Backyard Gardening: Starting Your First Vegetable Garden Part 1

Backyard Gardening: Starting Your First Vegetable Garden Part 1

A few weeks ago, as soon as MDT and I got settled in our new place, one of the first things we did was start a garden in the backyard. It was already June, a bit late to be starting a summer vegetable garden, but we were determined to have one for what could be our last Midwest summer for quite a while.

For the reasons why we wanted to have our own backyard vegetable garden, see our previous article: Save Money on Food: Grow Your Own!

Step 1: Choose your seeds and/or seedlings. Make a list of what vegetables and herbs you like best. If the list is too long to plant everything, choose the ones that are most expensive to buy at the grocery store. Plants like green beans, peas, beets, carrots, turnips, swiss chard, lettuce, cucumber, zucchini, watermelon, cantalope, and other melons and squashes grow easily from seeds. Others like eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower, are better planted outside in the garden as seedlings.

Make sure you check the back of your seed packet to determine the best time to plant that vegetable in your zone. For planning purposes, see this map of U.S. hardiness zones. Remember that some plants thrive in warm and hot weather, while others, mostly green leafy vegetables and root vegetables, prefer cooler weather. Lettuce, for instance, can bolt (stop producing leaves) in hot weather, so it’s called a cool weather crop. Here’s a list of warm and cool weather crops. Though not extensive, it’ll get you started.

Cool weather crops Warm weather crops

Summer squashes
Green beans

Where do you get seeds and seedlings? You could purchase them online, from a seed catalog, or from your local home and garden store. Seeds are usually least expensive at the beginning of the year and at the end of summer. When purchasing seeds, make sure the package is dated for this year. Old seeds can be duds.

If you plan ahead, you can start seeds for the more difficult plants indoors in early Spring, so they’ll be ready as seedlings to transplant outside when it’s time. Or if you know other gardeners, you can ask if they’d like to share or trade seeds/seedlings with you. Remember to save the seeds from this year’s best garden produce to plant next year!

Since seeds are much less expensive than seedlings, try to minimize the number of seedlings you buy. For instance, MDT and I really wanted bell peppers and tomatoes, but we didn’t have time to start them from seeds, we bought those guys as seedlings and stuck with seeds for the rest of our garden. We were lucky enough to have a bunch of seed packs already that my father had given us: string beans, carrots, swiss chard, cucumber, and marigold. The only ones we bought were cilantro, MDT’s all-time-favorite herb. The marigold seeds were a couple years old, so we didn’t have high hopes for them, but we decided we’d plant them anyway and just see what happens.

Step 2: Prepare the bed. If your soil is really infertile or you have particularly pesky pests (say that three times fast) like moles, you might try a raised bed garden, where you build a wood frame (and a bottom layer made out of netting, screen, or best, some heavy fabric like sackcloth.

Another handy thing about raised bed gardening is that you don’t need a tiller for a raised bed because all the soil is pretty and new and non-clumpy. Most people with raised garden beds seem to use wood for a border, but unless you’ve got a bunch lying around, that could get pretty pricey. Cinder blocks are much, much cheaper (and sometimes you can find them free). Arrange them, hole-side up, in a rectangle, and voila! Cheap border that lasts pretty much forever, and you can even use that space to plant flowers, herbs, or more veggies!

Since the soil here seems fairly rich and we didn’t want to spend the money for enough potting soil to fill it, we opted to forgo the raised bed and get to tilling. We found the sunniest spot in the yard and tilled an area roughly 15′ square. We wanted to have enough room for everything but not to bite off more than we could chew. It is our first vegetable garden in a new location, and there’s always a learning curve while you figure out exactly what type of soil (and “varmints,” as my father likes to call them) you’re dealing with.

I should point out for those totally new to vegetable gardening that tillers are dangerous and expensive machines. That said, I happen to think that buying one is totally worth it if you’re planning on having a garden every year. If you’re not ready to invest just yet, try asking family, friends, or neighbors if they have one you can borrow. We borrowed my father’s. He’s definitely come in handy this year. Thanks, Dad!

Till when the soil is fairly dry (you don’t want clumps of mud flying everywhere), and always wear work gloves. If you think you don’t need them, ask MDT; he didn’t think so either and wound up with big nasty blisters between his thumbs and forefingers that soon turned to big skinless spots that took a week to heal. Not fun. Wear gloves. If you don’t have any, a cheap pair from the dollar store will do. Work gloves are also something you can borrow pretty easily.

After we tilled a few times to make sure all the clumps were broken up and the grass that had been there was all shredded and turned under, it was time to fertilize. There are many options for fertilizing and preparing your soil, some of which can be combined easily for optimum growing power. Here are a few:

Add a few bags of potting soil or top soil and till it in to mix well.

Mix in a bag or two of peat moss. You can get this at most home/garden stores, and it’s fairly inexpensive. We got a huge bag for .

If you’ve been composting, throw a bucketful or two of that in and till right through it to mix it in. Compost is best as an underneath layer, though, so you’ll need to add at least a couple of inches of soil on top after you mix it in.

Mix some powdered Miracle Gro Organic Choice for Vegetables, following the directions, into buckets of water. Pour over garden. Mix. Note: Regular Miracle Gro is not organic and may contain chemicals that harm the earth in the long run. See below.

Buy a small bag of commercial fertilizer, like 10-10-10 or 5-10-10, sprinkle it sparingly over the garden, and till to mix in. Note: these are simple chemical fertilizers made from naturally occuring deposits, but they are not organic because they’ve been chemically altered. I don’t really recommend using them since, according to Wikipedia, “chemical fertilizers may have long-term adverse impact on the organisms living in soil and a detrimental long term effect on soil productivity of the soil.”

If you’ve got horses, cows, goats, or rabbits around, mix in some good old manure (with a hoe, not a tiller–you don’t want this stuff flying). Notes: Rabbit manure can be mixed right in; the others are best composted first. Dog and cat waste is not recommended as it can contain parasites harmful to humans even if your pet is healthy.

Sadly, we’d only been composting at the new house for a few weeks and it wasn’t quite primed to mix in yet, so we went with peat moss and a bit of Miracle Gro I had lying around, left over from last year’s tiny lettuce and tomato garden at my old apartment. We tilled in the peat moss, used a garden rake (not a regular leaf rake!) to even out the soil, and prepared to plant our veggies.

Continue to Part 2

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-Wren from

Written by WrenCaulfield

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