How to Start a Vegetable Garden from Scratch
Mar 28th, 2019
How to start gardening simplified.
April showers bring May flowers. These showers also make it the perfect time to get to spring planting.
In this blog, we're going to cover how to start a garden in four parts
When to plant
Where you live dictates when you're going to plant. Thankfully, the USDA has put together a "Hardiness Zone Map" that helps everyone determine what to plant and when.
Since we're in Raleigh, we are on the line of Hardiness Zone 7b, 8a.
You might be wondering what Hardiness Zone is and why it matters? The Hardiness Zone is "a geographic area defined to encompass a certain range of climatic conditions relevant to plant growth and survival." (Wikipedia) Simply put, it's a scale that tells you when to plant what and it's frequently used by farmers.
To find out what your hardiness zone is, head over to Plant Maps
The average last frost is a good indicator of when to plant your seeds. Raleigh's is April 1–10. In North Carolina, it's best to plant a lot of what you want in your garden between March and April—right now.
What to Plant
Where you live may have some restrictions based on climate. For example, peanuts, pineapple, and papaya will now grow in North Carolina. (If you live in Florida, you can actually grow a peanut plant.)
Deciding what to plant usually comes down to preference, but it also comes down to when you're planting. So here's the quick list of what to plant in March and April based on your zone.
FE Tip: you can sprout your seeds in some soil inside if it's still a bit cold outside. Just make sure they get the right amount of water and sunlight.
What to Plant in March
It's still chilly outside, but you have a lot of options.
- Tomatoes & Peppers (Zones 5-10): go ahead and plant them now, but seeds six to eight weeks should be started inside six to eight weeks before the last frost before being transplanted outside.
- Beets (Zones 7-10): plant seeds now.
- Broccoli, Cabbage, Lettuce, Onions, Cauliflower, Summer Squash (Zones 5-10): plant seeds now.
- Carrots (Zones 5-10): start carrot seeds indoors so you can transplant them outdoors in early to mid-May.
- Corn (Zones 5-10): plant seeds now and start with a small plot.
- Cucumbers (Zones 5-10): plant seeds now, but if you live in Zones 5 and 6, plant seeds indoors so you can transplant them outdoors between April and June.
- Herbs (Zones 3-10): For those in Zones 5–10, herbs can start to be transplanted outdoors. But you can always grow herbs indoors year round.
- Melons (Zones 7-10): plant seeds now or, for a colder climate, you should start seeds indoors for a head start on your summer garden.
- Peas (Zones 5-10): go ahead and plant seeds now but keep in mind peas are good to start four to six weeks before the last spring frost to yield a summer harvest.
- Spinach (Zones 5-10): go ahead and plant now but keep in mind that Spinach is a cold-weather vegetable. It will not do well when it's hot during the summer.
FE Tip: a lot of plants are forgiving on when you plant them, and some are less so.
What to Plant in April
With the soil warmed up, Spring Planting is in high gear.
- Beans, Cabbage, Carrots, Corn, Cucumbers, Peas(Zones 3-10): plant seeds now.
- Herbs (Zones 3-10): if you didn't start herbs inside, you could now plant hot-weather herbs: basil, oregano, cilantro, thyme, and sage.
- Lettuce (Zones 3-10): plant seeds now.
- Melons (Zones 3-10): sprout seeds inside and transplant outside in 6–8 weeks.
- Onions (Zones 3-10): cooler climates should plant long day onions, and warmer climates should plant short day onions.
- Peppers & Tomatoes (Zones 3-10): if you haven't planted these plants by now, do so soon—these plants are less forgiving when it comes to timing.
- Summer Squash (Zones 3-10): plant seeds now.
- Annual and Perennial Flowers (Zones 8-10): start these flowers inside so you can move them outside in the summer.
FE Tip: if you've missed the ideal time to plant seeds, you can get potted plants at your garden store and transplant those.
