How to Start a Vegetable Garden Part 1

How to start a vegetable garden. A 7 part, month by month series for beginners and experienced gardeners. Guidance on what to plant, where to plant it and most importantly – how to keep it all alive without wanting to kill yourself.

So you’ve always wanted to have a vegetable garden.  You picture yourself wandering around a sun-drenched patch of tomatoes and herbs, wicker basket dangling from your arm, straw hat tilted jauntily on your head. Casual yet chic; a perfect look for selfies!

If this is your vision of vegetable gardening I encourage you to continue your imaginary gardening hobby – because the reality of it will shatter you.  

For everyone else!  THIS is the year you’re finally going to start a real vegetable garden that produces big, healthy, organic vegetables.  It might not be as big as my 40′ x 40′ community garden plot but I didn’t start with a garden this big either.

We’re going to do it together step-by-step in a 7 part series

WELCOME TO THE FIRST IN A SERIES OF 7 TUTORIALS ON:

How to Start a Vegetable Garden

I will hold your hand the entire time.  I mean that in spirit of course, because a) no one wants to hold a gardener’s hands because they’re always filthy and b) it’s really hard to hold hands through a computer.  

I’ll be writing one article each month from April to October that will be like a calendar of sorts, letting you know what to do and what to watch out for as you grow your first vegetable garden.  Even if this isn’t your first “potadeo” there will be lots of advanced tips too.

Let’s get started!

APRIL

The start of it all. Time to dream, plan, pick out and order seeds.

For certain things you’re also going to be able to start planting indoors  More on that in a minute.  

April Gardening Tasks

  1. Decide what it is you want to grow!  THIS is the fun part. Think about what you like to eat yourself, how much you have room for and how well it does in YOUR zone.  Don’t be discouraged by not having a lot of space. You can grow A LOT in a small amount of space whether it’s in raised beds or pots.
  2. Order seeds!  Spend a night or two going through seed catalogues online and pick out a few things.  You can always buy prestarted plants in the spring, but there’s nothing like the magic of growing from seed.  Plus you can get very specific varieties of things that way. 

    Most nurseries selling cantaloupe seedlings for instance, only label them as “cantaloupe” and you have no idea what variety it is.  It’s like ordering a pair of “pants” from Amazon and having no idea what make they are.
  3. Decide how you’ll be growing. Raised beds? Traditional rows? Galvanized planters? Pots? Wherever it is, most vegetables need to be in an area that gets at least 8 hours of direct sunlight a day.
  4. Plan your garden. Decide how much room you have to grow things and then start planning out where things go.  Using an online vegetable garden planner can help you visualize things and many of them also show you how many plants to plant in a certain amount of space. 

    You’ll need this to begin with because it’s sometimes hard even for experienced gardeners to remember that the tiny Brussels sprouts plant is eventually going to be 3’ high and 2’ wide.  A good general rule to keep in mind for planting is to put taller things at the back of your garden where they won’t shade anything behind them.   

Raised Garden Beds, Pots or Rows

You have more options than you think for growing vegetables even if you have a small yard or even no yard at all. If your home is a condo or an apartment you can grow almost anything in pots on a balcony. No balcony? Talk to the management and ask if there’s an outdoor area you can use for growing potted vegetables.

It. Can. Be. Done. No matter where you live or how much land you do or don’t have. I started my vegetable bonanza by creating a front yard vegetable garden in my house in 2012. Since then I’ve evolved to a 40′ x 40′ plot in a community garden which you can see in this post that also includes 10 really helpful gardening tips and tricks.

And my front yard garden is now an English cottage style garden that incorporates my favourite dahlia varieties and other traditional flowers along with vegetables scattered in.

  1. Traditional rows. This is your grandpa’s vegetable garden. Single rows of vegetables. A classic.
  2. Raised beds.   More of a modern approach to vegetable gardening.  Basically just mounded up dirt  in the shape of  beds (usually around 4’ wide by however long you want). 

