How to Start a Vegetable Garden Fast (And on a Budget!)

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There are a dozen different ways to start a vegetable garden, but not all of them are fast, efficient, or cost effective. For new food gardeners, anxious to learn how to start a new vegetable garden quickly, it’s important to find a method that stays within a limited budget, requires minimal skills, and gets you growing fast. Food gardening is on the rise. People want to know where their food is coming from, but if you don’t start your garden right, it will be a short-lived exercise, plagued with weeds, too much work, and disappointing results. Today, I’m going to share step-by-step instructions for how to start a vegetable garden. This method doesn’t require a huge financial investment or major building skills, but it does require some elbow grease and a small budget. All good things in life require a bit of work, and a vegetable garden is no different.

Where to put a new vegetable garden

Before I share what I think is the best step-by-step technique for installing a low-budget vegetable garden fast, it’s important to discuss picking the best site for a new garden. The key is sun. Full sun. That means choose a site that receives at least 6 hours of full sun every day. Yes, the sun is lower in the winter and higher in the summer, so if you’re choosing a spot for your garden in the early spring, you’ll have to consider the level of sunlight reaching the location later in the growing season. Just do your best and pick the sunniest spot possible.

Choose a site in full sun to optimize the growth of your vegetable plants.

How big should a new vegetable garden be

After you have your site chosen, think about how big to make your new garden. When considering how to start a vegetable garden you should also think about how much time you have to care for it. The technique I’m sharing today does require some maintenance (all vegetable gardens do, after all), but if you do it as I recommend, it won’t be a ton of maintenance. I suggest a 10 foot by 10 foot or 12 foot by 12 foot garden to start…at most. That gives you enough room to grow some staple crops without getting too far in over your head. Start smaller if you live alone or you’re worried it will be too much work. You can always make it bigger in subsequent years. It doesn’t have to be a perfect square either; any shape will do. Mark off the area with string or rope.

How to start a vegetable garden

Now that you’ve got the location selected, let’s go through the steps for the quickest way to install a new vegetable garden. This plan costs very little money and yet still allows you to produce fresh veggies for your family as soon as 30 days after installation. I’ll also share a few other ways to grow a vegetable garden that are easy, but require a slightly larger financial input.

Don’t make your first garden too big to take care of. You can always expand later.

Preparing soil for a new garden

You may have heard of a vegetable garden installation method called lasagna gardening where you layer materials like grass clippings, leaves, straw, compost, and shredded newspaper over the lawn to create a new garden bed. This is great, but it takes time and a lot of materials to construct these beds. Even though these materials can be sourced for free, they take a while to break down and time to collect. The same goes for building framed raised beds. That task requires building skills and building materials, and it can be costly to purchase enough soil to fill the beds. If you want to put in your new garden TODAY with few resources in-hand, here’s how to do it.

Step 1: Remove the sod

I’m not gonna lie. This step is the hardest. Lifting sod to put in a new vegetable garden is not fun. But if you’re here because you want to know how to start a vegetable garden quickly, it’s an essential step.

I recommend using a flat-bladed spade (mine has a short, D-shaped handle which makes the job easier) to cut the sod into strips that are only slightly wider than the shovel’s blade. Start around the outside of the garden and work your way toward the middle, cutting it into strips. You don’t have to cut down deep; maybe about 3 inches.

Once the sod is cut into strips, jam the blade of the spade sideways under the sod in short, jabbing motions, lifting the sod as you go and rolling it up like a jellyroll. I sit on the ground to do this because it’s easier on my back. The sod will pry up easily. Just roll each strip up as you continue to slice the sod roots beneath it.

The rolls will be pretty heavy, so shake off as much excess soil as you can before lifting them into a wheelbarrow and hauling them off. You could use them to fill in bare patches in other areas of your lawn, start a compost pile, or even use them as a layer to start a new lasagna garden bed for planting next season.

Removing the sod is the hardest job of building a new garden. Thankfully, you only have to do it once.

Step 2: Amend the soil

After the sod has been stripped and removed, it’s time to “power up” your soil. If you have few extra dollars, you can take a soil test which will tell you the existing nutrient levels of your soil, but the truth is, when you want to know how to start a vegetable garden fast, you can hold off on this task. Instead, focus on boosting the fertility of you existing soil in a way that’s beneficial no matter what kind of soil you’re starting with.

Other than purchasing plants and seeds for your new vegetable garden, this is the only step that might cost you some money. But, it’s money well spent because it’s essential for growing a garden that will perform and produce.

Spread one inch of compost over the soil after you remove the sod. It can be compost you made yourself, if you already have a bin. It can be leaf compost made from collected leaves that many municipalities in the U.S. give away for free (call your local municipality and ask them if they do this – you might be surprised). Or it can be compost that you purchase by the bag or by the truckload from your local nursery or landscape supply company. Heck, you can even purchase bagged compost online. I like Wholly Cow, Coast of Maine Bumper Crop, Blue Ribbon, or Wiggle Worm worm castings.

