Gardening can be so rewarding. Not only are the health benefits – fresh air, sunshine, exercise – worthwhile, for many just the feel of their hands in soil can trigger fun childhood memories of playing in the dirt.
And the best news – anyone can learn how to garden.
In this beginner’s guide, I’ll walk you through the basic steps to becoming a successful gardener. And when we’re done you’ll be able to look upon your garden patch with confidence.
Beginner’s Guide to Gardening
When learning how to garden, think time, patience, and a willingness to experiment (which, of course, is all part of the fun!).
Planning Your Garden
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of how to garden, one of the first things you need to decide is what type of garden you want.
Will it be a vegetable garden? Or a flower garden? Or maybe you have several gardens in mind.
The type of garden you choose will not only influence how you proceed but where you’ll place your garden. For example, if you’re interested in growing vegetables, you’re not going to put your garden on the shady side of the house.
Once you decide on the type of garden you want, you’ll next survey the lay of the land.
Things To Take Note Of:
- Is the ground flat or sloping?
- What plants, trees, or bushes are currently in or around the yard? Tip – if you are surveying in winter, picture the trees in summer once they have all their leaves.
- Is there room along the front, side, or back of the house for flower beds, bushes, or trees?
- How windy is your yard?
- How much sunlight does the yard receive throughout the day?
Knowing the conditions of your yard will help with the rest of your gardening decisions, including which plants your garden will best support.
Take a little time here. Give this planning step some serious thought. And, recognize you might need to be a bit flexible.
For example, you might be thinking of planting a large vegetable patch. However, if your yard is very shaded, an in-ground vegetable garden may not be practical. In this case, a raised bed or container garden might be the better option.
If you want to know a little more about container gardening, then take a look at my post on the subject. It has some helpful tips to get started.
Once you know where you want to plant, take measurements of the area. If possible, draw a diagram of your yard with your intended gardening spots and beds, marking the measurements.
Having even a rough schematic will come in handy when it’s time to choose your plants. So don’t forget to bring it with you to your gardening center!
Another basic step when learning how to garden is gaining general knowledge of your soil. This is important because the key to a plant’s health is in the soil.
Healthy soil holds enough air, water, and nutrients to help the plant survive and thrive.
The first thing to do is take note of the type of soil you have. Is it heavy with clay or sand, or is it nice and loamy? Eyeball it and use your hands to get a feel of it.
To dig a little deeper into your soil’s quality, you can use a soil testing kit. Many garden centers have easy-to-use, reasonably priced ones available. A testing kit can help you assess the nutrient level of your soil.
Once you know the current condition of your soil, you can start preparing it for planting.
You’ll likely need to add some fresh soil as part of that preparation. The type of soil you add will depend on your plant’s needs.
For most plants, a general all-purpose garden soil will do. However, there are soils that are tailored to specific types of gardening or conditions, which you may want to explore. For example, if you’re planting a vegetable garden, you may want to choose soil meant for vegetables.
Many gardeners like to mix compost into their soil as well. This can really help boost your soil’s nutrient content.
How much commercial soil you’ll need to add to your garden bed will depend on the current condition of your soil, and what you’re planting. If your soil is already nutrient-rich and airy, you won’t need to add much. On the other hand, poor soil will need greater amounts.
Once you’ve amended your soil, the next step is to overturn your soil. Not only will this help break up hard areas and mix in the fresh soil, but it’ll also help with aerating the soil and loosening up any weeds.
When it comes to tilling your soil, you can till by hand, or you can use a machine called a rototiller. If you don’t own a rototiller, you can often rent one from home and building centers. Alternatively, you may be able to find an individual or company that will come and rototill your beds for a fee.
You only need to fully till your soil when your bed is not yet planted. For annual gardens, such as a vegetable garden, this will mean tilling in the spring.
As for perennial flower beds, you’ll till when building your flower bed. After your plants are established, you can use a cultivator to help work the soil between your plants.
If you’re looking for a natural way to aerate your soil, think about releasing worms into your gardens and yards. Not only is this a great way to keep your soil loose, but worm castings (basically worm excrement) can also be highly nutritious.
However, before doing so, take some time to read up on the benefits and potential problems of using worms.
Keep in mind, that you’ll be building your soil up over time, adding fresh soil and/or compost each season to continuously improve the condition of your soil. So don’t expect your soil will be perfect the first year.
Choosing Your Plants
Once you have chosen your garden type and spot, and have a feel for your soil, it’s time to pick out your plants.
When a person is first learning how to garden I always recommend starting out small and choosing easy-care plants.
Picking plants can be loads of fun and it’s very easy to get carried away. Believe me, I have done it numerous times! Not only can this put a dent in your pocketbook, but you can also chance overwhelming yourself with too many plants.
