How to Start a Vegetable Garden From Scratch

Jessica Smith

February 2, 2017

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How to Start a Vegetable Garden From Scratch

Do you have a backyard garden? Do you have a backyard? Do you have any yard at all? If yes, great!

If you don’t have a garden, is there something that has been holding you back?

If you don’t have any outdoor space, but you still want to grow some of your own food, have you thought of container gardens and indoor gardening?

Bottom line, you can grow food regardless of where you live!

I know that gardening may seem a little overwhelming or time intensive, but trust me, you will reap the rewards and it doesn’t have to be hard at all!

If you are curious about gardening, but don’t know where to start, I have put together this “ALMOST EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW” manual to help get you started! Okay, that is not actually what it is called (but basically), it is actually called “The Backyard Ecological Garden Primer.” This is the culmination of all my studies condensed into one place to teach you how starting a vegetable garden from scratch can be simple once you have the basics.

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Why did I choose to call it this? Why am I even interested in growing food at all? It is simple. I am here to save humanity, and want to eat good food while I am at it!

How I Got Started With Gardening

My background is deeply rooted in the understanding of soil health, plant health, environmental health, and human nutrition. As a child, I was raised on my grandpa’s farm and loved doing everything that he did. I loved the garden, I loved the animals, I loved to make pots out of our clay rich soil. Then one day it all seemed to hit home for me as a child setting on my grandpa’s knee on the back porch looking out on the green fields in the evening sun. He said, “if you take care of the land, it will take care of you.” It just made sense. Thus, my journey in life began. I went to college for Sustainable Living and focused in Living Soils and Living Systems, while also finishing a certification as an Ecological Farmer.

I then developed health issues that led me to pursue nutrition as a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner. Time after time in class I would have these revelations where I would suddenly understand the soil or the human from the same lens. I would see the intimate connections. I wanted to take my passion for the soil/earth and human nutrition and make it one thing. I began the research and started honing in on the connections and then I stumbled upon the Bionutrient Food Association, which was also doing similar work. Needless to say, I am currently a local chapter leader in VA and teach Nutrient Dense Gardening at the University of Richmond. When not teaching and playing in gardens, I am working with the awesome guys at Rebel Health Tribe, who have given me this opportunity to share with you my passion and knowledge of Ecological Gardening.

Let’s dig in!

Growing your own garden, or a community garden is the best way to supply you with a quality of food you have never tasted before and grown in a way that is beneficial in improving our environment and balancing our ecosystems.

How to Start a Vegetable Garden From Scratch: My Step by Step System

1. Visually Assess Your Soil

  • Check the texture, structure, and color.
  • How much clay, sand, and silt make up your soil?
  • Evaluate feeding and watering needs.
    • Heavy clay – Feed and water less often
    • Loamy – Feed and water moderately
    • Sandy Loam – Spoon feed (small amounts) and water more often
  • How easy is it to dig your hand into to check for compaction?
    • Soft and crumb structure with lots of earthworms – GREAT
    • Hard and tight – COMPACTED
  • Is your soil exposed/uncovered?
    • No, it is covered in mulch or cover crops/crops – AWESOME
    • It is bare, and remains that way for extended times – Not awesome

2. Bed Preparation

  • Take a soil sample for a saturated base test, as well as a sample to check for biology (optional for nerds – me).
  • Send off test your sample to a lab that uses Albrecht methods of testing (I use Logan Labs).
  • Get help interpreting your results to see if you have any mineral deficiencies.
  • Locate materials, make your own blend
  • If you have an existing bed with good aeration/crumble, earthworms, and organic matter, then top dress and work it in slightly.
  • Checking out your biology under a microscope is great if you have been trained. If this is and a current option, assume you need more biology. I have never seen a first sample come back with anything too exciting.
  • If you don’t have existing beds, but you do have some outdoor space, I recommend double digging bermed/swale beds. Adding minerals and compost as you go. I mulch the bottom and the top with cardboard/newspaper and straw. 
  • Plant a winter kill cover crop if it is late in the season and you would like to wait until spring to start crops.
  • Water the whole garden. As you will soon learn, the life in the soil is what makes nutrients available and your plants healthy, and they need WATER. Just watering at the base of the plant limits the area soil life can thrive.
  • If you are container gardening or raised bed gardening and using a bagged soil mix, add minerals and microbes to it (Get my favorite recipe for this and more – coming soon!). I go into depth more on growing microgreens indoors and making garden soil from scratch here.
  • A good source of a wide array of minerals is rock dust and is priced reasonably.

