10 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Starting a Vegetable Garden

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

A well-planned vegetable garden

Longer days and the first brave flowers poking through – spring is nearly here! This is the perfect time to plan for the coming growing season. If you’re new to gardening – welcome! You’re about to embark on a journey that’s equal parts challenging, rewarding, mystifying and uplifting. Here are the top ten things I wish I’d known when I started out...

1. Right Plant, Right Place

The first thing to consider when starting a vegetable garden is light. Most vegetables, fruits and herbs grow best in full sunshine – somewhere that receives at least six hours and preferably eight hours of direct sunshine a day, though some shading is welcome in hotter climates.

Some cool-season crops – for example spinach, cabbage and radishes – can be grown in part shade, while there are plenty of flowers for both sunny and shady locations.

2. Convenience is Key

You’ll need to tend your garden regularly, so if possible position it close to the house where you will see it – that way you won’t forget about it and can see what needs doing as it needs doing. Try to site it near a source of water, or install water barrels or other means of collecting rainwater close by to make watering quick and easy.

Mulching soil

3. Love Your Soil

Lavish your soil with love. Nourish it with organic matter, including garden compost and manure. Manure must be rotted down for at least six months before applying it because fresh manure contains weed seeds, can harbor disease and may ‘burn’ plants due to its very high nitrogen content.

Add organic matter whenever you can and at least once a year. This can be simply laid on the soil surface, as what’s known as a ‘mulch’. Over time your soil’s structure will improve, becoming better draining and a healthier environment for roots. You can add organic fertilizers too of course, but think of these as a short-term boost, rather than building up long-term soil health like organic matter can.

4. Don’t Be Hasty

As a new gardener it’s easy to get carried away, but a little restraint is essential. Plant too soon and tender plants are likely to be caught out by a sudden frost or will fail to thrive as they grow on. In most areas your last and first frost dates define your growing season.

Our Garden Planner can help. It automatically calculates your frost dates based on your location. As you add plants to your plan the accompanying Plant List grows too. Open it up and you’ll be able to see exactly when you should be sowing, planting and harvesting your chosen crops.

The Garden Planner recommends ideal planting and harvest times for your garden’s location

5. Give Plants the Best Start

Begin sowing outside only once your soil has warmed up and dried out enough to become workable. Seed beds – that’s the area you sow into – should have a fine, crumbly texture. Sowing under cover into plug trays and pots is a great way to get a head start while outside temperatures are still too low, but they'll need plenty of light for a good start.

Potting soil is darker-colored than garden soil, so filling rows with all-purpose potting soil after planting seeds can help you to distinguish your own seedlings from any weeds that emerge.

Transplants need planting holes that are bigger than the existing rootball. The soil then used to fill in the hole will be looser, which will make it easier for new roots to grow out into the surrounding soil and help plants to establish quicker in their new home.

6. Water Well

Most plants need an average of 1-2 inches or 2-5cm of water a week. You’ll probably need to water more as it gets warmer, but this does depend on rainfall. It’s better to water heavily, once a week, than a little every day. This forces roots to reach further down into the soil to seek moisture, improving self-reliance. Plants in containers can’t do this of course, so water them more often.


7. Act Fast on Weeds

Weeds compete with your plants for moisture and nutrients. Remove weeds as soon as you see them so they don’t have a chance to produce seeds and spread. Hoeing is quick and easy, and severed weeds may be left where they fall to wither in the sun. Keep the blade edge sharp and close to the surface to prevent damaging crop roots. Hand-weed where the hoe can’t reach.

Mulching with organic matter is a great way stop new weeds popping up as well as improving your soil as it gradually rots down.

8. Keep Picking to Keep Producing

Some vegetables must be picked regularly to keep the harvests coming. Beans, zucchini and tomatoes are just a few examples where picking will encourage even more pods and fruits to follow.

Similarly, removing old blooms from ornamental flowers – called ‘deadheading’ – encourages more to follow, extending the display a little longer.


9. Tidy Up...But Not Too Much

An end-of-season tidy up is a great way to ensure a clean start the following year, but don’t get too carried away. Old seed heads of, for example, coneflowers and thistles will help feed birds over winter, while ornamental grasses can be left to add movement and structure to the garden – and overwintering sites for beneficial bugs such as butterflies.

Fallen leaves are a welcome resource. Add them to compost heaps, compost them alone to turn them into leafmold, or pile them thickly over tender perennials to protect them over winter.

10. Keep Records

Good gardeners make lots of mistakes but they learn from them! By keeping track of when, where and what you grew and noting any pests, diseases or failures, you can build up a personal record of what works best for you and your garden.

Use the Garden Journal to learn from your mistakes and successes

Take advantage of our free online Garden Journal, which makes record keeping easy. Take photos outside, on the go, then upload them with your written notes. Record when you planted, watered and tended your crops, get to the bottom of problems, and see how much you’ve harvested.

