Ten Steps to Veggie Garden Success
Successful gardening doesn't come by accident, and in my opinion, there is NO SUCH THING as a green thumb. Success comes from good pre-planning and thoughtful follow-through. It's knowing what each vegetable plant needs to grow to a successful harvest and giving each plant what it needs.
Sounds simple, doesn't it?
Consider that every vegetable has a completely different set of needs in almost all areas of growing, from timing to location, to temperature, to the soil they prefer, etc. You get the point. Then consider that even different sizes or varieties of the same vegetable might have different needs.
It can be enough to make your head swim!
So is the above kind of harvest possible? Sure, it is. It is hard work? Sure, it is.
Knowledge is key, and that's why a thorough plan is imperative before the season even starts.
I've learned a ton of things in my several years of vegetable gardening, and a lot of things were learned by trial and error, as most gardeners can attest to.
For this blog, I have condensed my experience into ten of the most important steps to follow that I think will give you the best chance for first-time vegetable gardening success.
PRE SEASON STEPS
STEP 1 - Collect Information
Here is some basic information you'll need to know about your specific growing area.
Your Planting Zone. This is important because most seed packets will give you a range of zones in which the seeds can successfully grow.
Your average first and last frost dates. You will need those dates to calculate when to sow seeds, plant, harvest, etc.
The number of days in your growing season. You will need this number to calculate if there are enough growing days in your season to be able to get a vegetable plant from seed to harvest.
If there are not enough growing days in your area for a specific plant, you may need to purchase a seedling or plant or grow your seedlings indoors in late winter or spring in order to have the plants ready to transplant outdoors on time.
The Farmer's Almanac has a great site where you can find out the above answers by putting in your zip code. Write these answers down and put the note in a place that you can refer to often.
Buy a few good vegetable gardening books. Here are a few of our top picks for 2020.
STEP 2 - Make a Chart
This is, without a doubt, the most important step and will take a good amount of time. Learning as much as you can about the specific vegetables you want to grow will greatly improve your odds of success.
Using the dates you've written down from the Farmer's Almanac link, and some further internet research, make a short chart of every vegetable you intend to grow and fill in the answers to the categories below.
I will use carrots as an example. Most carrot types will be ready to harvest in 60-70 days. However, there is a storage type of carrots that can be harvested up to 240 days after sowing.
So not only do you need some basic information about carrots, but you will need specific information about the type of carrot you will be growing.
Carrot varieties can be divided into early, main crop and storage varieties.
Specific Type: Example Chantenay Red Cored 75 days to harvest
Short, thick roots, 5 1/2" long taper to a blunt end. It's a golden orange carrot with good flavor.
Sun/Shade Requirement: Full sun. Will tolerate partial shade.
Optimal Growing Temperature: 60 – 65 degrees.
Soil Preferred: Rich, loose, well-draining soil.
Water: Consistent for best flavor.
Fertilizer: Lower Nitrogen. Higher phosphorus and potassium. (5-10-10)
Sowing Information: 1/4” Depth. Seed Spacing 2” apart or thin seedlings to 2" apart.
Sowing Tip: Keep soil moist for at least ten days after sowing. Carrot seeds do not need light to germinate. Cover with a board or cardboard and check daily for sprouts. Remove the cover once seeds have germinated.
Common Problems to Look For: If carrot shoulders start to turn green, cover with mulch.
Add any additional information you feel is important relative to that specific vegetable.
Here's where your frost dates come in.
Sowing Seed Dates
Direct sow carrot seeds 2 weeks before your average last frost date.
(Using your average last frost date, subtract two weeks and enter that date as your Spring sowing date.)
Direct sow carrot seeds 10-12 weeks before your average first frost date.
(Using your average first frost date, go back 10-12 weeks and enter that date as your Fall sowing date.)
Enter your expected harvest date: This is your sowing date plus the number of days to harvest from your seed packet. If I'm growing a variety of vegetables these dates help me not to miss a harvest date!
Combine dates on a calendar or garden journal
Once you have all of the information charted for each plant, take your list of dates for each vegetable and enter them on one combined calendar.
This will make it much easier to see, week to week during the growing season, what you should be doing with each vegetable. It may save you from missing an important timing step.
Steps 1 and 2 are the most time-consuming pre-season steps, but the more detailed your plan is, the better your chances of success.
STEP 3 - Plant or sow annual flowers to draw in pollinators
Some vegetable plants need pollinators to pollinate the plants so they can bear fruit. Planting a good variety of annual flowering plants can draw those pollinators into your vegetable garden.
Some of the easiest annual flowers to grow to draw in pollinators are Marigolds, Nasturtium, sunflowers, Borage, Calendula, Zinnia and Cosmos. You can also add these plants to your chart with growing information.
