Gardening 101: How to Get Growing, Even if You’re a Total Beginner

You might read gardening magazines in the market — their covers emblazoned with the greenest leaves and the most perfect flowers. You may have even brought some home and, inspired by the pictures, attempted to create a garden plot or at least grow a few tomatoes for a salad.

Maybe you’ve never tried gardening at all but you’re curious to try it, to join those who are growing their own food and picking flowers from their yards.

Everyone has to start somewhere. Even if you’ve never grown so much as a pansy, the following steps will get you and your garden up and running.

Select your site. Ideally your plot will get 6-8 hours of full sun per day. If such a site is not available, be sure to buy crops specifically intended to grow in the shade. If you don’t have adequate flat space, explore other outdoor space like patios, pass-throughs, or decks. You can still get a lot of usable space by planting in large boxes and having plants climb up trellises, which many love to do. Your space needn’t be too large. A 10×10 foot plot can support a few rows of different crops. Often gardeners get overly ambitious and plant more than they can reasonably maintain. If your site is traveled by munching animals, such as deer, you will want to construct some kind of fence around it.

Prepare the soil. Use a pitchfork to loosen the ground, preferably down to about 8 inches. Clear the surface with a heavy-duty rake. Break up dirt clods and pull weeds. These can be added to a compost, if you’ve chosen to compost. If you wish, you can buy packaged soil for a nice even top layer that will have some nutrients in it, especially if you suspect your soil is poor. (You can always take a sample into your local garden-supply store for an opinion.) Either way, some sort of packaged fertilizer should be added as well. A general mix for new plantings is usually good, but the folks at the garden center may have more specific advice based on your soil and what you’d like to grow, as well as how much organic matter you want to add. Always water thoroughly before adding fertilizer. (And have kids wash hands after handling.)

If possible, plan some paths in your garden. They will make it easy to water, weed, and harvest without stepping on plants. Some people cover the paths with tanbark or other material (available at garden-supply stores) to mark them and to discourage plants from taking root there. Make sure you have a good path for your hose and a water source.

Plant the seeds or seedlings. For most people, this part is especially fun. Follow the packet instructions for seed spacing and conditions. You may want to lay a line of string as a guide, or create a furrow. Some stores carry seed tapes, which you just lay down in a straight row. Tapes are great for tiny hard-to-handle seeds like carrots, which can be difficult, even for adults. Large, easy-to-plant and -grow seeds include nasturtium and pea. If you’re planting bedding plants, be sure to give each lots of room to spread out and grow. Try to anticipate the heights of your plants to get the tallest ones into the back.

Fertilize. If you didn’t add fertilizer to the bed while preparing the soil, you’ll want to add a little bit while planting. There are fertilizers on the market that are designed specifically for new growth. Your local garden center is the best bet to point you toward a good fertilizer for your garden and conditions. Many people fertilize plants again at about six weeks into the growing process.

If you are gardening in containers, get the biggest containers you have space and money for. Check for adequate drainage holes. If you don’t have good drainage, you can add netting or pieces of broken pottery to the bottom of the pot. You may also want to add perlite, which will aerate the soil while helping it retain moisture. Fertilize as you would in a garden plot.

Water your plants or seeds. New transplants and freshly planted seeds like lots of water. The best kind of watering is done gently and deeply, so that the water soaks through to the growing roots of the plants. Once your plants are established, you will probably need to water every other day or so when the weather is sunny. (Plants in containers usually need water more often than plants in the ground.) If a plant droops during the day, or the soil feels dry more than a couple of inches down, it needs water. It’s best not to water in bright sunshine because the sun can evaporate the water or even cause burned spots on the plants.

Keep up the good work. Continue watering and caring for plants as needed. This can include pulling out obvious weeds and cutting back any growth that has died or become unattractive.

Be sure to harvest what you’ve grown. Sometimes I’ve been so proud of my work and/or not sure when to harvest that I’ve let plants go past the point when they’re edible or useful and all the way to seed. Take a chance and cut and enjoy what you’ve done. More will usually grow back!

Get comfortable. There are lots of items available to make gardening more comfortable. I suggest knee pads, if you’re going to be doing a lot of kneeling, a sun hat to protect your skin, and old shoes you don’t mind getting dirty or gardening clogs made specifically to get wet and dirty. (A pair of gardening clogs lasts for years. They’re also very comfortable and you can leave them outside.) Most people like gardening gloves and there are a range of them on the market. I find them irresistible to buy at gardening and hardware stores, with their cute patterns, but I almost always end up taking them off and getting my hands really dirty — the better to feel the plants, the dirt, and what I’m doing.

Have fun entering one of the oldest and most rewarding hobbies around!

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5 responses to “Gardening 101: How to Get Growing, Even if You’re a Total Beginner

  1. Suz, I love this post. Maybe because I just planted my first garden this spring. I still have the enthusiasm & excitement of a newbie. Great tips!

  2. I’ve been gardenphobic my entire life. I read this with the tiniest smidgen of hope. I’ve just never been able to keep anything green alive!

  3. i can attest that there is a learning curve to growing veggies. first, you need to check the seed package to be sure you are planting them at the right time for your zone.

    2) lasagna gardening makes for superb soil with oodles of worms.

    3) germinating from seeds takes some experience. i haven’t gotten there yet. this years beets, & chives are doing well in my asheville garden (cold season). several years ago i planted peas & beans in june & they both did marvelously. go figure (peas are cold season). the past 2 years i got the peas in in late march – nothing.

    4) planting seedlings are much more successful, esp. for beginners.

    5) herbs in pots from seedlings are easy. keep them near the kitchen door for easy access during cooking. its such a luxury to have a private fresh herb garden at one’s disposal to cook with.

    6) grow organic.

    7)rain barrels & soaker hoses make an eco-friendly watering system.

    6) keep trying. every year you learn something so that next year’s crops improve.

  4. Hi Debi, Susan and Kath! Thanks for your great comments and your obvious enthusiasm for gardening. Definitely, all keep me posted on how your gardens are growing.

    Debi, I’ve watched yours start on your blog and on the blog, Loving Nature’s Garden. I think you got some wonderful tips and your enthusiasm and desire, along with your helpers’ energy will carry you through.

    Susan, as someone who once killed a cactus, I can tell you Now’s the time! Give it a try on something small and tell us how it goes.

    Kath, I know you and I have shared a love of gardening over the years and that you have become quite an accomplished gardener on your plot in North Carolina. Thank you for adding these great tips and encouragement. I do like the big seeds for easy planting and prolific growth (especially for kids), like nasturtium and pea, and of course paying attention to your own soil conditions and weather.

    Right now we have spinach and pea doing nicely from seed. I’ve got the kitchen “snippers” — oregano and sage. And I have some seedlings out for quick color (stock and cosmos) and for tall plants (sunflowers) that don’t do well in my foggy summers and need all the help they can get up front.

    Also, just found this post about lasagna gardening: I had no idea about it. (It’s a bit much for my little deck garden, but it sounds like it would help the right garden completely flourish!)

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