Beginners Guide to Gardening

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Starting a home garden can be a daunting task. The thought of buying materials and seeds, spending hours preparing and planting, just to have all of your hard work be for naught if your plants die can discourage anyone. Yet, the reward of having fresh vegetables and the sense of accomplishment from growing a plant from seed to harvest is well worth the heartache. This Beginners Guide to Gardening aims to take the stress out of gardening. Once you’ve completed this article you will have all of the knowledge necessary to start your very own vegetable garden.

Designing a Garden

Picking a location is the first step when starting a home vegetable garden. Planting should be done north to south to allow for even amounts of sunlight for each row. The tallest plants (ie. corn, snap beans) should be placed on the westernmost portion of the garden to prevent them from shading out smaller plants. Most vegetables need between 6” and 18” spacing between plants, except for melons, squashes, and pumpkins which need significantly more. Row spacings should be planned accordingly.

raised garden beds farm

There are multiple types of gardening that each have their own drawbacks and benefits. Traditional row gardening is a common, easy, and cheap technique where rows are made in bare soil. Downsides include low control of moisture, resulting in deaths from drought or flood, and large numbers of weeds. To control weeds, rows can be placed close together or straw/mulch can be used to cover the ground between rows. Raised-bed gardening is done in untreated wooden frames (image above). These beds allow for more control of soil moisture and cause the soil to warm earlier in the spring, resulting in earlier plantings. Obstacles of raised bed gardens include the cost of materials, including wood for the boxes, and soil to fill them. Container gardening is an easy and cheap technique for beginners who are unsure if they want to commit to gardening. These gardens can be done in five gallon buckets on patios and porches (image below). Planting in containers grants the gardener control of moisture and is easy to weed. Shortcomings of container gardening includes the limited quantity of vegetables that can be planted and the occasional difficulty of getting containers to drain properly. Each technique should be weighed when considering which garden type is the best for your situation.

tomato plants growing in pots

Photo by Federico Candoni

Examining soil fertility is crucial to having a successful garden. Some vegetables like corn have high nitrogen requirements, while others, like beans, can produce their own nitrogen and require less. It is also important to check the soil’s pH as certain plants, such as blueberries require more acidic soil, while others require neutral or basic soils. Soil sampling is an easy technique to determine the nutrients and pH of your soil. Sample boxes and forms can be obtained from N.C. Cooperative Extension, Currituck County Center in Barco and the Extension staff can assist in filling out the forms, sending the samples, and interpreting the results.

What to Plant and When

Determining what to plant is the simplest part of planning a garden: plant what you like to eat! There is an abundance of vegetable varieties these days, and you may feel pressured to plant something different. While that may be appealing to some, the best way to get a garden established and to make gardening something you are excited about is to plant things you are excited to eat and know you will enjoy. Planting “normal” vegetables like corn, tomatoes, beans, and peppers are relatively easy to grow and enjoy.

Knowing the right time to plant vegetables is another challenge. Using a planting table is a good place to start. The planting table below shows when to plant a few vegetables in Eastern N.C. A more comprehensive table, titled Eastern North Carolina Planting Calendar, contains more information on planting dates and days to harvest. For summer vegetables, a good rule is to wait until after the last hard frost to plant vegetables on bare ground. Gardens with plastic covers can be planted slightly earlier. Another thing to consider is the time it will take for the vegetables to develop to harvest. For example, corn takes approximately 90 days to mature. That means corn planted in May will be ready to harvest in August. Planting in intervals allows for multiple harvests rather than one large harvest.

Month Plant as Seeds Plant as Transplants
April Sweet corn, kale, leeks, mustard, radishes, spinach, turnips, sunflowers Collard greens, kale, leeks
May Beans, melons, okra, peanuts, peas Eggplants, melons, okra, tomatoes, peppers
June Cucumbers, basil, pumpkins, squash Cucumbers, basil, sweet potatoes, squash

How to Plant

One difficulty with starting a garden is getting the seeds to germinate and emerge. To help improve germination, always use new seeds. If you decide to keep seeds to plant the following year, make sure you store them in a cold, dark place. The general rule for planting is to bury seeds at a depth the size of the seed. The logic behind this rule is that the seed will only have enough energy to emerge through soil the size of the seed. Small seeds like kale should be planted in shallow soil, while larger seeds like melons and squash should be planted deeper.

Transplants are seeds that have been started indoors. They are often available to purchase from local gardening or hardware stores. Transplants should be started five to seven weeks before the recommended transplant date from the Eastern North Carolina Planting Calendar. Before planting, make sure to harden off or acclimate the plants by leaving them outside for short periods of time. Gradually increase this time for a week before planting. Once planted, make sure the transplants have plenty of water as this process can be stressful for the small plants.

tomato plants in pots

Photo by Damyon T. Verbo

For more gardening techniques check out our YouTube Live Stream daily at 11:30 a.m. More information on vegetable gardening can be found from NC State Extension titled: Vegetable Gardening and Vegetable Gardening: A Beginner’s Guide. For additional gardening help, or for help with soil samples, contact Adam Formella by email at