Starting seeds, gardening methods, and everything in between – I’m here to help you start a vegetable garden from scratch!
When you think of starting a homestead, you likely picture animals grazing in fields, rows of crops as far as the eye can see, and a pantry complete with homemade goods. All of these things are wonderful, they’re things to dream of and to hold close as you learn to live traditionally as a new homesteader. I’m here to say that even without the fields, without the endless rows of crops, and without making every pantry item by hand, you can still be a homesteader. Likewise, you can start a vegetable garden no matter the amount of land you have available. It’s important to start where you’re at and then expand your homestead as you expand your traditional living skills. Gardening is one of the skills acquired through experience. It’s a true labor of love that teaches us problem solving, patience, hard work and dedication. The reward is fresh food that nourishes our bodies and souls, providing nutrients from the inside out.
As you probably guessed, there is a lot of work that goes into starting and maintaining a garden. You’ll need to find the best location, provide nutrients, remove weeds, water, and so on. Not to mention, each type of plant requires a unique balance of food, water and sunlight for survival and optimal food production. As a new gardener, learning all of this can be overwhelming, so let’s keep it simple and start with the basics to start your vegetable garden from scratch. Once you’ve mastered this phase, more complex plants and gardening methods can be introduced!
Why Start a Vegetable Garden?
I could go on and on about the benefits of starting a vegetable garden! Not only do you reap the harvest, but the labor of vegetable gardening is paid off in so many other ways:
Say goodbye to vegetables covered in synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. You’re in control of how your food is grown, and you can grow it organically without toxic ingredients. You also get to control the nutrient density of your food. Today, many vegetables are grown conventionally in nutrient depleted soil, but now you get to nourish your own soil to maximize the health benefits of each bite. Your body will have to squat, bend, shovel, lift, and pull in order to build and maintain your garden, providing a fun and natural form of exercise.
You’ll learn patience as you tend to seeds and plants, waiting for the seeds to sprout and for the plants to produce food. Problem solving is required to protect your plants – when critters feast on your plump tomatoes or when your zucchini leaves are covered in a mysterious mildew. You’ll practice determination by working on growing your crop each day. As you go about your work, you’ll also have the time and mental clarity to think. Starting a vegetable garden is starting a personal journey of growth and lifelong learning.
While starting a vegetable garden feels costly at first, it will certainly pay off in the long run. The cost of organic fruits and veggies is always on the rise. Growing them at home will save you that extra bit of money over time. You’ll also be able to save the seeds of your harvest so you can plant them the next year, meaning you’ll never have to invest in seeds of those same vegetables again! You can also gather the scraps of your food to start a compost pile. The food cycle is a gift that keeps on giving!
1. Grow What You Love to Eat
Think about what you and your family eat on a regular basis, and create a list based on the vegetables that you love. I wouldn’t recommend planting 5 tomato plants if no one in the house is going to eat them! Next, do some research on which of these vegetables grow well based on the climate of your location. The USDA’s plant hardiness zone map will help you determine which vegetables are most likely to thrive there.
2. Create Your Garden Site
Here are some things to consider when creating your garden space:
Most of your plants will require full sun, which means exposure to sunlight for at least 6-8 hours a day. Set aside a full day to observe which parts of your yard have the best sun exposure. Pay attention to trees, buildings, and other items that will cast shadows. If you’re limited on space (such as to a patio or deck), observe the amount of sun exposure in that location. If it’s not a spot with full sun, some herbs, greens, and root vegetables can still be planted and grow well there!
If you’ll be planting in raised beds or into the ground, you need to make sure that the earth is level before starting a vegetable garden in that spot. Otherwise, you’ll have flooding in some areas and soil washed away in others. It’s also smart to ensure that your garden is close to a hose for ease of watering access. Whether you’ll be watering by hand or using an automatic drip system, life will be much easier the closer you are to the water source.
Your living situation will determine how much protection you’ll need from animals. The home we rent is surrounded by woods, so we use wire fencing to keep small critters out of the garden. If you decide to put up a fence, be sure it’s open enough to allow air to flow throughout the garden. Otherwise, your plants are at risk for developing diseases and becoming home to pests that enjoy a still, humid environment.
