First locate an area in your yard that gets the best sun exposure, then mark out a perimeter for your planting area. Using a rake, spade, or hoe, remove loose rocks and debris. Then weed the area and remove the top layer of soil. You'll get healthier vegetables by first prepping the soil. Loosen the dirt to 12" deep, and mix with compost. You'll fertilize the soil later.
Raised beds produce a healthy, abundant crop that is more easily managed. The tight spacing between the plants won't allow weeds to grow. If you round the top of the beds in an arc, you'll give yourself about 1' of additional planting space. You'll have more plants in a smaller area, making it easier to water, and harvest. The most productive bed is a bottomless frame set into a shallow trench. Any kind of material can be used for the sides. Most common is wood. If you use wood, be sure it hasn't been preserved with toxins. To be sure, line the bed with landscape material. Use galvanized or stainless screws or bolts to secure the sides together, whether they are metal or wood. A good height is 2'. It is better to have more than one raised bed if possible, to rotate your crops. Line the bottom with a steel mesh, metal, or specialty landscape material. Be sure you have adequate drainage.
Whether you plant in the ground or use a raised bed, prep the soil/compost mix by watering a few days before planting. Using a spade or rake, make furrows in the soil. Try to allow for adequate sunlight on all sides for all the plants. You can now fertilize the furrows. Plant the seeds into moist soil, but not soggy.
Transplanted seedlings are said to do better when transferred outside to your garden, but don't be afraid to plant seeds directly into the ground. With conscientious watering and care, your plants should flourish.
When planting seeds directly into your garden, follow the planting instructions regarding depth and spacing for the different types of seeds. Sow the seeds by either scattering them by hand or place individually in the soil, following directions for each type of seed. Rake lightly, to barely cover, but still protect the seeds with soil. Don't cover with too much soil. You can add mulch to help keep soil moist, and prevent birds from eating them. Add labels to keep your garden organized.
Now mist with a fine spray, keeping the planted furrows moist. Do not over water the seeds. When the seedlings have two sets of "True leaves," thin overcrowded areas as soon as possible to ensure healthy plants. "True leaves" are the second series of leaves that will emerge. The first leaves, called Cotyledons, are different in appearance, and feed the plant temporarily, until the true leaves grow out. Cotyledons sometimes have the seed coat still attached, but it will usually come off by itself. Do not remove the Cotyledons, the plant won't survive without them. Replant the thinned seedlings to emptier areas of your garden.
Be sure seedlings are mature enough before transplanting outdoors. This is determined by the amount of "true leaves" on the seedling. When they have 2 or more true leaves, it is time to "harden" them. "Hardening" is simply exposing the plants to the outdoors for a few hours each day. Start with a shaded area, then move to a sunny location. Keep them protected, and don't leave them out too long.
Keep the soil loose around the plants, allowing air to circulate and the plants to absorb water and nutrients. The plants should not sit soaking wet, but dry quickly after watering. You can fertilize using store bought formulas or natural fertilizers such as eggshells, coffee grounds, banana peels, seaweed, and even molasses. You'll need to know which natural fertilizer is beneficial to the type of vegetables you have planted.
A drip irrigation system is effective and convenient, in case you're not able to stick to a regular watering schedule. They are inexpensive and fairly easy to set up. A soaker hose is even easier, and provides water directly to the soil and root systems. Hand watering cools the entire plant. Water around the base of the plant, be sure to use gentle pressure, new sprouts are easily damaged!
Plants need the most water when first planted and transplanted, to establish root systems and when edible parts of the vegetable plant are developing. Best to water in the morning, the plants will have the day to dry and avoid diseases caused by too much moisture. Avoid shallow over-watering, root systems will not grow as deep. Mulch to inhibit weeds, and pull weeds by hand while they are young, mature weeds will take a toll on your vegetables, and are more difficult to remove.
Support your vine type plants; tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, with stakes or trellises. Remove dead or rotting plants, and brown dying leaves. Afterward, disinfect gardening tools to prevent the spread of diseases in the garden. If the heat is too intense and the plants are wilting, cheesecloth is lightweight and good for providing shade.
Some natural pesticides include garlic or onion spray, mineral oil, Eucalyptus oil, ladybugs, praying mantis, and even wasps! You may need to place a netting material made for plants over your garden to prevent birds and other pests from feeding on your crops. Stakes are used to support the material and prevent it from laying directly on the plants.
Keep the seed packets so you know when to harvest your vegetables. Pinch back herbs often to keep them producing leaves and stems. It is important to harvest vegetables at proper maturity, which is not always the largest size. You want your vegetables to be at their most nutritional and flavorful. Ripeness varies with the different vegetables, so refer to the seed packet for the best information. Tomatoes can be left on the vine until fully ripened, or picked while still green, and ripened on a windowsill. Watermelon and squash must be fully developed before harvesting. Salad greens, Asparugus, Rhubarb, Kale, Collard greens, and herbs can grow continuously all season long, reproducing as long as the plants are pruned and kept healthy. Other vegetables are harvested and the remaining plant can be reworked into the soil, or used for compost. Do not compost tomatoes or pepper plants, there is a risk of passing disease from these to the soil. Some vegetables have edible leaves, try to use and re-use every part of the plant.
Its best to harvest in the early morning, plants will have a higher water content. A cloudy day is also better for the same reason. You'll need garden gloves, pruning shears, or sharp plant nippers. Be gentle when picking, do not bruise, break, or bend nearby plants or leaves.
Vegetables need humidity and oxygen to prevent shriveling and drying out. Use plastic ziplock bags with holes or slits cut for air circulation. Store them loosely, don't pack them tightly together. Store vegetables and fruits separately. Fruit produces ethylene gas which increases ripening and spoilage in vegetables. Herbs can be dried. Vegetables can also be canned, frozen, refrigerated, or stay on the counter until use. Do not wash vegetables until you're ready to use them to prevent bacteria growth that can result from dampness.
When your garden is fully harvested, clear out any dead plants and debris. Leave the garden bare for a few days. Prepare your soil for next year with compost, and lightly cover with mulch to prevent erosion. When you're ready next year, the soil will be easier to work with. Here's to a bumper crop this year!