Want to start a vegetable garden? Here’s how.

Leafy greens growing last spring at the Derwood Demo Garden (currently closed). Greens like these can be planted now.

[UPDATE: The situation with Covid-19 is changing rapidly in Maryland. Since this article was published, Maryland Governor Hogan issued a stay-at-home order for Maryland residents, effective March 30, 2020 at 8:00 p.m. This prohibits trips outside the home for non-essential items. We encourage you to follow current state guidance and use home delivery options for supplies.]

In this time of uncertainty, many of us are reaching for a trowel. But if you’re a beginning gardener, or have never grown your own food before, you probably have a lot of questions. Please make your first stop the Home and Garden Information Center – read the vegetable gardening information, and feel free to ask an expert.

You may be thinking about starting a garden because of worries that the food chain will be interrupted. Or because you have children at home, and planting seeds and watching them grow is a great lesson. Or because you need a distraction and some exercise. Whatever the reason, we encourage you to jump right in. But if you’re starting from scratch, here are a few caveats:

  • At this point, there’s no reason to worry that you’ll need to sustain yourself with a Victory Garden, and that’s a good thing, because it is difficult to produce a family’s needs from the garden you can start this year. Consider your home-raised produce a supplement.
  • You will most likely need to spend some money beyond simply buying seeds, unless you’ve already prepared your soil or filled some raised beds and containers.
  • You will probably need to make some trips outside your home, although delivery of materials may also be a possibility.
  • Remember that gardening does require regular maintenance; you need to keep up with weeding, watering, and harvesting.

That said, let’s get started. First, as of the date of this blog post, garden centers, nurseries, and big box stores have been declared essential businesses and therefore can still be open in Maryland. However, a few have closed to the public and others may follow, so always call before you visit. This way you also find out about availability of items, changed hours, health protocols, and delivery options. If you live in a different state, please check current regulations.

Many online retailers are doing a booming business in gardening supplies right now. As long as stock doesn’t run out, most of what you need for gardening can be ordered online and delivered to your door, but prices may be higher, particularly for bulky items like soil and compost. Local is better for those materials.

Where to put your garden

Your garden should be sited in the sunniest space available (at least 6 hours a day of full sun) and close to a water source. Container gardens can be grown on a deck, balcony, patio, or any other space. Raised beds can be tucked in close to your house; in-ground gardens can be of any size. (More on garden planning here.)

In this region we have lots of animal friends who like to munch on your garden plants. If you don’t have a fence around your property already, you will likely need to fence your garden area. There are lots of fencing options, but if you’re in a hurry a quick fix of stakes and plastic or wire fencing is better than nothing.

Types of gardens

  • Container gardens. Plant pots can be purchased in stores or ordered online. If you decide to reuse buckets or other containers not intended for growing plants, make sure they are very clean and didn’t originally contain toxic materials. Containers need to be large enough for plants to thrive; for example, tomatoes need at least a 5-gallon or 14-inch wide pot, and bigger is better. Use a potting mix to fill the containers, not real soil.
  • Raised beds. You can buy pre-made raised beds online for a price. You can also make your own with purchased lumber (pressure-treated is safe) or even with non-toxic materials you may find around your yard, like cinderblocks, stones, or logs. If you have lumber but no construction skills or hardware, place the boards as you want them and drive pieces of rebar into the ground on the outside to hold them in place. Raised beds can be filled with a mix of soil and compost, or (in these challenging times) with just about any bagged mix labeled “garden soil” or “raised bed mix.” (Normally I might be fussy and pedantic about the contents of these mixes, but this is not the moment.)
  • In-ground gardens. Most of us don’t have good soil for growing vegetables without putting in some work. Whether your base is hard clay or loose sand, you will need to add some compost to get started. When starting a garden, put down a few inches of compost and dig or till it in; as you grow, continue to add compost on top and let the earthworms and your own planting help it penetrate to where it’s needed. Using mulches such as shredded leaves or straw (not hay, because of the seeds) will help add more organic material to your soil. That said, the first year’s harvest may be limited if your starting soil was very poor. It may be a good idea to begin with raised beds or containers, and prepare an in-ground garden for next year. Grow your soil first! Here is some more information about getting a garden bed ready, especially if you have turf to remove.

Some things you will need to get a garden started besides the above:

  • Seeds. It’s a good idea to plan the year’s garden now and purchase your seeds before they run out, but please pay attention to the calendar and don’t waste seeds by trying to grow heat-loving plants outside when the soil and air are too cold. If you’re interested, you can learn about indoor seed-starting and get your tomatoes and peppers going now. Otherwise you can buy those plants. Some seeds can be started in a garden now, such as lettuce, radishes, kale, and other cool-season plants (but don’t try to grow those when the weather warms up). Seeds can be bought at local stores or online; also consider asking on neighborhood email lists if anyone has seeds to trade. Maybe you can start a local gardening group with contact-free front porch exchanges.
  • Plants. Again, you can buy these locally or online (with shipping charges). You may be better off buying plants that would otherwise need to be started from seed indoors, like the above-mentioned tomatoes and peppers, or broccoli, cauliflower, and other cool-season plants that can go into the garden now. Many vegetables can be started directly from seed in the garden and are cheaper that way. Consult our crop profiles to find out about growing any particular plant.
  • Tools. Depending on the type of gardening you’re doing, you may need a shovel, a trowel, some pruners, a watering can, and maybe a hoe. Also, get a couple of pairs of gardening gloves that are washable. Don’t go crazy buying tools until you have settled on your own gardening style. A wheelbarrow or garden cart is great to have for larger gardens, but it’s a big investment. Start small.
  • Mulch. Mulch protects your soil, keeps weeds down, and helps you water less. Leaves, straw, compost, or other organic materials work well. You can also use bagged shredded mulch; just make sure it is not forming a solid mass that water can’t penetrate. Looser wood chips work better for wider areas, and you can sometimes get these free (if only in large quantities) from tree services. If you are preparing a garden for next year, consider signing up for ChipDrop and requesting enough chips to cover a large area thickly; they will decay in place and form great soil. (In that case, you will definitely need a wheelbarrow.)
  • Fertilizer. It’s good to have a basic all-purpose fertilizer on hand to deal with nutrient deficiencies in your crops. Use according to directions, please – more is not better!

Some other notes:

  • Soil testing. We normally recommend testing your soil before you start, but this may be challenging this spring as many labs have shut down. If there is any chance that your soil contains toxic chemicals, please use containers and raised beds for your food gardening until your soil can be tested.
  • Compost quality. Please do not use manures that haven’t been fully composted (and never use dog, cat, or human waste on gardens). If you have your own compost pile, make sure composting is finished before spreading. The compost should be crumbly and fresh-smelling, and have no recognizable bits of its original components. You may be able to get deliveries of compost or soil mixed with compost from garden centers, or purchase in bags.
  • Pest control. Prepare for this; you can read about various pests on the HGIC website and learn about floating row cover. First-time gardeners often have “beginner’s luck” when it comes to insect pests – they just haven’t found you yet! – but it’s good to be ready.
  • Flowers. It’s great to plant some flowers in your vegetable garden! Flowers help bring in pollinators and other beneficial insects. Plus they cheer us up with their bright colors. Also plant some herbs to make your meals more interesting, and let them go to flower – bees love those too.

We’ll have more posts in coming weeks to help you on your gardening journey! Stay well and safe, friends.


By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more by Erica.

5 thoughts on “Want to start a vegetable garden? Here’s how.

  1. Arlene Snyder March 30, 2020 / 9:22 am

    When should we plant sq. squash, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers?

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