Starting a Vegetable Garden from Scratch

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A raised bed that has been tilled and is ready for planting.
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A gardener plants a tomato seedling.
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Chickens can help with soil preparation.
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A vegetable garden with multiple raised 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.

For a large area, big equipment works well, but many people want to create gardens that won’t accommodate even the smallest tractor. Building a garden in a smaller area has an easy way and a hard way.

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I’ve created many gardens by removing the sod with a shovel. It takes a lot of effort, and you end up taking away some of the most nutrient-rich part of the bed. So, it’s not the ideal way to go unless it’s a very small area or you have a herd of high-energy children to help you.

Another option is to cook out the grass using black plastic. Spread the plastic over the garden area and pin it down securely. Do this in the fall or late winter, and by midspring the grass and weeds underneath should be adequately smothered. Although it takes several months to prepare the area, once it’s done, simply pull back the plastic and work your garden space.

In my latest garden I opted for a variation on this method. I placed newspaper and cardboard over the area, and covered it with four to six inches of composted horse manure. The beauty of this method is that you can plant directly through the newspaper or cardboard (choose only black-and-white newspaper or cardboard since colored ink can contain toxins) without waiting, while eliminating weeds and adding organic material. I used the composted horse manure because we live near a stable, but you can also use homemade compost, chopped leaves or mulch. It feeds the plants from the beginning and creates a gorgeous garden.

Building beautiful beds

When the soil in a garden spot is just too awful to amend, build above it. In raised beds, you can create the ideal soil virtually anywhere – even on an abandoned city parking lot. The simplest raised beds can be created by heaping soil in 8- to 12-inch-high gardens. A little thought and ingenuity on containing the raised beds means an easier time managing them.

My personal preference is rock, mostly for aesthetic reasons and the joy I experience working with it. When I lived outside of West Glacier, Montana, where the “soil” was rock held together with a little duff and debris, I built 220 raised beds using the glacial rock found on the property. It took more than 150 yards of topsoil to fill them, but it was the best way to garden in that area. They warmed up earlier in the spring than traditional beds, and I never had to wait for them to dry out to stay out of mud. Protecting tender plants is also made easier this way. Masonry or landscaping blocks work equally as well for a permanent structure, and I know some who’ve even built beds out of brick and poured concrete.

If you don’t have the need to build a bed that will last generations, using wood is an easy, and oftentimes inexpensive, way to go. Untreated lumber is a fine choice. The wood will eventually rot, but it’s inexpensive. An untreated bed will easily last a decade in our dry climate, and four to six years in more humid, moderate parts of the country. (It could potentially be less if termites are a problem in your region.)

Most gardeners, and I’m one of them, stay away from pressure-treated wood since the chemicals used, albeit less toxic than years ago, don’t make sense to use in a vegetable garden. And, of course, the old
creosote-soaked railroad ties also should be avoided. 

Composite lumber, such as Trex, is a good choice if wood-loving insects are an issue, or if you want to build a bed that will last more than a decade. Use 11⁄2-inch-thick boards to minimize buckling, which is an issue when using thinner dimensions for beds longer than 6 feet. Plastic and resin raised bed kits have everything you need to construct one quickly, but they can be pricey. What you choose depends on your budget and building skills, but raised beds work well for anyone.

Although it might be tempting to make large gardens of gorgeous soil, construct the beds small enough that you don’t have to step in them – ever. For most people, 4 feet is the maximum width to be able to reach the middle of the bed from either side without stepping inside of it and compacting the soil. The length can be whatever you want, as long as you’re fine with walking the entire way around it. Many people prefer 8 to 12 feet to avoid the temptation of stepping through the center.

How deep or high to build beds

Depth is mostly dependent on what you’re growing and the soil underneath it. If it’s hard-packed clay, it effectively works as a water barrier that can soak the roots if the water can’t flow away from the bed. For the absolute worst cases, you can install a simple drain system using a gravel bed and perforated pipe to divert the water.

Six inches is the minimum depth for growing most flowers and vegetables, but it doesn’t stop you from going deeper. If aching knees or a sore back are issues, you can make your raised beds knee height or higher, but take care that your containing walls are strong enough to hold in the soil.

An easy way to build a productive, elevated bed is to use square-foot gardening techniques developed by Mel Bartholomew, author of All New Square Foot Gardening. Some people have trouble bending down to weed and care for plants (or rather, it’s getting back up that’s the tricky part). A square-foot garden on a sturdy old table remedies the problem.

Use 2-by-6-inch untreated lumber screwed together at the corners to make a 4-by-4-foot square. The important difference with the square-foot gardening technique is the soil. The square-foot gardening mixture consists of compost, peat moss and vermiculite that makes a light, nutrient-rich planting medium. Section off the garden into 16 squares, and plant to specific recommendations for each variety. For example, plant one cabbage in a square, 16 carrots in another, and so on. A tabletop garden like this can produce a good amount of produce without the aches.

Building a new garden can be a little daunting, but there are plenty of options to create a bountiful garden in practically any situation. Pick the one that works best for you, and you’ll enjoy the results for years.

Amy Grisak is a freelance writer and avid gardener in Great Falls, Montana, who goes through a lot of cardboard and compost to expand her gardening efforts.