It can be daunting to get into gardening if you’ve never done it before, but luckily you have centuries of human history on your side. Growing things is one of the first things we learned to do as a species after hunting and making fire, so if the cavemen could do it, so can you.
To start gardening you should decide where your garden will be located, you must prepare the soil for planting through soil amendment and mulching, you have to plant your chosen seeds either in soil or in seed flats, and eventually, you have to transplant the prepared seedlings into the garden.
You might be intimidated by starting a garden when you first get going, but it doesn’t have to be a trial by fire filled with missteps and dead plants. Keep reading to learn some helpful tricks to start your garden off on the right foot.
Planning Your Garden Location
If you’re starting off your gardening adventure with a bare garden or flower bed, you’re in luck. You can skip ahead to the part about amending the soil. If you’re starting from scratch as an amateur gardener, however, you’re likely going to have to install a garden plot. Choosing where to put in your garden is determined by the following factors:
Most flowers and vegetables that produce a fruit, such as cucumbers and tomatoes, require lots of direct light in order to be fruitful. Unless you want a garden full of foliage and not much else, you’ll need to make sure that you place your garden in an area which receives at least 6-10 hours of direct sunlight a day.
More or less sunlight depends on what you’re trying to plant (check with your specific plant requirements).
When choosing a location for your garden, it’s important to get a soil sample tested to determine the quality of the soil at the chosen site. This can let you know whether any pathogens are present as well as which minerals need to be added to the soil in the amendment to make it richer and more productive.
Plants like as close to a neutral soil pH as possible, which means the soil may need to be amended to be more alkaline or more acidic.
Proximity to water:
How close you are to a water hose is going to come into play a lot more often than you’d think if you’ve never had a garden before. Hauling water with watering cans in order to reach a faraway plot might seem doable until it’s July and a hundred degrees out and the plants seem to suck up water as fast as you can tote it to them.
Be sure to place your garden where it is within easy access to a water hose or sprinkler system.
I’ve placed our garden beds next to a sprinkler line in our yard. I tapped off the line and set up sprinklers in the garden bed. This way the garden gets watered along with the grass in our yard.
Different people may require very different sizes of vegetable garden, depending on what they plan to grow and how many people need to be fed out of the garden. Before choosing a garden site, decide how large of a garden you need to construct based on your fruit and vegetable needs. If growing more than you can eat fresh, consider how much of your produce needs to be preserved to avoid spoilage and wasted food.
If the garden is purely a recreational activity, a container or flower bed garden may be big enough. If you want to grow vegetables for canning or freezing, a bigger area is needed.agrilifeextension.tamu.edu/library/gardening/planning-a-garden/ (source)
No-till gardens are the best gardens for maintaining the soil’s natural structures, so preparing a garden plot shouldn’t require any serious digging past sod removal. If you’re wanting to start a vegetable garden, it’s often best to choose and prepare the garden plot in the autumn prior to the growing season you want to begin.
Starting the garden plot before winter gives any added compost or soil enrichment the time it needs to break down and get into the soil.
This gives you the preceding winter to educate yourself on the plants you plan to grow, order seeds, and start seedlings indoors. Remember when planning your first garden that less is more.
It’s better to have a small garden you can tend easily than it is to have a sprawling, overly ambitious garden that gets abandoned midway through the growing season out of frustration or exhaustion.
If you need help with actually building a garden bed, I created an in depth step by step article on How To Build A Garden Plot that will help you.
Preparing the Soil for Gardening
Once you’ve chosen a location to plant your beginner garden, it’s time to prepare the soil of the garden plot. If there is a layer of lawn (grass and weeds) over the area where you’re placing your garden plot, you’ll need to manually remove the sod.
This can be a damaging and exhausting process that removes vital nutrients from the soil, so an easier alternative is smothering.
Smothering is the process of using cardboard panels or other kinds of opaque bed covers to lay over the garden plot in the fall. This kills any grass present on the plot of land without disrupting the topsoil and prevents new grass seedlings from sprouting and invading the same area.
If you prepare your garden plot in the fall, you can lay your bed covers in the fall and remove them in the spring when you start the garden, leaving you with fresh undisturbed soil clear of weeds and grass that you can put additional compost, topsoil, and mulch over.
Here’s a cool video explaining how bed covers and tarps are useful for your soil preparation.
