Planting and growing your own vegetables is good for physical and mental health. You get exercise, reduce stress and produce your own fresh, healthy food, all by planting a vegetable garden in your backyard. If you do not know how to plant a garden, it’s not difficult, but there are a few important things to know. A little planning before you start to dig will save frustration and increase your chances of success.

Picking the Right Spot for Vegetable Gardening

Your vegetable garden should be in a spot that gets six to eight hours of sun each day. Watch the sun and shade patterns in your yard on a sunny day to find the best location. Note that the sun is highest in the sky in late June. Early and late summer days might be shadier, depending on the trees in your yard. Generally, late afternoon shade is better than morning shade.

Choose a fairly level place for your vegetable garden. Gardening on a hill is much more challenging! You can create terraces – a series of level planting beds – but that is more time and effort that you could be spending planting and caring for vegetables.

small vegetable gardenHow Big Should a Vegetable Garden Be?

Don’t be overly ambitious when you first start vegetable gardening. A small garden is easier to manage; you can always make it bigger next year. A ten foot by ten foot space will actually produce a fair amount of food if it is carefully managed. Rows can be anywhere from two to four feet wide. Wide rows should have paths on both sides. All parts of the bed should be within arm’s reach.

Almost every neighborhood has wildlife that likes to nibble on vegetable plants. A short fence with small openings keeps out rabbits and small mammals. Deer jump right over short fences, but they need a safe place to land. Your garden layout, raised beds, and other features may help deter them.

Preparing Vegetable Garden Soil

Soil is the most important part of your vegetable garden. Without good, fertile soil with lots of organic matter, your garden stands little chance of success.

Till or dig into your existing soil at least eight inches, if not more. Till thoroughly or dig twice! Add composted manure or a similar soil amendment with organic matter from your local landscape or garden center. Cow manure or mushroom compost are good choices. Spread a one inch layer, and mix thoroughly with your existing soil. If you are building raised beds, you probably need to buy some additional topsoil.

If you are not sure about the quality of your soil, get it tested. That is the best way to figure out specific fertilization needs. State agricultural extension offices have more information. Some garden centers sell soil test kits.

vegetable gardening USDA zonesWhich Vegetables to Plant?

Plant vegetables that you like! Plant cool weather veggies such as peas, spinach, broccoli and kale starting in early spring or late winter. Start lettuce soon after. Warm weather plants like tomatoes, beans, peppers and squash should be planted after all danger of frost has passed. Though seeds are the most economical way to plant, for tomatoes, peppers and broccoli, it is best to buy small sets of seedlings from a garden center. Your USDA hardiness zone, coordinated with information from your garden store or seed packets, helps to determine more specific planting dates.

For a small garden plot, choose compact varieties of plants. Bush beans and peas are a better choice than vines. Some vegetable varieties are ready for harvest faster than others; pick the quick growing varieties if you can. Vegetable seed packets and seed catalogs usually state number of days until harvest. You should be able to plant a second round of cool season vegetables in late summer or early fall.

After you have a couple of years experience with vegetable gardening, consider getting some row cover cloth. It extends your growing season by a month in both spring and fall. In southern parts of the US, it allows you to garden year round.

vegetable gardeningAfter You Plant Your Garden

Mulch and water are the final ingredients. A thick layer of mulch such as pine straw or shredded leaves keeps the soil moist while adding organic matter to your soil over time. Mulch also means fewer weeds, though you will likely need to pull a few weeds every week or so. Though seeds need frequent water and moist soil to germinate, cut back on watering frequency as plants get larger. Do water thoroughly so that more than the surface layer of soil gets wet.

Note that the planting dates suggested here are approximate. A surprise late frost or early summer can change things for better or worse. That’s part of the fun of planting a vegetable garden. When one crop has a bad year, another may do really well. You never know exactly what to expect, but with good soil, water, and a little luck, you’ll be enjoying fresh vegetables throughout the summer.