So, You’ve Built a Vegetable Garden—Here’s How to Take Care of It

We made you a handy checklist (you're welcome).

May 24, 2022
Photo by Rocky Luten

You can Grow Your Own Way. All spring and summer, we’re playing in the vegetable garden; join us for step-by-step guides, highly recommended tools, backyard tours, juicy-ripe recipes, and then some. Let’s get our hands dirty.

The most exciting parts of vegetable gardening, for most, are the wide-eyed shopping spree for seedlings (or seeds) and the long-awaited celebration of harvest. But there are obviously quite a few things to do in the days between. Let’s face it, gardening can seem like a lot of work, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming—especially if you can break down the tasks into bite-size goals that you can tackle through the week (or in some cases each month).

I know that popping in to examine leaves for pests might not sound as thrilling as watching your first tomato change color, but it’s necessary. In fact, the more comfortable and consistent you get with observing your plants through the growing season, the quicker you’ll be able to spot any suspicious events and swoop in before the damage is done. A few minutes walking around the garden each week will save you a lot more time in the long run; let’s just say, it’s a lot easier to jet off a dozen aphids with a hose than it is to resuscitate a plant that has been devoured.

Where every season has its specific laundry list of to-dos, this particular checklist is a great place to start no matter when you’re growing. Think of this as your starter guide for keeping your garden plot (or your patio pots) happy and healthy from beginning to end. Don’t feel like you need to tackle every one of these chores in one afternoon, either. It’s up to you to schedule out chunks of time throughout the week or month, making maintenance more of a rhythmic routine rather than a mad dash to correct an overwhelming state of affairs. Besides, you might find deadheading late-season blooms to be a meditative form of self-care! So make the most of this list, and remember that even just a few moments dedicated outside can be incredibly healing for your plants…and yourself.

The Checklist

Health Check

Pests and diseases are a major bummer when discovered in the garden, but it’s not a death sentence! In fact, the sooner you get on top of the issue, the quicker your plant will bounce back. By checking in often, you’ll be able to notice any early changes like leaf discoloration or nibble marks and be able to take action before your plant suffers.

Soil Care

Healthy soil equals healthy plants. Compost, mulching, and staying on top of weeds are three of the most important things you can do. Compost enriches your soil with beneficial microbes, while mulch helps retain moisture​​ and suppresses weeds. If you’d like to add in a fertilizer feeding routine, apply a nutrient-rich liquid one such as algae or kelp every 3 to 4 weeks after planting and throughout harvest time.

Watering Schedule

How often and how much you give your plants to drink really depends on the weather, location, and type of vegetable you’re growing. That being said, there are a lot of variables, and a lot can change when temperatures spike…or your drip line decides to stop working. By checking in on irrigation systems and soil wetness, especially during the early transplant/growing days, you’ll work out a routine that jives for your specific plan. Be mindful of the 10-day forecast, like possible heat waves or frost warnings, so you can prep your plants before the event.

Snip Sesh

Routine pruning and the removal of damaged or diseased foliage are very important as your plants mature. Even if you don’t detect any issues, the overcrowding of leaves can lead to future issues. It’s good practice to thin out overgrowth (tomatoes, squash, and greens like Swiss chard particularly benefit from this) to increase airflow between leaves. Just remember to clean your shears if snipping any sickly-looking stems and leaves, to stop the spread between plants. If you’re adding flowering companion plants into the mix (my three go-tos are marigolds, calendula, and borage), don’t forget to deadhead spent blooms to encourage even more blossom production.

Support Group

Some vegetables have jaw-dropping growth spurts that happen overnight. What may look manageable one day, might be a towering tangled nightmare the next. Arm yourself with the appropriate trellising, stakes and/or clips and get them in place before your plant is too large to incorporate them. By appropriately supporting your climbing, vining, and towering vegetables (think tomatoes, beans, and cucumbers), you’ll be providing additional strength and avoiding any snapped or damaged stems as they start carrying the weight of ripening fruits. Once plants start producing, it’s a great time to check back in on new fruit that might need additional support.