< All Guides

Garden Planning Apps

If you need help designing your vegetable garden, try our Vegetable Garden Planner.
Garden Planning Apps and Software

Vegetable Garden Pest Warnings

Want to Receive Alerts When Pests are Heading Your Way?

If you've seen any pests or beneficial insects in your garden in the past few days please report them to The Big Bug Hunt and help create a warning system to alert you when bugs are heading your way.

Show Comments


"I have planted the bottoms of the lettuce it is growing nicely. it has this white fur on the back what is this? and when I tasted it, yikes it was very bitter. It looks great but does not taste well. it's also in the bed of chile peppers could this be why?"
Rachel on Thursday 20 June 2019
"Hi Rachel. What do you mean by the 'bottoms of the lettuce'? The white fur could possibly be lettuce downy mildew - search for this in the 'Pests' tab at the top of the page. "
Ben Vanheems on Monday 24 June 2019
"An area of the yard used to be used for a vegetable garden. Nothing has been planted in this area for at least 12 years. Leaves have been dumped into it each year. Now it has been cleared and the owners are planning on putting in a vegetable garden in this area. Before they plant vegetables, they want to spray the area with Round up for the weeds. Is this necessary and safe?"
Deb Walsh on Friday 20 September 2019
"Hi Deb. We would always recommend organic methods of pest and weed control. If the area is relatively clean then I think just removing the odd weed before starting, then remaining vigilant on establishing the new garden would be enough. There are always unwanted side-effects to anything you add to the garden that isn't natural. Roundup is thorough - it kills weeds right down to the root. It is marketed as being relatively safe and the active ingredient (glyphosate) is relatively short lived. But I would never add chemicals to areas where food would be grown - it doesn't feel completely safe or right some how. Check out our articles on natural ways to control weeds."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 23 September 2019
"As a new veggie grower ( I hope) I found the ten points very informative. Thank you so much"
Maureen mitchell on Thursday 26 March 2020
"Just found this article it reminded me of what I had forgotten about gardening. I found it extremely helpful "
Barbara on Wednesday 15 April 2020
"After taking time out to be widowed and have cancer multiple times, at 74 I am back into organics gardening again this year. I could grow anything before! The leaf mulch and farm manure I used has now deteriorated into wonderful sandy loam so I anticipate a good season. Feels good. I've read that soil is an antidepressant and we all need that this year. Stay safe, everyone! "
Barbara C. Holladay Vernon on Tuesday 2 June 2020
"Well done Barbara - so pleased to read you're back into gardening. It's good for mind, body and soul. And you are right, soil contains bacteria which are natural antidepressants. No wonder you rarely see a grumpy gardener!"
Ben Vanheems on Wednesday 3 June 2020
"I agree maureen - as a new veggie these tips are very helpful"
Esther on Friday 5 June 2020
"I just jumped in and planted tomatoes, cantaloupe, watermelon, and peppers because that was what Home Depot had and they are doing well, but I have been watering shallowly every day, so thanks for the tip to water more deeply for root growth. I am also doing the "Congo" type growing allowing the weeds to settle in and among as I had read there was a synergistic relationship between them - allowing for and exchange of nutrition. The Congolese cleared an area for the seed tended to it instead of turning the soil and removing the native plants surrounding it. They were appalled at the turning and removing of plants when large growers moved into their land. There was also a gardener highlighted on a TV show that did the same thing and his plants were stronger and larger. Are you familiar with this type of gardening, or know where I could find resources to point me in that direction? "
LaVonne Cockerell on Friday 5 June 2020
"Hi LaVonne. I hadn't heard specifically of this type of growing, though there is a school of thought that argues some weeds are a good thing because they help to create a more diverse ecosystem, attracting more beneficial insects while confusing pests. Weeds can also help to keep the soil covered, ultimately preserving fertility (especially if they are cut down from time to time as a cover crop/green manure). I'm not sure where you'd find more information on all of this, but it would be interesting to read it if you do fine a good source of advice!"
Ben Vanheems on Monday 8 June 2020
"Thank you soooooo much for this bloc! I am staying in Veldrif on the west coast. As this is a small fishing town, herbs is not a essential here in the shop. Thus i started a herb garden and hopefully will be able to supple people that want it. Fresh and dried for our markets also. So i need all help and advise i can get! Thank you again."
Christa Parry on Sunday 18 April 2021
"Hi Christa. So pleased you found the article useful. I'm surprised herbs aren't available in the shop, but delighted you're inspired to do something about it! "
Ben Vanheems on Monday 19 April 2021

Add a Comment

Add your own thoughts on the subject of this article:
(If you have difficulty using this form, please use our Contact Form to send us your comment, along with the title of this article.)

(We won't display this on the website or use it for marketing)


(Please enter the code above to help prevent spam on this article)

By clicking 'Add Comment' you agree to our Terms and Conditions