How to Start an In-Ground Garden

An in-ground garden…. Isn’t that how you’re supposed to do it anyway??

To be honest, I’ve got the least amount of experience with this method!  Why?  Well, for me, at least, planting directly in the ground has a few cons. For one, we have gophers—no way am I letting them have my veggie plants if I can help it!

But also, in-ground garden soil preparation takes a bit more time, effort, and maybe even a little more know-how in my opinion. Depending on your location, your native dirt may provide a completely unique set of challenges which may take some trial and error to figure out if you’re new at this and don’t know much about dirt (surprisingly, there’s a lot to know!!).

At this season in my life, I don’t have as much time, energy, or patience to devote to digging and tilling (or donating my plants to gophers!) so I prefer raised bed gardening. But if you do, more power to you! Here’s some tips for success.

Beginner Gardening: How to Start an In-Ground Garden

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Note: Check this post for an updated list of online plant and seed stores.

Choosing the Spot for Your In-Ground Garden

As always, find a place that will receive adequate sunlight–at least 6-8 hours for most veggies, but a bit less should be fine for herbs and leafy greens. Look out for trees, fences, and buildings that may create shade. Try to keep it close enough to your house that you’ll be able to water and remember to check on it.

Also keep in mind that your in-ground garden may need a place that is sheltered from wind or wild animals. Put up a simple fence if needed. If you get frosts, planting near rock or a building can provide some extra warmth. Or use a wall-o-water like the one pictured below to give your plants an earlier start and the best protection from cold weather (should be closed on top)!

For more help and tips for planning your first garden, visit this page.

Frost Protection: Red Tomato Teepees, Set of 3

Prepare the Soil

This is probably the biggest factor behind your in-ground garden’s success!  It is probably wisest to test your soil (helpful article on that here).  You could also grab a DIY soil tester or ask another local gardener or plant store worker for advice on what you’ll need. But if you’d rather keep it simple, grabbing several bags of compost and/or “garden soil” should give you a good enough start.  You should also add a fertilizer to help plants get the nutrients they need to grow, but compost is one of the best things you can add to almost any garden. Fertilizer only adds nutrients, but  compost will also improve your soil texture and root health while providing nutrients.

For help deciding what soil to buy at the garden center, visit this page.

Fall leaves and grass clippings are great free choices to mix into the soil.  Shredding leaves with a mower or tiller will help them decompose quicker. Cow manure is a cheap option that is often best added in the fall, so it has time to break down into the soil. Manure has a lot of nitrogen, so adding too much of it can burn plants, especially if it is not well decomposed.

Typically you will want to mix all compost, fertilizer, manure, leaves, etc in with the top 12 inches or so of dirt.  You may have to mix it even deeper if your soil is very hard and compacted.  If you don’t have a powered tiller, try one of the ones below. If you’re determined to have the most productive in-ground garden you can, some extra reading about amending soil may be in order.

However, I’ve also heard about a method called No Dig Gardening which involves laying a thick layer of compost on top of the ground and planting directly in the compost.  Sounds not too different from raised beds to me… But I suppose the idea is that the plant roots can continue to grow down below the compost as well. I am skeptical that this method would work as well in hard clay soil like mine. 

If you want to dive in and learn more about sustainable, organic, no-till vegetable gardening (including composting, succession planting and winter gardening), check out this great video course by expert market gardeners in zone 7 Canada at Local Harvest.

Make a Plan for Watering

I Get So Excited About Gardening I Wet My Plants

Some people prefer to water each of their plants by hand. I thought I did too, until I had kids and tried using a watering timer instead.  Now I highly recommend finding some way to make your garden have an automated or “self-watering” system.  It saves me so much time and takes away much of the chance for mistakes.   I live in dry California, though, so maybe you don’t have to worry about watering as often as I do!

Many people opt for drip irrigation hose systems.  Once you figure out how to do it, you can lay the hose and choose dripper heads based on how much water your plants need–squash plants will need more water than tomato plants, for instance.   I recommend attaching your drip hose to a hose timer like the one in the link below. (Or am I the only one who gets distracted and forgets to turn off the water?)

Some gardeners use automatic sprinklers to water their garden. Be aware, though, that getting the leaves wet can sometimes cause sun burn, fungus, or other issues on some plants.  If you must get the leaves wet, the best time to do so is in the morning. This way they can dry before the sun has gotten too hot, and the water won’t sit on the leaves overnight.

Soaker hoses work perfectly with my own raised bed garden because the beds have less weeds and allow me to space my plants closer together. For an in-ground garden, though, a soaker hose might end up watering the weeds as well.

Plan the Layout, & Plant!

Once your soil is all ready and you’ve got a plan for watering, all you need to do is decide what to plant and where to plant it!  Check out some of my other posts for help with that, like this one to learn what to plant when. If you’re starting with seeds, read this page for tips.

Or read about five things every beginner should consider when planning a garden.

Plants by Stark Bro's Shop Fall Tree at Nature Hills

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