How To: Plant a Vegetable Garden

It’s that time of year again!  This week my family worked together and got our garden planted.  If any of you are ready to take a shot at growing your own food, this is a great place to start!  For many places around the country, this is an optimal time to plant.  Take a peek and share what you’re growing at your house.  (Also, if you entered our Epiphanie Bag Giveaway– the winner has been posted!)

Tomato Plant in HandBefore I started this cooking gig and my husband entered the medical field, we were college students studying soil compositions in chem labs, memorizing hundreds of latin terms for plant ID class, and learning how to propagate rare plant species.  We met because we were both finishing up undergraduate degrees in horticulture science and had almost all of our classes together one semester.  People who know us now, and the fields we’re in, think it’s super random that we studied plants, but I always say it must have been to meet each other, and it’s an awesome thing to have in common because now it’s a great (and useful) hobby, and one we’re teaching our 3 sons about.  I’m a huge supporter of getting kids involved in fruit and vegetable gardening in particular.  In a world of pre-packaged everything, forming a sense of partnership with the earth and a responsibility for the food we eat is educational in so many ways.  Besides that, there is something absolutely magical about witnessing the whole process of a tiny dry seed turning into a huge food-bearing plant.  Kids learn about the actual science of plant growth, but also about how to take care of something, tend it, nurture it, watch it grow, and enjoy the very real fruits of their labors.

Planting Watermelon

In most parts of the country, garden season is entering full swing and it’s the perfect time to think about planting.  I’m going to show you what my family has been up to, and even if you’re not interested or able to start a project to this scale, read on!  You can garden in super small spaces, and even without a yard!  Here’s a few tips.  Before you begin:



We have a big open canvas on the side of our house in a sunny spot so my husband and I sketched out what we wanted to do.  4 raised garden boxes, 6′ x 10′ each.  Since we need a post in the corner of each garden box for stability, we’re using the 4 center ones for an arbor.


garden Design

If you’re making a larger garden, or want to build raised beds like I am, you’ll want to actually measure things out where you’re going to put them.

measuring 2

It’s easy to estimate and eyeball, but (especially if you’re building structures) it helps to actually see it.  What you imagine in your head, and what it actually looks like can be quite different.


I like to actually paint things out, so we measured exactly how large our raised boxes would be and slapped some paint on the ground so we could walk around it and make sure we had enough room to walk in between, drive our lawnmower through, pass a wheelbarrow, etc.

measuring 3

Once that was ready, we (and by we I mean my husband) grabbed some wood from Lowe’s.  We’re using 10′ x 12″ boards so we can use one full board for the side of our boxes and just cut one board in half to use for the two smaller sizes.

wood on trailer

I’ll stop using the word “we” at this point, since it’s obvious I had nothing to do with the following steps besides snapping the occasional photo and yelling, “Good job, guys!”  My husband and little brother gave the boards a quick cut ( the brother who made it very clear during the process these photos better not end up on my blog.  ha.  Sorry bro, at least it’s only like, half of the back of your head so no one knows it’s you.  Except I just told them all.)

Cutting Wood

And then connected them with large wood screws.  Seriously, assembling these boxes took maybe 3 1/2 minutes, each.  You can see we have one smaller board running across the middle of the box- if your box is large like mine, that middle board will stabilize the box and keep it from bowing out once’s it’s filled with dirt and settled.  There are tons of tutorials online if you want to get fancy with raised beds; ours are very, very basic (and very, very easy to make!)

Staining Boxes

After the boxes were put together, we (no really, I actually helped with this part) gave them a quick coat of stain.  The stain not only adds to the aesthetic, but helps seal the wood so it will last longer.  You do want to be careful with treating wood that is used to grow food because you don’t want materials (like treated lumber) to leach things into your soil.  We used a waterproof stain, and applied it mostly to the outsides of the boxes.  With the size of our garden boxes, it shouldn’t be a problem with anything leaching into the soil.  To stabilize the boxes even more, you can put metal brackets on those corners.


Once the garden boxes are assembled, you’ll need to fill them.  We used a mix of 3 parts topsoil to 1 part compost.  If you already have dirt in your yard, you can just grab a few bags of compost or peat moss (available and garden or home improvement stores) and toss them in there.  Compost adds vital nutrients that will help your plants grow faster and stronger.  In fact once your garden is planted, grass clippings (as long as your grass hasn’t been treated with chemicals) does wonders sprinkled in around your plants.

