Want to start a container vegetable garden from scratch? This beginner guide shares everything you need to know to get started today. Read the tips, get your seeds ordered and start growing.
Not much sun in your yard? See 25 Vegetables You Can Grow in Shade.
Beginner Vegetable Garden Guide
Are you ready to start growing your own food? Excellent! Because you can grow a vegetable garden just about anywhere no matter what your budget.
Whether you want to create a victory garden to supplement your groceries or produce extra for those in need, make healthier choices, or just find out why gardeners love what they do, knowing how to grow vegetables is a smart life skill to have.
While a small garden won’t feed a family or solve food security problems, depending on the size of your plot and choice of crops, you can add extra homegrown fruits and veggies to some meals. But keep your expectations on volumes realistic.
While we focus specifically on growing vegetables here, the same methods work for fruits, flowers, and herbs as well.
Guided by your location and growing conditions, you can grow a harvestable items from spring to fall. And, with some season extenders (something to protect the crops), you can grow in winter as well. But first, let’s just get started.
Your rookie season as a grower is the time to gain experience and learn as you go. Go easy on yourself and enjoy the ride. All the information in the world can only do so much. The hands-on experience of sowing seeds, tending the garden, and harvesting crops like tomatoes, carrots, beans, and squash will be your best teacher.
I’ll walk you through the basics so you can get your seeds ordered and start growing right away.
Know Your Digits and Gather ResourcesOrder Seeds + Sample Vegetable Garden PlanPrepare Your Growing Spaces Sow SeedsMaximize Your Growing SpaceVeggie Garden Care & Future PlansMore Resources1Know Your Digits and Gather Resources
Before you start planning your garden, you should know both your hardiness zone number and your average first and last frost dates. This information will help guide your seed selections and growing schedule.
Find Your Frost Dates & Hardiness Zone
Plant Hardiness Zones | United States | Canada
These are listed on seed packets and plant tags to guide your choices.Average Frost Dates | Use this calculator at Almanac.com. Enter your city and state or province to find your first and last frost dates and number of frost-free days. Buy Seeds | Canada | United States
For Indoor Seed Starting
Seed Starting for Beginners: Sow Inside Grow Outside
by Melissa J Will
Everything you need to get started with indoor seed starting.
Grow what you want—any time of year!
For Veggie Garden Planning
All New Square Foot Gardening
by Mel Bartholomew
Buy at Amazon
This newest edition is very nicely updated with good images and information but if you own an older copy (there’s millions out there), dust it off and use it.
For Veggie Garden Care
Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook: Perfectly Timed Gardening for Your Most Bountiful Harvest Ever
by Jennifer Kujawski & Ron Kujawski
Buy at Amazon
Handy weekly task lists to keep you on track from seed to harvest.
To get the show on the road, you need to get seeds ordered right away. You will be sowing from spring to late summer or perhaps longer.
Vegetables are divided into three different sowing groups depending on their preferred growing seasons and soil temperatures. I’ve listed the groups below along with a sample veggie garden plan.
Some seeds should be started indoors before last frost unless you are buying starter plants at a nursery.
The rest of your seeds will be sown ‘directly’ outdoors when the time is right. There is more on this below.
See the sample Vegetable Garden Plan (below) and read over the 3 Planting Groups (A, B, C) to get ideas. Browse online seed catalogues and get your seeds ordered.
CAD Seed Sources | US Seed SourcesTo save on shipping costs, order everything for spring, summer, and fall at once. You can always share surplus with friends.
A. Cool Season Vegetables (Spring & Fall)
This group does best when planted in spring or fall when temperatures range from 50 to 68°F (10 to 20°C) or for some crops down to 40°F (5°C) if using some sort of season extender (protective cover around the plants).
In spring, some of these seeds should be started indoors, some are sown directly outdoors 2-4 weeks before last frost, and others do best with direct outdoor sowing after the risk of frost has passed. Your seed packets will provide specific instructions.
