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Jan 25, 2011 09:13 AM

How to make a small vegetable garden - help for a newbie gardener

Today, the post is more of a descriptive question and hopefully some people can help me with that one. Send me tons of feedback because i really need to hear from you. It is a cry of the heart but mostly of the taste buds.

So, about the question. We would like to do a small edible garden, with maybe 10 different vegetables. I am thinking about tomatoes and garlic of course and carrots, squash, but do you have suggestions for :
1. Name 10 vegetables, super easy to grow (please no peppers otherwise i will have to take tons of Alka-Seltzer after the meal).
2. When do you begin planting the seeds ?
3. What about fertilizers, which ones are the best and is there options for natural, organic ones?
4. I heard that there is some combinations of vegetables that you can make (side by side).
5. I want a small garden that won't take every single minute i have.
6. What about the bugs and the birds. We do have some Japanese beetles over here (i am not really in love with them, but i am trying to exercise my Buddha mind ... it is not easy).
7. And the seeds, is there better ones than others, do i have to put them in water for germination ?
8. Of course, all other suggestions are welcome !!!

Thanks for all your help you, online gardeners. I am waiting for your thoughts.

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  1. I am not sure where you are located which makes it tough to recommend what to grow. However, I really can recommend a gardening method: Square Foot Gardening (here is the link to the book:
    It is easy and the success is unbelievable. Keeping it to one square will make it easy to handle (especially for first time gardeners) regarding planting, pest control, harvesting etc.

    4 Replies
      1. re: verodreams

        I'm a Square Foot Gardener, too...last year I grew carrots, radishes, tomatoes (by the TON), broccoli, green beans, garden peas, sweet corn, lettuce, jalapenos, and pumpkin from a 4' x 8' plot. I'm hooked. (I also planted cucumbers, watermelon, and canteloupe, but didn't do so hot with any of those...but I'll try again this year!) I also had 4 grow-bags of potatoes that weren't in that square.

        Get a hold of the book, then pop over to the forum at (they're in the middle of a website reconstruction, so you might find it at the other address:


        There are tons of friendly help people there -- including a lot in Virginia -- who can help you with all of the questions above.

      2. re: josey124

        +1 on Square Foot Gardening. I have a small backyard so I built raised beds to do my gardening in. I use a 'modified' square foot method; I do intensive planting but I've had nothing but problems with Mel's mix so I just use normal soil amended with a ton of compost.

        There are alot of questions there. I'll try to answer a few...

        1) Radishes, zucchini, chard, arugula, green beans, peas, kale and maybe tomatoes if they are already started. I've found that with all of these that I basically just have to put seeds in the ground (or tomato starters) and keep them watered and occasionally fed and they will grow in spite of me.

        2) That depends on your climate zone. I'm in San Diego. I have a whole garden full of winter greens right now. I plant things year round. In winter I plant cold hardy things like chard, radishes, lettuce, peas, beets, turnips, kale, carrots, etc. When the weather starts to warm in the spring I'll put in my summer crop. Typically several types of summer/winter squash, tomatoes, beans, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant and even some types of things like radishes that will grow in cold or warm weather. I stay away from most greens as they will quickly bolt in the summer heat here.

        3) I use mostly organic fertilizers and compost. A little kelp extract and fish extract along with some bone meal and fresh compost goes a long way. I compost kitchen and yard scraps so all that stuff goes back into the system when it's ready.

        4) Companion'll have to research it.

        5) I have 4 4x4' beds and one 3x8' bed. They are on drip irrigation so there's not much to do. I visit the plants most mornings to check on them and see if anything is going on (plants not doing well, bug damage, etc) and if anything is ready to harvest. You rarely have to weed raised beds and other than water and the occasional feed I make a habit of doing a routine spray of the beds with neem oil and BT but this doesn't take a whole lot of time.

        6) You can keep the birds out with netting but frankly I think the birds in my yard eat more bugs (caterpillars) than produce. You'll have to spray to keep things like aphids and other critters down but if you use something like insecticidal soap or neem that doesn't kill the good bugs then this is just to keep them from going out of control so the beneficial bugs can take care of them (e.g. ladybugs).

        7) There are a lot of sources for seeds. I buy many of mine locally but some people swear by a few online companies and spend their winter evenings drooling over their annual seed catalogs. Different strokes...

        Have Fun!!

        Here's a few pictures of my garden last summer

        1. re: josey124

          I found a book at my library that is based on Square Foot Gardening but has so much more general info. I like it so much I bought a copy, which is unusual for me, but this is my first year in a long time so figured I should have a reference book on hand throughout the summer. It's called Mini Farming: Self Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre, I highly recommend it.

        2. I'm in sw VA, Floyd to be exact but there's a huge difference in zones across the state. Floyd is zone 6. Roanoke, a half hour away and 1600' lower is zone 7. So what doesn't grow for us may grow for you and vice versa.

