With things being uncertain and some shelves being empty at the stores, a lot of people have been looking for ways to supplement their own food sources.
Homesteading is one of our interests here at the Making Life and we thought it would be a good time to share some of our experience with gardening. Starting a garden in your back yard is fun, rewarding, and a good way to provide some extra food for you and your family.
Some people argue that gardening doesn’t save any money, but even if it doesn’t, there are still a lot of advantages to gardening. For one, you know where your food is coming from. If you want an organic garden, you have the resources to do so. Another benefit is extra foods can be preserved later through canning, drying, or freezing.
One thing that I feel the need to make very clear is that gardening is something that many hold very near and dear. They were taught a certain way of doing something and it has been that way for centuries. People feel strong convictions about gardening. I’ll be sharing how we plant a garden including directions for a variety of plants. That certainly doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it, or that there may not be better ways we’ve yet to discover.
All that to say there are many right ways to grow a garden and as you learn more about gardening you’ll be able to develop your own best gardening strategies.
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What You Need to Plant a Vegetable Garden
What is Useful:
Step One: Pick a Location to Plant Your Vegetable Garden
The first step to planting a vegetable garden in your back yard is picking a location. As you probably already know there are some main things that your plants need to grow:
- Good Soil
What kind of soil they need, how much sun, and how much water is somewhat dependent on the plant. But for most vegetable gardens it’s best to pick a location that gets a good bit of sun and plenty of rain.
What Makes Good Soil?
Now let’s talk about soil. Things are about to get a little nerdy. Bear with me. If soil science ain’t your thing, skip to step two.
Types of Soil
Good soil has a number of important factors. One is the consistency of the soil. Dirt is made up of three different kinds of particles. There are several different types of soil. There are 3 to 10 different types (maybe more!) depending on your sources.
For the sake of our post, we’ll cover four common types of soil:
Sandy soil tends to be acidic and low in nutrients. This type of soil is light and drains easily.
Clay soil is very dense and doesn’t drain well at all. It can be difficult to cultivate this type of soil because it’s heavy and doesn’t turn over easily. One benefit of clay soil is it tends to be high in nutrients.
Silty soil is good for a garden. It’s not as nutrient-rich as clay soil, but it does hold moisture and has a higher nutrient content than sandy soil.
Loamy soil is often considered the best type of soil for gardening. It’s a good mix of sand, silt, and clay making it high in nutrients and able to retain moisture. Compared to clay only soil it’s also easy to cultivate.
The pH Level and Nutrients in Your Soil
Another thing to consider about your soil is the pH level and the nutrients in the soil. You can get a soil test kit that will let you know the makeup of your soil. The test kit can tell you how acidic or alkaline your soil is, and how high it is in phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium.
pH Level of Your Soil
First thing’s first. All soil ranges from acidic to alkaline. This range is measured numbers from 1-14 and is referred to as the pH. Soil that is lower than 7 is considered acidic and anything above is considered alkaline.
Some plants prefer more acidic soil while others prefer soil that is more alkaline. Most plants grow best in a neutral range of about 6.2 to 7.0.
Nitrogen. Nitrogen may be the most important nutrient found in soil. It helps give plants their healthy green color and energy to grow and produce fruit.
Potassium. Potassium is considered the second most important nutrient. This nutrient helps with photosynthesis and other physiological processes of plants.
Phosphorus. Phosphorus helps plants grow roots, seeds, fruits, and flowers. Phosphorus also contributes to a plant’s ability to fight disease.
To learn how to use a soil test kit at home, check out our guide teaching you how.
How To Make Your Soil Grow Wonderful Plants and Vegetables
If you’re planting right in the soil in your back yard, you don’t have a whole lot of control over your starting soil. If you live in an area with a lot of clay in the soil, that’s what you’ll have to work with.
At our first house, we grew a beautiful garden in soil that was high in clay and had a ton of rocks. One year our tiller broke and we had to partially turn it over by hand. I’m only mentioning this to say that you don’t have to have the ideal situation to grow an excellent garden.
That being said, there are many many things you can do to improve the quality of your garden soil.
How to Improve the Nutrients in Your Soil
- Compost. One thing you can do to improve your soil is to start a compost pile. Organic matter like leaves, garden clippings, and discarded kitchen fruits and veggies can help put important nutrients back into your soil.
- Manure. Manure can be another fantastic way to add nutrients to your soil. It does take some research to know what works best for your garden. For example, chicken manure is high in nitrogen but you should compost it a long time before adding it to your garden because the high nitrogen can burn or kill your plants.