    The benefits of a raised bed are: the water drains more freely, their slightly raised height makes them easier to work on, and you’re less likely to walk on them which keeps the soil from getting compacted.

    Raised beds can can have wood or metal sides enclosing them or not. Having sides keeps soil from washing away and helps prevent weed seeds from blowing into the soil.

    If you choose to build raised beds with sides, remember the wood will eventually rot and you’ll have to redo them every few years. Many people are now switching to the more expensive but long lasting galvanized vegetable beds.
  3. Square foot gardening.  Square beds that are 4’ x 4’, encased with wood sides, divided into 16 individual 1’ by 1’ sections that are intensely planted.
  4. Waist high raised gardens. Basically a raised bed on stilts.  Like the Vegtrug, which my mother owns.  These super-raised beds are perfect if you have trouble bending down.  Or if you are really good at bending down but not so great at getting back up again.  They also work well in any areas that don’t have room for a traditional garden bed.  You can just sit them on your balcony, patio or on some paver stones in the middle of your lawn.
  5. Pots. You can grow an entire vegetable garden in a pot garden. Plants like tomatoes, lettuces, carrots, beets and potatoes all grow really well in a container.  I really can’t think of any vegetable I’ve grown that couldn’t be grown in a pot.
  6. Smushing vegetables in with your regular front or backyard plants.  Most vegetables are pretty beautiful and can blend in with ornamentals easily.  If you don’t have enough room to dedicate to an actual garden, just plant your vegetables in with your landscape plants.

    Tomatoes do GREAT planted near the foundation, absorbing the heat from the side of the house.  Carrots, with their delicate frond tops look like a fern when planted together and lettuce just looks like pretty greenery. 

    Dinosaur kale is almost always the most commented on plant in my front yard because it looks so dramatic and beautiful.

So that’s your first task. Figure out what you want to plant and where you can plant it.

Pests & Solutions

You won’t have any pests to have to deal with this month since you don’t actually have any plants growing yet.  Enjoy it.

Tools You Need

  1. Seed Catalogues and seed packets.
  2. Garden Planner
  3. Grow lights (if you plan to grow your own seedlings) – I recommend 2, 2’ long T5 grow lights to start with as an initial investment.  There’s also LED tape lights which I’ve never tried but look like they’re really easy to use and FUN.
  4. Soiless Mix (this is sterile potting soil with no nutrients in it for starting seeds)
  5. Small pots and seed starting trays 

ZONE 6 PLANTING GUIDE – APRIL

Planting in April falls into 3 categories. Seeds you can plant directly outside now, seedlings you can plant directly outside now, and seeds you want to start indoors under lights right now.

When you start and/or plant them depends on whether the plants are cold tolerant. Those are the ones that can be planted outside right now. Heat loving vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers can’t be planted outside for a while but they should be started indoors right now so they’re ready to go out and the end of next month.

DIRECT SEED OUTSIDE

  • carrot
  • radish
  • onion sets
  • beets
  • peas
  • turnip
  • parsnip
  • lettuce
  • spinach
  • potatoes
  • swiss chard

SEEDLINGS TO GO OUTSIDE

  • strawberries
  • brussels sprouts
  • kale
  • kohlrabi
  • broccoli
  • cabbage

INDOOR SEED STARTING

  • tomatoes
  • cucumbers
  • winter squash
  • summer squash
  • most flowers
  • zucchini
  • eggplant
  • sweet potato slips (it’s not too late to try to start these!)
  • peppers

This timeline is for zone 6. You can refer to this seed starting calculator to calculate what can be started this month in your zone.  Just enter your first frost free date.

Seed Resources

SeedsBaker Creek, Veseys, William Dam Seeds, Stokes, all have a huge selection of heirloom varieties. You can also get quality seeds at your local garden or home centre.

To help get you started here’s a list of some common vegetables and my favourite varieties of them.

