Regardless of what type of garden you want, you need to start with a plan. And before you can think about where it’s going or what size you’ll need, think about what plants you want to consume or to enjoy.
For a vegetable garden, your best success will be with a garden in FULL SUN or 6 or more hours of direct sun. Plant vegetables that you will use in quantities that you will be able to water and weed (daily in the summer!) as well as consume in your family. Then perhaps you can add an “extra row” for the local food pantry. Your full sun location may not be very large in the ground but maybe you can grow in large containers on a patio or sidewalk that gets full sun.
Take your cues from what your desired plants need to be successful – for example:
Tomatoes need deep soil rich with calcium that is well-drained and if the variety blooms until frost, then some way to train, stake or support the vines plus FULL SUN.
Lettuces and greens need relatively shallow 6-10″ of soil, well-drained and part sun to full sun (they especially like afternoon shade).
Once you know all the plants and quantities, then decide how much growing area is required. Raised beds are a nice choice if your local soil is on ledge, is heavy clay or very rocky. Some vegetables will do even better in large containers.
Consider the soil you will be using. If using existing top soil, what type of soil do you have? You may need to amend it to get the best growth. Get a soil test for your property. Link to UMass Extension Soil test service.
Routine soil tests measure pH which reflects the acidity of the soil where 7 is neutral. pH affects how well the plant can take up nutrients to photosynthesize and grow. Most Berkshire soils are slightly acidic: 6.5 to 6.8 maybe 7. Vegetables do well in around 6.8 soil. Blueberries do better in 5.5 to 6.0 soil so would need some acidifier added. The soil test will tell you how much lime or acidifier is needed.
Think about what tools you will need: a spade, steel rake, edger, garden fork, long-handled claw, spring rake, hand trowel, rigid hand rake, hori-hori knife. The right tools make gardening tasks simpler and easier.
If you are digging new garden beds, wait until snow has cleared and ground mostly thawed, then map out the area needed with stakes and twine, keeping in mind the mature size of your plants and the path of the sun.
Here is a rough outline in printable PDF from Ron Kujawski on tips for Growing Small Vegetable Gardens: Growing Small Gardens
To dig deeper into these steps (ha-ha), watch this thorough webinar slideshow presented by Massachusetts garden expert, author and Berkshire resident, Ron Kujawski. You will need to register to watch it. It lasts about 1.25 hours. This was presented to the local volunteers of the Western Massachusetts Master Gardeners (WMMGA – Link to WMMGA website.) and the WMMGA has made it available to everyone through Ward’s Nursery & Garden Center. Registration alerts you to more informational webinars from this volunteer organization.