- Vermicompost. Vermicompost means using earthworms to create natural fertilizer in your garden. You can add worms right to your soil or to a compost bin to create fertilized soil that can later be added to your garden.
- Mulch. Adding hay or straw on your garden to make a deep mulch can help retain moisture and add nutrients to the soil. Jill Winger of The Prairie Homestead recommends only using hay or straw that has not been sprayed with herbicides and pesticides because it can harm your plants.
- Fertilizer. If you’re planning on starting a totally organic garden you may not be interested in using chemical fertilizers. There’s a LOT of different thoughts about it and people are all over the map. However, if you’ve tested your soil and you’ve discovered that it’s low in phosphorus, potassium, or nitrogen, many people choose to add bagged fertilizer to help. You can also purchase organic fertilizer which is a good alternative to synthetic fertilizer.
How to Improve pH Level
If your soil is too alkaline or too acidic your plants will have a difficult time growing. We first recommend using a pH soil test kit to see if your soil is a neutral level.
If you find that your soil is too alkaline, you can add ground or powdered limestone to raise lower the pH number.
Those of you who have soil that tests too acidic, you can add sulfur, ferrous sulfate, or aluminum sulfate.
Step Two: Prepare the Soil For Your Vegetable Garden
Once you’ve selected a place in your yard that gets enough sunshine and water, it’s time to turn over the soil. If you’re breaking ground for the first time it’s a lot easier to use a rototiller. We recently purchased an Echo TC-210 rototiller from our friends at Hildebrand’s Mowers and Saws.
It’s a small rototiller but it worked surprisingly well at putting in a new garden. It’s pretty perfect for a small backyard garden.
When you’re tilling up your garden for the first time we recommend you choose a day when the ground is warm and dry. A warm Spring or Fall day when it hasn’t rained for a few days is ideal. We prepared our garden in the Spring because we weren’t ready to last Fall, but tilling it up in the Fall gives you time to prepare your soil before you start planting.
Alternative Ways to Plant a Vegetable Garden
Planting your garden right in the ground may not be the perfect fit for you. There are a lot of reasons why this may not work for you. It could be that you don’t have space in your yard to put in a garden. You may not want to put in the extra work to prepare a spot, or you may not have a tiller to work the ground. If that’s you, there are other ways to start a garden.
Some of those alternative ways include:
- Raised bed
- Container garden
- Hanging garden
- Vertical gardening
- Windowbox gardening
Step Three: Turn Over Soil Again in Your Vegetable Garden
Before you plant your garden it’s important to turn over the soil again. You can do this by running the tiller again or with a spade or shovel. Turning over the soil helps reduce weeds and makes it easier to plant your seeds or plants.
Step Four: Plant Early Spring Seeds and Plants (What To Plant)
Gardening can start in early Spring. While there are many plants that should be planted after the danger of frost has passed, there are some plants that you can safely plant even if you expect cold days.
The main ones that are on the list are:
- Lettuce (seeds)
- Spinach (seeds)
- Parsley (seeds)
- Onions (onion sets)
- Carrots (seeds)
- Peas (seeds)
- Kale (seeds)
- Radishes (seeds)
- Broccoli (plants)
- Turnips (seeds)
How to Plant Onions
For brand new gardeners I would suggest trying to grow onions. They’re very easy to grow and spring onions (or scallions) are one of my favorite things that come from the garden.
To plant your onions, simply run your hoe along the surface of your dirt to make a trench. Onions should be planted about 1 to t2 inches under the ground and 2 to 6 inches apart. You can plant them in rows or in a mound. In our small back yard garden, we planted three rows that were about 6 inches apart.
In a larger garden, I would space the rows wider so we could till between them when weeds begin to come in.
After you put the onions in your trenches, cover them back up. Each onion set should be completely covered with dirt.
If you like spring onions (scallions) as much as I do, then consider doing two separate plantings about two weeks apart. This gives you a longer window for collecting those delicious spring onions before they start to turn into full-grown onions and lose their green tops.
How to Plant Snow Peas
Snowpeas are another early spring plant that are super easy to grow. Plant peas in rows 18-24 inches apart. Drop two seeds 1 1/2 inches deep and 1 inch apart along the rows. As the peas grow, you can thin them if too many pop up.
Snowpeas are meant to be picked while the pods are still flat.
