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Vegetable Gardening Basics

All gardens have problems. One year it may be insects and disease and the next year it may be a drought. Gardening does require work, but by learning a few basic skills and techniques, you can make your vegetable gardening experience a pleasant one.

Planning the Garden


Choosing a location for your garden is the most important step in the garden planning process. Vegetables need at least 6-8 hours of sunlight for best growth. Leafy vegetables like spinach and lettuce will grow with less sunlight. Choose a location as far away as possible from trees and shrubs. The roots of nearby trees and shrubs will rob your vegetables of needed nutrients and water. Good soil with good drainage is needed. Have your soil tested before you start gardening to determine if your soil is lacking any needed nutrients. Be sure your water source is close by.

Keep a Garden Journal

Keep a journal of your activities in the garden. Keep a list of the varieties of vegetables grown. Record seeding and planting dates, insect and disease problems, weather and harvest dates and yields. This information will be valuable as you plan future gardens.

What To Grow

Don't go overboard with your seed ordering after viewing all the colorful garden catalogs with their beautiful pictures of veggies or you may be the gardener in your neighborhood trying to give away zucchini. Grow what your family likes to eat. As a first time gardener, stay away from "exotic" veggies like kohlrabi or hard to grow veggies like cauliflower or head lettuce.

Grow hybrid vegetables. Hybrid vegetables are usually stronger and healthier than other vegetables. They often have higher yields. Many have a built-in disease resistance and they are more likely to recover from bad weather. Hybrids may cost a little bit more than other types of vegetables, but the cost is worth it. If you save seeds, remember that hybrids do not reproduce true to type meaning the new plant will be inferior to the mother plant.

Choose vegetables that have earned the All-America Selections award. All-America Selections is an organization that has been evaluating new vegetable varieties in trial and display gardens across the United States and Canada since 1933. Each year after the evaluations have been analyzed a number of the most outstanding vegetables are designated as All-America Selections indicating that they performed well under all types of conditions.

Draw a Plan

It is always a good idea to draw a plan of your garden. It doesn't have to be a fancy diagram. Remember the tallest plants in your garden such as corn should be at the north end of the garden and permanent vegetables like asparagus should be at the side of the garden.


If you don't have space in your backyard or only have access to a sunny balcony or patio, you can still grow vegetables in containers. A container for vegetables can be as simple as a bushel basket lined with plastic, a hanging basket or a self contained growing unit like the earthbox.

All containers, whether plastic or clay must have drainage. Soil in containers will dry out quickly, so frequent watering is necessary. Containers with no drainage will cause your vegetables to develop root rot. Use a sterilized, soilless mix for your container garden. Soilless mixes are light and contain some organic matter. Fertilize with a slow-release vegetable garden fertilizer that is applied in the spring and will provide nutrients for your veggies throughout the growing season.

Basic Tools

Hoe: Great for weeding, covering seeds and chopping up the soil.

Rake: Used to prepare the seedbed and to break-up large clods of soil.

Spade: Used to dig up the garden in preparation for planting and for adding organic matter to the soil.

Trowel: Used for digging holes for transplants and breaking up the soil around plants.

Labels, string, ruler: Used to layout rows and measure correct spacing. Each vegetable should have a label with the name of the vegetable and the date seeded or planted on it.

Watering can: Use to water in seeds and transplants.

Soil Preparation and Fertilization

Before you can plant, soil preparation is a must. Dig the soil to a depth of at least 6-10 inches. Add a two to four inch layer of organic matter and incorporate it into the soil. Organic matter will improve your soil structure and will add nutrients to the soil.

Vegetables need nutrients to grow. A good vegetable garden fertilizer should have an analysis of something like 5-10-5, 10-10-10 or 12-12-12. The first number stands for the per cent of nitrogen, the second number the per cent of phosphorus and the third number the per cent of potassium. Nitrogen promotes green growth, phosphorus promotes root growth and fruit development and potassium promotes disease resistance and root development. If you are growing your vegetables organically, organic fertilizers like peat moss, compost or composted cow manure are a good source of nutrients for your vegetables.

Planning Techniques

Plan to use all the space in your garden. Through planting techniques like vertical cropping, succession planting and intercropping, you can make maximum use of the space you have.

Vertical Cropping

Train veggies like pole beans, peas, cucumbers, squash and gourds to some type of support to save space in the garden. Existing fences, poles, wire cages, trellises can be used for support.

Succession Planting

This technique involves growing a crop like lettuce in the spring and replacing it when the warm weather hits with a crop like beans. In the late summer, you can reverse the process and replace the beans with a cool season crop like lettuce or radishes.


Intercropping is the growing technique of planting fast growing vegetables among slow growing vegetables. An example of this technique would be planting radishes, lettuce or green onions among caged tomato plants.

Planning Tips

Check old veggie seeds for germination. Wet a paper towel and place the seeds in a row about an inch from the edge. Roll the paper towel up from the opposite side and put the towel in a warm area like the top of the refrigerator. Mist the towel to keep it moist. After 10 to 14 days, unroll the towel and check the number of seeds that have germinated. If less than half have germinated, either discard or seed more heavily this spring.

Clean your garden tools. Remove soil and use a wire brush to remove rust. Prepare a mixture of a bottle of motor oil and builder's sand in a five-gallon bucket. Dip the tools into the sand several times to clean and prevent rusting. This mixture can be used over and over again. Treat the handles with boiled linseed oil and paint the handles with a bright color to make them easier to find in the garden.

Avoid damping off with seedlings. Damping off is a major threat to young seedlings being grown indoors. Damping off thrives in cold, humid, wet, conditions with poor air circulation. Symptoms of damping off include curling, wilting and collapse of emerged seedlings. Some preventative measures that will reduce the likelihood of damping off include: Use high-quality, treated seed; use sanitized soil and containers; keep soil on the dry side; and provide plenty of light and air circulation to the seedlings.

In the spring, never work your soil when it is wet. Tilling or digging when the soil is wet will cause it to dry into concrete-like clods. Pick up a handful of soil before digging and squeeze. If it crumbles easily, it is ready to be tilled. If it doesn't crumble, it is too wet. Allow the soil to dry for a couple of more days and test again before digging.

Interested in heirlooms vegetables? The Seed Savers Exchange specializes in heirloom seeds.