When you’re just starting out, the process of creating your first vegetable garden can be a bit overwhelming. There is so much information out there, and I think a lot of us just feel kind of lost when we start gardening the first time. This is meant to be a bare-bones beginners’ guide, pointing out the first few steps to get you started. In the future, look for more posts that go more in depth.
First question: Where are you? What kind of climate do you live in?
A good starting point would be finding out your USDA zone and the length of your growing season (measured from last average frost in the spring to first average frost in the fall/winter).
This website lets you plug in your zip code, and it spits out your USDA hardiness zone.
This website tells you your last spring, and first fall, frost dates. I use these as a general guideline, and you should know that different sources will give you different dates.
Using those two sites for my own location, I am USDA zone 8a, and I have a 50% chance of my last frost falling on May 5th, and my first fall frost on Oct. 12th. Now, that’s helpful to some extent, but because I live on the west coast, I like to reference Sunset zones. Why? Well, they’re more specific, take into account more factors, and give me more detailed information.
This map shows the Sunset zones for Western Washington. I happen to be in Zone 5, so this map confirms what I already know from previous experience: Greens grow really well here, but warm season crops like eggplants and peppers don’t always get the heat they need to ripen.
Second Question: What kind of soil do you have?
Take some time to learn a bit about your soil, so you know what you’re working with. After all, it’s what feeds and sustains your plants.
The first thing you should do is look at your soil. Dig a hole, at most a foot deep. What does the top layer look like? What does it look like further down? If you’re lucky, the top layer is a nice dark brown, looks kind of crumbly, and extends more than a few inches. If it looks like that, it means it’s got a good amount of organic material, and not too much sand or clay.
The next step is to take a moist (not wet) handful of dirt, and squeeze it. Now, open your hand. If it falls apart immediately, you have some sandy soil. It’ll drain really quickly, and won’t hold on to water or nutrients very well. If it stays in a ball fairly well, poke it gently. If it crumbles, you have some loam. Lucky! This is good gardening soil. If you poke it and it doesn’t crumble, or you can actually shape it, you’ve got clayey soil. It’ll hold on to moisture, making it hard to dig in without forming clogs, and just doesn’t grow plants as well as loam. Whether you’ve got sandy soil or clayey soil, the general advice is to add more organic material- that is, more dead plant matter or poop.
There’s lots of soil tests you can do after these, but they generally cost money, and these ones give you a good general idea of what you’re working with.
Third question: What do you want to grow?
I always tell people to grow what you eat- radishes grow really well, but if you don’t like radishes, it’s pointless. I find it helpful to also consider cost, how productive it is, and how well the crop grows here. For example, I love onions, but I don’t grow them because they are very cheap, while not generally thriving here. Kale on the other hand, we eat a lot of, is more expensive, and basically all it takes in my climate is throwing down some seeds and leaving them to it. Generally speaking, herbs and greens will be the most cost effective plants to grow.
But of course, you should also consider what you want to grow, just because you really like the plant, or because homegrown quality produce is just better than what you can buy from the grocery store. Two examples of this for me are lemon cucumbers, and yellow pear tomatoes. Another situation is when you can grow a crop, but it’s not available to buy in your area. For example, I like to grow amaranth greens because they are very tasty- but I can’t buy them in my town.
Fourth Question: What information resources to you have available?
I strongly suggest you check out your local extension agency/Master Gardeners program. They exist to help you garden, and boy, are they helpful! This is my local example, and you can see how many publications they have, many available for free.
Western Washington/Pacific Northwest specific resources:
Westside Gardener (that’s the west side of the Cascade range).
NW Edible’s guide: cool blogger in the Seattle area