How to care for those plants
Plant care is pretty simple, right? Good soil, sun, and water. Done!
Well, that's kind of true. You don't have to have a green thumb to start a garden. There are just a few things to keep in mind.
There are many kinds of soil to choose from, so make sure you get the good stuff, especially if you plan on eating these things.
FE Tip: don't use railroad ties to build a garden. They are heavily treated with chemicals that will leach into the soil and, consequently, your garden plants.
Before going any further, read the specific needs of your plants. We simply can't cover the pH needs and other nutrient requirements for all plants. When in doubt, research what your particular plant needs or ask a garden professional.
There are organic and conventional options for your soil. Both will help you grow food suitable for human consumption, but if you tend to buy organic at the store, go for organic soil.
If you're planting a garden in raised beds (a popular option for people who have naturally have more sand- or clay-based soils), you should use a 60/40 top soil-to-compost combination.
FE Tip: organic soil can be reused year after year. Conventional soil often needs to replaced every season. To protect organic soil for the next spring and summer, cover it with mulch or course compost in the winter.
All plants need water. Some more than others. When you plan your garden, understand what plants will need more water than others. If they need a lot of sunlight, understand that soil in direct sunlight will also dry out faster. Just do your research on this one.
This one is pretty plant-specific too, and it's essential to get right. You can plant a garden where it seems to fit and then base your plants based on the sunlight that area's taking, or you can decide what you want to grow and make the garden work somewhere else. We'd prefer the latter.
You can't forget this one. Your plants might not be able to grow on their own, and they need some help. That's where fertilizer comes in. Again, you have organic or conventional options. Conventional fertilizers tend to be more nutrient rich.
You should test your soil every two years and keep an eye on its pH levels. As a general rule, you should use complete fertilizer with twice as much phosphorus as nitrogen or potassium—for example, easy-to-find 10-20-10 or 12-24-12 fertilizers. If you're just getting started, you don't need to test your soil up front.
FE Tip: a "complete fertilizer" will contain nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Those are the three numbers you see on the bags.
When it comes to using fertilizer, a good rule of thumb is to use two to three pounds per 100 sq ft. And be careful not to use too much. It can kill your plants, making all your hard work and planning pointless.
Speaking of planning, the safest way to apply fertilizer is to spread it out evenly over the garden and mix it into the soil about three to four inches deep before planting. This will ensure all the plants get the right amount.
With these simple guidelines, you might end up having that green thumb after all.
Functional PlantsWhen it comes to plants, we could use a little utility too.
So let's start with the garden. Deer love gardens. They don't really like grass at all, but that garden—they will eat it right up. So how do you keep them at bay? Well, you could spread human hair around your garden, but that gets a little messy. Instead, try surrounding your garden with some plants with strong aromas that will keep them away. Like us humans, deer eat with their nose. Plants like sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, or lavender will do a great job of deterring them.
Gardens are also hosts to lots of pests that can damage your plants and reduce your harvest. To help with that, consider Chrysanthemums (or mums). They contain a compound that is used in pest control products, meaning they're really good at repelling a wide variety of pests. When properly planted, they will grow back every year too. Dill will also help. Dill is known to attract ladybugs, which are consumers of multiple different kinds of garden pests and also are the prettiest insect around. They are the good bugs to have.
Lastly, your garden could use some Red Clover. One of the best things you can plant in your garden, Red Clover enriches your garden with all-important nitrogen, as well as fends off weeds and retains moisture around it.
Moving beyond the garden, but not too far, we have the rest of your yard. This is where you and your family spend your time relaxing or having. When you're there, so are the mosquitos.
Wow. That's a lot, but spend some time breaking it down. Anybody can grow a garden. All it takes is a little bit of know-how, some planning, practice, and yes, hard work too. We'll leave the last four to you.
Do you have any gardening tips and tricks? Or even horror stories? Those are fun too. Leaves those on our Facebook page for everyone to enjoy.