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. I wish I had the space! I decided one Spring to jump on the bandwagon when I walked into Lowes and saw everybody going nuts in the gardening section. I went home and googled “patio gardening” and “container gardening” since I only had an 8×10 patio space to work with. How encouraging it was to see people in NYC growing amazing food gardens in their little patio space. Even watermelons and corn! I started with herbs. Real hardy ones like Rosemary and thyme. They are so great for beginners because they are tough to kill. I then had a hanging basil garden and then the next year tried tomatoes and peppers. I decided to work more with flowers this year. The best thing to do for beginners out there – start with herbs. They are confidence builders!!

  2. Oh goodness. I’m just getting into gardening myself, having finally bought a house with space for it. The problem with living in the hot Sierra Nevada mountains as I do, though, is that between trees, hills, and the house itself it’s nearly impossible to find a spot that gets 8 hours of sunlight.

    Guess I’ll have to stick to shade plants!

  3. We put in raised beds years ago and LOVE them, and I’m sure you will too!! As a fellow horti, we try to rotate our veggie families each year, unless they’re perennials of course (like snap-em-and-eat-em asparagus! My 6yr old loves them now!). One of our beds has half-sand + half-soil/compost-mix = very happy slug-free strawberries. Not that you asked, but between the beds I would HIGHLY recommend throwing down some black landscape fabric, then abt 4 or 5 slate-like pavers (levelled and footstep-pace apart) followed by a few handfuls of light mulch/soil mix in between. Then you can plant in the gaps with some type of kid-friendly & forgiving shallow-rooted heavy-traffic walk-on tread ground cover (like wooly thyme) divided and spaced enough to fill in fast on its own. Prepare to exhale an “ahhhhhh!” as your bare feet wonder if they’ve set foot in weed-free Heaven! PS- I am curious about planting “companions”.. i.e. carrots s’posedly love tomatoes. Have you ever tried that out?

  4. I love your garden! We actually just built three more beds this spring so we have 2 4×6 and 3 4×8 beds, I planted a row of 12 raspberries and my peach trees are loaded this year (year 3)-I’ve always just done tomatoes and a few other things, but this year I expanded. I am doing a three sisters bed in one with corn, beans and squash…we shall see…and a few other squash varieties, plus edamame (my son loves to snack on it so it was worth a shot) carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and herbs.

  5. I LOVE my garden! Inherited the gardening bug from my dad. We built a raised bed garden that is “L” shaped along our fence – about 30′ x 40′ and 2 18″ rows deep. Decided on this design as I thought we could get the most out of the space we had, while at the same time taking as little space as we needed away from our 2 dogs. Worked out perfectly! Gladly send pics if you desire. Have my “must haves” every year (tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant – with several varieties of each and zucchini) then I always like to try something new – this year my newbies are radishes, beets, pie pumpkins, rutabega & rhubarb. Others that have become regulars are cantaloupe, (didn’t have good luck with watermelon), butternut & acorn squash. Idea for you – as many gardeners probably do… 1/2 way through the season I am searching online for new ideas/recipes to use my bounty. You should do a blog each for all zucchini recipes, then tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. for the most popular home gardening veggies :o)

  6. We just bought our plants and are ready to plant them as soon as we can get out boxes lined and filled. Our biggest challenge is trying to keep the wildlife away. The deer and bunnies have eaten and killed 2 apple trees and 5 blueberry bushes this past winter and we’re hoping to keep them away from our tomatoes this summer. We’re putting 2 plants on our deck so we should at least have those. We used to plant potatoes but a groundhog took up residence under the plants and I was so grossed out I couldn’t ever really eat any of them so we’re not doing those this year.

  7. It was this post when it originally came out that inspired me to start our garden and I haven’t looked back. I’ve got 4 8×4 raised beds ( I just did cedar, no stain), and about 1/2 acre for potatoes, corn, squashes. Here In northern bc, Canada It’s ” safe” to leave things outside after May long weekend ( this weekend), so we are getting excited. You’re right about how easy it is to plant more than you can eat. I would love another 4 raised beds but what we’ve got produces more than we can eat or giveaway already! The potatoes and peas are already planted.

    Ps- for any other Canadians, check out
    Amazing seeds, GMO free. Yada. Yada
    My suggestion: don’t buy those cheap seeds from walmart.

  8. Can you tell me about the four corner posts? Are they sunk through the ground to any distance or just flush with the bottom of the beds?
    I did a search on “post” to see if you’d already discussed this–not a useful search word for a blog.

    1. Edith, they are sunk about 18 inches (at least) down into the ground and then screwed into the box frame as well. Does that make sense?

  9. Did you place your planter boxes on top of your soil or on grass? I have an area in my backyard of my new house that has been set aside by the previous owner for a garden but the dirt looks really bad. Can I rent a tiller and break it all up or would suggest I just make a planters box like you did and start with fresh soil? Thanks

    1. You can certainly till the existing soil, but you’ll want to amend it so it’s nice and healthy. Add in a few bags of compost, or a special garden mix if your store has that. Then till it up so it’s nice and airy and the good stuff is mixed in and you’ll be good to go!

  10. I would be interested in recipes for basil other than pesto. I always plant one plant and end up with waaay more than I can possibly use.

  11. Great tips! I always have good intentions of planting a vegetable and herb garden. Right now I have rosemary and weeds!

  12. I read through several comments and saw that one of your garden boxes is all salsa. Seeing as how I love making OBB recipes, and would probably use a lot of the same foods, would you mind sharing how you organized your other 3 boxes? I’m sure you’ve done all the research on spacing and watering, and sunlight, so I would love to know!