Step Five: Plant Late Spring/Early Summer Plants (What to Plant After Danger of Frost)
Once the danger of frost as passed, you can begin to plant many other seeds and plants. We don’t have a greenhouse and I’ve only unsuccessfully tried to grow my own plants indoors once. It’s fun every year to go pick up our plants from the local nurseries. If you have a setup for growing your plants ahead of time, I know that would be very rewarding also.
Here’s a list of some of the things you can plant in your garden starting after the last frost.
- Tomatoes (transplants)
- Peppers (transplants)
- Cauliflower (transplants)
- Strawberries (transplants)
- Beans (seeds)
- Beets (seeds)
- Cabbage (transplant or seeds)
- Corn (seeds)
- Cucumbers (transplants or seeds)
- Summer Squash (transplants or seeds)
- Melons (transplants or seeds)
- Eggplants (transplanted)
- Pumpkins (seeds)
- Cilantro (seeds)
- Potatoes (seed potatoes)
- Raspberries (transplants)
How to Plant Potatoes
Potatoes are sort of a unique plant to put in your garden. I’m trying to think of another plant that’s similar to a potato and my mind is drawing a blank.
At any rate, if you buy seed potatoes for planting you’ll be given a bag of — that’s right — potatoes. You know how you buy a bag of potatoes in the store and then you forget about them and they start to grow in your pantry? Well, the eyes that grow on your potatoes at home are exactly what you want for growing in your garden.
I don’t recommend using store-bought potatoes to grow in your garden, though. Evidently, many store-bought potatoes are sprayed with an herbicide that keeps them from sprouting. Another reason is the store-bought ones may not be as blight or disease-resistant as the
I’m sure there are many ways to grow potatoes, but here’s the way I’ve been taught to grow them.
Potatoes are kind of an in-betweener plant. You can plant them before the last frost, but you don’t want to plant them so early that they sprout and are harmed by cold weather.
First, you dig out a fairly deep trench (about 4-6 inches below the ground). Trenches should be about 2 to 3 feet apart from each other.
Next, you cut up your potatoes so there are at least two eyes on every section of potato.
Then you place the potatoes into the trenches about 8 to 12 inches apart. When the potatoes are in place, you mound up the dirt above them about 3 to 4 inches.
As your potatoes grow you may have to mound them up again to make sure the potatoes don’t become unearthed. You’ll soon see plants starting to rise from your mounds. At the end of the season, the tops of the plants will start to die away and it’ll be time to harvest the potatoes. A lot of people dig up potatoes by hand but you may need a shovel to help loosen them. Just be careful that you don’t stick your shovel directly into your potatoes (if possible).
Step Six: Plant Fall Plants (What to Plant)
Fall is a good time of the year to plant bulbs. While you can grow garlic in the Spring, most people like to plant their garlic in middle to late fall before the ground freezes.
Fall planting is sometimes referred to as second season crops. You can sneak in an extra planting before fall frosts start to set in for plants the prefer cool weather.
To be honest, planting in the fall is the one that I’m least familiar with. I would imagine it would take some tweaking to know when to plant to avoid early fall frost. However, I do like the idea of extending the growing season and getting some extra crops from the garden.
If you plant in the fall I’d love to hear more about your techniques in the comments below!
For now, here are some ideas of things you can plant in the fall.
- Blueberries (transplants)
- Flowers (flower bulbs)
- Garlic (garlic bulbs)
- Asparagus (this takes several years to mature and needs to be winterized)
- Lettuce (seeds)
- Spinach (seeds)
- Carrots (seeds)
Step Seven: Protect Your Vegetable Garden from Predators
It’s no secret that when you grow a garden you’re not the only one who is going to love it. Where we live in Pennsylvania we have to contend with deer, groundhogs, raccoons, rabbits, and so on. We also happen to live next to the woods that are teeming with wildlife.
I happen to love the wildlife, but they can be infuriating when it comes to gardening. A couple of deer can undo a lot of hard work on the part of a gardener. I don’t mind sharing a little, but I don’t appreciate it when clip off all the new growth or remove the fruit of the plants.
That’s why it is may be necessary to protect your garden. There are a lot of different methods for how to keep your plants safe.
Some people use repellants to keep animals away. My parents have tried this without a lot of success. They’ve also tried hanging string with metal plates (unsuccessful).
Probably one of the most effective ways to keep wildlife out of your garden is with a fence. This can be as cheap as a plastic mesh fence or as elaborate as a wooden gated fence. Some people even opt for electric fences to keep animals out.
If you have anything that’s worked great for your garden please share. I expect we’ll have a lot of activity in the new garden we planted this year.
