Getting Started

Before you start gardening, it's important to:

Find Out What's Right For You

If you've never had a vegetable garden, make sure you think before you leap. Here are some important questions you should answer before you start digging:

  • Do you have the right spot? Vegetable plants need at least six hours of direct sun each day. Once you've found a sunny spot, you should also make sure water does not pool there after a heavy rain.
  • Do you have the space? Vine crops, like cucumbers, require several square feet of garden space just for one plant.  Smaller plants, like lettuce, can be successfully grown in a small window box.
  • Do you have the time and money? Be realistic. Maintaining a garden can be lots of work. If you have no gardening tools, you'll need to purchase at least a few. Start with a small garden. You can always supersize next year.
  • What vegetables does your family enjoy? If you only buy broccoli once a year, a garden with 10 broccoli plants may not be the one for you! But if you always have a salad for dinner, then even a small garden full of lettuce will be a success.
  • Are there vegetables you like that are costly, often poor quality, or hard to find? For example, maybe you cook several dishes that contain tomatillos, which can be hard to find in the store, and don't look very good when you do find them. For you, a garden with one or two tomatillo plants may be a good idea.


Check the Numbers

There are many reasons to grow your own vegetables - better taste and wider selection are just two. Another reason you might consider growing your own vegetables is to save money. But do you really?

It's important to check the numbers to see what makes the most sense with respect to your grocery dollars. This is not as easy as it sounds. There can be lots of "hidden" expenses in gardening - buying equipment such as hose and shovels, soil testing and improvement, and, of course, your time and energy.

Let's look at a few examples that compare just the costs of growing your own vegetables from seeds or plants with the costs of buying the vegetables in a grocery store.

First, it's important to know the cost of vegetable seeds or plants, as well as how much those plants will yield. Your seed dealer or nursery will have prices for seeds or plants. You can figure out yields for several common vegetables by using University of Wisconsin Extension publication A1653 (Vegetable cultivars and planting guide for Wisconsin gardens — 2008, A trip to your grocery store will give you fresh produce prices.

In the examples provided here, the cost comparisons come from one garden center and one supermarket in the Indianapolis area in March 2009. These prices may vary around the state and throughout the year. Always make your own calculations to get the most accurate results.

Example 1 - Cabbage from small purchased plants
Cost: Plants are 67 cents each, or 3 for $2.
Yield: About 2 pounds of cabbage per plant.
Grocery store price: 59 cents per pound, 39cents per pound on sale
So, if you grow your own cabbage, it's like getting 2 pounds for 67 cents. If you bought the same cabbage at the supermarket, 2 pounds of cabbage might cost $1.18, or 78 cents on sale.
Conclusion: Growing your own cabbage is close to break even. You're not saving much money, perhaps none if you had to spend any money to get your garden started.

Example 2 - Green beans from seed (bush beans, so you don't need a support for them to grow on)
Cost: Seed costs $3 for 4 ounces.
Yield: About 25 pounds of beans.
Grocery store price: About $1 per pound.
So, home-grown beans would cost $3 for about 25 pounds. At the supermarket, the same 25 pounds of beans would cost about $25.
Conclusion: This looks like a good deal! But remember, you will need some space to grow this many beans.


Have the Right Tools

To plant and maintain a garden, there are some basic tools you must have. There are also several more than can be very useful.To begin gardening, you may need to buy or borrow a:

  • Hoe — for weeding and cultivating.
  • Rake — for leveling the soil, weeding, and cultivating.
  • Shovel, spade, or hand trowel — for turning over the soil. The one you choose depends on the size of your garden.
  • Garden hose, watering can, bucket, or glass — for watering plants. What you use to water plants will depend on your garden’s size and other factors. If you have a small window box and one plant, a water glass may be sufficient. If you have a large plot, you will probably need a hose.


Test Your Soil

It's a good idea to have your soil tested as early as possible.

A soil test will let you know how much of what kind of fertilizer to apply. Just as important, the test will let you know if there is anything harmful in your soil, such as heavy metals.

For example, eating lead is harmful and the soil in some city areas can be contaminated with it. Lead-contaminated soil may stick to unwashed vegetables. You may even breathe in lead while working the soil. Soil tests aren’t free, but are highly recommended to reduce your risk of lead exposure..

Purdue Extension maintains a list of certified testing labs here.



Find Out More

Purdue Extension offers several gardening publications that can help you get started, many free.
Request copies from your Purdue Extension county office or find them at the Education Store (


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Last Modified: March 31, 2010

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