Vegetable Varieties For Beginners

I mentioned earlier that growing a vegetable without knowing the variety is like buying a pair of pants without knowing what size, shape or material they are. Case in point:

These are all winter squash. These 3 varieties all have unique shapes and tastes. So variety matters when it comes to vegetables.

This is a list of my most trusted varieties to grow from seed. They are the varieties I grow that consistently show good disease and pest resistance as well as being quick to germinate and grow on.

Carrots – Bolero (typical long, orange carrot)

Tomatoes – Juliet (a salad tomato that’s naturally resistant to splitting and disease)

Beets – Kestrel is a delicious nice sized beet that germinates readily. Boldor (a yellow beet with superior flavour but is much more difficult to germinate and grow on)

Kale – Black Magic (a lacinato kale) Like any kale, you need to cover it with netting while it’s growing if you don’t want it covered in cabbage moth caterpillars. This is the kale flanking my walkway in the photo above.

Squash – For beginners and experts alike, Delicata (Sweet potato squash) is a winner. VERY sweet, orange flesh that stores remarkably well for a thin skinned squash.


Now go think about what you’d like to plant in your vegetable garden this year. I’ll meet you back here next month to talk more about where exactly you’re going to plant all of this stuff.

And congratulations on taking the first step to growing your own food!  For the next several months you’re going to be dirty, messy and look dismal in selfie’s. 

But your meals are going to look GREAT.

How to Start a Vegetable Garden  Part 1

28 Comments

  1. Jacqueline Jackson says:

    Thank you. Must make my plan, layout and other incidents Off to the races/adventure.
    This is my first time saying this.

  2. Tina says:

    I would encourage your readers to begin planning and order seeds earlier. By April the seed companies have slim pickings!

    I’m old and have lots of health issues. My raised beds are made from 2x10s, 3 high so I don’t have to bed over. They are 3 feet wide so I can easily reach everything from both sides. And someone driving past my house thinks I must have had a lot of deaths in the family. They look like coffins.

    My DIL and grandies live 10 min away and she has an acre of gardens so most comes from there. I plant my favorites and lots of flowers.

    I wish everyone their best garden ever!

  3. Ashley says:

    This series should be fun! Just recently moved to a large property and made a HUGE garden!! 1/3 of it has already been planted (I’m in Florida) and I’m proud to say that almost all of them were from seeds! Now….. to see if they will survive. The drip irrigation should help seeing how I always forget the watering part. haha!

  4. Tamara says:

    I tried the seed starting calculator and after entering my first frost-free date nothing happens. No other dates appear. Help! (please)

    • Karen says:

      Hi Tamara! Make sure you enter it exactly as you see it. You have to add the dashes into the date yourself. Like this, 05/10/2022 and then press enter. :) ~ karen!

  5. Meg says:

    I am overly excited about starting seeds this year, as I have a BIGGER space for some gardening. (I’m in fact using starting seeds as my reward for cleaning the kitchen today.) I think I’m going to try for a 4’x8′ bed and I’m stoked about it.

    The problem is now I want to plant some of EVERYTHING. I will try to hold myself to a few tomatoes, peppers, cukes, peas, maybe some marigolds, nasturtiums, and zinnias to make it pretty. I mean how do I even know how much I’ll use? Or if this will work at all?!

    Every time I read seed catalogs I become delusional as if I’m some kind of person who knows what they’re doing. How many PUMPKINS could I have? It would be great to grow some winter squash. And carrots, parsnips, potatoes, and leeks, onions, garlic. And strawberries, mandatory. And spices. Basil, chives, parsley, rosemary, marjoram, chamomile. And artichoke flowers are BEAUTIFUL, so some of those. Definitely more flowers: cosmos, yarrow, sunflowers, snapdragons, stock…. it’s got to be some kind of mental illness.

  6. Randy P says:

    A great read, even for those of us whose ‘garden’ resides at our local grocery store vegetable section. (I’m not certain what zone we are in here in Chicago, but it obviously includes the Jewel Foods and Pete’s Market grocery chains). Thanks for sharing what should be a wondrous journey across the land of the green thumbed. You have a simply marvelous gift for exploring the written word to create a movie of the mind. I look forward to the future installments.

