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Guide: Growing vegetables for beginning gardeners

Dig right in! One of the many great things about veggie gardening is that it’s easy to start. Learning a few basic points will give you a good start, and there’s always a new plant to grow and more to learn as you gain experience.

This guide assumes you are starting by planting seedlings in mid-April or later for a summer harvest. More detail on each type of plant is in the sections for that type.


Your vegetable garden should:

  • Have full sun, six to eight hours each day. Leafy greens and root crops can do with a bit less sun. The more sun you have, the better your vegetables will do, so select your sunniest space.
  • Be level, so the irrigation water can spread evenly.
  • Drain well.
  • Have easy access to water for irrigation.
  • If possible, be visible from the kitchen so you’re reminded to use your produce when cooking.

Many vegetables can grow in containers. You can use many things for containers, but the container must have a drainage hole. When choosing a container, consider how large the plants you’ve chosen will become, both above and below the soil. Depth is really important, and the depth you need depends on what you are growing. Avoid black containers in the hottest areas, because excess heat can burn your plants’ roots. Depth needed and other tips for growing in containers.


  • If your soil is soggy wet, don’t work in it; that can damage the texture. Wait until it is just moist.
  • Traditional methods of digging up a whole plot can damage the underground ecosystem, so many gardeners avoid disturbing the soil more than necessary. If the ground where you’re putting your new veggies has not been used for growing before or is newly unearthed from lawn, or if it is compacted or sticky, full of roots or extremely weedy you may need to do a one-time shallow tilling about six inches down. If you do, add your compost during the process.
  • If your soil doesn’t need to be tilled, clear any weeds (including the roots), break up large clods and add 3 to 6 inches of compost over the whole plot. Mix the compost into the top layer of soil around the planting holes as you plant the seedlings. Compost improves clay and sandy soil and adds nitrogen and other nutrients.
  • For new raised beds, use a potting mix (preferably one designed for raised beds) for at least a majority of the soil. Mix any garden soil and the potting mix well. For existing raised beds, add compost and some new potting mix every year, as the soil level falls. For containers, use potting soil.
  • The quality of the plants you grow depends on the quality of your growing medium so spend some time preparing your soil. Free compost is available in many communities. Buy the best quality raised bed or potting mix you can afford.

Choosing your plants

  • Know your climate. Alameda County is big and has widely varying microclimates. It is challenging to try to grow corn or melons if you live nearer to the Bay; greens grown inland in summer will need afternoon shade.
  • Choose vegetables your family likes, and only plant as much as you, your family and friends will enjoy.
  • If you have had problems with disease in the past, check whether the variety is disease resistant, to avoid potential problems.

Plant your seedlings

  • Plant your seedlings promptly after purchase so their roots don’t outgrow their pots. If you can, transplant them on a cool, overcast day. Or shade them for a few days until they recover from transplanting.
  • Plant when both the soil and the seedlings have been well-watered and are moist but not wet.
  • Be gentle. Don’t use the stem like a handle. Turn the seedling pot over, give it a tap and gently remove the roots. Lightly loosen the roots and place in the planting hole, replace soil, and pat firmly.
  • Except for tomatoes and tomatillos, plant the seedling so the soil level is the same as it was in the pot.
  • Water your new transplants to settle the soil around them


  • Mulch around your plants to conserve soil moisture, suppress weeds, keep the roots cool in hot temps, and protect soil surface. Mulch is good over the surface of pots, too!
  • Straw or compost are great mulches. Even newspaper or cardboard will work if secured so it won’t blow around.
  • Leave a few inches between your plant and the mulch.
  • Particularly if watering from overhead, make sure water reaches the soil beneath the mulch. Drip irrigation and soaker hoses get placed under the mulch.


  • Drip irrigation or soaker hoses have the benefit of not wetting the leaves. Wet leaves encourage fungal diseases.
  • Water early in the morning to avoid the most wind and keep the water from evaporating before the roots get a chance at it, as well as to let the leaves dry in the day’s sun.
  • Check your soil moisture regularly (put your finger in the soil to root depth or use a soil probe). Vegetables need water, but also well-drained moist , but not soggy soil.
  • Adjust your watering schedule based on weather conditions, soil type, and plant growth stage.
  • Newly planted seedlings require consistent moisture until established.
  • Containers tend to dry out much more quickly than vegetables in the ground. Try to check an inch down in the pot daily. If the potting mix dries out, water will just run off and you will need to manually moisten in again.


  • Most vegetables in most soil will require some additional nitrogen, phosphorus and possibly other nutrients. When a balanced or complete fertilizer is mentioned, that refers to a fertilizer with the macronutrients nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K).
  • Apply fertilizers according to package instructions
  • Container veggies need light but more frequent fertilizing, because they can only get nutrients from the limited soil in the pot and nutrients leach out with every watering.

Weeding and Pests

  • If weeds get through your mulch, pull them out when you see them, because they compete with your seedlings for moisture and nutrients. Try to remove all the weed roots to keep them away.
  • If you see pest or disease problems, the UCANR IPM (Integrated Pest Management) website can guide you to effective ways to manage the problem, prioritizing least toxic methods.

Need more vegetable gardening info? Faced with a veggie-growing quandary? Our Help Desk stands ready to help Alameda County gardeners.