Open the bags, dump it on your new garden, and rake it out until it’s one-inch thick across the entire surface.

Add an inch of compost or leaf compost to the sod-stripped area.

Step 3: Turn the soil

Yes, I know this is a controversial step, especially for experienced gardeners who have decided to no longer turn the soil to prevent the destruction of soil microbes and other soil life. However, when you’re starting a new vegetable garden on a previously sodded area and you need to get growing fast, it’s a step you’ll want to take. Sod areas are compacted and turning the soil when installing a new vegetable garden loosens it quickly and works the compost down closer to the root zone of your future plants.

Use a shovel to turn the soil by hand, breaking up any big clods of soil as you go. Then, rake the area smooth. Again, it’s a little work, but you need the exercise anyway, don’t you? We all do!

After the compost has been added, turn the soil to loosen compaction. For many gardeners, this is the only time they turn the soil. In subsequent seasons, they may skip tilling the soil and add more compost to the top instead.

Step 4: Lay down mulch immediately (yes, before you plant!)

If you don’t want your new garden to be labor-intensive and weed-filled, NOW is the time to prevent weeds. It’s a critical step when learning how to start a vegetable garden because weeds are what cause most people to give up on their garden halfway through the growing season.

You can mulch with lots of different materials, but I recommend starting by spreading newspaper across the entire garden, about 10 sheets thick. Get it from your neighbor if you have to. Or go to the local convenience store and ask them for a pile of old papers that didn’t sell. Spread it over the garden and wet it down to hold it in place. Then, cover the newspaper with a layer of mulch. I use last autumn’s leaves on top of the newspaper, but you could also use a bale of straw (not hay, which has too many weed seeds) from a feed store or grass clippings you collect from your lawn (as long as it hasn’t been treated with any pesticides or herbicides this season!). This “good stuff” on top of the newspaper should be about 2 inches thick.

By the time next spring arrives, the newspaper will have been fully broken down by soil microbes and a new layer can be added on top. Only after this mulch layer is in place is it time to plant your new garden.

I recommend laying down the newspaper and topping it with mulch before planting, but my neighbor plants first, then adds the newspaper and mulch around the plants.

Planting a new vegetable garden

After your new garden has been prepared, it’s time to get planting. You can plant your veggies one of two ways: by directly sowing seeds into the garden or by planting transplants. Below is a chart that shows which vegetables are best planted by seed and which you should plant by transplants purchased from a nursery or farmer’s market. You’ll also find more info on how to know whether seeds or transplants are best here. There are also a few vegetables that are started from roots, bulbs, or tubers.

When you’re ready to plant, gently push back the mulch. Then, slice a hole or slit through the newspaper, and plant your seeds or transplants right through it. After covering the seeds with soil or nestling the roots of the transplant into the ground, put the mulch back in place. Water the plant or seeds in well.

It’s also important to get the timing of your planting correct because some vegetable prefer to grow when the whether is cool while others prefer hot weather. Here’s an article written by our Niki Jabbour that discusses the difference and the best planting time for both groups of plants.

Plants can be planted from seed or by transplants purchased from your favorite local nursery.

Taking care of a new vegetable garden

Another goal when learning how to start a vegetable garden is to understand how important continued maintenance is. Planting is the fun part, but taking care of the garden is absolutely essential to its success.

Other ways of vegetable gardening for beginners

In addition to this technique for how to start a vegetable garden, there are a few other methods you can use. Some are more expensive than others, and some require more or less space than the new garden installation plan I described above, but all are useful in different ways. The main downside of these ways of starting a new vegetable garden is the soil cost. All of them have to be filled with a soil mix. If you choose one of the following ways to set up a new garden, you can use one of our DIY potting soil recipes or use this recipe for filling a raised bed.

See the captions of each photo for more info about each of these techniques.

Raised beds are a great way to grow but installing and filling them can be costly. Here’s more on building raised beds.

Using a stock tank, also called a cattle trough, to grow a vegetable garden is an instant set up. However, filling the beds with soil can be costly.

Large plastic storage bins and other containers are a great way for new gardeners to get started growing. Here’s more about growing in containers.

Fabric raised beds are another simple way to for new vegetable gardeners to get started. Here’s more on the technique.

Enjoy your new garden

Regardless of how you decide to start your new garden, we wish you much success on your journey. Remember, we have many resources here on our website for new and long-time vegetable gardeners. Here are some other articles you may find useful:

Do you plan to start a new vegetable garden this year? We want to hear about your experience in the comment section below. 

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