This group includes:
Beets (8 weeks)Broccoli (16 weeks)Cabbage (16 weeks)Carrots (10 weeks)
Cauliflower (14 weeks)Kohlrabi (5 weeks)Onions (20 weeks)Peas (10 weeks)
Radish (4 weeks)Rutabaga (12 weeks)Spinach (7 weeks)Turnip (4-8 weeks)
Buy Fast-Growing Vegetable Seeds Here
Leafy Greens, Lettuces, Salads
Crops with edible leaves like any of the ones listed here can be harvested any time as sprouts or leaves (2-8 weeks).
B. Warm Season Vegetables
This group grows outdoors after last frost in spring until first frost in fall. Many of them should be started indoors in spring to provide adequate growing time. Refer to the seed packet to know whether indoor or direct outdoor sowing is recommended.
Did you look up your first and last frost dates? How many days do you have between these dates? I have 122 days (17 weeks) which tells me there is time to grow lots of the crops in this group.
Each plant has optimum soil temperatures for seed germination. You can use a kitchen thermometer to check soil temperatures both indoors and outdoors.
Bush beans and pole beans can be started when the soil temperature is 60°F (15°C) or higher while tomatoes like 65-85°F (18-29°C).
Buy Basic Bounty Vegetable Seed Collection Here
This group includes:
Beans (8-10 weeks)Corn (9-13 weeks)Cucumber (9 weeks)
Eggplant (19 weeks) Melons (12 weeks)Okra (12 weeks)
Peppers ( 19 weeks) Summer squash (8 weeks)Tomatoes (up to 17 weeks)
C. Cold Season Vegetables
Some of these options overlap with the Cool Season Vegetables (Group 1, above) and do well in fall and winter with some protection using season extenders.
The trick is to start the seeds in mid or late summer so the plants have established nicely before cooler temperatures set in. The plants like cold conditions but the seedlings do not. Options will also depend on your growing zone too, of course.
Buy Frost Tolerant Veggie Seeds Here
This group includes:
Broccoli (16 weeks) Brussels sprouts (20 weeks)Carrots ( 10 weeks) Chives (10 weeks)
Radish (4 weeks)Salad greens Kale (6 weeks)Leeks (14 weeks)
Parsley (14 weeks)Scallions (up to 8 weeks)Swiss Chard (8 weeks)
Sample Vegetable Garden Plan
This example shows what you can plant in a 4×8-foot raised garden bed.
Grow tall, climbing plants like beans, peas, tomatoes, and squash on one side, farthest from the sun, and provide trellis support.
Vegetable (Number of Plants Per Square Foot)
A. Broccoli (1)B. Onions, green (16)C. Zucchini (1) – allow to trail outside raised bedD. Beans (8)E. Romaine Lettuce (4)F. Dill (9)G. Romaine Lettuce (4)H. Peas (8)I. Kale (2)J. Carrots (16)K. Peppers, Bell (2)L. Tomato (1)M. Brussels sprouts (1)N. Beets (16)O. Eggplant (1)P. Cucumbers (2) – allow plants to sprawl outside raised bed.Q. Parsnip (4)R. Onions, white (4)S. Cauliflower (1)T. Swiss Chard (8)U. Basil (3)V. Cabbage (1)W. Peppers, Chili (1)Intercropping & Underplanting
In addition to the main plants, you can grow any shallow-rooted crops like leafy greens and radishes throughout your raised bed. Cut harvests at soil level to avoid disturbing other plant roots.
Buy Baby Greens Sampler Collection (5 Varieties)
3Prepare Your Growing Spaces
If you want detailed instructions from start to finish, download my book, Seed Starting for Beginners here.
You may need 1-3 months lead time with your indoor sowing before transplanting outdoors. Some seeds to start indoors include broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, peppers, onions, tomatoes, and more. Just about anything slow-growing that takes a lot of days to maturity and harvest is fair game.
