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Planting the vegetable garden

What you need to know

Planting a vegetable garden is an enjoyable experience. With careful planning and preparation, you can have a good harvest.

See individual vegetable pages for more information on growing specific crops in your home garden.

Soil preparation

Do not prepare your soil for planting when it is too wet or too dry. If soil sticks to your shoes or shovel, it is too wet. Press a small amount of soil in your hand. When the moisture is right, the soil crumbles and breaks into small clumps. If it is too wet, it stays molded in a ball. 

Rake the planting area after tilling or spading. A firm, fine seedbed is best, especially for small-seeded crops.

Hand holding soil sample cores

Packing the soil too much could promote crusting of the soil surface and damage emerging seedlings.

Tilling the soil in late fall allows for earlier spring planting.

Soil testing and fertility

Have your soil tested to find out the right amount of fertilizer or manure to apply before planting.

A soil test will tell you if you need to add any lime, nitrogen, phosphorous or potassium to your soil.

Planting early crops

Cool season crops

Green and purple cabbage plants growing in garden
Cabbage plants

You can sow early "cool-season" crops such as lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and onions right after preparing your garden plot.

Cool season crops must mature before hot weather. Start these crops early indoors or buy plants from a garden center.

You can sow sandy soils a little deeper than clay soils.

  • Mark the rows by stretching a string tightly across the area where you want a furrow, or a long narrow trench.
  • Use the corner edge of a long piece of angle iron or aluminum to create a furrow with a uniform depth.
  • If you use the handle of a hoe or shovel, it may create uneven emergence of seedlings, especially with small seed vegetable crops.

Warm season crops

Wait until after the last frost (mid-to-late May) before transplanting tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and similar "warm season" crops.

Bulgarian carrot pepper plant with orange and green peppers
Bulgarian carrot pepper plant

Warm season crops need a long growing season. They will not mature if seeded directly in the garden. Begin warm-season crops later than cool-season crops.

Tender crops

You can seed cucumbers, pumpkins and watermelons earlier by placing hot caps over the soil one week before planting.

Hot caps warm the soil and help those crops germinate more quickly. Keep the hot caps on until the plants emerge and are growing vigorously.

Starting plants indoors

Starting seeds

  • Start seeds in plastic trays or peat pots that are three to four inches deep.

    Green lettuce seedlings growing indoors
    Lettuce seedlings
  • A good soil mixture contains two parts loam, one part sand and one part organic matter.
  • Thoroughly mix the soil in a wheelbarrow with a shovel and sift it through a one-fourth-inch mesh screen. Premixed soil mixtures are available at garden centers.
  • Fill the transplant tray or peat pots with the soil mixture and carefully firm the soil along the sides.
  • After filling in the depressions, level the soil to about one-fourth-inch below the top. Firm the soil evenly.
  • Sow the seed by making a one-fourth to one-half-inch hole using a dibble tool or pencil with a tape mark to keep the depth consistent. Sow two to three seeds in each tray cell or peat pot.
  • Cover the seeds lightly with sand, screened soil or vermiculite.
  • Gently water the transplant trays using a fine screened watering tool to prevent washing the seeds out of the soil. Cover the transplant tray or peat pots with clear plastic and keep in a warm room until germination.

Caring for seedlings

  • As soon as the seedlings appear, remove the plastic cover and keep the seedlings in full sunlight or directly under fluorescent lights. 

  • Thin to one plant and apply a starter fertilizer of 1½ tablespoons of 5-10-5 in one gallon of water. Apply approximately one-fourth-cup of the solution to each seedling every two weeks until transplanting.
  • Rinse the seedlings with water after fertilizing to prevent leaf burn.

Hardening and transplanting seedlings

  • To "harden" transplants: 

    • Shade them for a few days outside using either a lath house or shade cloth.

    • Slightly decrease watering, but not to the point of wilting.

  • Hardening will reduce plant growth delay after transplanting, otherwise known as "transplant shock."
  • Transplant in late afternoon or on a cool, cloudy, calm day.
  • Water plants well before transplanting.
  • Cut the soil between the plants with a knife so each plant can separate easily with a substantial root ball attached.
  • You can transplant seedlings grown in separate containers without disturbing the roots.
  • If you transplant seedlings in peat pots, make sure the top edge of the peat pot is not above the soil surface or the peat pot will act like a wick and rapidly draw the moisture from the root ball, stressing the plant.
  • Scrape the dry surface soil from the planting area.
  • With a hand shovel, make a hole large enough to receive easily the root ball of the transplant.
  • Firm the soil around the roots and water with the starter fertilizer solution. Apply one-half-cup per plant at planting time.

Hot caps

If you use hot caps, you may set out transplanted crops in the garden a week or two before it would otherwise be safe to do so. Remove the caps after the air temperatures rise during the day.

If you use paper hot caps, punch ventilation holes in the tops. High temperatures within the hot caps can kill young plants.

Vincent A. Fritz, Extension horticulturist

Reviewed in 2018

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