  7. Agnes says:

    Great article, thank you Karen! So needed something on gardening – at least seed planting feels like we are getting started. I will be using that garden planner! Thanks to you I am trying sweet potato this year, have roots on 2, hoping for slips soon. Don’t worry about being late – the weather is too! Last year we had potatoes in the ground by now but this year it’s still semi-frozen. Re squash varieties I recommend butternut because they keep so well. I still have 3 from last October harvest, without a blemish on them.

    • Karen says:

      That’s impressive for the Butternut! I find they’re a bit too big for me. I discovered what I think might remain my favourite squash for quite some time. Autumn Frost. I love the look of it, it has good flavour and is the perfect size for 1-2 people. ~ karen!

  8. Kathy says:

    Hi Karen,
    Thanks for another great article!
    I just reviewed; and decided to subscribe to subscribe to the Garden planner you suggest. It isn’t my first, but it looks the most thorough: as far as saving data year to year, actually having my growing zone included (!!), as well as a journal capacity and gardener support.

    I look forward to all the future additions to your series!

    :-) Kathy

  9. Mary W says:

    Maybe she flew the coup. LOL

  10. Mary W says:

    She probably flew the coup! LOL

  11. Jody says:

    Based on your recommendation and blog “lessons”, my seedlings are doing great in their soil blocks on watering mats. Thank you!
    Have you ever added wood ash to your soil?

    • Karen says:

      Hi Jody! I’ve never really experimented with it. I’m more of an “if my compost isn’t good enough for you then suck it” kind of gardener and I don’t add a ton of other amendments because of that. ~ karen!

    • Agnes says:

      Hi Jody – I do add wood ash to my compost and that is definitely a good idea. I have also added it direct to the soil, which is OK, but you need to thoroughly dig in and mix it in with the soil, not just spread it around and let it get rained on – that is a disaster. So, it’s no good if you are using a no-dig method!

  12. Linda in Illinois says:

    Thank you Karen. I’m excited to start my seeds.

  13. Deb from Maryland says:

    My gosh woman! You are amazingly thorough. Thank you so much for deciding to share this knowledge with us.

  14. Mary W says:

    I decided to plant up some plastic pots along with my Grow Bags and put them on the driveway this year – the only place with more than 4 hours of sun in our whole 1 acre yard! I spend 2 hours every morning and two hours each afternoon – squishing tent worms that come down from the trees and COVER my plants. I’ve read up and they are from a tiny brown moth that lays 4-5000 eggs at a time in the crotches of trees which are along the north side of the driveway! I kill about 150 worms each time I go twice a day to squish. The article said they crawl out when it gets warm so they are gone in the evening and late getting up. It also said it would be active about two weeks – but it’s been three weeks already! Must have been more than 1 moth – probably 50! Each laying 50 piles of eggs. It is disgusting to see if you google it. Man I’m over them but NEVER over gardening. So glad you are doing this series! Always things to learn.

    • Gabby says:

      Hi Mary,
      You need chickens and they will take that job from you… they’re great they even eat flying insects. They take off and catch them in the air. I had chickens until a neighbor complained and I had to get rid of them. For years after they were gone I didn’t have flies or other annoying insects… Time to try again… lol maybe that neighbor moved or passed on the the otherside…lol

    • Karen says:

      Hi mary! They sound like the menace we have around here, Gypsy Moths. The caterpillars defoliate entire trees. There are so many that you can hear the crunching. ~ karen!

    • Agnes says:

      Ugh! We also have Eastern Tent Caterpillars – like yours they feed in daytime, hide in their silk tent at night, and drop out of the trees as inch long beasts that get everywhere! If they do cluster at night you may be able to destroy them en masse in the trees. Also depending on how your variety gets up there to lay eggs you may be able to trap the moths or caterpillars on tree trunks and reduce next year’s problem. Good luck! ~ Agnes

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