If you have a local plant nursery that sells vegetable starter plants, that’s an option as well. Either way, indoor plants will need a gradual transition to outdoor growing conditions using the steps listed here: How to Harden Off Indoor Plants for Transplanting.
Get your garden bed and soil ready for planting.
Where you place your vegetable garden will depend on the soil quality and sun.
If possible, I strongly recommend using either a raised garden bed made from plain wood, large containers (food safe) with drainage holes, or grow bags like these ones.
See The Best Wood for Raised Garden Beds for material suggestions and non-wood options.
Growing in raised beds, containers, or bags can save money on the amount of soil amendments (compost, fertilizers) needed and make it easy to add season extenders. They can also keep some pests out.
Get the best top soil you can or use bagged commercial organic potting mix made specifically for growing vegetables.
Pick a full sun location or close to it to grow a range of vegetables. You can always create some shade but you can’t add sun.
If you have good garden soil (loam) that is safe for food growing (no contaminants) you can also grow in the ground.
This list is general: there are always exceptions.
Broccoli (16 weeks) Brussels sprouts (20 weeks)Cabbage (16 weeks) Cauliflower (14 weeks)
Celeriac (16 weeks) Corn (9-13 weeks)Eggplant (19 weeks)Globe artichokes (16 weeks)
Onions (20 weeks)Parsnips (17 weeks)Rutabagas (12 weeks) Tomatoes (up to 17 weeks)
This has a complete list of fast-growing veggies for spring and fall sowing.
Beets (8 weeks)Bush beans (8 weeks)Carrots (up to 10 weeks) Pea shoots (2-10 weeks)
Turnips (4-8 weeks) Spinach (7 weeks)Leafy greens (2-8 weeks)Kale (6 weeks)
Bok Choy (4-6 weeks)Radish (4 weeks)Scallions (up to 8 weeks)
4Seed Sowing and Transplanting
Your seed packets will provide the best sowing instructions. Hang onto them both for the seed starting information and the recommended planting (sun, spacing) instructions.
This walks through how to read a seed packet if this is all new for you.
Seeds started indoors need anywhere from 2-12 weeks to be ready for transplanting after last frost. Your seed packet will list the number of days or weeks required.
Scour those seed packets or the online catalogue for recommended timing. This printable planner is useful for mapping things out according to your growing zone.
Some seeds are sown directly outdoors either because they are temperamental about being shuffled around too much or don’t need the warmer germination temperatures or extra time that indoor sowing provides.
Tomatoes and peppers are warmth-loving plants and slow-growing. They do best started indoors where we can control the climate in spring. Peas are hardier and can be directly sown outdoors in spring when temperatures are still fluctuating. Root vegetables like carrots and beets may object to their roots being jostled so direct outdoor sowing is often best for those as well.If you’re buying starter plants (also called transplants or plug plants) in spring, they will need a gradual transition to life outdoors as described here: How to Prepare Transplants for Life Outdoors.
5Maximizing Your Growing Space
Once you’ve got your vegetable garden growing, there are a whole bunch of opportunities to grow more food within the same space.
Some plants like cabbages or broccoli cannot grow too closely together because of their deep roots, but we can fill the bare soil around them with shallow-rooted plants.
Intercropping: grow sweet corn, broccoli, or winter cauliflower with the recommended spacing and sow leafy greens and radishes around them.
You may also see this called catch cropping when fast-growing crops are added around the slower ones.
You can also grow annual and perennial flowers around your veggies.
Succession planting staggers plantings to spread out harvests:
Peas and bush beans can be started every few weeks for a continual harvest until fall. Any fast-growing veggies are candidates for this. Also consider back-to-back planting so the moment one crop is complete you can use the same space for another with seeds or transplants.
After harvesting winter Brussels sprouts, put beets in their place or sow beans after peas in spring. You’ll learn this as you go.
The point is to make the most of any open space in your garden during the main gardening season.
Companion planting seems to be more folklore than fact. So long as plants have good soil, enough root space, sun, water, and air circulation, I can’t say I’ve ever noticed a problem caused by inter-species bickering. It’s far more likely that you might get diseases that attack specific plant families. See the section on rotating crops (below) for how to deal with that.
