Beginners, we’d suggest trying out our online garden planning tool. We’ve done a LOT of the research for you. For example, you can draw your garden plan on the computer, drop in your preferred vegetables, and the tool figures out the proper spacing for each type of crop! This way, you don’t waste seed or crowd your plants. Also, the Garden Planner automatically pulls in the frost dates for your specific location! 

Plus, you’ll see many free garden plans for inspiration! Over time, you’ll see that this tool also provides “crop rotation” so that if you plan a second season, you properly re-position your plants to avoid pests and disease.

With new gardeners in mind, we offer a free 7-day trial, so ample time to plan your first garden. Check it out here: http://gardenplanner.almanac.com/

gp-plan_0_full_width.png
Photo: Almanac Garden Planner. Earth’s most popular tool for planning your garden. Try it free for 7 days.

Any questions or advice about starting your garden? Check out some of the comments below. Many of your questions may have been answered already by our Almanac community or you are welcome to add your own comment. Happy gardening! 

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Reader Comments

Leave a Comment

Fun article

Hi Catherine ! I absolutely loved this article on gardening. I love the art of gardening coz' it brings me so much peace. And it is wonderful that you share your precious wisdom with us. Thank you so much for the insightful article :)

Vegetable Gardening

Thank you for the blog. The blog is informative, I was planning for a long time to plant vegetables in my backyard but wondering how to start.

Gardening

Thank you for the wonderful information on this site! My husband and I have been trying to start our first vegetable and herb and some fruit garden this year. Your informations are very helpful to us.

Sunshine

I was looking at some figures earlier this year of daily hours of sunshine in the UK. In our main growing months, April, May, June, July, August, we got an average of just about 6 hours a day.
The weather stations recording these figures would be on the top of tall buildings or in wide open spaces and get every minute of available sunshine every day. Most home gardeners will have shadow to contend with as the sun moves behind buildings, trees and over the hill. I don't think we need 6 hours of sunshine each day to grow vegetables which is just as well because I don't think we get anything like that.

Gardening in England

The Editors's picture

One of our editors is from England. The number of sunlight hours by crop can vary but fruiting vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, aubergine, cucumbers, squash, etc) do indeed require 8 hours. This is why many British start and grow tomatoes and peppers in a greenhouse or they’ll never ripen colorfully. However, root vegetables can deal with six hours of sunlight per day and leafy cool-weather green vegetables can operate on 4 hours a day and partial sun. For a beginner, we advice 8 hours as a general rule as this allows all popular crops (such as tomatoes) to thrive.

Thanks for this article

Dear Catherine,
Greetings from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I thank you for a thoroughly enjoyable and succinct read. A nice captivating intro. Well thought out and it's evident that you're well experienced. This is important for the whole world as everyone's lives change with Covid-19. I can understand the comment by Linda from Germany as many city dwelling folk around the planet live in high-rise apartments. There are definitely resources for that but for me, as i read through your article, many memories of my Dads' garden in my childhood showed up. I remembered the feel of soil under my toes and in my small hands, the smell of top-soil mixing with water and different vegetable leaves. I remember the sunlight coming through the canopy and shining on me. Thank you for the lessons and the memories. Best wishes, Jason.

Very helpful article

Hello, I really enjoyed reading your article about vegetable gardening for beginners, I found it very helpful. Thank you, Richard

Beginner gardener

Hi I'm a beginner gardener, and this article was really very helpful! Thanks so much!

You Read My Mind!

I can't believe I'm just now reading this article! The minute that I realized (back in mid February) that coronavirus would slow down food production/distribution and of course make it harder for me to take daily trips to the grocery store for fresh goodies depending on my mood, I decided it was time to start a garden. We are starting a deck garden to keep plants away from critters until we decide whether or not I have a green thumb. I have been surfing the web and asking farmer friends for MONTHS about starting a garden, but I could never find exactly what I was looking for. "How far apart do I plant veggies? What can be grown in the same bed/like toddlers, does anyone have to be separated? How much space do I need? What kind of soil do I use? Are there certain veggies I should by as seedlings instead of seeds?" This one article answered more of my questions at once than all of my research so far.

