Starting a vegetable garden? 15 tips I wish someone had told me

It is easy to get overwhelmed when starting a vegetable garden. You plan and read, and before you know it, you worry about soil amendments, fertilizers, and pH levels.

But starting a vegetable garden does not have to be complicated.

Think about how it works in nature. Plants drop their seeds on the ground and some germinate and grow. 

A lot comes down to simple common sense rules and extra pointers that will help you succeed as a home gardener.

15 things I wish I had known when I started

1. Start small but do start

Again, starting a vegetable garden does not have to be complicated. The key is to stop planning and start.

And when you do start, start small.

Gardening is an art and a science. You can learn a lot from reading, but the value of actual gardening cannot be overstated.

A raised garden bed and a smaller terra cotta container
You can start with raised garden beds or smaller containers. But do start.

You will find that using the information you read about in actual projects will bring everything to life. Suddenly, you will understand the difference between wet and moist soil and see when it is time to water your plants.

Start with a small area – observe and learn. The key is to get started.

2. Choose the right location

Much like real estate, gardening is all about the location.

Vegetables need direct sunlight to grow and thrive. Find a location with a minimum of 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day.

I have found the ideal location to be exposed to sunlight for 8-10 hours per day but also partly shaded during the hottest hours of the day.

Stand in your garden and observe where sunlight falls during the day. Also, avoid windy spots and locations with a lot of foot traffic.

Does your chosen location have easy access to water? Be kind to yourself and make sure you will not have to carry water long distances when watering your vegetables. 

3. Think soil, soil, and soil

If you only take one thing from this article, let it be that vegetables need great soil to grow.

And here, the key is well draining. Plants may have different needs, but no plants like their roots to sit in constantly wet soil.

Well-structured, rich, fertile and well-draining gardening soil
Well-structured, fertile, and well-draining soil in one of our raised garden beds

If you plan to use the soil in your garden, ensure it is soft (well-structured) and well-draining. Here is a quick test to evaluate your soil:

  1. Well-structured soil is relatively easy to dig with a spade
  2. Well-draining soil can be watered without puddles forming
Read our article explaining how you can improve your soil if it is too sandy, compact or dense: How to improve soil for gardening

The alternative is to buy general-purpose well-draining gardening soil. The soil will contain the nutrients, organic matter, and slow-release fertilizers your vegetables need to grow and thrive.

4. Pinch late bloomers (and deadheads)

Tomatoes, peppers, and cucumber plants are all examples of plants that can produce new flowers late in the growing season.

And when you see new flowers on your tomato plant in August, choose to pinch them. Pinching late bloomers will allow your pant to use all energy to ripen existing fruit. After all, what are the chances these new flowers will have time to develop into fruits?

Deadheading is just another name for removing wilted or dead flowers and seed pods to promote new growth.

We remove all dead, wilted flowers but leave some seed pods to harvest seeds for the next growing season. The seed pods not harvested are removed as we do not want to attract bids or wildlife to our fruiting plants.

If you want your plants to self-sow and spread, leave seed pods on the plant. Seed pods can also be a good source of food for birds and wildlife before winter arrives.

5. Don’t be greedy

When I started growing vegetables, I was greedy and planted all my seeds and plants densely together.

My thought was that more plants must equal more to harvest. As a result, my plants did not have space to grow and develop and had to share nutrients with too many other plants.

When it was time to harvest, the vegetables were generally smaller than expected.

The lesson learned is to respect the space a plant needs to grow, develop and thrive. Read the seed packet or planting instructions before planting your seeds or seedlings.

This article shows you how to thin out your seedlings if they grow too densely: How to thin seedlings without killing them

6. Don’t love your plants too much

Many home gardeners over-water, over-fertilize, and generally fuss over plants too much. And it is, of course, well intended.

Do spend time with your plants but don’t move established plants or randomly water a plant at odd hours.

Plants will tell you if they need attention over and above your daily routines. Look for yellowing leaves, harmful pests and insects, stunted growth, and deformed leaves. These are all signs you need to act.

But if all looks well, have the confidence to leave the plants alone.

7. Mulch is your best friend

Mulching your garden beds with straw, hay, wood chips, or grass clippings will help your plants grow stronger and healthier.

Straw or hay is excellent for mulching your garden beds
Straw and hay are excellent mulches

Retains moisture: Covering the garden bed with mulch will help retain moisture and prevent dry-outs on hot summer days. And this means less watering for you.

Prevents weeds: Mulching the soil prevents weeds from growing and competing with your vegetables, and preventing weeds from getting established is vital as they “spread like weeds”.

Prevents disease: Mulch creates a layer between your pants and the soil preventing exposure to soil-borne diseases and pathogens.

Improves your soil: Mulch is organic and will break down and help enrich and aerate your soil over time.

We buy hay in sacks from a local farmer. But you will find inexpensive mulches in most garden shops. And remember, you can use garden refuse like grass clippings, pine needles, and fallen leaves for free.

8. Remember to feed your plants

It is a simple principle. If you take, you have to give back to create balance. Feed your plants to help them grow, and when you harvest if you expect them to produce more crops.

Work slow-release pellets into your soil around your plants and water.

