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Over the Garden Fence

Planting the first-time vegetable garden

There is clearly an uptick in households interested in planting a vegetable garden right now. Seasoned gardeners may be expanding the size of the existing garden or finally trying new (or new-to-them) vegetables that had not won a spot in the garden before. Others are going to be getting started for the first time.

First time gardeners, this column is for you. There are all sorts of gardening gadgets out there, yet first timers only really need a few basic tools to get the first vegetable garden planted.

Tools to get started:

  • A garden shovel

  • A garden hoe

  • A garden rake (not to be confused with the lawn rake)

  • And some version of a string/cord and a couple of stakes to hold the line in place

Tools for later:

  • A cultivating tool like a tined digger to lightly loosen the soil and remove weed seedlings

  • The hoe again (used carefully around vegetables)

  • The garden hose or watering can, if you choose to water the garden

  • A bucket for the weeds, spent plants and damaged vegetables you are not going to eat

Vegetable garden beds have traditionally been square or a rectangle, yet the vegetables really do not care. There may be a spot in a perennial bed for the tomato or pepper plant, or maybe a row of snap beans will provide the green foliage backdrop for the shorter flowers down front in a bed.

Maybe the best sun in the backyard is on the patio, so consider using a growbag on the corner or lining the back walk with several of them. Carving out a new vegetable bed from the existing lawn can be done too. Of course, that will take more time and effort.

The bed in the lawn would entail removal of the grass with an inch or more of soil to be sure you get nearly all the grass plant crowns and roots so grass does not become a “weed” in the vegetable bed later. Do not throw that turf away, there is likely thinned areas it could be used elsewhere in the home lawn. That grass can also go into a compost bin or pile and added back to the garden or another bed once it has decomposed.

Since some soil was taken away, this is a great time to add organic matter or composts to enrich the garden soil. Work any amendments into the existing soil using your garden shovel. Do not worry too much about how smooth the bed looks. Again the vegetable plants will not mind, and Mother Nature will deal with that as the growing season moves forward. When planting into an existing bed, the soil prep is already there. You will be digging individual holes for the vegetable transplants you buy and will use the corner of your garden hoe to create those small furrows where the seed goes.

As a guide for the size of the traditional garden, a 10-by-10 feet garden will supply the fresh vegetables for a family of four for the summer. That may be one tomato, one or two peppers, snap beans, radishes, a bush-type cucumber. Plan on more than one planting of snap beans and be ready to plant fall radishes. Each seed packet will provide all you need to know about each vegetable – how deep to sow the seed, how far apart, when to do thinning, how many days to harvest, etc. Start small, use the garden’s potential for multiple plantings and enjoy the garden!

Check out the Beginning Gardener Series on YouTube or find more free University of Illinois Extension gardening webinars (upcoming or recorded) here

About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.