          Since you are a new gardener, I'd recommend buying transplants from a reputable local nursery your first time out. Starting seeds indoors has a fairly steep learning curve and unless you have an optimum amount of sunlight and are prepared to give them a lot of attention, can be discouraging when your little plants become too leggy or sprouts turn black from damping off, or fall over from lack of water. Do the nursery transplants this year and as you learn more about gardening and decide you want to commit you can work gradually into seed starting. Don't buy your transplants from a big box store. Over the last few years they've been notorious for selling diseased transplants.

          1. Super easy to grow plants:
          Leaf lettuce: You can get leaf lettuce transplants but it grows easily from seed planted directly in the garden. There are lettuce mixes out there and I recommend them. Leaf lettuce is a "cut and come again" crop meaning that when it's 4"-6" high you can cut it back to 1"-2" and it will grow again. Head lettuce is a one shot deal. Lettuce is a spring-early summer crop and any lettuce doesn't like hot weather and will become bitter and bolt as the temps rise. Can be planted very early, will withstand mild frosts.
          Spinach: Another green that is cut and come again. Some varieties withstand heat well and will get you through the summer months when the lettuce is gone. Look for those. Spinach can be direct sown in the garden and is fairly easy. Can be planted very early, will withstand mild frosts.
          Peas: I recommend growing vining Super Sugar Snaps as opposed to the bush variety. You eat them pod and all, no shelling. You'll have to put up a trellis for them but anything you can grow vertically leaves space in the garden for other crops. Plant as soon as the ground can be worked.
          Radishes: Really easy and mature in about 28 days. Direct sow in the garden. Plant them in around the base of other slower growing plants. They take up little space and because they are so fast you can tuck them in anywhere. Replant every 10 days-2 weeks to have a continuous supply.
          Carrots: Carrots can be difficult. You have to direct seed them and keep them moist to get them to sprout. They do not transplant well. They like loose soil. If you have clay and rocks you may be disappointed. We actually dug out our beds and sieved the soil to get rid of rocks and break up the clay, then seriously amended it. To get the seeds to sprout we laid a double layer of cheesecloth over the carrot bed and kept that damp until we saw healthy sprouts, then removed it. There are some varieties out there bred for difficult soil. If that's you're situation look for them. Good luck.
          Tomatoes: First time out go with hybrids. They"ve been bred to withstand many of the diseases that plague tomatoes. Down side is they often have less flavor than heritage varieties but are still superior to anything store bought. You can switch to heritage varieties when you have more confidence. Plant well after the last frost, they need night time temps of 55-65F. Plant basil among your tomatoes. Be sure to supply lots of calcium and water.
          Garlic: You can grow garlic when planted in the spring but it really should be planted in the fall and overwintered (kind of like flower bulbs). Go for a spring planting of shallots and plant garlic in the fall.
          Squash: Any of the summer squash are easy and prolific: zucchini, yellow, crook neck. We particularly like patty pan. They can be direct seeded but go for transplants. Plant after last frost. Winter squash: Go for spaghetti and acorn or butternut. All of them are good keepers and you'll be able to store them in your house at 68-70F for a long time. Get transplants.
          Green Beans: Kentucky Wonder. Grow up a trellis. Our experience shows Kentucky Wonders do better than the hybrids. Plant seed directly.
          Eggplant: See tomatoes. Get a hybrid transplant.
          Cantaloupe/muskmelon: I know that's 11 but you need a fruit. Again, get a hybrid transplant. Plant well after last frost.
          Oh yeah, Cucumbers: Gotta have those. Hybrid transplant. Plant after last frost. Okay so I gave you a dozen.

          Water all your plants at the base, try not to get the leaves wet. This discourages mildews, blights and some bugs.

          2. The seed packets and transplant tags usually tell you to plant so many weeks before or after the last frost date. There are lots of charts on the web. You can probably find a better one than this one: . Better still contact your
          local cooperative extension and find out specifically for your area. Or talk to the folks at your nursery. They are loaded with knowledge and want you to succeed. A happy customer is a repeat customer.

          3. Fertilizer is complicated. Different crops have different requirements. Right off the bat your easiest and best bet is compost. Also good is horse manure that has totally worked and is no longer hot. Alpaca/llama is excellent because it's a cold manure and can be put directly on the garden no matter how fresh it is. If someone is raising those around you they may welcome having some llama poo hauled away.

          4. That's called companion planting. There's lots of books on the subject and it really helps to have a reference if you're going to do it. I wouldn't worry about it this year.

          5. *snicker!* Depends how driven you are. What's neat, orderly and beautiful in June can be rampaging by August. Using lots of thick layers of mulch (which can be no more than shredded newspaper) will seriously keep down the weeds, make what weeds there are easier to pull and most importantly, conserve moisture in the soil. Mulch early and mulch often.

