Tips For Starting Your First Organic Vegetable Garden

For beginners, starting your first vegetable garden can be intimidating. But fear not – follow these simple tips and you’ll be off to a great start.

companion planting tomatoes and basil
Companion planting tomatoes and basil in a raised garden bed.

The basics for success in any garden are sun, soil, and water. Most vegetables and fruit thrive with 6-8 hours of direct sun each day. Since sunlight is required for photosynthesis – the way plants make food – make sure the plants are exposed to as much as possible. Soil that drains quickly and is nutrient-rich is critical, as is water in the right amount – generally, 1-inch per week whether from rain or watering. If you master these 3 things, you’ll be off to a great start.

Before you begin planning your garden you should decide what you’d like to grow. Tomatoes, peppers, lettuces, potatoes, and onions are popular choices and relatively easy to grow. But everyone has their favorites, some which require advanced skill. Do a little research and know what goes into growing your favorites before starting. Here’s a list of 12 easy vegetables for your first garden.

Here comes the sun

Pardon the Beatles reference, but before you start your garden, you must know the path of the sun over your property. You’ll want to take note of where the day’s first rays of sunlight dance across your lawn, objects like trees or walls that cast shadows (don’t plant there), and how late in the day direct sun still lights the proposed garden area. As mentioned above, you need 6-8 hours of direct sunlight daily on your vegetable patch, preferably from dawn until late afternoon. Early morning light is preferred, as it warms the soil quickly and dries wet foliage early in the day, which really cuts down on the potential for disease. Direct sunlight means light contacting the leaves of the plant, not ambient light. Your best results will be in an area that receives light all day, but some late afternoon shade (after 4 PM assuming the garden is lit at sunrise) is beneficial in hot summers or during droughts.

raised garden bed ready for planting
A raised garden bed ready for planting.

Garden bed design and direction

Will you be flat earth gardening or using raised garden beds? if you’re one of the few who are blessed with perfect soil (dark and “loamy” – drains easily and is an earthy brown color), flat earth gardening should be fine. But if you live in an urban landscape or on top of hard clay soil, raised beds are the way to go. (You can also build raised beds on top of concrete areas.) If you want to learn how to build a raised bed easily, see my post on building raised beds. For serious DIY-types, look here. I suggest using Cedar planks for the sides of your raised beds as they’ll last 10 years or more due to Cedar’s natural ability to resist rot (much of the wood will be perpetually wet on the inside). For optimal growing, position the raised bed on a south-facing axis perpendicular to the path of the sun. This orientation makes best use of direct sunlight all day and limits plant shadows inside the garden bed. This is not absolutely necessary, but it is optimal.

Soil is critical

For flat earth gardens, know the quality of your soil before beginning. Vegetables and fruit all prefer quick-draining soil with plenty of organic material. If your soil is dark brown, free of rocks, and water doesn’t pool in it after raining, it might be good for growing. Ultimately, only a soil test will tell you for sure, but good indicators are: a dark brown color, it doesn’t stick together in your hand when wet, and it has a nice, earthy smell.

raised garden beds
Sweet potatoes newly planted in a raised garden bed in early June. Raised beds are never tilled or dug to minimize disturbing the soil.

Do not rototill your flat earth garden bed, as 1) it isn’t necessary; 2) digging or tilling breaks critical soil structure and displaces organisms; 3) it releases carbon captured by the soil; 4) it brings thousands of weed seeds to the surface which would otherwise lay dormant inches or feet below. In flat earth gardens, use a stirrup hoe (aka a loop hoe) or a similar tool to rid the garden area of weeds. After planting, add 3-inches of compost to the garden bed. This will not only feed your plants but will smother any weed seeds as well.

If you’re gardening in raised beds, fill them to the top with 1/3rd compost and 2/3rds topsoil. The mix will should settle to 2-3″ below the top when watered. The rule of thumb for any type of gardening is: feed the soil and you’ll feed the plant. If your soil mix and soil quality are excellent, your plants will be well taken care of. One thing I do not recommend is adding landscape fabric to the bottom of raised beds unless you’re building on top of concrete or toxic soils. It’s not only completely unnecessary, but it can restrict water drainage, interfere with gas exchange, and restrict earthworm activity and beneficial insect movement through the soil.

Planting your first garden

scarecrow animal repeller guarding leafy greens in raised garden bed
Know how much space your vegetables will need when they’re mature. These newly planted kale and cabbage seedlings are far apart now but will need all of this space when they’re mature. A Scarecrow ultrasonic animal repeller stands guard to dissuade rabbits and squirrels from eating the new seedlings.

Each plant has different requirements for spacing at its mature size. Do your research and know how much space should be provided between each. You’ll also get to know this better as your gardening skills grow. Proper space allows each plant to receive enough light, water, and nutrients for best growth. You can also maximize your planting space using companion planting techniques like adding onions to the sunny edges of your tomatoes or peppers, or leafy greens in the shady areas. The idea is to leave as little open space aside the vegetables to minimize weeding and maximize your crop area.

Additional tips:

  • After planting, add compost to the soil surface to feed the plants and continue every month during the growing season.
  • Plants may need additional nutrients the first year, but little more than compost needs to be added after your garden is established.
  • Choose fish emulsion, guano-based fertilizer or other organic sources of nutrients to feed your plants.
  • Add water at the rate of 1-inch per week in the absence of rainfall.
  • Watering should only be done around the root zone – avoid getting the foliage wet, as it wastes water and can encourage fungal diseases like blight.

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