Growing Vegetables: A Basic Guide

May 1st, 2019

by Karen Buch, RDN, LDN

There’s something immensely satisfying about digging my hands into garden soil, growing vegetables for my family and being able to share my garden’s bounty with others. Have you ever thought about starting a home vegetable garden? Spring has sprung and now is the time! Pennsylvania offers healthy soil and seasonal growing conditions to support a lush home garden.

Preparing Your Garden Site

Prepare your garden site in an area that will receive 6 to 10 hours of full sun per day. Wait until the soil is sufficiently dry (hold soil in your hand and squeeze; it should readily crumble upon release). Use a shovel to work the soil and add an inch or two of nutrient-rich organic matter to enhance the soil. Consider soil testing (once every three years or so) to learn the soil’s pH, nutrient levels and soluble salt levels and adjust as needed.  Vegetables grow best with a soil pH between 6.0 and 6.5. If pH is too high, add sulfur, peat moss or cottonseed meal well in advance of planting. Fertilize to replenish nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg).  Organic fertilizers include manures, composts, bone meal, blood meal and soybean meal. For more on fertilizing, visit

Planning your Garden
Measure the length and width of the space you can devote to your garden.  Make a list of the types of vegetables that you would like to grow and space needed between each plant (often 6 to 12 inches apart).  Sketch and label a plan for your garden rows on a piece of graph paper. Consider rotating nitrogen-using vegetables like lettuce, cauliflower and sweet corn with beans and peas that add nitrogen to enrich the soil.

Vegetables that grow well in Pennsylvania:

· Asparagus
· Beans & Peas (plan to use wire cages or stakes and twine to offer plant support)
· Brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts)
· Bulb vegetables (onions, leeks, garlic)
· Cucurbits (cucumbers & squash including zucchini, yellow, butternut, pumpkins)
· Leafy vegetables (lettuce, spinach, arugula, turnips, mustard greens, endive,
escarole, radicchio)
· Peppers (sweet red, yellow, orange and green bell peppers, jalapeno)
· Root vegetables (beets, carrots, parsnips, radishes, rutabagas, salsify, turnips)
· Sweet corn, popcorn
· Tomatoes (plan to use wire cages or stakes and twine to offer plant support)
· Eggplant

Planting 101

Seedlings can be started indoors as early as March or April (6 to 8 weeks before planting). You can germinate seeds in a moist, soil-lined egg carton positioned near a sunny windowsill. Maintain 65° to 75° F while sprouting. Then, transplant the seedlings outdoors after they reach 1 to 2 inches in height and after the last hard frost. Typically the last frost occurs between May 1 and May 31st in zone 5 (the biggest areas of Pennsylvania).

Certain seed varieties can be sown directly into the soil. See individual seed packages for details on sowing depth, watering and number of weeks until expected germination.

Start Small and Expand
If you are new to gardening, it’s ok to start small and expand gradually as time and space permit. Initially, my gardening goals were small. I wanted to grow enough vegetables to be able to make fresh plate salads (leafy greens, cucumbers, carrots, sweet peppers) and fresh salsa (jalapeno peppers, colorful bell peppers, cilantro and tomatoes) all summer long.  This year, I am expanding my garden lineup to add asparagus (a transplant from my Aunt’s garden), squash (for grilling) and beets (for pickling). Having a garden definitely inspires me to eat more plants! But, I want to keep it manageable. The good news is—now, I have two little helpers. My kids are old enough to join in the fun and develop their own excitement, appreciation and life-long passion for gardening!

Thank a Farmer           

I am both a home gardening advocate and agricultural “#AGVOCATE”. Home gardening has given me a strong appreciation for the ongoing work and myriad of challenges faced by Pennsylvania’s farming community. My small garden is just a tiny supplement to the food that so many farmers work to grow and share.

Every day that we are fortunate enough to eat, American farmers deserve our thanks and support. As dietitians and food and nutrition experts, I believe it is part of our professional duty to better understand agricultural practices so we can help consumers avoid unsubstantiated food fears and discern fact from fiction when it comes to how food is grown and produced. Together we can #ThankaFarmer, #Agvocate and #HaveaPlant !  I hope you decide to give gardening a try and consider joining the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Food and Culinary Dietary Practice Group’s Agriculture subgroup, too!

About the Author
Karen Buch, RDN, LDN is a Central Pennsylvania-based Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who promotes the healthy enjoyment of food. As owner of Nutrition Connections LLC, Karen helps consumers better understand the connection between food, nutrition and health and provides a variety of food and nutrition communications consulting services to the food industry nationwide. Connect with her at, facebook: Nutrition Connections LLC, instagram:@karenbuch1, twitter: @karenbuch or subscribe to her blog: Food News & Reviews.


  1. Penn State Cooperative Extension: Master Gardener Manual
    2. Penn State Cooperative Extension: Vegetable Gardening Recommendations for Home Gardeners in Pennsylvania
    3. Produce for Better Health Foundation


Posted by: Deanna Segrave-Daly

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