Thank you

The Editors's picture

Brianna, We really appreciate your kind words and the time you took to comment—and shared with our tiny team here! The Almanac’s been around a long time so this page was created after hearing the most common questions from our readers! We’re so pleased that it helped you start a garden! That’s our goal here—to help everyone grow a little (or a lot!) of their own food! It’s smart that you are doing a lot of planning because some upfront planning is probably the most important step, especially when it comes to soil preparation and pest prevention. You can’t just throw seeds down and hope for the best. If you have more questions, let us know. We don’t get to every comment ourselves but we have a wonderful community of gardeners. Stay patient. Gardening is a never-ending learning cycle and we’re always learning ourselves! Also, you might appreciate our Garden Planner tool because it actually calculates those spacing questions for you and so much more. It’s free for 7 days, plenty of time to play around on your computer. https://gardenplanner.almanac.com/
Sincerely, The Old Farmer’s Almanac editors.

Planting on little hills or just flat ground.

My daughter in law planted a garden on my farm this year and was making heaped up rows to plant on. I’ve gardened most of my life until the last several years because of disabilities and have never seen this method used! We live in western Oklahoma and her ancestors are in Texas and Kansas. Can you tell me why the mounded soil?

Hilling plants in garden

The Editors's picture

Thanks for your question! We’re guessing here. But it sounds like a form of raised bed gardens without the wood or stone sides. Elevated soil warms more quickly in the spring than the surrounding garden soil. This is a practice for cooler or wetter climates. In drier areas, hilling is not a great idea though, as much needed water can drain away. When you hill, you don’t just mound up dirt. You bury healthy amount of compost and well rotted manure underneath the mound first, and then some shovels of garden soil until each hill is 3 to 6 inches tall. It works well for snow peas and can provide an earlier start for beans and corn and also potatoes.

Also, we use the term “hilling” for vining plants including squash, melons and cucumbers. However, the word “hill” is deceptive. It isn’t meant to be a raised mound as this would dry out quickly in many climates. It means that several seeds are grouped together in one spot and then thinned. Hills are used to space out the plants which vine and need room to spread.

Finally, there are some plants which require “hilling” as they grow; with potatoes, gardeners gently mound soil around the growing plant. 

mounded garden technique

The Editors's picture

Your daughter-in-law may also be implementing hugelkultur (who-gul-cul-tour), by some definitions an Old World technique of making mounds of logs and sticks (that will eventually decay) and covering with organic matter, including compost, aged manure, and the like. Then, and for years, planting in it. Learn more here: www.almanac.com/news/gardening/gardening-advice/what-hugelkultur-ultimate-raised-bed

Kitchen Garden

Very useful tips for beginners who wanted to pick up new hobbies during Corona lockout.

Helpful article

Hi Catherine, I really enjoyed reading your article and it is really helpful. I will surely follow the gardening tips and methods!
Thank you,
Richard

Thank you

The Editors's picture

Many thanks, Richard, for this very thoughtful note. I am thrilled to hear that your found the article useful. That just makes my day! Cheers, Catherine (Almanac editor)

Good

Thanks for these vegetable gardening tips. These tips are really very helpful to beginners as well as experienced.

Hard to garden here

I have tried just about everything every year to grow a variety of vegetables. I need a full on greenhouse. Every pot, or canvas growing bag absolutely must be contained from ground to top and tops closed off with chicken wire to prevent critters from destroying my plants. We have done just about everything humanly possible and they still get in.

helpful post

This is a very informative article for free. Thank you.

Home & Garden

Wow! great site for vegetable gardener. You have done great job. Thanks for the sharing such a great post.

Exotic

Pay to farmer now or pay to pharma latter

Poor Garden Results

Why, after working so hard to get my raised beds fertilized, ran drip system, mulched and weed all season my veggies didn't produce much. Zucchini's were few, tomato plants tall and lanky with few fruits, peppers stunted, and my seedless grapes (not in raised beds) came out with tough skins. What am I doing wrong?

big disappointment

The Editors's picture

Hi, Sandy, Oh, my, this is hard to hear. I am going to assume that the bed is in a place that get at least (but ideally more than) 6 hours of direct sun per day. Oddly enough, I was working on a project today about soil nutrients, which, despite what sounds like your ideal set up, could possibly have been missing. On this page (see link, next), N-P-K is addressed and it suggests that lack of potassium can lead to stunted growth: https://www.almanac.com/content/npk-ratio-what-do-numbers-fertilizer-mean

Continue reading about calcium, magnesium, and sulfur.