Underplanting and Relay Cropping means starting new crops amongst existing ones to temporarily take advantage of advantageous growing conditions.
Squash vines, cucumbers, melons, tomatoes, and peppers will eventually take up a lot of space but take a while to get established. Sow fast-growing crops like leafy greens or corn salad around them. You can probably get a harvest or two in before the larger plants cast too much shade or start to sprawl.
6Veggie Garden Care & Future Plans
Once your vegetable garden is planted, your job is to check it daily.
Does it need watering?Will temperatures drop overnight? Add frost covers.Are weeds popping up? Gently pull them out. Are vines ready for trellis? Tie them up with twine. And take photos along the way: it’s a good way to keep records and see progress.
During the growing season, container veggies may need a balanced organic granular fertilizer sporadically throughout the growing season and/or a liquid organic fertilizer every few weeks. You can look into getting these things once your garden is underway.
Assuming you started with good soil, you likely won’t need to replenish it until year two adding compost, well-rotted (aged) manure, or composted seaweed if it’s available.
Some crops like leafy greens, kale, and spinach can be harvested at any time. Peas can be harvested early on for the pea shoots and/or wait for peas and pods later. Squashes and melons must reach maturity to ripen. This shows which fruits ripen on the plant and those that ripen after picking.
Learn more about summer and winter squashes here. Your seed packets will tell you when to harvest.
After your first year of growing, if you have several raised beds, consider rotating your crops. Certain diseases affect particular plant groups and can reside in the soil for years. You can lower the risk of reinfection next year by planting the affected group (plant family) in a different location.
Also look for pest-resistant seed varieties known to outsmart the bad guys.
Placing insect covers over crops at key times can also slow down flying pests.
Crop Rotation Plant Families
Keep these crops together for plant rotations each year if you can. These are partial lists: there are a lot plants in this world!
Amaranth (Amaranthaceae): Beetroot, spinach, chard.Brassica / Cruciferae – Mustard Family: Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, mustard, Pak choi, radish, savoy, kohlrabi. Carrot – Parsley (Apiaceae or Umbelliferae): carrot, celery, dill, coriander, chervil, parsley, parsnip. Gourds (Cucurbitaceae): Cucumber, gourds, luffa, melons, watermelon, winter squash.Grains / Grasses: corn, lemongrass, rice, sugar cane, wheat.Hibiscus / Mallow (Malvaceae): cotton, hibiscus, okra, roselle. Legumes – Peas and Beans (Leguminosae or Fabaceae): Alfalfa, clover, beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, lupins, mesquite, carob, soybeans, peanuts, tamarind. Mint (Lamiaceae or Labiatae): Basil, mints, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme.Nightshade or Tobacco (Solanaceae): Bell pepper, chilli pepper, eggplant, potato, tobacco, tomatoOnion (Alliaceae, Liliaceae, Amaryllidaceae): Chive, garlic, leek, onion.Sunflower / Aster: Artichoke, calendula, lettuce, marigold, zinnia.
I used to recommend joining online groups for advice but so many of them now tend to be swamped with inaccurate information. Everyone has an opinion whether it’s rooted in fact or science or not. So, if you do join groups, double check with reliable sources before heeding advice and watch out for popular garden myths. Or, enjoy the social aspect and ignore the rest.
For growing vegetables, I really like Grow Your Own Veg by Carol Klein.
If you want creative and interesting options, Niki Jabbour’s Veggie Garden Remix has all sorts of unusual and delicious suggestions.
For an overall handy plant guide, Barbara Damrosch’s The Garden Primer: Second Edition is overflowing with helpful information.
A very popular book is the All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. You will likely find it at the library (or a dusty old copy on your bookshelf) and it has all the basic for beginners.
If you’re looking for easy seed selections, these sets from Botanical Interests have good variety:
Now get your seeds and start growing.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