          6. Honestly we don't have much trouble with bugs and birds. Except the damn squash bugs last year. Over this winter we've been invaded by moles for some reason and that's going to be a huge problem for this year's garden.

          7. Seeds: We like Osborne Seeds: Gourmet Seeds: and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange specializing in seeds for VA and the mid-Atlantic: But you can pick up Burpee seeds almost anywhere and they have good varieties for the beginning gardener.

          8. Make friends with your county cooperative extension. The VA extension website has lots of tutorials, PDF files, etc. with far more detailed info than you can get here, specific for your area. They offer lots of low cost or free classes and workshops and can do soil and water tests if you want to know exactly what your garden needs by way of soil amendments.

          Most of all, don't fret. The garden gets weedy but the crops still grow. Sometimes one crop fails and another one thrives. Wear comfy stretchy clothes you don't mind trashing and sunscreen and a hat. Try to work early before the sun gets too hot or in the early evening when it's cooling down. Have fun, play in the dirt.

          6 Replies
          1. re: morwen

            Your replies are always so great and full of info but #8 is always a winner. The county extension service(s) is a font of information. When we lived in SW Oregon two adjacent counties actually printed a little book about gardening in the region. They have master gardeners programs, booths at the farmers markets, etc. And the staff are mostly volunteers who are doing it for the love of it. The best advice, IMO, comes from knowledgeable gardeners in one's particular microclimate.

            1. re: c oliver

              We love our local extension! My husband is in the process of master gardener certification right now and I'll have master preserver certification by the end of March. Then I'm going after master food volunteer in the fall. The extension service has assigned us as a team to our local community garden so we'll be assisting and teaching how to grow and how to preserve the harvest. I'm hoping to do a basic preserving series at our farmers market as well.

              1. re: morwen

                Terrific! We used to have neighbors and he did the master gardeners classes and she did the food preserver one. Good thing she did. He was a newly retired former executive, nicest guy in the world but very Type A. One year he had 42 zucchini plants!!!!! I didn't want to drive 15 miles one way for basil one time and called and asked if he had some. I came home with pounds and pounds for vegetables :)

                1. re: c oliver

                  oh, geez. I can't even imagine 42 zucchini plants. That's the stuff of nightmares (for the whole neighborhood...they go to bed, and a 20-pound bag of zucchini is on their doorstep in the morning. AAAAAH!)

                  1. re: c oliver

                    Right now I'm trying to talk my husband down from putting in a 14x20 patch of edamame. We did a 4x4 patch last year and I still have enough for a side dish left in the freezer. I think a 4x8 patch will yield more than enough!

                    1. re: morwen

                      I just ordered 9 or 10 packages of seeds from Burpee, the usual stuff, and hoping to get 6 or 8 viable plants from easn of my seeds to plant in 2 raised gardens. Size to be determined soon. I figure this is an experimental year for us.

            2. thanks for everyone who is helping me with this. So many great infos and tips. This is amazing !


              1. I can second the recommendation for Southern Exposure seeds. I'm in Virginia, and all their recommendations for local cold weather greens have grown like crazy for me this winter, while other seed brands have struggled. I have had good luck with Johnny's Seeds too. Last year was my first veggie garden year, so I understand the intimidation. I read many websites and just experimented too. I used a raised bed, which worked really well.

                We really enjoyed growing lettuce in early spring, starting with baby plants that I got for 75 cents for a four pack from, of all places, Kmart! They produced salads a few times a week for us for weeks until the hot weather set in.

                We had great luck with yellow wax beans (bush type), which I tucked in all through my flower border. We also had great luck with butternut squash and patty pan squash. All very easy and fun. The extra benefit with squash is that the blossoms attract butterflies and you can pick, stuff, and fry them! Yum.

                1. The other responders have made such good recommendations, I'll confine myself to just a few.

                  1. Check out container as well as square foot gardening if you don't have much space.
                  2. Grow cucumbers, beans and tomatoes vertically to save space.
                  3. Join a garden club or web forum (like Daves Garden) to get invaluable advice and solutions to problems.
                  4. Ignore companion planting your first year. Take it with a grain of salt thereafter.
                  4. I find the seed packages in local stores scrimp on seeds. Here are some sources I often use:

                  a) Johnny's - Excellent quality varieties and lots of planting advice including charts on when to plant, transplant and harvest.
                  b) J. Hudson - Standard varieties, but he gives you more seeds than most.
                  c) Pinetree - Many smaller inexpensive packages so you can test new varieties cheaply.
                  d) Sandhill - An amazing choice of heirloom varieties at reasonable prices.
                  e) Diane's - Started out with mostly flower seeds, but now has plenty of vegetables too.