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9 tips for starting a garden9 tips for starting a garden

Pick the right spot and make a plan before you plant vegetables.

Fran O'Leary

April 9, 2021

5 Min Read
Vegetable garden
BIG GARDEN: Large gardens are nice if you do a lot of canning and freezing, and you have family members who can help with the garden. Small gardens or raised-bed gardens are more manageable for working or retired couples who don’t need a lot of vegetables. This is a picture of my family’s garden from eight years ago when we had kids at home.Fran O’Leary

After a long winter, I don’t think there is anything more life-renewing than playing in the dirt, getting your hands dirty and planting some vegetables. Not only is it fun to watch vegetables grow, it’s very rewarding to be able to produce your own food, and homegrown vegetables are healthy for your family to eat.

I am a lifelong gardener. When I was a kid, I remember helping my parents plant a garden each year. I pulled weeds and helped pick peas, green beans and strawberries. But my favorite part was just being able to walk out to the garden each day and grab a handful of green beans or cherry tomatoes to eat whenever I felt like it.

I took gardening as a 4-H project and showed vegetables at the county fair every year. In later years, my dad taught my sons how to plant and grow a garden. He thought it was an important life skill to learn. He loved watering the garden, dragging the hose up and down each row every day. He always planted a large garden because he wanted wide rows so he could till the garden throughout the season. But he mostly enjoyed growing enough vegetables to give to friends and neighbors who didn’t grow a garden.

Here are my top nine tips for how to start growing a vegetable garden:

1. Start small and work your way up. You don’t have to plant a huge vegetable garden to grow vegetables. In fact, small spaces work just fine, especially if you don’t have kids living at your house. We all have busy lives, and there just isn’t enough time to plant and maintain a huge garden unless you have help. If you only want to plant an 8-by-8-foot garden, then go for it. 

2. Decide if you want a raised garden bed. I like raised garden beds. They look neat and tidy in a yard. You can prepare a perfect mixture of soil and composted manure that the plants will thrive in. Plus, it makes weeding and harvesting vegetables easier on your back and knees. If you are growing a large garden, it’s easier to plant it in the ground.

3. Choose a sunny place to grow your garden. Don’t plant your garden in a shady area. The more sun, the better, but as long as you can find a spot that has at least six hours of sunshine a day, your garden should grow well. Also, make sure there are no black walnut trees growing within 50 feet of your garden. Black walnut trees produce a toxic chemical that inhibits the growth of most vegetables.

4. Select a spot where the garden hose or sprinkler will reach. Don’t plant it somewhere where you have to carry buckets of water to keep the soil moist. Make sure the hose or sprinkler will reach the area. Vegetable gardens need at least 1 inch of water a week and more during dry spells and droughts. My husband likes to water the vegetable garden, my flower beds and my potted flowers. Then I hear him grumbling about me having “too many damn flowers!” He doesn’t usually complain about the vegetables because he likes eating them.

5. Plant when it’s safe to plant. You can plant peas, onions, potatoes and broccoli as early as the first week of April in southern Wisconsin. In fact, these plants prefer cooler temperatures and will grow better when planted early. These vegetables can handle frost and even a little snow. Make sure you wait until the risk of frost is gone to plant sensitive plants like tomatoes, squash, melons, pumpkins, green beans, and cucumbers. In southern Wisconsin, that is usually after Mother’s Day. Check with a garden center to find out when the threat of frost is gone in your area.

6. Plant vegetables your family will eat. Don’t plant radishes or Swiss chard if you don’t like eating them. Don’t plant five or six zucchini plants unless you really like zucchini. Focus on what your family eats. I like a lot of tomatoes, so half of our garden is filled with tomatoes. We like cherry and yellow plum tomatoes as well as medium and large tomatoes for salads, sliced tomatoes, roasted tomatoes and my family’s all-time favorite — fried green tomatoes. My mom and my mother-in-law both made fried green tomatoes when we were kids. My sons love them, too. Tomatoes never go to waste at our house.

7. Choose easy to grow vegetables. Cherry tomatoes and yellow plum tomatoes are a safe bet even for beginners. Lettuce, onions, bell peppers, green beans and parsley are pretty much foolproof too. A lot of people are growing salsa gardens — gardens that provide the ingredients for salsa including Roma tomatoes, onions and bell peppers. Roma tomatoes work best because they are a meaty tomato that has less liquid and makes thicker salsa.

8. Prepare the soil. Your soil should be high in nutrients and well-drained. If you are planting in the ground, make sure you add composted manure to the soil each year to make sure the plants have enough nutrients to grow. Be careful not to go overboard. Too much compost can “burn” plants like tomatoes. Make sure your compost and soil are free of weed seed. It may be worth it in the long run to purchase bags of compost and topsoil at the garden center. For raised garden beds, use a mixture of compost, topsoil and a little peat moss. Make sure you use soil that has not had weed spray applied to it in the past three years, as that will kill your vegetables.

9. Get the right tools. You really don’t need a lot of tools. A hoe, a garden rake, a shovel, a trowel, a watering can and gloves are the only tools you need to start. A tiller is also nice and a borrowed tiller is even better! Don’t invest in a tiller until you have gardened for at least a year and you know you like gardening.

If you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask a relative, neighbor or friend who gardens for advice. But one of the best ways to learn is by trial and error. Involve your kids in helping with the garden. Gardening is great exercise for the whole family and a great way to get your kids to eat homegrown vegetables. Plant a garden, water it and see what grows!

Come back next Friday when I will share how to control weeds in your garden.

About the Author(s)

Fran O'Leary

Wisconsin Agriculturist Editor

Even though Fran was born and raised on a farm in Illinois, she has spent most of her life in Wisconsin. She moved to the state when she was 18 years old and later graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

Fran has 25 years of experience writing, editing and taking pictures. Before becoming editor of the Wisconsin Agriculturist in 2003, she worked at Johnson Hill Press in Fort Atkinson as a writer and editor of farm business publications and at the Janesville Gazette in Janesville as farm editor and feature writer. Later, she signed on as a public relations associate at Bader Rutter in Brookfield, and served as managing editor and farm editor at The Reporter, a daily newspaper in Fond du Lac.

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