Plan Your First Vegetable Garden in 5 Easy Steps

, written by gb flag

Planting onions

Taking control of your own food supply by growing vegetables is a smart move if you want to become more self-reliant. But if you’ve never grown food before it can be daunting. There’s so much to learn and so many things that could potentially go wrong! When you’re full of enthusiasm it’s tempting to surge ahead and get seeds or plants in the ground straight away, but planning is the key to good harvests.

So let’s not waste time. Here are five things you need to do – before you plant a single thing – to give your new vegetable garden the best chance of success.

Step 1: Find Your Garden’s Vegetable-Growing Sweet Spot

Make time to prowl round your garden just observing. Ideally you’d spent a whole year observing your garden, but this is the real world and if you can do that you’re a much more patient gardener than me!

Identify which areas get the most sun and which are shadier. Most crops, and particularly tender crops like tomatoes, prefer plenty of sun and warmth, so in all but the hottest regions it’s usually best to grow vegetables in your sunniest spot. That’s not to say that shadier areas are completely out of bounds – there are crops that will grow in partial shade too, for instance lettuce and other leafy greens. Remember that the amount of sun and shade your garden receives will change as the year progresses.

Make best use of your garden's microclimate to help ensure your efforts are victorious!

The perfect spot for your vegetable garden has some through-flow of air, which helps keep plants healthy, but is not a wide open plain or in the path of a wind tunnel. Add windbreaks if you need to. Hedges make excellent windbreaks because they allow air to pass through while reducing the power of the wind.

Step 2: Get Down and Dirty With Your Soil

Now look down at your feet. Does water pool on the surface after rain, or does the soil become parched and cracked when the weather hots up? If you’re unsure, dig a pit to the depth of a spade’s blade and fill it with water. Watch how quickly it drains away. Fast-draining soils will need regular watering and require more fertiliser. If your pit takes hours to drain it may be a wise move to install raised beds or look for a better-draining spot elsewhere.

Soil can be improved but it’s near-impossible to change it completely, so aim to work with your soil’s strengths and try to improve its weaknesses. Adding organic matter such as compost will improve any soil type.

A well-thought out plan is key to vegetable gardening success

Step 3: Plan Your Garden Beds

Assuming you’re gardening by hand and not with a tractor, it’s usually easier to grow in beds narrow enough that you can reach into the centre from both sides without having to step on the soil. Compacting the soil by standing on it makes it harder for plant roots to penetrate and seek out air, water and nutrients. The length of your beds is up to you, but if they’re too long to walk around quickly you’ll soon find yourself taking shortcuts across the soil. Raised beds are often recommended to the beginning gardener, but they are entirely optional.

One of the most important yet commonly forgotten elements of a vegetable garden is good pathways. Paths can be made of hard materials such as slabs or gravel, surfaced with woodchip, sawdust or other bulky organic material (which need occasional topping up), or just grass. Make sure paths are wide enough to enable you to reach all beds with a wheelbarrow on at least one side.

Growing reliable crops like these radishes will build your experience and confidence

Step 4: Choose Vegetables That Will Succeed

Growing half a dozen different types of vegetables is a good start – enough to be interesting and to help you learn a lot, but not so many that you’re likely to become completely overwhelmed. Even success can be a challenge – just ask anyone who’s ever grown more than a couple of courgette plants! You’ll be astounded by the skills and knowledge you’ll gain during the course of your first growing season. So start with fail-safe crops and next year use what you’ve learned to add a few more crops to your garden.

The ‘Easy to grow’ option in our Garden Planner’s Custom Filter tool can help you to narrow down the choice of what to grow. You can also filter by crop family, which makes it easy to work out what to grow together. Growing plants from the same family together makes maintenance, crop rotation and using pest barriers such as netting easier.

Step 5: Dig It – or Don’t

At the heart of every successful vegetable garden is good soil. The traditional way to prepare soil is to weed thoroughly and dig it over, incorporating compost or manure as you go. Personally, I’ve given up on this method. It spreads weed seeds and bits of root from perennial weeds, and is time-consuming and hard on the back.

