Vegetable gardening for beginners – sound intimidating? Trust us, it's a lot easier than you think. Many vegetable crops are easy and quick to grow, and, what's even better, they're easy to grow organically, in other words, without the use of pesticides. Follow this simple guide on everything from seed sowing to gathering your crop.
- Want to go organic? Find out how to grow organic fruit and veg
- Need some expert advice? Use our grow your own Q&A with Matt James
How to start a vegetable garden from scratch
Where to put the vegetable patch?
The best possible place to grow vegetables is in a sunny, sheltered spot. This alone will make vegetable gardening for beginners that much easier. Why? Because most vegetables you'll grow are annuals and need to do lots of work in the growing season to get to the point where you'll be able to harvest them. And for that, they'll need sunshine – and ideally a lack of wind.
Getting the soil ready
First thing to do is to clear all the weeds or plants or turf (the latter can be stashed somewhere with the grass face down; after a while it will become a great top soil that you can put back on the bed for next season).
Dig over the soil, then cover the vegetable patch with clear plastic sheeting for a couple of weeks to dry out and warm up the soil (if you're starting off in spring, which is ideal). This will also help any dormant weeds emerge so that you can whip them out before you start planting.
The next thing to do is improve the soil – and it never hurts to. You can do this by digging in organic matter, such as well-rotted manure or compost. Your local garden centre might also have composted bark, mushroom compost or leafmould. Ask them – assuming the staff is knowledgeable – what best suits the local soil. And if they know, ask them if you need to do anything else. For example, good organic matter will help light soils hold moisture, and helps break up large clumps of clay soil. However, they may also recommend digging a little sharp sand into a clay soil, for example, although well-rotted organic matter should be good enough to prep the soil for vegetables.
Vegetable garden layout: what you need to know
The easiest way to plan a vegetable garden is to divide the land you've allocated to vegetables into four sections: one for root vegetables; one for salads and herbs; one for beans and peas (or legumes as they're sometimes called); and one for a mixture, for example tomatoes, cucumbers, and the like. The reason you need to do this is because you're not meant to use the same soil for the same crop two years in a row. So, dividing your plot will allow you to rotate your crops. Simples.
How big should it be? An area of around 2m x 3m is easily enough for vegetable gardening for beginners. Our advice: start small and if you're successful, you can expand.
Planting vegetables: how to sow vegetable seeds
One of the best things about growing vegetables is that you can grow the vast majority of them from seed, directly where they are to be harvested. All you need is a patch of fertile, well-drained soil that's been weeded and raked. If your soil is clay-based, mix in some manure or other rotted organic matter, to improve the soil structure.
Make shallow trenches with a cane or trowel, about 30cm apart. Sow your seeds thinly inside the trenches: avoid sowing too thickly as you'll have more work to do later on thinning out the plants. Cover lightly with soil, avoiding compacting.
When to start seeds indoors
The rule for sowing all seeds outdoors is that you must wait until all risk of frost has passed, and the soil is at least 7°C – seeds will not germinate below that temperature. You can warm up the soil a few weeks in advance by covering it with plastic sheeting or even plastic bottles cut in half, but it may be less labour-intensive to start your vegetables indoors. You will need seedling trays and seed compost. Keep on a bright window sill, but avoid overly hot places by radiators. Plant out when all frosts have passed and your seedlings are nice and strong, but before they get too tall and droop. As a general rule, don't sow your seeds indoors earlier than six weeks before you plan to plant them out.
Vegetable crops are thirsty: you will need to water them thoroughly, aiming to moisten at least 30 centimetres of the soil. This means a good, long soak about once a week, rather than quick and shallow daily watering. Almost all vegetable crops have this requirement, including tomatoes, salad leaves and lettuce, and root vegetables. If your soil has poor water retention (loam soil for example), mix in some sand to improve it. Mulching vegetable beds with leaves, manure, or compost will also improve water retention, but avoid the mulch touching the actual plants.
Tip: If you are growing vegetables in containers, they will need more frequent watering, as the water evaporates very quickly from pots.
Keeping weeds at bay in a vegetable garden
A decent layer of mulch will prevent weeds from spreading, so once you've planted up your seedlings, add a couple of inches of it over the soil in between the rows. This will give your veggies the best possible chance to grow unhindered, and will cut down on the amount of weeding work (boring) that you have to do.
Small vegetable garden? No problem
Some vegetables can be grown in a window box or in containers – see our list below. You can also grow others in hanging baskets. The key is to pick a that's big enough container to match the amount of soil your veggies need to thrive. You can check the seed packets or plant care labels for all the info you need. See our guide to window boxes for beginners for more advice, and don't miss our guide to container gardening, too.
Easy vegetables to grow
The following vegetable crops are super easy to grow and are suitable for a beginner:
- Tomatoes: beloved by many gardeners, tomatoes do brilliantly in containers and window boxes. If you are a beginner tomato grower, choose small tomato varieties such as cherry tomatoes. The plants will need supports (bamboo cane will do), and they love warmth, so keep them in a warm conservatory or window sill if it's cold. They're also more drought-tolerant than other crops and don't mind if you don't water them as much
- Radishes: a delightful, peppery addition to salads, radishes will grow in just three weeks, and can tolerate a bit of shade;
- Cucumbers: the main thing with cucumbers is getting them established with supports, as they are a climbing plant. After that, all they need is water and light, and will grow quickly;
- Lettuce: again, a supremely easy crop to grow, lettuce also is tolerant of semi-shady spots. Lettuce is prone to being eaten by slugs, so if you see them, pick them off straight away. You can install copper banding around your lettuce bed, too, which repels slugs with electrical shock (not nice, but it works).
- Peas and green beans: will need supports, but that's about it. Quick growing and easy to pick. Great as a gardening idea for kids.
- Beetroot: a quick and easy root crop that makes a lovely addition to salads. Pull half the beets when they've reached golf ball size every month throughout the summer, and leave the other half to mature.
Vegetables we don't recommend for beginners? You might find squash, melons, cabbages, and aubergine a bit too much work.