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Tips for new vegetable gardeners

Written by Rhonda Ferree, retired horticulture educator

According to the Garden Media Group, our younger generation (15-49 year olds) is just learning to garden and is hungry for information. They are most interested in growing edibles (herbs, fruits, and vegetables), gardening with their children, and using sustainable gardening practices and methods.

If you are starting your first vegetable garden or know someone that is, here are six simple steps to ensure success.

First, choose easy-to-grow vegetables. Vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, beans, and cabbage are easiest for new gardeners. Add new vegetables, space permitting, each year. Cauliflower and head lettuce are not recommended for a first-time vegetable gardener.

Second, start small! A 600-square-foot garden, if well managed, can provide a steady supply of vegetables for a family of four. A garden that is too large will become a time-consuming headache for a first-time gardener. You can increase the garden size from year to year as you become more confident. Or you might start with one tomato plant in a container on the patio.

Third, choose a location that has sun, water, and good soil. Most edible plants need full sun, or at least six to eight hours of sun a day. A water source should be close or at least within hose reach.

Your soil is the foundation of your garden. If the soil in your backyard is hard and difficult to dig, consider building a raised planter bed filled with potting soil, or add organic matter such as compost to the soil when tilling or hoeing. Bags of potting soil and organic matter are readily available at garden and retail centers.

Fourth, don't rush the growing season. The frost-free date for central Illinois is around April 15. The term "frost-free" means that there is still a 50-50 chance of frost. I typically wait until Mother's Day to plant most tender crops outdoor, such as tomatoes and peppers.

Fifth, keep ahead of weeds with regular pulling or hoeing. You can also use organic mulches, such as compost, straw, leaves, pine needles, or dried grass. Do not use clippings of grass that has been treated with pesticides. As the organic mulch decays, it adds nutrients to the soil and helps to improve its structure and drainage.

Sixth, gardening is an adventure. You can't control the weather or Mother Nature. During some growing seasons, rains arrive at just the right time, and during others, you're dragging out the hose to water on a weekly basis. Learn from the challenges each year brings, and enjoy your harvest of fresh, home-grown vegetables.

University of Illinois Extension has lots of resources available to help you plan your backyard food garden. The Illinois Vegetable Garden Guide at is a good place to start. If you need help at any step along the way, please contact me or a Master Gardener at or 309-685-3140309-685-3140.



As horticulture educator, Rhonda Ferree inspired citizens in local communities to grow their own food and improve their home landscapes. She focused on high quality, impactful programs that taught homeowners how to create energy-efficient landscapes using sustainable practices that increase property values and help the environment.

After 30 years with University of Illinois Extension, Rhonda retired in 2018. She continues to share her passion for horticulture related topics as “Retro Rhonda” on social media.

ILRiverHort is a blog that helps people connect to nature and grow.

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