Want to learn how to start a garden, but not sure where to begin? We’ll give you the basics of gardening and provide links to more detailed information so you can garden with confidence and have fun doing it. Get ready to enjoy some of the best-tasting fruits, vegetables, and herbs you’ve ever eaten and view some beautiful flowers too.
If you won’t eat a crop, don’t grow it in your vegetable garden. Focus on the fruits, vegetables or herbs that your family enjoys the most. Make sure your top choices make sense for your area. Figure out your gardening zone and estimated first and last frost dates. If possible, talk to successful gardeners in your area to find out which crops grow well and which don’t. Do you want to plan for storage vegetables, or only enough to eat fresh? It’s probably best to start your garden mainly with fresh eating in mind, but some vegetables are extremely easy to store.
Most fruits and vegetables need full sun, with a minimum of five hours of direct sunlight per day for fruiting. Greens, herbs and root veggies will grow in partial shade. Southern gardens may benefit from late afternoon shade, whereas northern gardens likely need all the sun they can get. Think about how you will access the garden for picking, watering and caring for your plants. Out of sight often equals out of mind – and a neglected garden. Avoid high wind areas and frost pockets (low areas where frost is likely to settle). Watch out for wildlife, pet damage and children’s play areas.
Plan Your Layout
Once you know where you want your garden, decide on the type and size of garden bed(s). Raised beds are attractive and may make it easier to work in your garden, but they also dry out more quickly. In very dry areas, sunken beds can be used to gather available moisture. Think about planting your garden in blocks or beds of plants instead of single rows. Beds should be 3 to 4 feet across – narrow enough that you can reach the center from either side. Beds should be roughly 10 feet long or less, so you’re not tempted to step into the bed and compact the ground. Within the garden beds, place plants in rows or a grid pattern. The goal is minimize walkways and maximize growing space. You only add fertilizer and soil amendments to the planting area, which saves time and money. Start small, and make sure to give each plant enough room to grow. The seeds and transplants are tiny, but full grown plants can get huge. Overcrowded plants have difficulty thriving. A small, well-tended garden can produce as much or more than a large, poorly tended garden. Rectangular or square beds are the most common, but you’re only limited by your imagination and building skills.
If you want to try to grow vertically, you can squeeze more crops into less space. A trellis/fence or otherwise can vertically grow tomatoes, beans, peas, cucumbers, and occasionally other crops. What if you have a yard with limited growing space? Consider grow bags or containers to start your garden.
The right tools make working in your garden a pleasure instead of a chore. You don’t use a butter knife to chop up raw carrots, and you shouldn’t use dull or flimsy tools to work in your garden. Basic gardening equipment includes:
- Garden hoe
- Scuffle hoe
- Dirt rake
- Leaf rake
- Garden Shovel or D handle Shovel
- Hand tools
- Watering can
- Garden gloves
Before you start building your garden beds or planting, you need to know something about your garden soil. Is your soil acidic, alkaline or neutral pH? Do you have sand, clay, silt, rocks, or a mix of all four? Is there a risk of soil contamination from nearby structures, roadways or other sources? Does it have a good amount of basic nutrients? Some of these characteristics can be determined just from looking at the soil. For instance, lead contamination from old house paint or nearby roadways with heavy traffic is a problem in some areas. Most garden crops prefer soil with a pH around 7 (neutral), although some like conditions that are slightly acidic (potatoes, for instance) or slightly alkaline. Balanced nutrient levels are also important, as is the presence of organic matter.
If you’re starting with sod, you’ll either need to cut it up in chunks and repurpose it, till it in, or lay down wet newspaper or cardboard to smother it and build a bed on top. Preparing in fall is best, but don’t let that stop you from starting in spring. Most plants prefer a deep, well-drained, fertile soil rich in organic matter. Plant roots need good garden soil to produce good vegetables and fruit. Once you start a garden, you’ll gain a new appreciation for healthy soil as it improves year after year. Healthy, vibrant soil = healthy, vibrant plants with built in disease and pest resistance and more nutrition.
Transplants or Seeds
If you want to grow specific varieties, especially heirloom varieties, you’ll probably need to grow your own transplants from seed. Starting your own transplants is a great way to save money, too. If you’re not ready to tackle growing transplants for your garden, here are some tips to help you spot the best plants at the nursery. Look for pots that are roughly equal in size to the plant. Big plants in tiny pots are more likely to be root bound (with roots tangled and growing in circles inside the pot) and suffer from transplant shock when planted in the garden. Watch for signs of stress such as insect damage or yellow leaves. Most seed packets and transplant containers come with basic planting instructions. Once you’ve done the ground work (literally), you just need to jump in and plant. Just give it a try and you can learn the rest as you go.
Rules of thumb for planting in your garden:
- Plant seeds roughly 3 times as deep as the diameter of the seed, unless otherwise directed on the package. Some seeds require light for germination.
