How To Build An In-Ground Vegetable Garden From Scratch


Have you wanted to start a vegetable garden but don’t know where to begin? Well, in this beginners guide to starting a vegetable garden I’ll show you what you need to do to build your first in-ground vegetable garden from scratch, right in your own backyard. From choosing size and location to the steps needed to build and plant a garden.

A simple no-frills 20’x20′ vegetable garden

A basic vegetable garden can be made by choosing the right location with lots of sun and determining how large a garden to make. Then one just needs to remove grass, install a fence to protect from deer and rabbits, and start planting vegetables.

This guide is organized into the following sections:

  1. Selecting the proper location
  2. Planning how large a garden you will need
  3. Remove the grass
  4. Installing a fence
  5. Preparing the soil
  6. Apply Mulch
  7. Planting your vegetable plants or seeds
  8. Care for your vegetable garden
  9. General Tips

Selecting a vegetable garden location

Choose the location of your vegetable garden wisely! You will want to maximize sunlight as all plants feed off of photosynthesis. Also, keeping it close to a water source is a plus, as at some point you will need to water it. And who wants to be carrying a heavy watering can across the yard every time they have to water their garden?

The above are just a two of the factors to consider when choosing a location for your vegetable garden. See our 14 factors to consider for locating a garden here.

Planning the size of your vegetable garden

This is a topic new gardeners often struggle with. Many people either plan far too large of a garden, or far too small of a garden. Too large a garden and you won’t be able to keep up with it.

Too small of a garden and you will buy too many plants, resulting in poor growth and yield. Or, nowhere to walk to harvest your veggies!

You really should take the time to list out what vegetables you want to grow, and how many. Then, use our height/spacing guide to help you determine how large a garden you need. We have a simple step by step process on sizing your vegetable garden to help you.

But, if this is your first garden, you should not go larger than 20’x20′. A 20×20 garden is still lots of work, but enough for 1 person to handle if planned properly.

Remove the Grass

If you are like most homeowners, you are probably turning part of your lawn into a garden! So, before we do anything we have to account for the grass. While rotor-tilling might seem like an obvious choice, there are other options that may serve your vegetable garden better! Let’s have a look at different methods to remove grass:

There are two very cheap methods of removing grass.

1 – Remove grass with a flat garden spade

2 – Smother Grass with cardboard.

Removing grass by hand

For removing grass with a spade, it is physical work. You will receive instant results and there will be few weeds afterwards. But make no mistake, it is hard physical labor. But, we have a unique method that will reduce the strain on your back.

cut sod pad 2
Once on your knees, slice through the roots about 1-2″ below the sod/grass

Using Cardboard/Newspaper to smother grass

Smothering the grass with cardboard can be completed in just a couple of hours work. And, it is not as physically demanding. But you will want to apply a thick layer of mulch or compost on top of the cardboard to help hold it down, provide a good base for your plants, and suppress any further weed seeds that blow in.

Other ways to remove grass

In addition to removing grass by hand or using cardboard, there are several motorized methods using special equipment.

Roto-tilling will work well for turning up the grass. Just run your rototiller across the area several times, then rake the grass away. Just know that roto-tilling sod will bring many weed seeds to the surface of the soil. So, you should plan on rototilling again in a week, and possibly once more.

Rototillers can be rented or purchased.

Sod-cutters can also be rented from many rental centers and big box stores for a fee. Sod cutters will remove the sod much in the same manner as our shovel. However, we will use the machine instead of our hands to do the work!

Adding a garden fence

Garden fences come in all shapes and sizes. From decorative wooden fences to simple 2′ tall chicken wire. Choosing the fence best suited to your area is important to keep critters our of your vegetable plants. So, know your area or ask around or at a local garden center for advice if you don’t already know what kind of wildlife you will be competing with.

Remove Grass Build Garden How to Cut Sod By Hand

But, in general, to install a garden fence you just need some U-posts or T-posts, a roll of wire fencing, clips, and a few tools. Although it really does help to have a fence-post driver on-hand. If you see other neighbors with fences, ask them if they have a fence-post driver. Or, see if there is a local tool-library around where you can borrow from.

Choose the right style of fence

After determining the perimeter of your garden, purchase your fencing accordingly. If deer are in your area, you should buy fencing that is at least 4′ tall (deer can jump 7′). In my experience, 4′ high fencing provides just enough inconvenience to stop deer from hopping a fence.