Do you notice in the photo below how the dirt is sitting right next to the boxes?

Dirt Pile

Wouldn’t it have been awesome had we arranged with the dump truck driver to dump the dirt directly into our boxes, since they’re conveniently located just inches from our driveway?  And it wouldn’t it totally suck if he showed up 4 hours early when we weren’t home and left it in our driveway to shovel?  Yes.  Yes it would.

Once the boxes are built, placed, and filled, you’re ready for the very very best part.  The plants!

Think about what your family likes to eat, but also think out of the box.  One of the very best ways to add flavors to your palate is to grow them yourself.

A lot of people think since I’m a horticulturist, I must have an elaborate sprouting operation going on, growing my own heirloom varieties indoors in the winter.  Not so.  I never get started till about right now.  We grow some things from seed, like zucchini, squash, beans, and melons, because they sprout so quickly and grow fast.  However for most other things, I just buy small plants.


Seeds are obviously much less expensive than plants, and you get quite a few seeds in a single packet, but I usually just spend the 2 bucks and buy a little plant for the head start it gives me in the middle of May.  If they come in a little bio-degradable pot, I recommend tearing off at least the top and bottom of the pot (or the entire thing).  Even though it says you can put it right in the ground, they often don’t biodegrade until after the growing season, so they can end up sucking water away from your plant and trapping the little roots in there.


Recently, someone left a comment on one of our blog posts complimenting me on always being dressed and accessorized with my hair done and asked if I ever wore yoga pants.  I spit a little water on my keyboard.  Remember our recent post about keepin’ it real?  Here’s a little real for ya.  Still in my workout clothes about 9 hours after working out.  No make-up, nasty sweaty hair, dirt-rubbed face and all.  Super glam.  And super norm.

Planting Tomatoes

Back to the garden.  We’ve experimented with a lot of different plants over the years and now we grow a lot of what we know we like, and then a few wild-cards just for fun.  One of my favorites is the herb section.  If you grow nothing else, grow a pot of basil.  Your pasta will thank you.


And if you have kids, involve them!  I’ve never seen my kids so excited about vegetables than when we were looking at the hundreds of little sprouts and seed packets at the store and they could look at the photos and pick what they wanted to grow.

Seed Prep

Magical, I tell ya.

Planting Seeds

And they will absolutely be more interested in eating something they helped pick out and take care of.

Planting Melon

These little guys have already been hard at work and I can’t wait for them to see the fruits of their labors!

Kids in garden
Even if you don’t take on something this size, think about planting a tomato plant in a pot on your porch, or a little container of basil and oregano.  You’ll be happy on a warm summer night when you’ve got a bowl of pasta in front of you!

So where are all of my gardeners?  What are you guys planting this year?  Any requests for recipes using things you know you’ll have tons of this summer??



woman in denim shirt holding a salad bowl
Meet The Author

Sara Wells

Sara Wells co-founded Our Best Bites in 2008. She is the author of three Bestselling Cook Books, Best Bites: 150 Family Favorite RecipesSavoring the Seasons with Our Best Bites, and 400 Calories or Less from Our Best Bites. Sara’s work has been featured in many local and national news outlets and publications such as Parenting MagazineBetter Homes & GardensFine CookingThe Rachel Ray Show and the New York Times.

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Questions & Reviews

  1. Your post couldn’t have come at a better time. I was just thinking to myself this morning that I wanted to grow a little garden at our new house. I am thinking of an Italian garden. (Tomatoes, basil, oregano. rosemary & italian parsley). Thanks for the helpful hints…I am going to leave your website up & have my husband “stumble” upon it.

  2. My husband is in the military so we move around every couple of years, so a large garden isn’t in the cards for us. (Not until we retire. *shrugs*) But I have 3 large containers that I plant every year. Right now we have strawberries, corn and lettuces growing really well. (the corn is a first year just to see if it works kind of thing) I have 3 varieties of tomatoes and a bell pepper waiting to be planted!

    There is truly nothing like growing some of your own food!

    1. Deborah,

      Burpee sells a variety of corn specifically for containers. We’re trying it out this year. I hope it works. Good luck on your garden.