Whether you dig or don't, adding plenty of organic matter is vital to keep your soil in good health

It’s far simpler to lay cardboard or thick layers of newspaper to keep the weeds well below the surface. Water it then cover with a 15cm (6in) thick layer of compost and/or well-rotted manure. Cut holes to plant through, and keep an eye out for weeds sneaking out through the holes. Seeds of all but deep-rooting crops like parsnips can go straight into the growing medium without making holes. You can use boards around the edges to create a raised bed, but it’s not essential.

This technique is known as no-dig, and it does what it says on the tin. You never dig up the soil, apart from when harvesting root crops or when planting potatoes (and sometimes not even then!). Instead you add a fresh layer of organic matter on top of the soil at least once a year, and let worms and other soil organisms do the digging for you. This is faster and easier than turning the soil annually, and avoids disturbing the delicate web of life beneath the soil surface that helps keep your garden healthy.

Use our Garden Planner to plan how your garden is going to look and change over time, and record your progress with notes and photos in the included Garden Journal . Arm yourself with a hoe and some seed packets – and go grow!

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Show Comments


"I am absolutely thrilled by this fantastic website! Last spring was the first time I've grown vegetables and now that I have one year experience this app will absolutely do the job I need and get the best out of my garden. Brilliant work to you all!!"
Valeria on Saturday 21 March 2020
"Thanks Valeria, we're glad to hear you're finding the Garden Planner useful! Best of luck with your garden this year."
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 24 March 2020
"I just found this website yesterday for the first time while looking up info about roses! I'm so glad I did! Great info and even though I've been gardening for 35 + years (veggie, perennial and strubs/trees, tender annual) I found this site so informative! I wish I would have found something like this when I first started. I just got rid of my front lawn (I needed more garden space!) and am moving many veggie seeds into it! Thanks for providing inspiration and delightful straightforward writing. I'll be subscribing!"
Susan Tuzzolino on Monday 13 April 2020
"I'm pleased to hear you're finding GrowVeg useful Susan! Wishing you all the best for your bigger, better garden this year."
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 14 April 2020
" Very useful information. Thanks for sharing!"
Brian on Wednesday 14 October 2020
"Glad you found it helpful Brian!"
Ann Marie Hendry on Wednesday 14 October 2020
"Is there a video or a write up that tells me how to use the site? I thought I'd start with the ‘Easy to grow’ option in the Garden Planner’s Custom Filter tool - but can't find the filter anywhere."
Andrew Dickson on Sunday 8 November 2020
"Sorry for the delay in replying Andrew, I've been away. In the Classic (Flash-based) Garden Planner you can find the Custom Filter tool to the left of the plant selection bar, just above the SFG button. If you need more assistance, for a faster reply please contact the customer support team directly using the Contact button either in the Garden Planner or at the top of this page."
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 17 November 2020
"Thank you for all your thoughtfulness and sharing your experience. I will start a vegetable hillside garden in the spring; I live in zone 5, western North Carolina. I plan to use plastic wood boards for the raised beds and I would like to seed some grass between the beds. Which grass is NONINVASIVE and SHORT, not needing mowing. Do you recommend anything else between the beds ? "
Lucy on Tuesday 6 December 2022
"I'm no turf expert Lucy, but I'm not aware of any grasses that wouldn't need mowing at all. Some species may need less mowing than others, however I think they would probably be quite high maintenance in terms of weeding and feeding to stay in good condition, and they may not be very resilient to being walked on regularly. As an alternative, wood chippings or bark chippings make a good low-maintenance path surface, or in my case, prunings that have been fed through my shredder. I lay cardboard to keep weeds down, then spread the shredded prunings on top a couple of inches thick. Once a year, when it has partially rotted down, I rake the path mulch onto my vegetable beds, where it helps add organic matter to the soil. Then I lay more cardboard and add a fresh batch of prunings. Other than that, there is no maintenance required. It makes good use of all my prunings and gives a nice clean surface to walk on."
Ann Marie Hendry on Wednesday 7 December 2022

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