Fences come in all different patterns and sizes

To keep rabbits out you should have 2×2″ fence grid, or regular chicken wire. Make sure the fence is at least 2′ tall (better if it is 3′ or more). I personally have a 2×4″ grid, and that seems to provide just enough to stop rabbits from entering.

But every location is different! Talk to other gardeners in your area, or ask at a garden center for advice on what kind of fencing should be used for your neighborhood! Ask them what has worked for them. Local knowledge should be leveraged as much as possible!

Layout and installing posts

You will need to decide what kind of post to use. The easiest way is to get t-posts, or w-posts and just drive them into the ground. They are strong, long-lasting and durable.

These are all the tools you need to install a fence. You can substitute a sledge hammer for the red fence post driver if needed. But a fence post driver is much easier to use!

T-Post vs U-post

Should you choose T-Posts or U-Posts for your fence? Well, T-Posts are much more rigid. But it is more difficult to attach fencing to T-Posts. U-Posts have nice tangs which you can slip the fence into, but are much more flimsy and can’t easily be relocated without damage.

Side by side comparison of T-Post (left) vs U-post (right). The T-post is much stronger and rigid than the U-Post. But the U-post is easier to slip a fence into the clip/tang.

Set your posts every 10′, and make sure the corners are square. Check for squareness by measuring the diagonal distance between corners, in addition to the length/width. The diagonals should be equal. Use your fence post driver or sledge hammer to pound your fence posts into the ground.

Using a Fence Post Driver

A fence post driver can be purchased at farm stores for around $30. A really nice feature of using a fence post driver is that if you find the post is not plumb whilst driving it in, you can grab the handles, and using your body weight correct the orientation of the post.

If you find that you need to relocate a post, jacking them out is the best method (a real jack, not your spare tire jack). But if you don’t have a heavy duty jack, you should consider digging with a digging or shovel to help loosen the post.

Attaching the fence

Then unroll your fence, and start clipping it or wiring it in-place while using pliers and leather gloves. It really helps to have someone else help with this job, as a second set of hands helps keep the fence from wanting to roll while you can attach it to a post.

If you are using W-Posts, you can just slide the fence into the tab. If using T-Posts, you will need to use fence clips. Fence clips work by being hooked together around the fence. Then, using pliers twist the clip to get it tight against the post. Friction and tension will hold everything in place for many years.

Fence slid into W-Post Clips

Fence clips also can be used to join two sections of fence together, if needed. Just hook the fence clip around two adjoining sections of fence, and twist it tight with pliers.

Joining two sections of a fence together with a fence clip

Also, if you have too much fence, you may need to trim it down. Use wire cutters, or pliers with wire cutters to do so.

Forming a simple gate

A fence isn’t much use unless you have a way to get to your garden! So, let’s talk about installing a simple gate.

This is where wire mesh fencing, or chicken wire makes life easier. You can just wrap the last section of fence around and clip it in place with a carabiner. Just make sure your ‘gate’ is about 6″ longer than the section to allow for some overlap.

Simple, but practical garden gate made with excess fencing.

Preparing the Soil

There are two schools of thought when it comes to soil prep for vegetable gardens.

1 – There is the traditional “turn-the-soil” group, in which you take a shovel and turn over all the soil in your garden about 6″ deep. This loosens up the soil reducing compaction, which should make it easier for roots to penetrate as many turf lawns have compacted soil.

2 – The no-dig approach. This is just as simple as it sounds (and the method I prefer). You only dig holes for planting seeds and transplants. This minimizes the disturbance to the soil-food-web, which is microbes that live throughout our soil. These microbes are necessary for vegetable plants to take up nutrients, and without their presence you will suffer reduced yields.

Soil that was top-dressed with 6″ of leaves in the Fall. Leaves have now broken down to a thick layer of organic matter (July). The leaves reduce weeds while providing much fertility.

Note that you should top-dress the garden soil with a layer of compost or leaf-mold prior to doing either ‘Turn the Soil’ or the ‘No Dig’ method. Adding organic matter will feed the soil food web regardless of which soil prep method you choose. [1]

You can purchase bags of mushroom compost, composted cow manure, and other compost from Garden Centers. Or for a more economical approach, buy it in bulk from local sources like landscape suppliers, municipal waste centers, or Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist.

