Advice to New Vegetable Gardeners


The rising high costs of food and the tough economic conditions have convinced a lot of people to try growing their own vegetables. Reports indicate the number of people starting gardens is way up and seed sales are soaring. A common reason is the desire to save money on food in today’s tough economic times. Growing fresh, healthy food while getting some exercise outdoors is not a bad reason either.

While I think it is great that many people are getting into gardening, I also worry that far too many will be disappointed and give up gardening because they won’t have the success they had hoped for.  This will be especially true for people getting into gardening primarily to save money.  Here are a few tips that will hopefully reduce disappointments. 

Start Small

It does not take much calculation to figure that if you save money for food with a small garden, you will save even more with a big one. That is true, but you need to figure in your time and tools needed.  A larger garden takes longer to prepare and keep watered and weed free.  At some point you might need a tiller or other equipment which adds to your costs.  If you freeze or can your harvest, figure in extra time and the cost of equipment and supplies.

Start out with a small area.  A couple of plots 4’ X 8’ plots can provide a lot of produce with a manageable work load. Start with a couple of tomato plants, some peppers, pole beans, lettuce and a few of your other favorite vegetables.  At first avoid corn, potatoes and other crops that take a lot of space and are fairly inexpensive to buy.

Get to know a local gardener

A local friend or neighbor can offer a lot of advice. They will have an understanding of your local conditions that will be difficult to find in a book or on a web site.  They might even have some extra plants they can give you, or lend the use of their tiller.

Expect some failures

In over 30 years of gardening, I have never had a year without some disappointments.  We had a late spring, an early summer, or an early frost. It was too hot or too cool, and it rained too much or not enough. Maybe the rain just came at the wrong times. That does not even include insect or four legged pest invasions, not to mention various plant diseases.

The fact is that conditions will not be optimum for all of your crops. A long cool spring that is great for peas, lettuce and spinach will mean that your tomatoes and cucumbers will get off to a slow start. Growing conditions contributing to a great harvest for one crop almost ensures that another crop will be below par. Just learn to live with it.

Learn to start from seed

When you start out, you will probably need to buy some plants like tomatoes and peppers.  Direct planting the other crops will save you a lot of money. With the price of some vegetable plants at garden centers, I wonder if you have a chance of getting the price back in your harvest. 

I recently saw large tomato plants for $10 each at a well known discount chain.  Smaller plants will adjust better to transplanting and are a much better value.  One local garden chain sells six 4” corn plants for $1.70.  Ignoring the fact that corn does not transplant well, I can buy six ears of fresh sweet corn for about the same price and without the effort and risk of crop failure.

Beets, corn, squash, beans, lettuce, carrots, spinach, cucumbers, radishes, peas and a number of other vegetables can all be planted directly in your garden.  Onions are usually planted in the form of sets (bulbs) or plants. The season in most areas is too short to grow onions from seed.

Some varieties of vegetables are only available from one source.  Expect to pay a premium for those.  Common varieties are available from many sources.  You can usually find these seeds at a discount.  I recently bought some vegetable seeds for 25 cents a pack. The same variety had the name of a celebrity on the package and went for $2.95 at a well known discount chain. The expensive pack had a little more seeds, but not even close to 10 times more.

After a couple of years experience you might want to start some plants like tomatoes and peppers inside.  You may like some varieties that are not available as plants, and your season is too short to seed directly into the garden.  You will need an artificial light source to do this. Putting the plants in a bright window will not work well.  I built a light system for staring my seeds.  Keep in mind you will need to start a fair number of plants or the cost for the system and electricity will be higher than just buying plants.

Plant only what you expect to eat plus a little extra to cover failed germination or loss to pests, and store the unused seeds for next year.  If you plant every seed in a typical packet, you will have more than you are likely able to use.  I have some seeds that are well over 10 years old that still have good germination.


Starting a vegetable garden can be rewarding, certainly from a financial standpoint, but the feeling you get from raising fresh and healthy produce from your own efforts is much more rewarding. I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from starting a vegetable garden, but suggest you start small and have realistic expectations. Above all, have fun!

© 2009 - 2022 Gary C. Sutcliffe


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