For more detailed information, read our article: Seven Annuals to Grow in your Veggie Garden
STEP 4 - Have supplies ready before spring
Have the necessary supplies ready to go ahead of the spring onslaught. Garden time is valuable and caring for vegetable plants takes a lot of time. You don't want to waste that valuable sunny time searching for what you need.
Here's a list to get you started.
First, gloves, gloves, and more gloves - one side will wear out quick!
I personally now have 15 left-handed gloves and two right-handed!
Clothing: Old T-shirts, muck shoes, gym shoes, sun hat, gardening gloves, bug spray.
Tools: Sharpened, oiled and ready to go. Hand shovel, large shovel, rakes, trimmers, etc.
Watering cans or slow-release hoses.
Clean and sanitize the containers and pots you're going to use if they're not new. Read our related article: How to Clean Terracotta Pots
Refresh the soil if using potting soil from last year.
Read our related article: How to Refresh your Potting Soil
DURING THE GROWING SEASON
It's time to put your plan into action!
STEP 5 - The almighty notebook!
Never go outside to the veggie garden without a notebook and pen. I ALWAYS add the date to every notation and I take my phone in case there's something I want to document with a picture. Notes are imperative for later understanding why you had the results you had; good or bad.
In addition to notes as to each plant, as you go through the season, jot down any unusual weather you experienced like excessive rain, drought, etc, anything that you think could have affected your results.
The more notes you take during the season, the more you'll learn from them later when you have more time to digest all of the information.
STEP 6 - Care for the plants first
I've learned this one the hard way. There are so many things I love to do outdoors during my gardening season that sometimes I get so involved in a new project (building a trellis, spray painting a great find from the second-hand store) that my time or energy is spent before I get to taking care of the plants. Big mistake.
Do your plant chores first to make sure the important things get done. Catching and correcting any issues happening with the plants early gives you time to correct the problem before it costs you a good harvest.
STEP 7 - Hand water whenever possible
As with most plants, watering deeply at ground level less often is preferred over short, frequent waterings. Not only is it healthier for the plants, but it will give you the chance to inspect each plant often and be able to learn from every step of its growth.
STEP 8 - Mulch well.
Two to four inches of mulch will help to keep the weeds down and will help retain the moisture to the plant roots.
There are plenty of mulches you can purchase at a home goods store. If you want to save money and use organic choices, here are some recommendations:
Since compost is full of nutrients, it won't suppress weeds, but it will break down and will add to the soil structure. If you intend to grow a good variety of vegetables and plants, a good compost pile will later save you a lot of money as well as give you free healthy soil to add to your garden every year.
Read our article: Composting 101
An old favorite of vegetable gardeners. The straw will hold moisture and add nitrogen to the soil. The disadvantage of using straw is that straw won't block out the light so weed seeds will germinate and grow, and because straw decomposes quickly, it may need to be reapplied two to three times per season.
Leaf Mold/Leaf Compost
Chopped leaves are mostly carbon, low in nitrogen but very rich in minerals and will add great organic matter to your soil. Leaf mold is one of the best soil conditioners there are and makes a great mulch. Since slugs love leaf mold, however, don't use it near lettuce crops or any plants that are susceptible to slug damage.
Read our article: Making and using leafmold in the garden
Shredded newspaper or cardboard
Wetted down, these will stay in place and smother most weeds. If you don't care for the look, however, you could top the newspaper or cardboard off with another mulch choice. A combination of shredded paper and leaf mold is a winning combination and you'll find the worms love it.
You can mix the green clippings right into the bed for some added nitrogen. The brown clippings can be used as mulch. If they compact too tightly, however, they could inhibit air circulation. Do not use grass that has already gone to seed or has been treated with chemicals.
STEP 9 - Weed often
It's definitely not one of my favorite tasks, but since weeds grow fast and will quickly rob your plants of water, frequent pulling of weeds is necessary. And since I'm growing food, I don't use any chemicals to kill weeds. I only hand pull the weeds, so I do this after a good rain.
STEP 10 - End of season research
You can use the boredom of those off-season months to go through all of the year's notes to see where you can improve the next gardening season.
You will have failures; every gardener does, but you will learn just as much from your failures as you do from your successes. So make a great plan and have a great gardening season!
Here's a bonus tip: Join internet gardening groups!
Join as many gardening/vegetable gardening groups online as you feel comfortable with. Just use the group search function to find Facebook vegetable growing groups that you can join.
This becomes helpful if during the growing season there arises a problem or question that you have. I've learned that gardeners are some of the nicest people, and these groups are invaluable for getting answers quickly to posted questions, especially if you upload a picture.
I hope you found our vegetable garden success tips helpful. Now let's grow some food!