Food-safe. slow-release fertilizer
Add slow-release fertilizers to boost your yield

The soil you start with is enough for one harvest, but you must enrich the soil to harvest continuously throughout the growing season.

I have learned to add more fertilizer when it feels like it should be enough, especially for fast-growing, high-yield vegetables like kale, tomatoes, and broccoli.

Always use food-safe organic fertilizers when growing vegetables for consumption.

9. Remember to harvest regularly

Harvest plants daily to stimulate further growth and more harvests all season long. Also, many vegetables taste better and fresher when harvested young.

Harvest from our gardens one summer day
Nothing beats home-grown, fresh vegetables

Overripe tomatoes and enormous leaves of Swiss chard, kale, arugula, or lettuce may look impressive, but some taste and flavor will be lost.

10. Remember to use vertical space as well

Use bamboo sticks and string to create vertical growing spaces for vegetables like pole beans and tomatoes.

Fasten or place the bamboo stick outside your growing area and use string to create a web-like support for the plants to climb on. These bamboo teepee structures are a great way to extend your growing area.

But before you start building, keep the following in mind:

  1. Placement: do not create shade over your vegetable garden. The plants will climb and grow taller
  2. Sturdy material: Use thick bamboo sticks or other pieces of wood; the plants get heavy as they grow large and produce fruits.

11. Succession plant for more for longer

You do not have to use all the seeds in your packet at once. Instead, plant a row of two with 1-2 weeks intervals for an endless supply of vegetables all summer.

Many vegetables do not store or freeze well and should ideally be consumed when harvested.

We like to have seedlings ready to go when a space opens up in our garden bed. Even if plants re-grow, there will often be a diminishing rate of return. Sometimes it makes more sense to start a new plant.

Starting seeds indoors speeds up the process as we can transplant seedlings into our garden beds and not wait for new seeds to germinate and grow.

12. Inspect your vegetable garden daily

A daily trip to your vegetable garden is more of a joy than a chore. Still, these daily visits are essential to stay on top of the health of your plants.

Look for yellow or browning leaves, deformed plants, unwanted pests and insects, and any signs of animals feasting on your crops.

Snails, slugs, and caterpillars can easily be removed and disposed of by hand. Other signs may prompt you to water less, put a protective net over your vegetables, or even remove a diseased plant.

The key is early detection and noticing changes over time.

We cover all leafy greens with protective netting to prevent insects from consuming and, if left unchecked, killing out plants. 

13. Always include “easy” fast growers

There is a lot to be said for instant feedback and rewards. Always include fast-growing leafy greens like different varieties of lettuce, arugula, chard, and spinach.

If you grow tomatoes, select some early varieties, like the Bajaja cherry tomato variety, for an early June harvest.

Cherry tomatoes on tomato plant
Picking home-grown ripe cherry tomatoes is a true luxury

Only growing vegetables that need a long time to mature can be hard work.

Mix and match for early and late harvests. We, for example, always grow hot peppers like habaneros and Bhut Jolokia ghost peppers for late summer harvests.

14. Invite pollinators into your vegetable garden

One of every three bites you eat relies on pollinators to reproduce and produce the food you eat [1]. And today, pollinators are threatened by environmental contaminants and habitat loss.

Here you can help while also helping your vegetables grow and thrive.

Bumblebee resting on my hand
All pollinators deserve our love and care

First, obviously, pollinators will pollinate your plants. But did you know that pollinators protect your plants by eating harmful pests and insects? And on top of that, you have to agree no garden is complete without butterflies, honeybees, and bumblebees.

Marigolds, Nasturtiums, and lavender are three excellent border plants that will attract pollinators while deterring harmful pests, insects, and diseases.

15. Grow what you eat

I am saving the most obvious for last. Do not get carried away reading about exotic fruits and vegetables; grow what you regularly use and eat.

There is a reason why leafy greens, tomatoes, carrots, Swiss chards, and varieties of kale are popular; they are easy to use in the kitchen. Make sure you cover the basics and branch out if you have time, space, and interest.

We love growing vegetables with strong, pronounced flavor profiles where a little goes a long way. Some of our favorites include habanero peppers, Bhut Jolikia ghost peppers, horseradish, radishes, arugula, and ginger. 

Bonus tip: Get onboard with winter sowing

We discussed how a vertical space increases your gardening space during the growing season.

Much the same way, winter sowing will extend your growing season with minimum work and great results.

When winter approaches and the garden beds are empty, plant seeds for an early spring harvest. You can even plant on frozen ground.

To learn more about winter sowing read our step by step guide: Winter sowing: How to start seeds outdoors in winter

Final word

I originally had nine tips. But as I started writing, I had so much more to share.

I hope you find the tips helpful, and I wish you luck in developing your green fingers.

And if you are still on the fence, try planting lettuce in a soil bag. You will soon be hungry for more.

Helpful sources

[1] https://www.usda.gov/peoples-garden/pollinators

Meet the author: Sarah is a freelance copywriter passionate about gardening - particularly creating kitchen gardens with fruits, vegetables, and edible perennials. She has a professional background in the travel industry and now combines her interests with her writing skills to contribute articles on travel and horticultural topics for publication across the internet.