If you’re wondering how to start a vegetable garden from scratch, I’m wondering, is there any other way? I don’t think there are any gardeners who have simply wiggled their noses, nodded their heads and blinked, or snapped their fingers and BAM!, a raised bed garden appeared, perfectly spaced and filled with lush vegetation.
Seriously, though, if you’re asking that question, you’re probably wanting to know how to start a vegetable garden without having to go out and buy a bunch of stuff to do so. You want a DIY garden. You want to save money.
The truth is, all gardeners, when they first begin to grow their own food in a vegetable garden, start from scratch. But there’s starting from scratch, and there’s starting from scratch. As in, doing it totally homemade. And in this article, I’m going to teach you how to get a vegetable garden going with as few commercial inputs as possible.
AND…how to do it without breaking your back from hours and hours of digging!
Every first-time gardener will have a lot more success in the beginning if they’ll follow some key principles…especially if they want to start a vegetable garden from scratch.
Here they are, the “do’s” of starting a vegetable garden.
Do #1: Site right.
Site your garden in a location where your plants will get the appropriate amount of daily sun. Fruiting plants, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and squash, generally need six to eight hours of sunlight a day. Bell peppers, however, can produce with a little bit less light.
If you live in the South, even the sun-hungry plants would appreciate a little shade for a couple of hours in the afternoon, especially tomatoes. While they love the sun, they don’t love the Southern summer temperatures nearly as much.
Greens (lettuce, broccoli, etc.) and root crops (carrots, beets, etc.) only need three to four hours of sun per day.
Do #2: Make it level.
If the best location for your garden is on a slope, you’ll need to level each individual bed. Otherwise, unless you decide to use drip irrigation to water your plants, the water will just all flow downhill and miss its mark.
In extreme cases, you may have to build terraces.
Do #3: Plan big.
Given the size of your backyard or property, what would be the ideal size of your garden? Remember to factor in such things as recreational space for the family. When learning how to build a vegetable garden from scratch, you need to figure your ideal garden size in the beginning so that you will plan the spacing of your future beds well. You don’t want to end up with, say, only a few inches between your asparagus patch and the beginning of your blackberry trellis.
Not that I know about that from experience or anything ;).
Do #4: Start small.
Yes, start small. Despite your big plan.
Listen to me more carefully than a pig trying to stay upright on a tightrope: If you try to grow as much of your own food as your big plan allows during the first two years of your vegetable gardening journey, you’re going to get burned out and frustrated, and end up feeling like a failure.
Year one, begin with a garden plot no larger than thirty-two square feet. Many gardening gurus would command you to start with only a single four-by-four (feet) or four-by-three bed.
The second year of gardening, add another one or two beds. After that year, you will have a good feel for how much you can tackle moving forward.
Do #5: Be patient.
First, be patient with yourself and the learning process. You will make several big mistakes during your first three years of gardening, and lots of little one besides. That’s how you gain gardening experience and wisdom. Embrace the mistakes, learn from them, and move on.
Second, be patient with the time it’s going to take to actually be able to get your fingers in the dirt. You’ll see why shortly, as we get into the nitty-gritty details of
How to start a vegetable garden from scratch.
If you want to save money on gardening by doing everything as homemade as possible, the first order of business is to decide whether or not you want or need frames around the raised beds you’re going to build. You don’t need frames, but having some sort of raised bed border will make it easier to contain the organic material you’re going to pile up within it.
At the very least, mark out the edges of your bed with a “fence” of string wrapped around sticks that you have stuck in the corners of the bed area.
If you can find scrap two-by-six pressure-treated or cedar lumber at building sites, great! If you can ferret out six-inch high rocks to create walls around the bed area, fantastic!
Cinder blocks are a relatively inexpensive way to frame garden beds, and you can always buy pressure-treated or cedar lumber if you really want borders but don’t live in an area where you can easily scrounge up free materials.
See my post on building a permaculture raised bed for instructions on how to build a simple six-inch high raised bed frame.
BUT REMEMBER: before you build the frame, you need to cut down the grass and weeds that are currently growing in the bed area as close to the ground as you can.
The next step in building a vegetable garden from scratch is to create new soil inside the raised bed area. To do this, you’re going to use the lasagna gardening method. Again, I outline this in detail in my post on permaculture raised beds, but the gist of it is that you’re going to forage as much organic material as you can – dried leaves, pesticide-free grass clippings, weeds, food scraps – and pile them up inside the bed. Start with a layer of cardboard on the bottom, then ideally you’ll alternate three-inch layers of nitrogen-rich materials with six-inch layers of carbon-rich materials (again, I detail that in the post I just linked to).
You’ll have to repeat this process a couple of times as the organic material decomposes, but within six months to a year, your vegetable garden bed will be filled with mostly finished compost, and ready for planting.
Yes, I said six months to a year. That’s where the patience comes in. If you don’t want to wait that long, then you go out and spend a bunch of money on potting mix ingredients. But if you did, you wouldn’t be starting strictly from scratch. 😉
Planting your garden
Strictly speaking, starting a vegetable garden from scratch means that you will start everything from seed, much of it indoors. I will address the details of how to start various plants from seed in another article.
For now, understand that you’ll need small pots, an organic potting mix (you could also use coconut fiber – called coir or “cocopeat” – mixed with a dry vegan fertilizer), and possibly a metal shelf with light fixtures.
You can start things from seeds outdoors, as well, as long as you either keep frost-tender crops such as tomatoes and peppers well-covered, or bring them in when the temperature slides below 40 degrees (F).
The following video illustrates a simple way to keep frost-tender crops safe outside during cold weather.
Regardless of whether you use lights indoors or protect the plants outside, here’s how to begin.
Fill the pots with soil, then set them in trays. Fill the tray with about a half inch of water.
When the water has seeped up into the soil so that the soil is moist all the way through, plant the seeds no more than 1/4 inch deep into the soil, two seeds per pot with about an inch between the seeds.
Don’t let the soil in the pots begin to dry out until the seeds have germinated. After that, let the soil dry out very slightly before adding more water to the tray. But do let the soil dry out a little bit, because keeping the soil saturated once the seeds germinate will kill some of the seedlings’ roots.
Start plants inside two months before the last average spring frost date. The frost-tender plants will stay inside until that date, plus a week, has passed. The frost-hardy plants (lettuce, spinach, and the cabbage family) can be planted out a month, even longer, before that date because they can take a freeze. Kale and spinach can take a freeze as low 15 degrees (F).
Sow the seeds of root crops straight into the ground about a month before the last average spring frost date.
Maintaining your garden
I go into even more detail about how to start a vegetable garden from scratch, as well as how to maintain your garden once the plants start growing, in my book, How To Grow Vegetables Without Losing Your Mind. I keep the price low on all of my homesteading books to make them no-brainer investments. 😉