General Dynamics


Ten Steps to a Successful Garden:
University of Maine Cooperative Extension


You’d like to plant a vegetable garden, but you have no idea where to begin. We understand. Gardens can provide food, add beauty to the landscape, provide exercise, save us money, and allow us to connect with family, friends, and community. However, vegetable gardening in Maine, especially for the beginner, can be quite challenging. You probably have a million questions: Is my soil any good? How do I fertilize, and which one should I use? What should I grow? What bug is this?

University of Maine Cooperative Extension is here to help with a quick overview of suggestions, and to remind you of the great resources available, such as Grow Maine Grow, an online source designed for first-time vegetable gardeners. You may check out the full site by visiting . While you’re there, be sure to check out the monthly newsletter to guide you through the season with timely tips written by Extension experts and Master Gardener Volunteers!

1. Choose an Appropriate Location or Consider Container Gardening

When choosing a site for your garden, consider locations that have full sun and well-drained soil.  If you are lacking space, or your soil is less than ideal, consider creating raised beds or planting in containers. For a step by step guide to raised bed construction, including video clips, check out: For best results, be careful to also choose a location that you are likely to see every day so you don’t forget to water or weed.


2.   Test Your Soil

You should have a soil test in your garden every two years, and prior to putting in a new garden .  The results of your soil test, particularly from a new location, will tell you if your soil has lead (typical near old buildings in Maine) and what amendments you may need for optimum plant growth.  Information on soil testing is available at Soil test boxes and forms are available from your local University of Maine Cooperative Extension office.  Each standard test costs $15.

Be cautious before tilling your soil. Tilling wet soils destroys soil structure and causes clumps of soil to form, which makes some gardening practices hard to perform (seeding, hoeing, etc.). Once you have tilled your garden, some of the first vegetables that can be planted include peas, lettuce, and spinach.

3. Make a Plan & Consider Documenting the Process

If you have never had a garden before, sit down as a family and talk about what everyone likes to eat.  It can help to start small (no more than 10 vegetables) so that you don’t become overwhelmed.  Map it out, making sure you have enough space for the plants you want to grow and your shorter plants (carrots) won’t be shaded by taller ones (sweet corn).  Other design factors to think about:

● Slope: Placing rows crosswise to a slope will prevent seeds and soil from ending up at the bottom of the slope after heavy rains.
● Watering: If you are thinking about using drip tape or sweat hoses to water your garden, place them in the garden at four-foot intervals (make sure to have the connector end of the hoses on the same side). Then, plant a row of vegetables 3 inches to 4 inches on either side of the hose. This will provide a two-foot path between rows of crops.
● Wide beds: Rather than a single row of vegetables surrounded by two paths, you can create 4-foot-wide growing areas. These “beds” are wide enough to grow 4 rows of vegetables like carrots, beets, onions, and chard; or two rows of bush beans, broccoli, cabbage, and peppers.
Be sure to choose varieties that have been tested to thrive in Maine.  For beginners, another strategy is to choose hybrid varieties with some built-in disease resistance. What are the best varieties? See the Extension approved list here:

Keep your ideas in one place and chart your progress through the season with a garden journal. Seek out other gardeners to compare notes and share observations.  Your notes can come in very handy when preparing next year’s garden.

4. Start Your Own Seeds

Now that you’ve decided what to grow, starting your own seeds is a great way to make sure you have the right variety and number of transplants for your garden.
The process of starting seeds can be daunting at first. Consider these guidelines:
● Make sure to purchase seeds from a reliable source.
● Purchase seeds from a reliable source.
● Start seedlings according to their temperature requirements (soil and air) and growing schedule.
● Start plants such as head and leaf lettuce, celery, onions, pansy, and geraniums. By mid to late March, it is safe to start peppers, tomatoes, ageratum, and alyssum, to name just a few.
● Take care while watering seedlings. If you have chlorinated water, allow water to sit in an open container for 24 hours before use.
● Provide seedlings with adequate light (14 to 16 hours a day).
● Wash pots with a 10 percent bleach to water solution to sterilize before plants
For a detailed step by step plan– do access “Seeds 101” at

5. Don’t Forget to Water!

The garden needs one to two inches of water each week during the growing season. A 10′ x 10′ garden will need over 60 gallons of water a week! With temperatures soaring into the upper 80′s and 90′s in July and August,  keeping the garden well-watered is critical. Plants lose a lot of water through small openings on the undersides of their leaves called stomates. On hot, breezy days, water loss can exceed the water taken in by the plant’s roots, resulting in wilting. If the situation goes on uncorrected too long, the plant will die.