Step Eight: Maintain Your Vegetable Garden (Weed, Water, Prune, Check for Health)
While it would be nice, you can’t expect good results from your garden if you just put plants in the ground and leave it alone. The plants will likely grow, but they won’t be as healthy without you looking after them. Here are some ways that you can help your plants stay healthy and grow big.
Take Care of Pests
Animals aren’t the only ones that are going to want to share the produce of your garden. You also have to deal with a variety of pests. There’s a lot of debate about the best way to do this, so I’ll share a few different options.
- Choose seeds and plants that are naturally resistant to pests. (You can ask the local nursery where you buy your plants what they have to offer)
- Attract beneficial insects to your garden that might prey on pests. Some of these insects include ladybugs, spiders, praying mantis, and green lacewings. The best way to attract these beneficial insects is by growing a diverse garden. Many gardeners like to plant herbs, flowers, and a variety of plants to attract these insects.
- Putting in a variety of plants can also help repel certain insects. For example, plants with strong scents like basil and lemongrass can help repel pests.
- Check your plants for bigger pests that can be removed easily like slugs, worms, and beetles.
- Spray your plants with natural solutions like garlic spray.
- Net your plants. (This can help with pests and wildlife)
We don’t use pesticides in our garden and I can’t even attest to how well they work. For the most part, we haven’t had enough trouble with pests to warrant trying them, and we’d rather have a more natural garden. I will say that we’ve had trouble with growing broccoli because of what I believe was some kind of cabbage worm. I never tried it, but I’ve heard dusting the broccoli with diatomaceous earth can help reduce these types of pests.
Weed Your Garden
Keeping weeds out of your garden is a necessary but ongoing struggle. One day you look at your garden and there are no weeds at all. The next day there are tiny bits of green popping up — and they’re not something you’ve planted. The following day your garden suddenly has weeds as tall as your smallest child. It’s awful.
There are a few ways to avoid this scenario.
- The first is easy enough — you pull weeds BEFORE they become monsters in your garden. Most importantly, do your best to pull the whole plant (roots and all) so they don’t come back. It’s best to weed when the ground is damp because it’s much easier to pull them from the roots.
- You can till your garden again if the weeds get out of control. The only drawback to this method is you risk replanting seeds from the weeds you’re trying to remove.
- Mulching around your plants can help reduce the number of weeds that pop up. Some people even put newspaper around transplants because it decomposes and prevents weeds.
Prune Your Plants
Another way to maintain the health of your garden is to prune your plants. If you notice that there are stems or leaves that are pest damaged or turning yellow, clip them off the plant. Anything that’s dead should be removed so the plant is no longer sending nutrients and resources to the dead or dying section. It also helps keep the rest of the plant healthy such as in the case of mildew on a plant.
I’ve also been given the advice to cut back tomato stems and leaves so the plants put more energy into producing fruit and less energy into maintaining extra leaves and stems.
Water Your Garden
There’s bound to be times when your garden is not getting enough water from rain. If the ground has become overly dry and your plants are starting to wilt it’s important to give them an extra boost from water.
The best time to water your garden is in the early morning. Watering during full sunshine can actually scorch your plants.
Don’t worry about watering your garden every day unless you’re experiencing many days without rain or the soil is extra dry. Areas that don’t get a lot of natural rainfall will also need to be watered more often. Overwatering can lead to mold and fungus on your plants, so use common sense when watering.
When you do water your plants, water them at the base of the plant and water deeply. Providing a good bit of water every few days as opposed to a little water every day will help your plants develop deep strong roots.
Step Nine: Enjoy the Fruit of Your Labor
The last step is to enjoy the bountiful harvest! We absolutely love growing a vegetable garden in our back yard and have tried to start one at each house where we lived.
Our very first garden was outside our apartment building. It’s so funny to look back on it now. We tried to grow everything from seed — including onions. Yes, you can buy onion seeds. No, you probably won’t get a very big harvest (any harvest) if you plant them right in the ground in May.
We’ve learned so much since then, but there’s nothing quite like the feeling of seeing your plants grow. It’s magical.
Now that you’ve read through the 9 Steps How to Plant a Vegetable Garden, there’s nothing holding you back! Tell us in the comments about your experiences learning to garden.
What vegetables would you love to start growing right away? What are some problems you’ve had with starting a vegetable garden in the past?
Let us know in the comments and we’ll take the time to write back!
Enjoy any beautiful days you can,
the Making Life