Succession Planting

If you’re not familiar with the term, this is the practice of direct-sowing seeds every 7 to 21 days in order to maintain a consistent crop throughout the season (basically, the garden that keeps on giving). This is particularly successful for root vegetables (carrots, beets, radishes), herbs, leafy greens, and onions. I highly encourage you to experiment with this in both garden beds and patio pots alike. It’s also a good backup plan to have a second, third, or fourth round of goods coming through as you learn what your particular plants need.


This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s important to pick your produce! You’d be surprised how a few days can be the difference between fresh and funky. Not to mention there are some garden plants, like herbs (hello, basil!), that increase production the more that you pluck them. So encourage your plant to keep on giving, and don’t be shy about harvesting your goods!

Next Season Prep

It’s hard to think about what to grow next when you’re loving the current state of affairs (and by affairs I mean being neck-deep in “name your favorite vegetable here”), but every season has its lead time, and you need to make sure you’ve got the appropriate space cleared—and seeds and starts ready to go into the ground—on time. This is especially true for the accelerated pace that is spring blurring into summer and the lightning round that is fall. Where winter is a great downtime to rest and reflect on what worked and what didn’t, you should still dedicate a little bit of mid-season time to think about what might be needed as the new growing season approaches.

Tool Maintenance

You’ve probably already heard me sing the praises of keeping things clean in the garden. But it’s worth mentioning again: Keep those snips, shears, and grow pots disinfected, not only when working with problematic plants, but at the end of each growing season, to give yourself a head start and refresh for the next.

What important garden maintenance tasks did we miss? Tell us in the comments.
Photo by Angelyn Cabrales

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Deb Howe Allen
    Deb Howe Allen
  • Smaug
  • Kristin Guy
    Kristin Guy
Writer, Photographer & Certified Horticulturist


Deb H. May 31, 2022
I'd like to add--if you "suffer" from an abundance of produce from your garden (nice problem to have, right?)--check with a local food pantry to see if they could use a donation of fresh squash, beans, tomatoes, etc. Most pantries get precious little fresh produce donated, and really appreciate this (just be sure to check first--as with any donation of any kind).
Kristin G. May 31, 2022
I couldn't agree with this any more Deb! Anything in bounty should be shared, we have urban free refrigerators dotted around Los Angeles where anyone can leave fresh produce and anyone can take without any questions. Truly a wonderful way to give back.
Deb H. May 31, 2022
I wish we could do that easily here (winters/cold/rain aren't a very hospitable environment for appliances left in the great outdoors!). Some folks have done so in NE cities, but it takes a lot of workarounds to keep the appliances dry and safe and working. Not only could produce be left for folks, but things like milk, eggs, etc. Glad you've found a way to do this where you live! No human should go hungry--anywhere--but most certainly not in the richest country on the planet.
Smaug May 24, 2022
A lot of this is kind of vague, which is OK- the real message is, go around your garden every day and see what's needed, take care of it. This is important with any garden, but vegetable plants and their pests tend to move fast. Not so important with the largely sterile "landscapes" that have mostly supplanted gardens, at least in my area, where the plants are chosen largely for inertia.
There are so many things to watch for; I'll mention a couple of particular bugaboos of mine. One is a sort of grey aphid that infests plants of the cole family- they (like most aphids) reproduce at a dizzying rate and are not obvious unless you look for them. Another is spider mites; my area has severe heat waves, and spider mites on tomato plants can go from near nonexistent to a major infestation nearly overnight. They are nearly microscopic,, and hang out on the bottom sides of leaves. They are helped along considerably by heat reflecting up from pavement- a problem in patio gardening especially- and, for some reason, by dusty leaves. They can be spotted by tiny whitish spots appearing on leaves; if left alone the leaves will eventually be nearly all white and the plant will lose all vigor. Tomato plants, because of their structure, offer them all sorts of places to hide- when infested, the leaves will tend to curl up, further protecting them. They like it hot, so usually get started toward the top of the plant where they get the most sun, but will soon cover the whole plant.