Turning the soil

To turn the soil, well, you do exactly that. Topdress your soil with a layer of compost. Grab a spade and basically plow or till the garden. Note that this will likely encourage weed seeds to rise to the top. But, it will make the soil much more workable for planting.

Tilling or turning the soil will damage the soil-food web. It will disturb and damage the microorganisms [1] that are necessary for the uptake of nutrients from the roots of your vegetables. As there is a symbiosis between these micro-organisms and the plant roots.

There is still considerable research on-going into tillage effects on the soil-food web. How different cropping, tillage, and organic amending practices effect soil biota [2]. Often with mixed results. [3]. But regardless of preparation method, all sources agree on the huge benefits soil will receive with compost amendments.

No-Dig Approach

For the no-dig approach you essentially will just top dress the garden with compost or mulch. So, much less labor than turning the soil.

Then, when you go to plant your seedlings, just dig a larger hole than required (twice as deep and wide). But when you back-fill, amend the soil with compost (50/50 volume).

Applying mulch to your garden

*Note – if you did the ‘cardboard/newspaper’ method for removing grass, you can skip this step! You’ve already applied your mulch!

After you’ve set up your fence, applying mulch can greatly help improve the water holding capacity of your garden as well as suppress weeds. I recommend you mulch in one of two ways – a layer of cardboard or newspaper with a thin 2″ layer of mulch on top. Or a thick layer of hardwood mulch, 4-6″ thick.

Inexpensive weed barrier solutions

For the cardboard/newspaper, this is fairly easy. Just lay down a single layer of corrugated cardboard, or newspaper 10 sheets thick (non-glossy). Then, water with a hose to thoroughly wet the layer. And apply a layer of mulch on top.

(See Here for Step by Step Guide for Applying Cardboard/Newspaper Mulch)

For mulching on top of the newspaper, you can use a thin 1-2″ layer of natural hardwood mulch. The key being getting natural mulch and not the dyed kind. You can also use Autumn leaves or compost – just about anything will work for a mulch. The purpose of the mulch on top of the newspaper is to hold the newspaper down, and provide some extra barrier protection to prevent weeds and retain water.

Leaf Mulch applied in Autumn. Leaves can be saved for use in Spring too.

I really have to recommend you start using Autumn Leaves as mulch. They are many reasons why you should use them, and they are packed full of nutrients!

Alternatively you can skip the newspaper/cardboard and just put down a 4-6″ thick layer of hardwood wood chips. This is more costly, but will be a great weed barrier and water retainer.

Other mulch tips for vegetable gardens

Some tips for getting mulch is to avoid the bagged kind you get from big-box stores. Instead, either buy in bulk or look to your local municipality to see if they have any free mulch available. Also, sometimes tree services will dump wood-chips for free, as they need places to dispose of it.

Planting your vegetables

Now we are ready to plant your vegetables or seeds. If you have purchased seeds, look at the instructions on the packet to determine the planting time and depth. For seedlings, plant 2-weeks after the last frost date for your area.

Make sure you follow the spacing requirements of the vegetable plants, as they will meet the spacing guidelines in a proper location with good soil.

When planting seeds or seedlings in a new garden, it is a good idea to mix in compost to the immediate location where you are planting. I dig a hole 2x deep and wide as the seedling, and amend 50/50 with compost.

Adding compost will help reduce compaction, improve water retention and drainage, and unlock soil nutrients by feeding the soil-food-web. You can read more about what compost is here, and how to make your own compost here (with video).

Certain vegetables will require staking, cages, or trellises for support. Examples of this would be cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and beans. But if you installed a solid fence, you can use this for training cucumbers and squashes.

Spaghetti Squash that used the fence as a trellis!
Tomatoes and Peppers should be caged to provide support.

Caring for your garden

If your garden is in a good location with lots of full sun, well-draining soil, and you’ve applied a good layer of mulch to help retain water, you are well on your way to having a thriving garden. Keep tabs on the moisture level of your soil by pushing your finger into the soil, or using a moisture meter.

Once the top 1″ of soil feels dry, it’s time to water.

I actually have a moisture/pH meter I use to help with soil testing I purchased from Amazon for about $12. You can find a link to it at our recommended products page.

But outside of water you should just keep tabs on your plants for pests or disease.

Common diseases will often show themselves on the leaves as foliar symptoms such as Leaf Spot Fungus, Rust, or Powdery Mildew. Maintaining proper plant spacing and full sun helps reduce the incidence rate of fungus.

