Vegetable gardening can be overwhelming for beginners but I’ve made it easy with this quick guide. Growing vegetables may be one of the most fun experiences besides making sourdough bread. Both involve the magic of making something out of nothing and you have something to eat in the end. I never get tired of it.
Table of contents
- Top Vegetable Gardening Tips for Beginners
- Best Vegetables to Grow for Beginners
- Coming next in my Vegetable Gardening for Beginners series: Cucumbers
- Vegetable garden overwhelming you? I can help
Top Vegetable Gardening Tips for Beginners
Home grown vegetables vs supermarket vegetables
Vegetables you grow at home usually come out much smaller than the vegetables available in the supermarket. If you go in knowing this, you won’t be disappointed when you end up with 2 inch long carrots and tiny bell peppers. Vegetables grown for supermarkets have be breed to be large while requiring a lot of fertilizer.
Home grown vegetables, on the other hand, are more flavorful and delicious than any vegetable you’ve ever eaten from a big box store. Fresh bell peppers, oh my!
All vegetable gardens require full sun so choose a spot that gets the most sun in your yard. Vegetable will grow in part sun but they will not grow as fast or produce as much food. They also need well draining soil. This means you’ll need to build the soil 6-12 inches above grade.
I like to make beds 12 inches high by 10 feet long and 5 feet wide. If you are building a bed from scratch, it will require nearly 2 cubic yards of soil. It’s a lot so be sure to take advantage of the delivery service from your local nursery. Most truck beds can only handle 1 cubic yard of soil, for reference.
Vegetable gardening is not a low maintenance endeavor. They require daily visits for inspection as pests and disease can take over quickly if not noticed. An afternoon stroll is all that’s required to check for damage, growth, and overall health.
Best Vegetables to Grow for Beginners
If you live in the South like me, tomatoes are a requirement in a proper vegetable garden. I don’t make the rules. If you don’t like tomatoes, you’re about to make a lot of friends because homegrown tomatoes are better than diamonds. Tomato sandwiches are my love language. I digress…
Be sure to check your state’s ag center website for their recommended varieties. Tomatoes are susceptible to lots of disease & pests (especially bacterial wilt and southern blight) but there are several breeds that do better than others.
Tomatoes are best purchased as older seedlings from your local nursery as they tend to get too leggy when grown indoors from seed. Plant them deep sideways in your vegetable garden with only the top few leaves above ground with a sprinkling of slow release granular fertilizer worked into the soil. (Gardener’s Special is my favorite)
Sprinkle 1 tablespoon calcium nitrate around the plant 3-4 weeks after planting, making sure to keep it several inches away from the stem, then water in. Repeat every 3-4 weeks. Calcium nitrate prevents tomatoes from rotting on the vine from Blossom End Rot and also serves as fertilizer.
Types of Tomatoes
The first thing you need to decide is what variety of tomato you can handle. Indeterminate tomatoes grow and grow and grow. They require staking and pruning or they get out of hand. An overgrown tomato plant is easier for pests to invade and ripe for bacterial/fungal infection. A tidy tomato is a happy tomato.
My favorite Indeterminate tomato varieties
I’ve had great luck with Sun Gold cherry tomatoes and Better Boy in my vegetable garden. Better Boy will crack and get stretch marks if you water it too much at once or you have a day of downpours but this is usually just a cosmetic problem. If they do deeply crack, pick them as soon as they blush (turn from green to yellowish) then dunk them in water with a bit of vinegar to inhibit mold and bacterial growth. Ripen on a window ledge, keeping an eye on any spots that look like they are growing icky.
Better Boy is a large slicing tomato perfect for sandwiches or canning. Sun Gold is great for salads, snacking, and soups.
Determinate tomatoes only grow to a certain height and produce less fruit overall but I find their fruit size is more consistent than Indeterminant. They also tend to be much neater and easier to handle for beginner vegetable gardeners. Pruning is not required but I like to keep the plant open to allow for ample air movement for disease prevention. I also remove any branches that cross to prevent rubbing.
My favorite Determinate tomato varieties
Amelia is my favorite tomato all around. She stays about 3-4 feet tall, produces a good harvest in part sun, and kept producing long past all other tomato plants in my vegetable garden. She will go dormant and resist ripening once temperatures get unbearable. Be patient. Once temps drop from “hell no” to “gawd it’s hot”, they will start to ripen and she will put out more flowers.
Staking is not required but I highly suggest it. I’d rather secure heavily loaded branches to a tomato cage than risk a thunderstorm breaking them. Tie tomato branches with flexible wrap to prevent damage twine can inflict.
Suggested Number of Plants
One or two tomato indeterminate plants is a good starting point for a beginner gardener. By mid-summer they will be plenty enough to handle. More than that gets out of control. Four determinate tomato plants is plenty to keep you busy.
Horned tomato worms
Horned tomato worms are the most likely pest you’ll find on your tomato plants in your vegetable garden. Be on the lookout for what looks like bits of dirt on top of tomato branches. Horned tomato worms grow very fast, so their droppings grow larger too. Do not wait to take care of horned tomato worms as they can strip a tomato plant bare overnight. Evil little things.
They are colored the exact green as tomato stems so they are hard to spot during the day unless you have eagle eyes. Follow their droppings and look up as they tend to start at the bottom of the tomato plant and work their way up as they grow larger. Using tongs, pull them off the plant and drop them in a jar of soapy water. If you have chickens, they can be given as a treat instead.
Yes, they do click at you when they get large. I’m assured they don’t bite but I’m not taking a chance. Tongs. Gloves. Jar of water. Plunk.
A fun activity is to strap on a blacklight headlamp at night and go worm hunting in your vegetable garden. Horned tomato worms glow under blacklight so they are much easier to find when they are small. The blacklight is very disorienting at first as the tomato plants look purple but you get used to it the more you do it. Knock any small eggs that glow on the stems off as those are future horned tomato worms waiting to hatch.
Neem oil seems to keep the horned tomato worms at bay but not 100 effective. Diatomaceous earth does help control them but be sure to get food grade from your local nursery. Be very careful applying it by wearing gloves, mask, and eye protection. Keep it away from pets as it is extremely irritating if they get it in their eyes or mouths. Apply up wind so you don’t walk through the dust cloud.
Stink bugs tend to show up in the late summer. Neem oil is very effective at keeping them away. Stink bugs will cause damage to the fruit and allow bacteria to enter. Bacteria = rot so be sure to spray neem oil as soon as you see them.
Harvest tomatoes as soon as they turn green to yellow pink. Vine ripened tomatoes taste no better than window ripened so pick them as soon as you can. Birds become a problem as tomatoes start to ripen as they can see the color change. They like to come, peck at them a bit, then fly off. A bunch of food wasters, I tell ya.
Hanging foil or CDs is not effective. Harvesting early and ripening on a window ledge is the most effective method against birds.
Be sure to water tomatoes at the base and not from above, especially before dark. They are very susceptible to disease and infection and must be kept dry. Pruning also helps prevents problems by allowing leaves to dry quickly. Infection looks like small spots or lesions and the plant overall looks sad.
If you suspect your tomato plant has been infected by something, cut an infected branch off with leaves and put it in a zip top bag to bring to your local nursery for inspection and diagnosis by their horticulturist. Home Depot and Lowes does not have this service.