    We had one small plot that I did a horrible job of our first year (except for zucchini and squash–those couldn’t be killed!) and now my husband has gone and built a shed over it. So I’m stuck with learning in the front yard, south-facing, flowerbeds. But we will be upgrading houses and lot sizes soon and that is an important part of landscaping that I need help planning for!

  13. My husband and I love gardening too! So far we’ve planted tomatoes, peppers, green beans, okra, cantaloupe and herbs: basil, dill and parsley. We already have our perennial favorites — oregano, chives, rosemary, thyme, strawberries, asparagus and blackberries. It’s so rewarding to grow your own food!

  14. I LOVE that you ladies have a post about this! My husband and I started our first garden this year with raised beds and already I feel so accomplished! We’re having a Relief Society Meeting on gardening this coming Thursday, and I’ve recommended to our coordinator that this post is shared with the people who will be coming to my house to see my first garden!

    Thank you ladies for all you do. You make it all seem so fun and I sing your praises on a regular basis!

  15. Thanks for the tips! This year I made my first vegetable garden 😀 I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

  16. This is great reference! i have a few questions: what kind of wood did you use and how thick is the wood. thank you! I went to build boxes this weekend but the wood was so expensive. I’d love to hear what you used.

    1. We used cedar, no stain. It is definitely a bit of an investment. For our 4 boxes ( 8×4), it was about $400 for the nice mushroom manure, wood etc…. Probably get 7-8 years of gardening out of them, I figure?

      You could do pine, but it might not last as long.

  17. Your yard and garden look amazing. I’ll save this post for someday if I ever have a real house with a yard. Our tiny condo patio just doesn’t work for gardening, and we get no direct sunlight so even container gardening doesn’t work. But I have dreams that someday we can do something like this.

  18. I’d LOVE a bunch of recipes using zuccinni. We grow that stuff out of our ears every summer and hardly know what to do with it. I’m always looking for new ways to use it.

  19. LOVE this! I love the idea of your raised beds, with the trellis.. really nice! We just planted last week in Utah, and hoping that we have a decent turn out. It’s our first time growing a lot of this stuff, but we have zucchini, butternut squash, crookneck, onions, beets, rainbow chard (Seriously.. I planted it JUST so I could make your Lemon Orzo Chicken/Chard soup..My favorite!), tomatoes, jalepenos, Brussels sprouts, broccoli….. Hey, odds are in our favor that we’ll get SOMETHING right! lol

    Any tips from starting things from seeds (for next year)? We just bought starters this year. I am assuming you’d have to start your seeds early inside before it warms up?

  20. One thing you may want to add to the think about section is thinking about what critters are in your area. We have a yard large enough for a nice garden but we have to do all our veggies in pots up on the deck because of the critters and deer. We’ve even had animals climb up the full flight of stairs and over the baby gate at the top to eat our tomatoes.

    1. ooh, good thought! I was very aware of that when I lived in Seattle, and had to go to all sorts of lengths to keep out deer and slugs (ew!) but here in Idaho, we literally have had no critter issues so it hasn’t been on my brain. I’m going to add that to the post- thank you!

  21. My first inspiration for gardening came from a wonderful Mormon neighbor on the Presidio of CA who planted a lush garden on a tiny bit of land near her home. I was an army wife at the time and was in awe of that garden, complete with an enormous spider sitting in the middle of her giant web like a garden ornament. In the mornings, dew covered the silk, making it radiant.

    This year I bought the book, Square Foot Gardening, with instructions on how to make 4’x4′ boxes, how to make a soil mix, how to put grids on the boxes, how to easily make plant spacings, and how to space different plant types. I have three boxes with all kinds of plants growing! My heart races when I go outside and pet my plant babies: Zucchini and cantaloupe, beans, limas, and peas, greens and kale! I purchased organic, non-GMO seeds from You cannot imagine the glee I feel from finally having a successful garden. Gardens are Magic!

    I loved this post today, thank you!!!

  22. Our family owns a trucking company, so I have to say, if the truck driver had dumped the dirt on your boxes the force of the dirt coming out of the truck would have crushed them anyway. Them you would have had dirt in your yard and boxes to rebuild.

    1. Oh, no it was just a little mini dump. They do it on a regular basis (and we had them do it in our previous garden) so that’s why we arranged it that way. It’s okay though, I got an extra thorough upper body workout 😉

  23. What a great post! We love gardening, and our kids eat and like more veggies than any other kids I know. They frequently snack on garden stuff while outside playing. I would love to see posts using swiss chard. We grow it year round here in St. George, and could always have addition ways to use it. And winter squashes–I never seem to use up all we grow by spring. Thanks for all the great recipes and fun presentation of them.

  24. I love gardening! It isn’t just getting the yummy things at the end; for some reason, I just love working in the dirt, feeling the outdoor things and smelling the outdoor smells. I don’t have a large garden yet, but my toddler loves helping me in the dirt:)

  25. I am in Calgary, Alberta so our growing season is quite short. However, this year I’ve been able to plant about 2 weeks earlier than normal so I am super excited!! We planted beets, carrots, green onions, cilantro, zucchini (green and yellow), peas, beans (first time trying these), swiss chard and lettuce. We have strawberry plants we planted last year and are doing fabulous this year. We also have a raspberry bush, chives and added rhubarb this year. We have a basil plant we keep inside all year long too. I love gardening and it’s definitely a family affair at our home.

  26. I want your yard! Here in Vegas gardening is definitely a challenge, but still we try. Can’t give up our Washington roots! We actually plant in February here, so our tomatoes are growing like crazy and will be ready to harvest soon. Any ideas on freezing or preserving them? We also have tons and tons of mint that I have no idea what to do with.