3. Seed selection

  • When choosing seeds, try to find them from providers who save the seeds from your region of the country.
  • You also want to do a little research into how the crops are managed. Epigenetics determine the health of the future offspring – AKA Healthy Plants Make Healthy Seeds Make Better Plants
  • Choose the biggest and heaviest seeds from the packet, as these will germinate most quickly and be more robust and strong plants.
  • Inoculate your seeds and with a broad spectrum bacterial and fungal innoculant, which usually comes as a powder. I do this by adding a pinch of it to my seed packet, close it, and shake it up. Boom! There you go! The best way to understand the importance of inoculating your seeds, think of it this way: When a baby is born, there are no microbes to help it digest food. As it passes through the birth canal and is breast fed colostrum, its digestive tract is populated with lots of critical microbes to help them digest their food and keep them healthy. A baby who did and receive these inoculants, experiences lots of digestive discomfort and cries out, which is known as a colicky baby. We want our baby plants to be healthy and strong, and cholicy, so inoculate your seeds!
  • I like to do an initial watering with a “Welcome to the World” tea (recipe coming soon), and then moisten them as necessary until emergence and establishment.
  • There are certain times in a plant’s life when it is determining the future yield, these are called critical points of influence and are times when you have got to be on your garden health management game!

4. Nutritional Maintenance

  • Foliar feed with a special blend of microbes, minerals, and sugars (Get my favorite recipe for this and more – coming soon!)
  • Apply this as a foliar spray 1 – 2 times a week during stressful times of the season, such as drought, high heat, and cloudy and rainy times.
  • Using ingredients such as compost tea, protozoan infusions, indigenous microorganisms, effective microorganisms (EM), and stabilized microbial products is like giving probiotics to your plant’s gut (the soil). Ingredients referred to as biostimulants are like prebiotics (AKA food for microbes). These include fish hydrolysate, seaweed, sea salt, molasses, sugar, etc.
  • As mentioned before, it is important to nourish the plant as it is preparing to produce fruit, much in the same way it is important to nourish a young expecting mother. As we know, if nutrition is lacking, the mother will sacrifice her own body for the needs of the baby, weakening her bones. The same is true for plants, and if the plant is weakened by this process, it is more susceptible to insects and disease.

5. Water deeply 1 – 2 times a week depending on the season.

  • Watering this way will help your plants develop deep and strong roots that are more resilient to drought and wind. Watering shallowly and too frequently will and provide incentive for the roots to go deep.
  • If you have tap water that is treated with chlorine or chloramine, add Humic and Fulvic acid to bind it up via a hose end sprayer that dilutes the concentrate into your water.

6. Monitor plant health

  • Keep an eye on how your plants are doing throughout the season. Do the leaves look green and glossy (AKA fat and happy plants)? Are there any insects or disease on your plants?
  • The best way to keep your plants healthy is to support the soil digestive system (soil life) and feed them through their leaves when they are stressed.

7. Harvest

  • This is my favorite part! Enjoy the fruits of your labor! Here is how your health is connected to these fruits.
  • The increase in plant health increases the quality of your produce, which your senses can detect as better flavor complexity and aroma. Check out my post on food quality!
  • The high quality of your produce will result in longer storage capacity without rotting. High quality produce should actually dehydrate instead of molding.

8. Season Extension

  • I love growing vegetables in the winter. The cold weather makes the plants respond by creating more sugars for an antifreeze function, which means sweet and delicious kale!
  • I apply extra liquid kelp as nights get cold to help fortify the plant cells against damage.
  • Also, I add row covers for season extension in the form of low tunnels. It is really easy to build your own out of rebar, PVC pipes, and frost covers. The rebar is used as stakes in the ground to put the PVC pipe over to form hoops. Then I drape the frost cover over the row and secure it to the hoops with binder clips to form my low tunnels. I really enjoy the cloth frost cover vs the plastic, mainly because it self regulates moisture and temperature better. I don’t want to baby my plants too much or they will not be hardy to the cold, but I also want to protect them from drying winds as well.

*In summary, when starting a vegetable garden from scratch, provide the basic needs to your soil and plant life, and they will take care of themselves:

Air to Breathe

Oxygen – these symbiotic organisms that work with the plants are aerobic. Compacted soil=no air to breathe, the organisms cannot function, and the system breaks down. You can achieve aeration in many ways such a keyline, living roots/tillage ground covers, earthworms, and organic matter, etc.

Life needs water to drink

If you don’t have water in your soil, the soil life basically dies, the plant stops being fed, the plant doesn’t function well anymore, you get systemic breakdown. Perennial water management systems like drip irrigation, water storage, rainwater catchment, sprinkler systems, soakers hoses, etc. can help drastically and save you time. – water hose for small area.

Carbon

You need carbon for the soil life to eat and live in, this comes from living roots and decaying organic matter/mulch.

Minerals

You need minerals for the soil life to actually be digesting and feeding up to the plant and to exist in the local environment. – microbe vehicles of minerals from soil to plants. Minerals are also necessary to form enzymes, which build complex compounds in the plant and protect it from insects and disease.

Life

You need the species of life themselves, this is where compost tea and inoculants come in, and native beneficial species.

If you want to grow all your own food (or at least some) and experience the importance of gardening in your life, follow this simple guide to starting a vegetable garden from scratch and keep your eye out for our live organic gardening courses coming in the near future.