Whether you’re new to gardening or have had troubles in the past, starting simple and manageable is a recipe for success. I want your gardening experience to be pleasurable and encouraging. As you learn and go along you can always expand your collection.
With edibles, first, make sure to choose plants you enjoy eating!
Different vegetables will have different harvesting times. When deciding on which vegetables to plant, it’s always nice to choose plants that will be ready for picking at various times throughout the growing season. This way, you’ll have some type of fresh vegetable to enjoy.
And again, start with easy to grow vegetables.
For Ornamental Plants
When looking at plants, choose ones that are suitable for your area’s hardiness zone. So, for example, if you live in an arid climate, choose plants with low water requirements. If in a hot, muggy zone, think more tropical.
Not only do you want your plants tailored to your hardiness zone, but you’ll also want them suited to the area in your yard you’ve chosen.
In other words, sunny spots require plants that like lots of sun and shady spots require plants that like less sun.
Is your spot windy? Then pick a sturdy plant that can handle wind, such as an ornamental grass. When it comes to wind, keep in mind having a flowering plant may mean a frequent loss of petals in the wind.
And don’t be afraid to mix it up a little with plants of different colors or shades of green. Or use a combination of tall and short plants, and sprinkle annuals in amongst your perennials.
Too, you’ll want to think about when the plants bloom. Choosing plants that bloom at different times means you’ll have color throughout the season.
You simply cannot garden, or learn how to garden, without at least some gardening tools. You don’t need every tool on the market, but there are a few you want on hand.
Having the right tools can make your gardening life much easier
Pruners – a good set of sharp pruners will help keep your flowers and bushes healthy and manageable.
Shovel – a shovel is a must if you’re digging up beds or planting trees and shrubs.
Hand trowel – if you’re planting flowers or vegetables, whether in-ground or in a container, you’ll need a hand trowel to dig small holes and help with transplanting tasks.
Cultivator – a cultivator will help keep your beds looking nice and free of weeds.
Hose – a garden hose is needed for watering. Make sure your hose is long enough to reach all your plants.
Want to know what other tools you may need? Then take a look at my post on tools for new gardeners.
Lastly, if you’ll be creating a new bed from scratch, you’ll need either an edging tool or spade to help outline the garden and remove the top layer of soil.
Using some type of garden edging can also come in handy, especially for flower beds. Edging options can range from simple plastic borders to colored metals to decorative stones.
Planting Your Plants
All right! You’ve planned your space and picked your plants. You have your tools and you’ve prepared your soil.
Now, it’s planting time!
The best part of learning how to garden!
However, before you start digging holes, there are a couple of things to take note of.
- With seedlings – whether you’ve grown them yourself or purchased them from a nursery, you’ll likely need to harden them off first. In other words, get them used to the outdoors by spending a few days leaving them outside during the day then bringing them in at night, before placing them outdoors full time.
- When removing plants from their pots, don’t pull the plant by its stem. This might bruise or break the stem. Instead, gently squeeze the side of the pot and turn it upside. The plant should slip out onto your waiting palm.
- When digging the hole, make sure it’s large enough to accommodate all the plant’s roots and then some.
- Don’t overcrowd your plants. Some plants, like peonies, don’t like the competition. When your garden is overcrowded, not only can it become messy, your plants can end up fighting for nutrients and sunlight, and water.
- Make sure you’re placing your plants appropriately to their height and width. You don’t want tall plants blocking the light from smaller plants. And don’t just think only for the moment but also for down the road. What space requirements will that plant need as it grows?
- Lastly, you may want to label your plants. This is especially true when it comes to herbs. But anytime you need to identify a plant, place a marker near it. It’s easy enough to find decorative plant markers at any garden center.
Water your gardens and outdoor plants mindfully. Many plants, especially once they mature, will adapt to the natural rainfall of the region. However, if you are experiencing a drought, you may need to provide water.
Similarly, containers will need watering much more frequently, perhaps even daily during the hot summer days.
Newly planted plants will need a good soaking and will continue to need watering more frequently until the roots are established.
When planting vegetables, give your garden a good watering – but not so much that the seeds are washed away.
Watering in the morning is usually best, and you’ll want to water near the base of the plant, watering thoroughly enough that the water is getting down into the roots and not just running off the surface.
Check your garden spot’s drainage. Is your bed or yard sloping? Does the water pool anywhere near your plants?
Unlike with a container, gauging drainage of the ground can sometimes be difficult.
Tip: If you’re not sure about the drainage, dig a hole, maybe 10 inches, and fill it with water. Fill it again the next day and see how quickly the water drains. This will help determine how long water will be sticking around. Once you know this you can adjust your watering schedule as needed.