3. Pick a Gardening Method
In the ground
This method entails tilling the ground, removing grass/weeds, and forming rows to plant your seeds. This is an ideal method for those who have space in their yard with full sun exposure, level ground, and well-draining soil. It’s also the cheapest option since you don’t have to build beds or purchase containers.
Raised beds minimize the need for pulling weeds and are great for those who need easy access to their This method minimizes the need for pulling weeds and is great for those who need easier access to their garden (to avoid straining while bending over an in-ground garden). You will need to purchase beds or wood to build the beds, and you’ll need to buy soil to fill them up. It’s helpful to use a weed barrier to prevent soil leaks and to smother out any weeds that try to grow from the ground.
This is an excellent option for those who are limited on space or cannot bend/kneel to tend to plants. You can plant in pots, crates, barrels or anything that can hold soil! The container will need holes in the bottom for water drainage, and you need to ensure it’s large enough to fit the root system of your plant. Containers allow you to grow vertically as well, which opens up more room in the yard for other homesteading needs!
4. Start the Seeds
Use this handy tool to determine your location’s last frost date. The tool will help you determine when it’s a good time to start your seeds to avoid killing plants in a future frost.
While stronger plants will do just fine starting as a seed in the ground, others require starting their journey indoors in smaller containers. This makes it easier to control the moisture and temperature of the soil to optimize the environment for seed germination.
To start a vegetable garden from seed, you’ll need seed starting trays, egg cartons, or other small containers to grow your seeds in. You’ll also need seed starting soil, which you can either buy or make on your own:
Homemade Seed Starting Soil:
– 4 gallons peat moss
– ½ bag Black Kow compost
– ½ small bag of Vermiculite
Mix all ingredients in a large container until combined. Spray with water until the mixture turns clumpy, but not drenched.
-Pick a warm, sunny spot by a window (or use an indoor grow light) as a temporary home for your seedlings.
-Follow the instructions on the seed packet to know how much room each seed will need and how deep in the container to plant them.
-Keep the soil consistently moist, but not soaking wet.
Once your plants are about 3 weeks old, you can begin to harden them off by bringing them outside for a few hours each day. This will help them develop strong stems and adjust to different temperatures and climate. In 4-6 weeks, your seedlings should be ready to be transplanted into your garden!
5. Prepare the Soil
Plants will thrive in soil that is nutrient dense, pH balanced, and well draining. You can have your soil tested by local Cooperative Extension companies for about $20 to ensure that it has the right balance of pH, organic matter, and nutrients. You can also purchase a testing kit to test the soil at home instead. Testing the soil is especially useful when your soil has been used up and is at risk for deficiencies.
Layering is a great method to ensure your soil is optimal for plant growth and maturation. For instance, you can layer materials starting with coarse sand, peat moss, purchased garden soil, and then fertilizer. As your garden becomes more established, you can nourish it with egg shells, homemade compost, and compost teas!
It’s a good idea to use hay, mulch, or dried up leaves on top of the soil to prevent it from drying out too fast. This may not be as big of an issue in some locations, but the sun shines bright in the Midwest and southeast, and garden soil can dry out very quickly as a result.
Watering the Garden
There are many ways to go about watering your garden. Some people stick to the old watering can method, which is still a viable option for smaller gardens. Sprinklers are viable options for those who need to water a large garden in a short period of time. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation systems lay on top of the soil so that water is applied directly where it’s needed- to the roots. This eliminates water waste and minimizes risk of mold that occurs when leaves and stems stay wet.
Whichever method you choose, be sure to monitor your soil throughout the day to ensure it’s moist, but not drenched or flooded. Watering in the morning and evening can help prevent your water from evaporating before it’s absorbed, which often happens in the afternoon or hottest part of the day.
Weeding the Garden
While barriers and raised beds help minimize weeds in the garden, it’s almost impossible to avoid them entirely. If you can dedicate 10-15 minutes in the garden about 4 times a week, you’ll be able to stay on top of this task so that the weeds don’t get out of hand. It’s important to pull weeds at their base so that you’re pulling the roots from the soil. Otherwise, the weed will simply grow back!
Harvest and Celebrate!
Congratulations! You made it through the beginning steps of starting a vegetable garden. Enjoy the fruits of your labor by indulging in some delicious homegrown, homecooked meals. You’ve earned it!