How to Grow Your Vegetable Garden

If you're one of the 7 million gardeners taking a stab at growing your own vegetables this year, or even if you're a seasoned veteran, a primer on the basics can come in handy. The biggest question on many peoples' minds today is simply, how do I even get started?

So here are some of the most important things to know for a successful gardening experience:

Before deciding to grow vegetables and herbs, find a sunny spot. These plants do best in full sun, meaning eight hours or more. You can get by with six or so but keep in mind that less sun will affect their performance. The healthiest, most productive plants thrive in all day sun.

If you still want a food garden but just don't have the space or light, consider growing edibles in containers. So many plants these days have been developed specifically for growing in small spaces and containers. Just remember, use the largest container that is practical for you. Once plants take root, they really grow fast and the more room they have to spread their roots, the better. Check with your garden center or seed catalog company for specific varieties ideally suited for smaller spaces and containers.

If you only have a sunny windowsill, don't be discouraged. Although you may not be able to nurture homegrown tomatoes, give herbs a try. Most do well in containers indoors with sufficient light and dry conditions.

Even if you're brand new to gardening, I encourage you to try starting your plants from seeds. Six to eight weeks before the last frost in your area is the ideal time to begin. Seeds are inexpensive to buy but even cheaper when you get them from your friends and other sources for free. To get started, you'll need a box or tray to contain your soil. Although you can purchase trays specifically for this purpose, I like the free route. I use pizza boxes, soda bottles, and take-out containers to plant my seeds. They work just as well and the price is right!

Sow your seeds in seed starting mix. You can find this at the garden center. A 16-quart bag costs about $3.50 and is plenty to fill several trays or boxes. Although saving money is important, this is an area where you don't want to skimp. This specialty mix is lightweight and sterile, two important components for successful seed germination. Just before sowing the seeds, saturate the soil mix. Then plant your seeds and cover them with about a quarter inch of additional mix and add a little extra water.

Create Your Own Mini-Green House

Now you need to place a cover over the top of the tray. One of my favorite tricks for creating this mini-greenhouse is a used cake topper that you find in bakeries. These tall, clear tops are perfect for allowing light in while locking in the moisture necessary for seeds to germinate. And again, my favorite part is they're free!

Once your seeds germinate, remove the clear top. Now you have two main jobs. First, never allow the soil to dry out completely. If you're unsure, stick your finger into the soil. If it feels moist or your finger comes out dirty, there is enough water for now. However, a clean finger after probing means it's time to add more water.

Your second job is to make sure the seedlings are getting adequate lighting. A bright, south-facing window is good, but a grow light is much better. Don't worry about the name. I use a shop light consisting of two 40-watt fluorescent bulbs, which I purchased at a box store for less than $10. Hang the light so that is remains within 1 or 2 inches of the seedlings at all times. You'll need to adjust the height, of course, as plants get taller. To make your work easier, connect the light to an appliance timer set to remain on for 15 hours a day.

In about six weeks, it's time to transplant the seedlings outside to the garden or container. However, hold off until the last risk of frost has passed. If you're unsure as to this date, contact your local county extension service, and they'll be able to provide this information. Before planting, you should condition your tender seedlings to their new environment. In a process called "hardening off," you gradually expose them to their final destination over a week or so, increasing the amount of direct sunlight and exposure time each day.

Ready to Plant

Now you are ready to plant. Gently remove your seedlings from their tray, being careful not to damage any part of the plant or roots. Nearly all plants should be placed in the garden soil at a depth sufficient to cover the root ball. There is one main exception. Tomatoes can and should be planted deeply enough to leave only the top two leaf nodes out of the ground. Roots will form on the buried stem, making for a larger root mass and more robust plant.

But whatever you're planting, make sure your garden soil is well drained and includes lots of natural soil amendments such as compost. Lightly pack the soil in around the plants and thoroughly water them. Continue to monitor the soil moisture so that it remains constantly moist like a damp sponge but not saturated. On average, an inch of water is about right over the course of a week.

From this point, allow the plants a few days to settle into their new home and acclimate. Then add about a 3-inch layer of mulch. To save money, I collect all my yard leaves and grind them up with my lawn mower or dump them in a trash can and insert my weed eater to shred them, much like a food processor does to carrots. But whatever natural mulch you use, it's important for many reasons, including weed suppression, moisture retention, moderating extreme soil temperatures and disease control from the soil. And mulch also adds a really finished look to your garden.

Finally, take time every day if possible to patrol and enjoy your garden. You'll stay in tune with the many wonderful things taking place, plus, you'll stay on top of any potentially developing problems before they get out of hand.

Joe Lamp'l is the host of DIY Network's Fresh from the Garden, and founder of joegardener.com. You can download a free how-to "Vegetable Gardening" eBook from the site.