Here are some other amendments that can help improve the quality of the soil:
- Aerating materials such as vermiculite or perlite
- Natural fertilizers such as aged animal manure
- Fine-grain materials such as sand to break up heavy clay soils
When amending the soil for a garden, it’s important that any compost or manure added to the topsoil has been matured for a period of several months, as “hot” fertilizer can cause plants to get chemical burns.
Mulch for A Garden
After the soil has been amended with compost and topsoil, mulch should be added to the surface of the entire garden plot. Just an inch or two of mulch can make a big difference in the success of your garden.
A mulch is any material that provides protection and improves the soil when applied to the soil surface.Colorado State University (source)
This mulch serves the following purposes:
Keeps plants insulated:
Bare earth conducts temperature a lot better than soil which is insulated by grasses and weeds, which means that the root systems of those plants in bare soil can become uncomfortably hot or cold depending on the weather.
A thick layer of mulch prevents plants from being affected by wide temperature swings during the more turbulent months of the year weather-wise.
Holds moisture in and above the soil:
Most of the water that is delivered onto bare soil is lost through evaporation or erosion, but mulch retains water in the vegetable bed so that it’s available to plants when they need it. This allows plants more steady access to water, which in turn helps to preserve the appearance of fruits such as tomatoes.
Prevents the proliferation of weeds:
Mulch acts as a barrier to weeds in their attempt to germinate the bare earth of the garden plot, preventing unnecessary competition from stealing nutrients intended for your fruits and vegetables.
Prevents loss of topsoil:
Without grass above it to hold water, sudden rainstorms wash away the delicate top layer of topsoil, which is the most nutrient-rich part of the earth’s surface and the part of the soil that is directly responsible for providing food to plants.
By preventing topsoil from being washed away, mulch lets a gardener build up good soil over a period of years.
Keeps plant diseases from spreading:
One of the ways that many plant diseases found in the soil are spread from the soil to a plant is through soil splash, when water hitting the soil splashes dirt back up onto the plant’s stem and delicate bottom leaves. These diseases can be prevented both by mulching, and also by keeping the bottom leaves of plants like tomatoes trimmed away from the surface of the ground.
Mulching is one of the most important aspects of preparing a garden for planting, and no seedlings should go into the garden before mulch is put down. Organic mulches are best as these mulches are naturally absorbed back into the topsoil and more mulch can be laid directly down on top of them.
Choosing Seeds for the Garden
Choosing what seeds to plant in the garden is one of the most exciting aspects of the garden building process. Poring over seed catalogs can easily leave you wanting a dozen of everything.
However, it’s important to keep in mind as a beginning gardener that you should only plant as many plants as you can reasonably care for. Take into consideration how much time and energy will have to be exerted during the following garden tasks:
Hopefully if you followed the earlier part of this guide and mulched your garden plot, you won’t have to deal with a huge amount of weeding. Despite that, weeds will still try to creep in on the edges of your garden plot as the soil becomes more and more improved and the weeds try to access it.
Weeding is a process that needs to be undertaken at least weekly to keep invading plants from taking over. The larger the garden, the more weeding there is to do.
Many garden plants such as tomatoes and culinary herbs need to be pruned and trained carefully in order to put out their best produce. Pruning is a painstaking task that can take hours each week if done properly and on a large garden.
Keep in mind how much pruning you’re willing to do on a weekly basis before you order forty kinds of tomatoes.
The larger your garden is, the more water you’re going to need to sustain it. In some areas, you might even have to operate under a water rationing system in the summer as a result of water shortages, so knowing how much water you have access to (and can afford) is an important part of deciding how many plants to grow.
The bigger your garden is, the more plants you’re eventually going to have to harvest, and the harder it is to manage individual crops. Large gardens can mean ending up with several pounds of tomatoes and summer squash all at one time, and without the willpower to go out there and pick them, a lot of your produce will end up rotting on the vine.
Once you’ve harvested your produce, there is only so many fruits and vegetables that can be consumed fresh each day before the excess begins to spoil. To avoid this, excess produce from the garden needs to be meticulously dehydrated, cured for storage, powdered, dried, or canned. These garden-related chores can take up a lot of time and energy.
