Things to Consider when Starting Your Vegetable Garden

What to grow

  • Family favorites
  • Valuable crops (herbs)
  • Short season crops (40- to 50-day crop vs. 85-day crop) 

Space needs

  • Sunny location with at least eight hours of sun is crucial to plants that form fruit (tomato, cucumber, squash, eggplant, peppers, melon.) Many leafy vegetables (lettuce, spinach, etc.) need less sun.
  • Choose a high spot—cold air settles in low spots and shortens the productive season. Low spots also tend to have drainage problems.
  • Start small with a 2-foot-by-2-foot container 1-foot deep or a 10-square-foot plot.
  • A 900-square-foot garden will yield enough fresh produce for a family of four.
  • Some plants require expert care but little space: bush bean (6 inches 6 inches, or 36 square inches), beet (16 square inches), carrot (4 square inches), chard (81 square inches), lettuce (36 square inches), onion (9 square inches), pea (4 square inches), radish (1 square inch), spinach (16 square inches) and tomato (576 square inches).

Time needs

  • Most vegetables are annual crops that demand much attention during the growing season.
  • Begin small: it’s wise to allow time for proper care of a productive, smaller garden.
  • OSU researchers estimate 100-square-foot garden requires 40 minutes per week for planting and cultivation and 30 minutes for each watering session.

Ideal calendar

  • Fall: soil test, soil amendment.
  • Winter: plan, order seeds.
  • Spring to fall: sow, fertilize, water, weed and harvest.

Soil preparation

  • Test for pH; your local Master Gardeners can help with this. 
  • Add dolomite lime (magnesium and calcium) to balance acid soil.
  • Add 2 inches of compost to improve soil structure and longterm source of nitrogen.
  • Add fertilizer—annual crops need extra help to grow well.
  • Work the ground only when soil moisture is ideal; wait if you can squeeze water out of a handful of soil.
  • In containers, use potting mix, not garden soil.


  • Check soil and air temperature before planting; a soil thermometer comes in handy.
  • Soil and air temps for some favorites are: Pea (35°F), onion (35°F), carrot (40°F), bean (50°F), eggplant/pepper/tomato (55°F), basil (60°F).
  • Sow seeds directly for short-season crops such as salad mix (21 days), chard (30–55 days), peas (62 days).
  • Sow indoors or purchase starts for long-season crops.
  • If purchasing starts, select healthy plants firmly established in the pot but without encircling roots.
  • Transplant after soaking roots in water to rid any air bubbles; take care not to damage roots in transplanting and water thoroughly after transplanting.
  • Make raised beds by mounding soil to improve drainage and raise soil temperature in the root zone.


  • Know your N‐P‐K by learning to read fertilizer labels.
  • Leafy greens need more nitrogen (N), fruits such as tomatoes need more phosphorus (P), and roots such as potatoes need more potassium (K).
  • Plants use only nutrients that are dissolved in soil water; most nutrients in soil are not soluble.
  • Apply fertilizer at the right time. Chemical fertilizers dissolve quickly and are immediately available to plants; organic fertilizers need to break down before becoming available to plants. Work organic fertilizers into the soil a few months before planting.
  • Organic fertilizers include fish emulsion (3‐5% nitrogen), composted chicken manure (3% nitrogen), blood meal (12–15% nitrogen); bone meal (12–24% phosphorus); and kelp meal (2–5% potassium)
  • Fertilize according to needs.
  • Heavy feeders: beets, collard, kale, lettuce, parsley, spinach and tomato.
  • Light feeders: carrot, garlic, onion, chard, mustard and pepper.
  • Do not fertilize soil builders such as bean, pea, soybeans and clover.


  • Water to keep the root zone evenly moist; dig down 6 to 8 inches after watering to check soil moisture.
  • Drip system delivers water to the roots to minimize loss to evaporation.
  • Overhead watering dampens leaves and can foster disease.
  • The most critical stage for watering varies by plants: beans and peas should be watered during flowering and pod development; broccoli and cabbage during head formation and enlargement; eggplants, peppers and tomatoes from blossom set to fruit enlargement; lettuce and other leafy vegetables from germination to harvest; onions during bulb formation.

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