Here are some tips that will help you water effectively, while not wasting it:
● Early morning and evening are the best times to water. Putting the sprinkler on a timer allows you to start and stop watering at optimum times.
● Drip irrigation, sweat hoses (round hoses that leak water from all sides) and soaker hoses (flat hoses with holes on one side only) turned upside down will put water at the roots where it’s needed, and can save 30 -70% of the water used in overhead sprinklers.
● When using a sprinkler, turn it off as soon as the soil becomes saturated and begins to run off your garden. This can occur quite quickly, depending on how dry the soil is. Wait until the water seeps into the soil and then repeat if time allows. Otherwise water again the following day.
● A covering of mulch will help reduce water loss from the soil through evaporation.
● Use the milk jug system for watering individual plants. Punch a couple of pinholes in the lower sides of a plastic milk jug. Remove the cap and place the jug beside the plant. Fill the jug with water. This system will provide slow, thorough watering over the course of an hour or so.
Save your back from lugging all that water—see our publication on trickle irrigation,

6. Manage Your Weeds

Use the “Early Detection/Rapid Response” method to manage invasive plants by staying ahead of weeds in your garden. Use organic mulches to control weeds and maintain soil moisture. Straw is excellent mulch if you can find it. Hay will work, but often contains weeds seeds that can cause problems later in the garden season or next year.  Consider using four layers of newspaper as a mulch and anchor it down with soil, stones, or pins.  Small weeds are much easier to control than large ones! Small weeds can easily be pulled or hoed and left to dry on the soil surface. Learn to identify invasive plants as young seedlings, and remove them promptly. Multiflora rose, shrub honeysuckle, and sweet autumn olive plants are easy to pull out when they’re young seedlings. If you wait until they’re large plants, the process is more time-consuming and causes more disruption to your plantings. Larger weeds and some problem weeds like hairy galinsoga can easily “re-root” themselves if pulled and left on the soil surface. Make sure you keep weeds from going to seed to prevent problems next year! There is a lot of good information on cultural control of weeds available.

Check out the favorites below of Extension Educator Mark Hutchinson, Knox-Lincoln Counties:
● Controlling Garden Weeds, available among the publications on the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association website at
● Uva, Richard., J. Neal., J. DiTomaso. 1997. Weeds of the Northeast. Publisher: Cornell University
● Mohler. C and A. DiTommaso 2007. Manage Weeds on Your Farm; A Guide To Ecological Strategies. In draft; contact Charles Mohler at

7. Managing Insects

There are many insect pests that like to eat the vegetables and fruits you are growing as much as you do!  Before knowing how to manage a particular insect pest, you must correctly identify it.  There are many resources available to help you identify insects, including your local Cooperative Extension office.  A local staff member or an expert in the pest management office in Orono can help you if you provide a sample.  An online ID guide as well as submission guidelines for insects may be found here:

8. Managing Plant Diseases

Regularly check your plants for both insects and diseases. Watch University of Maine Cooperative Extension reports to see if late blight might be in your area and prepare for protective measures. Become a friend of University of Maine Cooperative Extension on Facebook for updates and pest reports!  For fact sheets on many common plant disease, check out:

9. Harvest- Preserve/Donate

Make succession plantings of crops like beans to maintain your harvest of fresh vegetables throughout the summer. Plant small amounts to keep harvesting enough for fresh meals throughout the summer. Become familiar with the state-wide iniative that encourages gardeners to donate excess produce to food pantries - Maine Harvest for Hunger - formerly known as Plant-A-Row for the Hungry. Launched in 2000 as a volunteer opportunity for University of Maine Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Volunteers, the program is now active in 15 counties, and is open to all interested gardeners. A beginner’s mistake of growing too much can be a good thing! Learn more about the many facets of this program through the new website equipped with food pantry donation resources. The site includes a guide to choosing, storing, and using your fresh produce. Limited seed donations, including flower incentives, are even available to get you started if you enroll!

10. Put Your Garden to Bed in the Fall

Remove all dead plants in your garden at the end of the season to prevent diseases and insects from over-wintering.  It is best to plant a cover crop to prevent erosion of your garden soil by wind and water.  Oats make a decent cover crop. Purchase a 50 lb. bag of whole oats (horse feed) for about $10.00 from your local farm/feed dealer.  Sow the oats at a heavier rate as the month progresses. The oats will sprout and grow this fall and die at the first freeze, making a nice brown mat of dead stems and leaves. These will hold your top soil in place over the winter and can be easily tilled in next spring.  If you run out of time to germinate a cover crop, mulching with straw can provide protection as well.

University of Maine Cooperative Extension is available to support to all Maine gardeners.  Visit our website or call your local office with questions.  Have a great growing season!