And then there is pH (acidity) to consider. Even with the proper soil, improper pH values can hinder plant growth. See here: https://www.almanac.com/content/preparing-soil-planting and then see the chart for all (common) plants here https://www.almanac.com/content/soil-ph-levels

We hope this does not deter you from trying again next year! Let us know if we can help in any other way—

Help bug eating cucumber plant

We have a cucumber plant that has been doing rather well but all of a sudden something ate it. Literally over night. I sprayed it yesterday with an organic pesticide and my daughter found several little black (almost microscopic) bigs still eating it today. How do I get rid of the bugs? What are they? How do I prevent?

Garden bugs

To get rid of undesirable garden bugs, try 20% vinager from a spray bottle. This is not the weaker type vinigar ound in the grocery. A good garden or chemical supply will have it.

Also you might want to put the area with Diatomaceous Earth. While it looks like powder and is safe to use around children and pests, to crawling insects it is like a phalanx of Spartan soldiers .

I find more natral things like this far better than chemicals.

Shade Vegetables

Along the south facing wall of my house I have planted dwarf citrus trees - they get lots of sun and are growing well. 6 feet from the house is a solid wood fence - the side of the fence facing the house is always in the shade, but warm due to reflected heat from the house. What do you recommend that I plant along the base of the wall, knowing that it will not get any direct sunlight?

Shade Vegetables

The Editors's picture

Most veggies need at least partial shade to produce a worthwhile crop. Your best bet would be to try leafy greens, like lettuce, arugula, spinach, or Swiss chard. If the area is completely shaded though, you may not have much luck with veggies. Perhaps a fern garden would be a nice addition?

I live in Ecuador, can this Garden Planner understand my area?

Good day all,
This Garden Planner sounds wonderful and would like to utilize it but moved down from a wonderful growing area in Roswell, GA to the high Andes Mountains with an arid elevation of 8,200. I learned that I needed to import Top Soil(compost) and remove the clay soil that I have in order to grow my heirloom tomatoes, sweet corn etc.I was wondering if this Garden Planner has any adjustments to allow me to adjust to a reverse growing season( plus I can't grow Blueberries, as there is no winter here :( )
It the Garden Planner doesn't does anyone know of a website that they can direct me to on growing in this type of climate?
Thank you for reading this.

garden planner is global

The Editors's picture

Yes, our garden planner works anywhere! The caveats to this is that we have detailed weather information/climate data for the US, Canada, all of Europe, Australia and South Africa. For other countries, once a user has set their location, we advise them to check and adjust their frost dates to make sure that the system’s calculated planting calendar will be as accurate as possible.

Ecuador

Hi David. I am in Costa Rica. We have simularities of climate and geology when it comes to gardenin. One of those is volcanic soils lack iron.. If you can get iron filings that would take care of that problem.
Sorry I don't think blueberries will grow well. At least not below 4500 or more feet elevation. They need some cold weather but not necessarily freezing, but definitely below 45 F. On the other hand blackberries should grow well. Get the seeds from the fruit hopefully found in a grocery store.

Reversing seasons won't help. We are both too close the Equator ans other than rainy and dry season, temperatures and daytime don't change much. I have had many things fail. Sometimes planting seeds that remain dormant about two months, grow a short spurt and die. I am closing in on this problem by planting seeds every two weeks. I am certain there is something about the timing but not temperature, length of day nor even rain (after all, the garden hose resolves that problem)

I live at an altitude of 5100 feet in the same place the best and most expensive coffee grows. Tarrazu Costa Rica. I know manycoffee farmers and much of what I am doing is to get ather crops growing between and under the coffee trees. I think tall plants like sunflowers and perhaps Okra. I would also like to get Hops growing. Used in beer brewing and labor intensive. There is a world wide shortage of Hops. I would think Ecuador would be perfect again above 4500 foot elevation. At that altitude, I believe Ecuador would be much like Oregon and parts of Northern California. It snows and freezes but not much. I have seen citrus trees and palm trees growing as ar north as Eugene Oregon.

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