Starting from scratch

How to break ground on your first veggie garden and harvest the yummy rewards

You don’t have to count on your neighbors and co-workers to supply you with leftovers from their bountiful veggie harvests this summer.

Sure, it’s less work to gleefully accept the fresh fruits of their labor. But there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in eating something that you planted, nurtured and harvested yourself.

If you’re ready to try self-reliance when it comes to produce, starting your first vegetable garden isn’t as hard as you might think. All it takes is a sunny spot in the yard, a few tools, a little planning and, invariably, a lot of sweat. (In the midst of your suffering, it helps to remember that all that Kansas summer heat is great for your veg.)

Here’s how to get growing:

Pick a plot

Start your garden in an area that gets at least eight hours of full sun per day and is near a water source. Avoid breaking new ground near trees, says Debby McNemee, a Lawrence resident and Master Gardener since 2002. The tree’s root system will compete with your crop’s for water and nutrients, and it may be difficult to till the soil.

She also recommends starting small to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Her inaugural vegetable garden measured about 4 or 5 square feet.

“The very first (garden) book I ever bought was called ‘Small Space, Big Harvest’ by Duane Newcomb. It talks about growing produce in a 5-by-5 plot,” she says. “It’s a wonderful book. Mine is dog-eared and dirty and tagged.”

Tear it up

One you’ve scoped out a location and determined a size, it’s time to clear the grass or weeds and get the dirt primed to produce luscious yields. If you have time, you can lay newspaper over the plot to slowly kill what’s underneath. If you want to plant this growing season, though, you can hasten the process by removing the sod with a shovel or using weed killer. Just remember to wait three or four days to plant after applying a chemical, McNemee says.

Turn over the exposed dirt with a rototiller, which you can borrow from a well-equipped neighbor or rent by the hour or day at many local hardware or rental stores. Stubborn dirt may need to be broken up with a shovel before a rototiller will be effective.

The next step, depending on who you talk to, is either to add organic matter, synthetic fertilizer or a combination of the two. Kevin Irick, of Irick Farms in Linwood, relies on synthetics (he recommends a 13-13-13 mixture) for his 14-acre operation and says it may be ideal for gardeners who want to plant in the next few weeks.

“It would probably be better to incorporate manure or compost earlier,” he says. “When I used to grow organic, I used to fertilize in the fall.”

Still, with at least a week left before conventional wisdom says summer crops should be planted, there’s time to go au naturel.

“Just add all the organic matter you can get your hands on,” says Bob Lominska, of Hoyland Farm, a certified organic operation 10 miles north of Lawrence in Jefferson County.

If you have a compost pile, great. If not, the city of Lawrence gives away heaps of free compost early each spring, and garden centers stock bags of compost and manure that will transform your soil into black gold. Add several inches, incorporate well and let sit for at least a couple of days before planting.

For extra assurance, take a sample of your soil to the Douglas County Extension Office, 2110 Harper St., for testing that can tell you exactly what you need to add to your garden for best results. The most common test runs $7, or an additional $3 for more extensive organic analysis.

Get planting

When choosing plants, go with your gut – literally. It’s your garden, so plant the things you love to eat. Common summer crops in Kansas include tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, eggplant, beans and melons. It’s getting a little late for cole crops like lettuce, broccoli and spinach, but Irick says to try them again in the fall.

It’s easiest for beginners to start with nursery transplants rather than seeds. Read labels carefully to determine space requirements and days to maturation. These details will come in handy when you sketch out a garden plan, plotting where to plant each crop. You don’t want to plant tomatoes and pole beans on the south end so they shade shorter plants.

Although the average last-frost date in Kansas falls around April 20, most gardeners of long experience will tell you the first week of May is the only safe bet for planting warm-season veggies.

Mulch it in

This step is critical in drought-prone Kansas. Two to 4 inches of mulch will help the soil retain moisture; keep earthworms happy and the near the surface, where they’ll aerate your garden; and dramatically stifle weed production, which is good news for your back.

Wood chips are OK, but Lominska recommends straw or shredded leaves, which eventually break down into beneficial organic matter.

Give it a drink

New plants require lots of water to get established. Don’t let the ground around fledgling plants dry out. You’ll start to see growth as air and soil temperatures rise.

Mature plants require less frequent but deeper waterings.

“Standing there with the spray and mist on your hose isn’t going to do a thing,” McNemee says. “Water well so the roots grow down deep and they don’t become surface roots, because then the plants won’t develop well.”

Avoid watering during the day because you can burn your plants, she says. Early morning or early evening is the best time to irrigate.

Feed your face

With any luck, you’ll start spotting young peppers, maters, squash and cukes in June that will be ready to start picking by mid-July or earlier. Harvest often so plants can focus their energy on nurturing new fruit. By late summer, you may find yourself so overwhelmed by produce that you become the supplier around the neighborhood and the office.

Put it to bed

When the plants are spent, pull them from the ground and either replace them with cool-season crops for the fall or cover the bed with a layer of organic matter so it will be ready to plant again next spring.

Can you dig it?

If you’re starting your first vegetable garden, you may need to invest in a few basic tools. Here are some recommendations from

¢ A shovel for turning over the soil (a spade should be used for planting small plants).

¢ A metal rake breaks up tiny clods and smooths the soil surface before planting. The long handle on your tools can make a groove or seed drill.

¢ A hand fork and trowel are needed for weeding and transplanting.

¢ Tall stakes or pea-sticks and garden twine are needed for rows of beans, peas and vine tomatoes. Metal cages are handy for containing bush tomatoes.

¢ A garden hose will enable you to water the garden, and a drip-hose is great for delivering water to the plant roots.

¢ A wheelbarrow is a definite asset for moving compost around the garden and for transporting tools and seedlings.


Long-handled tools are easier on the back, although hand tools are essential for weeding close to vegetable plants and transplanting. Buy the best quality you can afford, and look after them, cleaning and putting them away after use. Good tools will last for years. You often can buy good used tools at a reasonable price. This is a good way to acquire infrequently used items, but check carefully for any damage.

Help Awaits

In addition to the knowledgeable staff at local nurseries, the following resources may be useful as you begin your first vegetable garden:

¢ K-State Research and Extension – Douglas County, 2110 Harper St., 843-7058. Master Gardeners staff the phone from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday to answer gardening questions. The office offers basic soil tests for $7.

¢ Douglas County Master Gardener Debby McNemee recommends “Small Space, Big Harvest,” by Duane Newcomb (Crown Publishing Group) for beginning gardeners. It tells how to grow produce in a 5-by-5-foot plot.

¢ Other books: “Growing Vegetables: A Basic Guide to Vegetable Gardening,” by Robert Dolezal and John M. Rickard (Creative Publishing International); “The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible,” by Edward C. Smith (Storey Publishing); and “Vegetable Gardening for Dummies” (Hungry Minds).