Starting a Vegetable Garden from Scratch

Learn how to start a vegetable garden from scratch and get your garden growing.

| March/April 2011

  • Getting the Garden Ready
    A raised bed that has been tilled and is ready for planting.
  • Planting Tomato Seedling
    A gardener plants a tomato seedling. Prikhodko
  • Chickens Help Preparation
    Chickens can help with soil preparation.
    Dusty Boots Photography
  • Raised Garden Beds
    A vegetable garden with multiple raised beds. Price

  • Getting the Garden Ready
  • Planting Tomato Seedling
  • Chickens Help Preparation
  • Raised Garden Beds

Starting a vegetable garden from scratch can be one of the most daunting tasks facing the home gardener. It helps to have a plan, but taking that plan to the blank patch of ground can be intimidating if you don’t know where to begin. Luckily, there are plenty of options for converting even the most challenging space into a bountiful garden.

Know your soil

For most types of gardens, the perfect soil is a quality light loam made up of nutrient-rich organic matter and a composition of relatively equal amounts of sand, silt and clay. In general, the more organic matter the better.

Not sure what kind of soil you’re working with? Simply grab a handful of moist (not saturated) soil and squeeze. If the clump falls apart as soon as you open your hand, you’re dealing with a very sandy soil; if the clump stays intact, then your soil contains too much clay. Loamy soils hold together to some degree, but crumble when poked; that’s what you want to see.

Once the soil type is determined, you should run a basic soil test to determine its pH as well as the nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous levels. Many universities and extension offices offer soil testing, but home tests (obtained at your local garden center or online) are satisfactory. Take the appropriate number of soil samples and follow the directions on the package.

If there is any concern about environmental contamination in your soil, send it to a professional lab. My cousin wanted to build a garden alongside an old garage that was most likely covered with lead paint. I recommended she test the soil before planting anything edible in the area because years of flaking paint could pose a problem. It doesn’t cost much, around $25, and you’ll have the assurance of knowing whether your soil is hazardous for food gardening or not.

Traditional tilling

If you have a relatively healthy soil, with a good nutrient level, balanced pH and fairly decent tilth – or texture – you can create a garden the old-fashioned way by plowing and tilling. When we started our first community garden in an old field, we brought in a tractor to tear up the ground, followed by a thorough tilling to loosen the soil before planting.

1/26/2018 10:12:00 AM

@Charles Kavin - you're wrong! There is no proof of what you claim, it is only assumed, there have been no long term studies that support your claim. There have been studies that for short term gardening they are alright to use.

Charles Kavin
9/21/2012 1:15:20 PM

PENSTER, everything sounds great except the old tires, old tires can leach dangerous chemicals including cadmium and oil and tar derivatives. Even rubber much can add poison to your vegetables. Please forget the old tires and stick to rocks, cement blocks, wood and safe food grade plastics. Charlie Gardening in saint Charles, MO.

4/11/2012 2:23:12 PM

I'm almost 65 and disabled, so I can't do a regular garden anymore, but still want to grow veggies to eat. So I am doing a container garden, with old tires and large tubs. Eventually, I want to buy some of the large blue plastic barrels and cut them in half so the containers will be higher, but everything must wait on finances! I started my seedlings a few weeks ago and they are almost ready to put in the ground. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, okra, and am going to do a few onions. Garlic, cilantro, basil, and catnip are in my herb garden. I've also started a compost, but that won't be ready for use until next spring, or maybe this fall if I'm lucky. I'm looking for someone in my area with a farm so I can get some barnyard dirt to supplement my soil.

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