New to Gardening? We’ve got you covered!
If you’re new to gardening, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, but you don’t have to be. In this post we’ll covering the basics do’s and don’ts 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 even eaten from your own family garden.
1. Grow What You Eat
Rule #1 – If you (or your family) won’t eat it, don’t grow it. If you’ve got limited space and time, focus on the fruits or vegetables that your family enjoys the most.
It’s no accident that the most popular produce item grown in backyard gardens is the tomato. The taste a homegrown tomato is worlds apart from tomato shipped green from a thousand miles away to your grocery store. Other garden crops might not be quite as dramatic in their taste differences, but you will notice a difference. Some foods store better than others, too, so give some thought to storage crops.
- Full Listing of Posts on Specific Crops, from Asparagus to Stevia
- How to Grow Tomatoes Organically – 7 Steps to Success
- How to Grow Blueberries
2. Be Prepared to Spend Time in Your Garden
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.
- Getting Started Herb Gardening
- The 5-Minute Gardener: How to Plan, Create, and Sustain a Low-Maintenance Garden
- How to Grow and Cook Nutrient Dense Foods
3. Start Small, Scale Up
A small, well-tended garden can produce as much or more than a large, poorly tended garden. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed and give up if you get overextended. Pick your favorites, estimate the amount of time and space you have available, and go from there. Ask others who garden in your area how much time they spend in their gardens, and that should give you a ballpark figure for the time your garden may require.
Make sure to give each plant enough room to grow, too. The seeds and transplants are tiny, but full grown plants can get quite large. Overcrowded plants will have difficulty thriving.
- Small Space Gardening: 10 Tips Everyone Should Know
- Small Space Garden Ideas
- The Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden: Grow Tons of Organic Vegetables in Tiny Spaces and Containers
4. Test Your Soil
A basic home soil test kit can be found online or at most hardware stores for around $10, or you can contact your local cooperative extension office. “The Cooperative Extension System is a nationwide, non-credit educational network. … These offices are staffed by one or more experts who provide useful, practical, and research-based information to agricultural producers, small business owners, youth, consumers, and others in rural areas and communities of all sizes.” See more about using a soil test kit in “Soil Testing – Why I Use Worm Castings“.
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 (brassicas). Balanced nutrient levels are also important, as is the presence of organic matter. Ideally, most plants prefer a deep, well-drained, fertile soil rich in organic matter. Each year I add a combination of different types of organic matter. I have also added rock powders, used cover crops, weed tea, and other fertility boosters. In general, I work to improve the soil, not just to feed the plant. For information on some truly innovative gardening techniques, check out page 2 of the article “How to Grow (Lots of) Tomatoes Organically“.
5. Find a Good Seed Source
Sometimes, you get what you pay for, sometimes not. When I first started gardening, I used some of the same companies my mom used to order from, and I tried some new ones that seemed to offer great deals, like Burgess. I don’t order from any of those companies any more. My favorite seed sources can be found in the article, “My Favorite Seed Sources, Seed Storage and Germination“. Dave’s Garden Watch Dog is a great place to check out a company before you order from them.
Some of my favorite seed sources include:
Note: When selecting seeds (and perennial plants and trees), make sure to pay attention to your growing zone, which will help you select the right crops for your area. If you live in zone 3 like my brother or zone 5 like we do, you’re not likely to be able to grow tropical plants. Conversely, if you live in the deep south, you may not be able to grow some plants that require cold winter temperatures, like apples and blueberries. View the USDA Plant Zone Hardiness map.
6. Consider Starting Your Own Transplants
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.
We have printable calendars to help you plan your seed sowing in the article, “When Should I Start My Seeds? Printable seed starting calendar“.
You can view my seed starting setup in Seed starting for Biodiversity, Seed Starting Setup, and view more detailed information on tomato transplants in Grow Tomatoes from Seed – Save Money, Get More Varieties.
7. Garden Up Instead of Out
If you grow up you can squeeze more crop in less space. The best book I’ve found to date on the subject is “How to Grow More Vegetables, Eighth Edition: (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine“. I trellis/fence or otherwise grow vertically my tomatoes, beans, peas, cucumbers, and occasionally other crops. You can view how I do it in Transform Your Landscape with Vertical Gardening – 10 Reasons to Garden Up Instead of Out.
8. Use Organic Pest Control
In theory, bugs are more attracted to plants that are stressed or in some way deficient, so if you have healthy, well-nourished plants, your pest problems should be minimal. I guess I haven’t quite reached that point, but it’s getting better each year. 😉
In all honestly, my pest problems vary by year. I haven’t had an “ideal” garden year yet, and I do notice that when conditions stress a particular plant type, that’s when the pests typically show up.
Last year, it was really wet and cold, and I use a lot of mulch, so I had slugs. Beer traps, crushed eggshells, and some diatomaceous earth knocked them back to reasonable levels.
We have a LOT of cabbage butterflies in the area. I use a limited amount of Bt, but I also make my garden very bird and wasp friendly by putting perches throughout the garden, as well as bird baths and companion plants.
I’ve had problems with flea beetles, which make plant leaves look like they’ve been hit by buckshot. Coffee grounds have saved my plants from destruction now for several seasons running.
If you’ve got a problem, chances are there’s an organic solution. If you’re going through all the effort to grow your own food, why would you want to put toxins on it?
For more detailed information on controlling everything from slugs to rabbits, check out Natural Pest Control in the Garden.
9. Invest in Good Tools and Take Care of Them
Don’t buy cheap plastic tools if you can avoid it. Shop yard and estate sales for bargains on real metal tools, or visit your local garden center. Get tools that are sized properly for you to reduce the risk of injury.
Good tools will same time and effort, and your back. Keep tools clean and sharp, just like you should treat a good knife. You can learn proper tool care at Cleaning and Sharpening Garden Tools.
10. Stick Seeds and Plants in Dirt, Water as Needed, But Not Too Much
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. One of the reasons I love 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 bad the first time you plant it, try again. I usually try a crop for at least three years before I give up on it, because different varieties grow best under different conditions.
A rule of thumb for watering is that plants need around one inch of water per week during the growing season. If you don’t get rain, you’ll need to water. Over watering is as bad as under watering, so always check the soil before turning on a tap or hitting the rain barrels.
A rule of thumb for sunlight is that most fruits and vegetables need at least 5 hours of sunlight to produce a good crop. Leafy greens and root vegetables may be able to get by with less sun, especially in warmer climates.
Bonus Tip – Use Your Weeds
Weeds are often my garden companions and allies, not simply something to be removed as a nuisance. Many are edible, medicinal or both. Get to know your weeds (and your bugs), and put them to work for you instead of against you. You can get started by checking out the Weekly Weeder series.
Hopefully this post has given you enough basic info to get fired up and find some dirt to call your own. If you’ve got questions, please leave a comment. I’ll be working my way through more of the basics as the weeks go on.
Originally published in 2012, updated April 2016.Posts may contain affiliate links, which allow me to earn a commission to support the site at no extra cost to you. Thank you!