The tasks associated with managing the output of a productive garden can take up hours a week and can tax the patience of even the most ambitious gardener during the most prolific parts of the season, when many gardeners are desperately pawning off zucchini to the point of sneaking it into cupcakes.
For this reason, it’s a good idea for your first year of gardening to keep your garden plans small and manageable so that you don’t become overwhelmed if you run into an issue or become tired and neglectful in the middle of the growing season. It’s also a good idea to choose varieties of vegetables and fruits which are proven to be good producers in your gardening zone.
Here are some of the other factors to take into consideration when deciding what plants to grow in your garden:
- What vegetables and fruits am I or my family most likely to eat on a regular basis?
- How much space do I have to store excess fruits and vegetables in the form of jams, jellies, canned goods, and other preserves?
- What varieties of fruit and vegetable grow best in my climate and region?
- Do I know anyone who would gladly take excess fruits and vegetables from the garden if I end up with too many?
You should also consider the time of year you’ll be planting. Most gardeners plant in spring and harvest throughout the summer months. But here are 20 Plants To Grow Through Winter in case you wanted to try gardening year round.
It can be tempting to try one of the many exotic and colorful heirlooms available through seed catalogs if you’re a beginning gardener, but unless you want a poor yield in your first year, it’s best to go with “tried and true” varieties that will give you plenty of produce as encouragement while you learn the ropes with your first garden.
Here’s a video covering some tips on selecting seeds for your garden.
Germinating Seeds for the Garden
If you’re trying to start a garden from seed, you generally have two choices: planting the seed directly in the soil of the garden itself, or planting the seeds in seed flats that can be started indoors before the temperatures are warm enough for outdoor planting, and then transplanting these seedlings into the garden once they’re old enough and hardy enough to thrive in the inconstant spring temperatures.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each method of seed starting. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of starting your seeds outdoors:
- Pros: Some varieties of plants prefer direct sowing and don’t tolerate being transplanted well, climbing plants can be trained up a trellis while very young, plants can get an earlier start on the growing season
- Cons: Late spring frosts can kill unprotected seedlings and cause total crop failure, some crops such as peppers and tomatoes do not tolerate cold spring temperatures and must be started later in the season
Here are the advantages and disadvantages of starting your seeds in a seed flat indoors:
- Pros: Better control
over seedlings in their most vulnerable state, can start hot weather crops
earlier in the year, easier to organize seedlings and protect them from unruly
- Cons: Usually requires an artificial light source, seedlings that are not properly hardened off and adjusted to outdoor temperatures can fail, can take up lots of space indoors for large garden setups, and do not work well with plants that are disturbed by transplanting or need cold stratification to germinate.
Plants that do better with direct sowing, such as peas, can be sown into the soil as soon as it isn’t frozen – these plants, on the whole, tend to be much hardier and more tolerant of cold spring temperatures. Some, such as broccoli, actually taste better after exposure to freezing temperatures once they’re past their delicate seedling phase.
Direct Sowing Seeds
To direct sow seeds in the garden, place seeds spaced out in accordance with the specifications of the plant (each type of plant has different spacing requirements) and either cover the seed lightly with soil or leave uncovered depending on the plant.
A good rule of thumb is to sow seeds 2 to 3 times deeper than their width.University of Maryland (source)
When planting, clear away mulch from the planting area so that the seed can have direct contact with the soil rather than the mulch. Leave the mulch reserved to the sides to add back to the base of the seedling later as it grows larger. For now, the seed needs access to both sunlight and the soil for germination, and it can’t get light when it’s buried under a layer of mulch.
Planting Seeds Indoors
When planting seeds indoors, set up a grow with an artificial grow light, a seed tray, and some germination substrate. It is also useful to have a warming pad beneath the seed tray to aid germination, though this can also make the water in the seed tray’s water reservoir evaporate more quickly, so make sure it stays filled each day.
After a period of several days depending on the variety of plant, the seeds will germinate. As the seedlings grow larger, be sure to keep the grow light adjusted to just a few inches away from the surface of the seedlings to prevent them from stretching towards the light and becoming “leggy”. This limp condition can lead to the seedling becoming damaged during the transplant process.
The first leaves on the plants in the seed tray will be little rounded leaves that appear similar on all juvenile plants. The second set of leaves should look distinctive to the plant being grown, and these are the true leaves.