  3. I planned on having a garden this year and then cancer hit our household. My husband had brain surgery almost 3 months ago and is in the middle of daily radiation treatment. We have 5 acres and there is so much we wanted to do this year but now all of our plans are on hold. I have done container gardening at our old house with tomatoes and had mixed results, but would you have any recommendations on what I could plant in a container with limited time? Our back yard faces the south and the ground is so uneven I don’t know even where I would put a container!

  4. Sweet boxes. Your yard is huge! My fave things for our garden are tomatoes, green beans, corn, zucchini and squash. We also love beets but last year planted WAY too many (it was our first year doing a garden and planted too much of most things. Live and learn). Do you grow basil from seed or just buy a plant? I had some seeds so planted a pot but haven’t seen anything yet. I’ll give it some more time And see how that goes.

  5. I’d like to start small this summer…really small! Any tips for just herbs? I’ve heard bits and pieces, like herbs spread and pick from the sides, etc., but I’d love some starter information for someone without a green thumb 🙂

    Someday I’d love to move on to raised beds like you have. So cool!

  6. Loved this post, Sara! I had to give up the backyard garden for this year, after my epic fail last year, due to an overzealous golden retriever puppy who laughed at my lame attempt to keep him out of the raised bed with a 3 ft. chiken wire fence. He’s just not ready for the responsibility of staying out of the garden while I work full time. So my answer this year? I read about straw bale gardening and bought myself a straw bale that I’ve placed in the FRONT yard and planted with some herbs. It’s an experiment this year, and hopefully will expand to more veggies next year. Maybe by then the retriever will be out of the puppy phase and allow me to plant the bales in the backyard instead!

  7. I really appreciated your post as i have been wanting to learn how to garden. Right now i live in a small apartment and won’t be able to for a few years. I love herbs and use them weekly in cooking so i am trying to grow basil and maybe some others. What would you suggest is the best way to grow them? They would have to be in pots on my balcony.

  8. LOVE your garden post! I wish more people could get on board with this. I get so grouchy when summer is over and I actually have to BUY my vegetables and herbs. We have a very similar setup to yours. We actually filled the walkways with really pretty gravel to keep the weeds and mud down when we walk in between. We also have an arbor that we planet clematis underneath so the beautiful flowers fill the space and make it look more ‘flower gardeny’ than ‘vegetable gardeny’. I think I will be doing my herbs on my front porch this year though so it’s right outside the kitchen. Great idea!

  9. Can’t say how much I love this post – I mean, I love all your posts, but this one in particular! For many years we had a place for a garden but didn’t put one in (too much work?) but finally my boys talked me into one. My wonderful husband dug our 12X12 plot out of our yard (we have VERY thick grass, so his is super wonderful!) and after a great deal of amending, we have a decent garden. I used the things we grew last year to make/jar 2 types of salsa, sweet pickle relish, hot pepper jelly, and watermelon jelly. We also had fresh bruschetta and salsa all summer long.

    We just finished planting it for this year – zucchini, pie pumpkin, walla walla onions, beets, 3 types of tomatoes and 5 types of peppers. We also have some herbs in pots – sweet mint, thyme, oregano, and basil.

  10. Wow, I’m jealous of all that space! I have a pretty small yard, so I just have one small box. I planted parsnips, carrots (regular long orange, and a purple variety), romaine lettuce, and Parsley. I’m hoping to get another couple of smaller boxes built for some acorn squash and zucchini. Oh, I also planted some bell peppers and tomatoes, in some tires of all things! I’ve heard of people around here losing their tomatoes and bell peppers to rot before they ripened fully, because it’s pretty cold. But supposedly the tires are supposed to absorb the sunlight and keep the dirt warmer through the night. I’m anxious to see if it works!

  11. I love to garden and have been itching to get my soil tilled and planted. Those are some great tips about raised beds. Currently I have two raised beds/boxes and a medium-sized garden spot with soil. I am going to use some black plastic and soaker hoses this year to hopefully make tackling the weeds a less-daunting task. We’ll see how it goes.

  12. After we finish our mission next April, I plan to pull out half the grass in the backyard and put in raised beds. Until then, I have a zucchini plant, a tomato plant and a bit of basil and sage growing in random parts of the yard. Can’t wait until we’re in full production next year!
    So lame that the dirt delivery guy dumped it all on the concrete, but I guess that gave you a way to work out without going to the gym.