- For transplants – most transplants are planted at the same depth they were growing in the pot. The exception is tomatoes, which can be planted deeper or trenched in.
- Wait until danger of frost is past to plant heat loving plants such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, okra, etc.
- Young plants are easier to damage than older plants, so they may need protection or hardening off when they are planted outside.
- There’s an old saying that says, “The best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.” If you’re not prepared to make time in your schedule to tend to your plants, you may be better off hitting the farmer’s market, or sticking with extremely low maintenance items like sprouts or herbs. Depending on the size of your plantings, time requirements may range from a few minutes per day to a full time job.
Nab weeds when they’re small with a scuffle hoe – or use them as groundcover, food or medicine. A rule of thumb for watering is that plants need around one inch of water per week during the growing season. If rains fail, you’ll need to water your garden. Over watering is as bad as under watering, so always check the soil before turning on a tap or hitting the rain barrels. Soil that is too wet can cause seeds and roots to rot. Bugs are more attracted to plants that are stressed or in some way deficient. If you have healthy, well-nourished plants, your pest problems should be minimal. If you have a problem, chances are there’s an organic solution.
As crops mature, make sure to harvest promptly for best quality. Leafy greens like lettuce are typically “cut and come again”, which means you can clip off the leaves and they will re-grow for another harvest. Pick beans and peas every two to three days. Harvest sweet corn when cobs are well filled out and silk is dark. Harvest tomatoes and peppers green, or allow them to ripen to full sweetness and flavor. Flavor is typically at a peak when the morning dew has cleared, but before the afternoon heat has settled in. Sample and decide what tastes best to you.
One of the reasons for gardening is because if things don’t work out right the first time, there’s always next year. There are dozens of different ways to do just about everything, but you won’t know what works best for you and your garden until you try. If a plant/crop does poorly the first time you plant it, try again.
Check out https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/ for information on regional growing conditions.
Whether you have 50 or 500 square feet of area that you would like to plant with flowers, the process should be fun and enjoyable. A flower garden overflows with opportunities for the creative spirit to come alive. Your garden is your canvas because it truly is a way of letting the artist out. It relieves my stress and it’s a great workout too! So if you’re ready to turn that bare spot in your yard into the next Mona Lisa, just follow these steps.
Determine Your Theme
There are many ways to approach your canvas, and it’s really quite up to you. There is no right or wrong here. You can head over to the local library or bookstore and pull up a chair in the gardening aisle. Pour over pictures of English gardens, their classic beauty is always a welcome sight, or delve into dreams of sophisticated Japanese gardens that inspire Zen. Or make up your own gardening theme.
Plan Your Layout
Once you have an idea of which direction you want to take your masterpiece, grab a piece of graph paper and some colored pencils and map it out. You many want to try a handy tool on the Better Homes and Gardens website called the “Plan-a-Garden.” You can sketch out your home and other structures on site and then draw the layout of your flower garden around them. Be sure to observe if the site you want to use gets full or partial sun or mostly shade, as that will drastically change the types of flowers and foliage you can plant in your beds. Be specific in your diagram, too. If you have four feet of flower bed space against the garden shed, you probably only have room for four clumps of giant pink zinnias there. Michelangelo only had so much ceiling to paint in the Sistine Chapel, after all.
Growing Seeds or Buying Flowers
There are two ways to go about actually getting the flowers for your garden, and they don’t have to exclude one another. If it’s still winter and you have plenty of time before actually applying the glorious colors to your canvas, you may want to save some money and grow the flowers from seed. The variety of colors and textures, heights and habits of the flowers in seed catalogs today is absolutely mind-boggling. Shopping for the seeds is something to do in late winter and watching the tiny seeds grow is something no person should miss out on. But if you’re short on time (and who isn’t?) or you prefer to buy certain flowers from the nursery and grow others from seed, then get ready to shop ’til you drop! A warm greenhouse nursery on a cold spring day is so tempting and really quite handy when your poppy seeds have once again failed to sprout.
Roll up your sleeves and the sleeves of all the helpers you can find! This is when the magic really takes place. You’ve planned and you’ve shopped and you’ve waited for that first warm day of spring. It’s time to get dirty! A shovel, a dirt rake, and a trowel are definite necessities for loosening the soil and creating holes for each plant. Adding some well rotted animal manure and compost to the soil is almost always a good idea too, but be sure to do this a week before you plant so as not to shock the plants. Identify what type of soil, sun, and water each plant likes before sentencing the sunflowers to their doom in that shady spot behind the garage. Be aware of the quirks in your canvas before you plant and you’ll save yourself a headache later on.
The most amazing thing about the flower garden is that it’s always changing. Its colors and patterns will never look the same as they did yesterday. One cold spring morning you may decide you want to start the painting all over again. See ya’ later daylilies! Or maybe you just want to add a few alyssum here and some hostas there. It’s a constant creation, and you really can’t go wrong.