Maintaining Your Garden
Now that you’re all planted and ready for the season, it’s time to focus your efforts on keeping your plants healthy and growing.
Plant maintenance will encompass a few things.
First, make sure you’re fertilizing during your plants’ growing season. Typically, this will be spring through summer.
When it comes to the plant food itself, there are a number of options.
In general, fertilizers are either considered water soluble or slow release. Water soluble means the fertilizer must be mixed with water before being applied. Slow release fertilizers are usually in granular form and are applied straight from the container to your plant. This type of fertilizer feeds your plant slowly throughout the season.
There are pros and cons to each, but basically water soluble fertilizers allow you to adjust the strength of the fertilizer, but it requires more frequent applications. Whereas slow release fertilizers require less work. However, you also have less control over the fertilizer strength. In the end, the type of fertilizer you choose will be determined by the plant and your personal preferences.
What Do Those Numbers Mean?
No matter the fertilizer, you’ll see three primary numbers on the label. Those numbers represent the NPK ratio of the fertilizer.
This stands for:
- N – nitrogen (helps the green part of a plant)
- P – phosphorous (helps the plant’s roots)
- K – potassium (helps the overall hardiness and vigor of the plant)
Tip: When you look at fertilizer, think up, down, and all-around. The 1st number (nitrogen) will help the plant above ground (up), the 2nd number (phosphorous) will help the plant below ground (down), and the 3rd number (potassium) will help the plant in general (all-around).
For a little more information on fertilizer numbers, you can check out this article from Country Living.
Which Fertilizer Should I Choose?
Not only are there different ways to apply fertilizers, but fertilizer numbers can also vary quite a bit. In addition, there are organic fertilizers such as compost or worm castings, or fertilizers that serve specific purposes such as blood or bone meal.
It can be quite confusing, especially for the beginner gardener.
When starting out, begin with a general, all-purpose fertilizer. This will do for most plants and will help keep things simple. As you learn more about your plants and gardening, you can begin to explore different fertilizer options.
However, if you’d like to start with something a little more tailored to your plant, then head to your local garden center. They will be able to help you choose the right fertilizer for your specific needs.
Plant maintenance also means pruning and deadheading your plants. Learning how to properly prune your plant is also part of learning how to garden.
Pruning keeps your plants looking healthy and vibrant, and it will encourage new growth. Removing damaged, diseased or dead parts of your plant can be done throughout the season. However, this is not the case with healthy areas of your plants.
Knowing when to prune your plant is very important because improper pruning can damage your plant or stunt its growth.
Many plants can be pruned in late winter or early spring. On the other hand, some plants need pruning after flowering. Further still, other plants should be cut back completely once the season is over.
As you can see, different plants have different pruning needs, and it’s really best that when you purchase a plant, you learn what its pruning needs are. If you don’t feel you have the time or inclination to prune, then choose plants that don’t require this type of maintenance.
This article from Hicks Nurseries talks further about the timing of pruning.
Pests & Disease
At some point, you’ll likely run into a pest problem. Signs might include holes in the leaves, discoloration, or webbing, to name a few.
If you suspect a pest, treat the plant right away to prevent the population from growing and spreading, or from further damaging your plant. Treatments can include chemical options such as insecticides or insecticidal soaps, or natural options such as releasing beneficial insects.
And remember, pests don’t just come in the creepy-crawly kind. Deer, rabbits, and squirrels, may also love your plants, especially your vegetables. Solutions here include fencing or some other type of apparatus to deter the animal. There are also chemical sprays available to help with four-legged pests.
With either scenario, consult your local garden center as to available options. This article delves a little deeper into the types of garden pests.
As with pests, you’ll also want to keep an eye out for any plant diseases. Diseases can be bacterial, fungal, or viral. Signs can include leaf discoloration or improper growth. The plant may also look poorly.
Treatments usually come in spray or powder form. If you suspect a disease, again, take a trip to your local garden center, with a leaf sample if possible, to see what treatment options are available.
Lastly, be brutal with weeds. Weeds are hardy plants that are very good at spreading.
Regularly turn the soil between your plants, whether by hand or using a rototiller if possible, to keep weeds in check.
There’s no getting around that weed maintenance takes some work. But there are some good weed control options such as laying down landscape fabric when preparing your beds or placing mulch around your plants that, although it takes work initially, can save you time down the road.
Learning how to garden can be a fun and rewarding endeavor. It’s fresh air and sunshine and exercise, and something the whole family can participate in. When starting out, have a plan in mind and keep it simple. And remember, it takes time and a little experimentation to develop a gardener’s thumb, so be patient with yourself.
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