    1. The sad part is that I drove up the driveway right as it dumped out, and guess where I had come from? The gym. Haha

  13. I’m a Pacific Northwest gardener, too, and I’m not sure any place in my yard counts as receiving “full sun.” My herbs do the best, with sage crowding out my chives, and oregano trying to take over the whole yard. My peas are growing like teenagers, lanky and floppy and resistant to my attempts to correct their posture. My dragon tongue beans have all sprouted, even if the ordinary green beans haven’t. My new thing this year is dwarf pak choi. It looks good so far, but I’m not sure when to pick it. Tomatoes and basil are iffy here, but I always try! Good luck with your gardens, everyone!

  14. Thanks so much for the detailed, “real life” post on setting up gardening space. We up here in northern Idaho will be talking down-to-earth (no pun intended) gardening strategies in this Saturday’s Provident Living Workshops in our area. I will follow up on our blog “” with a LINK TO YOUR very complete “How to…” post. Thanks again! Nancy

  15. This is my first year of gardening! Like you, “we” did a lot to get our boxes built up and in shape. My husband literally HAND WEAVED our trellis! AND welded a bar to mount to the fence for it to attach to. Am I lucky or what?! I am growing a lot of varieties of vegetables and am so excited! It is so neat to see them go from a seed to a real plant! I love watering them before work! 🙂 Can you please post some sort of recipe involving eggplant? May be an odd request, but my sister gave me some seeds and I thought, for free, why the heck now?! But I am super unfamiliar with that vegetable. Thanks for the fun post!

    1. That’s awesome, Kelly! I’ll keep egg plant in mind this summer. Do you have our latest cook book? I have a recipe in there for a roasted veggie sandwich that involves egg plant and it’s seriously one of my favorite summer meals!

  16. I’ve never grown more than herbs, but this year we’re trying a salsa garden in containers on our deck. We have tomatoes, three kinds of peppers, cilantro, and onions. We decided to start small. Oh, I’m also growing mint, which is definitely hardy.

      1. Genius! I’ve got a whole extra ” borscht” box, but salsa is even better!!!! Need a greenhouse for that, here!

  17. I’ve been trying to grow something for awhile now in St. George, UT. It is so stinking hot and dry here it is quite the process to figure out how the heck things can grow! It’s been pretty frustrating, but I have gotten a few things. Usually at some point in the summer my garden pretty much dies. It doesn’t help that I have no yard, just a back patio which seems to serve as an oven for my plants. I want to keep experimenting, though. You are very blessed to have the space you do! And I agree that there is something magical for kids (and adults) about watching things grow.

    1. ooh, that is tricky. Since you have pots, maybe you can move them around (even if that means they end up in a random spot) to find the best place. Since it’s so hot and dry, an area with less sun (or morning sun) might be best. And water the heck out of them since pots lose their water more quickly. Have fun!

    2. There is a great class on gardening specific to St. George in the Community Ed courses–its $10 or $15 dollars for the one day session. The one I recommend is the one on year-round vegetable gardening. It includes a fantastic planting chart specific to St. George, help on soils, watering etc. We have at least SOMETHING growing all year round, and are always producing more than we can eat. The lady who teaches it also does on-site gardening consulting as well if you need additional help. To see courses, go to Then click online catalog, the type in year round gardening in the search to find sessions. Good luck! It is worth it, and my garden has been better here than anywhere else I’ve lived.

  18. Awesome post. My family has always taught the lil ones to garden. I was blessed to be a little person watching things grow and tending to them. Great Idea. Hope to see some photos of that matured Garden in later months to come 🙂

  19. Your yard is huge!!! I love what you have done! My yard is tiny & we are growing our garden in a stake garden plot. I wish I could walk outside & see how it is doing whenever I want, but I have to drive there to check up on it & weed it etc. Oh well. Great post!

  20. I love the idea of building an arbor between all of the beds, will that cause any shade issues with the raised beds? Propagation was my favorite hort class. I have a table in my basement full of tomato and pepper seedlings. I think this is the weekend I’m finally going to trust the weather to stay warm and get them out in the garden. Happy growing!

    1. We definitely thought about that, and paid attention to the sun angle. We arranged the plants with those needing the fullest hot sun on the “sunny” side of the arbor, and the ones that will do fine in dappled light (but really, it gets more than enough hours of full sun each day) on the shadier side of the arbor. The way the space is set up, and the size of the arbor, makes it so it won’t prohibit the plants from getting enough light.