Once the true leaves have started growing, many plants are ready to begin hardening off. To harden off seedlings, they should be exposed to cooler outdoor temperatures for a few hours each day gradually until the seedlings are finally hardy enough to be transplanted and spend all their time outdoors, after the threat of killing frost has passed.
Transplanting Seedlings into the Garden
After seedlings raised indoors have been hardened against cool outdoor temperatures over a period of a few weeks, the seedlings will be ready for transplant. It’s important when growing seeds indoors that you label each seed tray carefully, or you may end up not knowing which is which when it comes time to putting your plants out in the garden plot.
Choose a day to transplant the seedlings that is relatively warm and dry. Remove mulch in the area where the seedlings are being planted and dig a six to eight-inch hole depending on the size of the seedling.
It can be a good idea at this point to add a handful of organic fertilizer such as Epsom salt, bone meal, or well-aged compost to the hole before adding the seedling and refilling the hole with dirt.
Be sure that the seedling’s stem isn’t buried too deeply in the earth, as this can negatively impact the seedling. The exception to this rule is tomato seedlings, which can actually grow root systems from their stem and should be planted deeply.
Once the seedlings are planted and the soil put back, you can add a thin layer of mulch over the top of the soil to help hold moisture at the base of the seedlings and prevent soil erosion. As the seedlings grow larger, you can add more and more of the removed soil back to the base of the plants to make sure they’re protected without being smothered.
Here’s a helpful video with some tips on avoiding transplant shock to your plants.
Tending Plants in the Garden (for Beginners)
So you’ve got your seedlings established in the garden – what’s the next step? The next step is maintenance, and it’s by far the most important aspect of tending a garden next to sunlight and water.
Especially when they’re young, vulnerable seedlings can’t tolerate being neglected, whether that comes in the form of leaving them out in freezing temperatures without protection or letting them get parched in warm weather. In either case, it doesn’t take seedlings long to wilt and die.
Here are some other steps you can take to get the most out of tending your first garden:
Consistent watering is important
While this can be difficult to manage during parts of the summer or fall where torrential rains are normal, you should be sure never to let your garden dry out, as this can cause defects in fruits such as tomatoes, and cause your cucumbers or greens to become more bitter-tasting.
Observe the garden every day
Even if you don’t water or weed every day, walking among the plants and observing them will help you keep tabs on things like developing fruit or potential issues such as pests or disease.
Keep a record
Knowing when you planted root vegetables can be an important aspect of knowing the right time to harvest them since you can’t see them below the surface of the earth. Likewise, there are varieties of green tomato or pepper that stay green and don’t develop color, so knowing their days to harvest can be the key to picking them at the best time for freshness and flavor.
To make sure you get the best productivity from your garden, it can be very beneficial for you to try to attract pollinators such as bees and other insects to your garden. Here are some ways that you can attract pollinators that will help cross-pollinate your plants and produce more fruits, vegetables, and flowers:
- Plant flowers that pollinators like. These include species such as hummingbird sage, mint, and bee balm. These plants not only have culinary uses and are beautiful in the garden, they will bring in the bees, wasps, and hummingbirds that will help your garden perform at its best.
- Provide bee and butterfly baths. These vital sources of water are a major attractant to beneficial insect species.
If you provide an oasis for visiting pollinators, you’re bound to end up with a garden plot that produces healthier and more vibrant fruits and vegetables. With enough cross-pollination from insects and birds, you’ll never need to hand pollinate any of your plants.
Another way to ensure that your plants grow big and strong is to periodically dose them with supplements such as organic fertilizer or compost.
The amount to use is dependent on the type of fertilizer chosen and how it is applied. For organic gardening, the best way to fertilize is to amend the soil throughout the growing season with handfuls of fresh compost.
Harvesting and Preserving Your Garden
Other than the vegetables and fruits that you can pick and eat fresh from the garden in the form of salads, the fruits and vegetables you harvest from your garden can also be preserved in a variety of ways. Here are some of the most popular:
- Make Jams and Jellies
If you store and preserve your harvested vegetables the right way, you could have fresh veggies for months after a harvest.
Anyone Can Garden
Gardening might seem like an intimidating hobby to get into, especially if you don’t have any friends or family that garden, but with an overview of the concepts that go into strong plants and a little knowledge on growing things in your favor, you can end up with a bountiful plot of your own.