Bee balm powdery mildew
Powdery Mildew effects many species of flowers and vegetables

Other common pests include various insects such as horn worms or slugs. Picking these bugs off when seen, followed up by using slug traps is a safe remedy.

Other tips for your vegetable garden

How to keep grass out of your vegetable garden

Create a small trench to keep grass at bay! By digging a small 2″x3″ trench around the perimeter of the garden (5 cm x 8 cm) you can effectively create a barrier to common turf grass. Cold weather grasses used in most lawns have roots that only go 2″ deep or so, and having this shallow, but wide trench will prevent grass from sending horizontal roots into your vegetable garden.

After struggling for years I’ve found this to be an effective method at stopping grass from entering my vegetable garden.

Test your soil!

Did you know that you can usually have your soil tested for free at your local Ag Extension office? Most states have an Agricultural Extension office in each county. And part of their job is to provide soil testing for nutrients, pH level, as well as offer advice and answering questions. Take advantage of this free resource.

But, if you are confident that you will have good soil, you may still want to keep a pH meter on hand. They are very inexpensive, and work very well. Know that most vegetables like their soil to be slightly acidic.

Constantly Improve your soil!

Spread your compost, reap bountiful harvests

Whenever you get the chance, add to your soil’s fertility. The easiest and most cost effective way to do this is to top-dress with compost twice a year, in Spring or Fall. As you can often find free compost, or composted manure on Facebook marketplace or Craigslist.

But, don’t forget to start your own compost pile!

Or just bury your kitchen scraps!

Did you know that you don’t even need a compost pile to take advantage of the composting process? You can just bury some kitchen scraps directly into your garden in the fall and let them compost-in-place over the winter, in a process known as trench composting. You will be rewarded with excellent fertility come Spring.

Using leaves as mulch

In addition to compost, you should gather up as many leaves as you can each Fall to make leaf mold, or use as a leaf-mulch. Leaves are one of the most nutritional forms of organic matter, and they are free! You can just gather them from the street every fall, rake your own up, or get your neighbors!

Leaf Mulch provides massive soil improvements! Note the black organic matter at the top.

Do I need to turn over the soil in the whole garden?

Many guides will tell you that you should turn over the soil, particularly if your garden was previously a lawn. This step is not necessary. You do not need to turn over your soil when building a garden.

Instead, when you plant seeds or vegetables, dig a hole twice as deep and twice as wide as is required. Then, mix in compost with the soil when you back fill when planting your seedling. I target a ratio of 50/50. This instantly improves the soil, reduces compaction, and allows you to have a great yield/harvest in your first year.

What Month is best to start a garden?

March or April is the best month to start a vegetable garden. Early Spring provides cooler temperatures to work outside, which helps when clearing the ground. It also allows ample time for soil prep, mulch, fence-building and seed starting. That way you are ready to plant all vegetables by late Spring.

What is the best soil for a vegetable garden?

A well-draining loamy soil is the best type of soil for a vegetable garden. Everything from sandy-loam to clay-loam is a good medium for growing vegetables. Amending it with organic matter can help improve the fertility, while allowing for the best combination of drainage and water-holding capacity.

If you want to test your soil texture, we have a couple of guides you may find useful. For a very simple test to get you in the ball park, try the soil ribbon test. Or if you want to find out exactly where your soil lies on the USDA soil pyramid, try the Mason Jar Soil Test.

Read more gardening tips here…

References:

[1] – Eileen J Kladivko, Tillage systems and soil ecology, Soil and Tillage Research, Volume 61, Issues 1–2, 2001, Pages 61-76, ISSN 0167-1987, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0167-1987(01)00179-9.

[2] – Minoshima, H., Jackson, L., Cavagnaro, T., Sánchez-Moreno, S., Ferris, H., Temple, S., Goyal, S. and Mitchell, J. (2007), Soil Food Webs and Carbon Dynamics in Response to Conservation Tillage in California. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J., 71: 952-963. https://doi.org/10.2136/sssaj2006.0174

[3] – Amy M. Treonis, Erin E. Austin, Jeffrey S. Buyer, Jude E. Maul, Lori Spicer, Inga A. Zasada, Effects of organic amendment and tillage on soil microorganisms and microfauna, Applied Soil Ecology, Volume 46, Issue 1, 2010, Pages 103-110, ISSN 0929-1393,https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apsoil.2010.06.017.

Joe Foster

Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over six years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!

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