How to Build and Plant a Garden

Mike LaFollette
Written by Mike LaFollette
Updated June 8, 2016
fresh vegetables
Fresh vegetables can be healthy and convenient if you grow your own garden. (Photo courtesy of Lila Dobbs)

Get out in the yard and save on groceries with your own vegetable garden.

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Building a backyard vegetable garden is a small project that offers big returns. You get to spend time outdoors during the summer, and you’ll have access to your own private farmers' market with fresh herbs and vegetables — perfect for the family cook or the budget-conscious shopper.

If this is your first time building a garden, there’s no need to worry. With proper planning and maintenance, you can build a garden that will thrive all summer long.

1. Pick a location for your garden

The first thing to do is scout a location. Ideally, you want an area that receives at least six to eight hours of full sun, but you still have options if it isn’t possible. If you’re unsure of the amount of full sun your yard receives, monitor it on an hourly basis throughout the day, starting in late morning.

Vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers and beans require full sun. If your yard receives partial sun (three to six hours), consider any type of salad green like lettuce or spinach, some herbs, peas, beets and broccoli. For more specific information about which vegetables to plant in your geographic location, read the details printed on your seed packet and visit the United States Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone map.

After choosing a space, mark off the plot with stakes or lawn paint. However, before you start digging, call 811 to schedule an underground utility inspection. The free service is available nationwide. Schedule your inspection at least a week before you plan to start the garden because it can take several days for your property to be inspected.

2. Remove the grass

Once you get the all-clear on the location, start removing the top layer of grass. It's necessary because you need exposed soil for planting, and it helps to eliminate grass roots. Otherwise, you’ll spend the summer pulling weeds and grass from the garden, and they’ll compete with your vegetables for water.

For small plots, use a shovel to peel back the grass. For larger gardens, consider renting a sod cutter from a tool rental shop.

tomato seedlings
Start seedlings for warm-season plants indoors six to eight weeks before transplanting to your garden. (Photo by Darcy Barrett)

3. Prepare the soil

After removing the top layer of grass, it’s time to turn the soil. It can be done with a spade, shovel or pitchfork, or with a rototiller. It’s beneficial because it helps expose nutrient-rich soil below the surface, breaks up large chunks of dirt and aerates the soil. You want to till to a depth of 6 to 8 inches when the soil is slightly moist, but not wet. If you can form a clump with the dirt but it still crumbles easily, it’s ready to go. Wait a day or two if the soil sticks to your shoes or shovel.

After making an initial pass, mix in some compost and till it some more to enrich the existing soil and improve its consistency.

Use a garden rake to level the freshly tilled soil and remove rocks or large clumps of dirt. Try to avoid stepping on the garden because the pressure will force air out of the soil.

4. Framing a garden

You can build a simple frame with cedar landscape timbers. They typically come in 8-foot lengths. Avoid chemically treated timbers so you don't contaminate the soil. If you don’t have a fence in your yard or you live in an area with a lot of wildlife, consider using chicken wire to form a barrier around the garden. Deer, rabbits, squirrels, birds and raccoons love to sneak a snack from backyard gardens.

Video: Edging a Flower Bed

5. Planting a garden

Using the hardiness zone map, choose appropriate plants for your region, and plant them at the ideal time. Vegetables are classified as warm- and cool-season, meaning some prefer the cooler conditions of early spring and fall, while others prefer the summer heat.

Some cool-season vegetables include carrots, lettuce, radishes, broccoli, cabbage and turnips. Pro tip: You can grow a second crop of many cool-season vegetables in late summer or early fall.

Some warm-season vegetables include tomatoes, peppers, basil, corn, cucumbers and squash.

green beans grown in October in Indiana by Mike LaFollette
Some fast-growing vegetables, such as green beans, can produce two crops in a single growing season. (Photo by Mike LaFollette)

If growing vegetables from seed, start seedlings about six to eight weeks before transplanting to the garden. You can plant seedlings from a nursery directly in your garden.

Avoid directly sowing most warm-season seeds in your garden because they take longer to mature. However, vegetables including green beans, carrots, lettuce, radishes and some herbs should perform well when sowed directly in the garden.

If sections of the garden plot receive varying amounts of sunlight, make sure to plant accordingly. Plant your lettuce and broccoli in areas that receive less sun, and place tomatoes and peppers in areas that receive the most sun. You also want to consider mature size and spread. Tomato plants can grow six feet tall and shade out other plants.

Garden maintenance and upkeep

Maintaining a garden doesn’t take a lot of work as long as you keep up with it.

Typically, gardens in extremely hot climates need water every day or every other day. Gardens in moderate climates may only need watering once or twice a week. A good indicator is to look at the plants. If they appear wilted, add more water. If they look strong and healthy, you’re on the right track. Try and limit watering to early in the morning and avoid watering the actual foliage. Instead, water around the base of the plant so it easily reaches the roots and keeps the foliage dry. Wet foliage invites all types of pest issues.

Editor's note: This is an updated version of an article that was originally published in April, 2013.

If you’re concerned about weeds, apply landscaping fabric to the paths between each crop, but it may be more trouble than it’s worth. If you spot-weed when you water, it should keep you ahead of the game.

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