  21. I love having a garden. I grew up on a farm and love having fresh vegetables. They taste so much better than anything you’ll find in a store.
    My husband doesn’t think we have enough space to do a garden so I’ve improvised the last few years and use the space along the house that should have flowers and bushes and cute landscaping.
    My neighbors probably think I’m strange, but I have tomatoes, peppers, squash, lettuce, radishes, red beets, broccoli, kale, potatoes, onions, basil and cilantro all growing around my house and my patio. My husband doesn’t like it when it’s growing, but appreciates it a lot at harvest time.

  22. Thank you so much for the garden post! We have a garden growing this year. Living in the Pacific Northwest you have to be picky on the things you grow but I do know we will have an abundance of green beans…recipe ideas? My daughter was thrilled to help plant the garden and checks in on it everyday. I have to remind her not to pick what she things may be a weed LOL! Keep up the great work.

  23. Great post. I think I may have been the one who asked about being dressed up. I do remember asking that question to you and your answer to the question. I think you said you were wearing a zip up hoodie without a shirt underneath? Anyways, thanks for keeping it real while gardening. The garden post is wonderful and I love to look at other gardens. I’m in my 8th year of gardening for this house. It has grown pretty big and I’m proud of it. (ok I should say we since my husband like your husband does the hard work). It is fun and can be a lot of work and expensive if you try to do it at once. I always tell people to start small and add each year. I have planted the basics along with a few other plants, in addition to what I keep growing all year long. In addition I have a few mystery plants growing. I think I have Cantaloupe growing in with the Corn? This year I also planted Pinto Beans and Jicama for the first time.

  24. I love this post. I hated gardening when I was younger, but love having the fresh veggies and herbs as an adult. We’ve had raised garden beds in the past and loved them. The new place we moved into doesn’t have a yard, but it has a patio and I’m experimenting with container gardening. My four year old daughter decided she wanted to plant cucumbers and they’re growing faster than any of my plants! Both my girls love going out to water our plants and to see how much they’ve grown. I can’t wait till we actually get to eat something from the garden.

  25. Hey Sara!

    Thanks for this post, I looove gardening, but I’m so scared to take on something bigger. Usually, I grow each year 2 pots of tomatoes and a couple a herbs (basil, cilantro – that never turns out well though, oregano, thym and mint). Since we bought our first home this year, I’m thinking of planting something bigger this year like cucumbers, peppers and green beans. Let’s see if I make it!

    Thanks again,

    Isabelle from Québec, Canada

    1. Good luck Isabelle! If it makes you feel better, I have never, ever grown cilantro successfully. It’s just tough for some reason, so I usually just buy it! lol

      1. I never had luck growing cilantro until I told someone at our local plant nursery and he said that cilantro is a cool weather herb and won’t grow in spring or summer. Now I plant it in fall and it grows all winter (i live in houston, tx). So maybe try planting it this fall 🙂

      2. Wish I could send you some cilantro. It gets out if hand around here! Good thing I already use in in everything!!!!

  26. As a kid we tried planting veggies in the yard but we didn’t put much thinking into it I think. Hehe. I’d love to start a small herb garden some time.

  27. My husband and I have been talking about this for weeks. How do you know if its too late to plant a garden or what you can plant?? Thanks for the helpful post!! My boys would love this!!

  28. Well done. What kind of wood did you use? Are you sure you want to put stain on the wood in a garden box? How are you irrigating? Did you put anything between the natural dirt on the ground and the added soil? My wife loves your cookbook and I love to eat what she makes from it. Keep up the good work!

    1. Hi Jeremy,

      You do want to be careful with treating wood that is used to grow food because you don’t want materials (like treated lumber) to leach things into your soil. We used a waterproof stain, and applied it mostly to the outsides of the boxes. With the size of our garden boxes, it shouldn’t be a problem with anything leaching into the soil. If you like, you can add a layer of weed fabric to the bottom of raised beds, we left ours open. And to irrigate, we’ve set up an automatic drip system.

  29. I couldn’t pass this without a comment because my husband and I also met when we were studying Soil Science and Plant Nutrition:) We also plant a small vegetable garden every year. We don’t have the ample space that you have but you can create wonders even in a small space when it comes to gardening.
    Have a Happy Summer