Simple Gardening: 10 Steps for Beginning Gardeners

Peppers

If you’ve been thinking about starting a garden for awhile now, you’re not alone. Adding a garden is top of mind for many homeowners who don’t have one, and countless others have given the idea at least a passing thought. The main reasons people don’t plant gardens of their own are that they feel maintenance will take too much time, they think they don’t have enough space or the right spot, or they’re not sure how to get started. 

The truth is it does take some planning to choose the proper place and other elements to successfully begin a garden, but with some preparation, you can customize your garden to be as high maintenance – or not – as you want. Here’s how to get started…

1) Choose your garden type

Do you want to grow vegetables? Herbs? Flowers? A mix of all? Before you choose where to plant, you must decide what you’ll plant. Easy-to-grow vegetables include lettuces, peppers, and cucumbers; herbs can be grown quite easily on a windowsill if you want to keep it super simple; and flowers come as either annuals, which must be replanted each year or perennials, which have shorter bloom times but re-bloom year after year. Hearty annuals include marigolds, impatiens, and geraniums, and good beginner perennials are black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, and pansies. 

Whatever you go with, choose plants adapted to your climate, soil, and available sunlight in your garden. Another tip? Start small. It’s better to get your hands wet with a few plants than keep up with a bunch when you’re just learning. A 4×4 garden is small, but adequate for beginners who are getting their garden legs steady. So, grow just a few plants of each of the vegetables and herbs that you eat most often.

Keep in mind that containers can make wonderful gardens if you are limited by space. Herbs and vegetables do well in containers, just make sure the container is deep enough and that you allow enough room for each plant to grow (check plant tags for maximum height/width).

Hula How 

2) Choose the right tools

It’s best to avoid cheap plastic gardening tools if you can help it. Quality tools are sized properly for your hands, and will save you effort and back pain. Keep your tools clean and sharp and in good working condition.

Clean by removing dried mud with a wire brush and wash in water. Dry tools completely and remove rust with steel wool. Sharpen with a metal file, and then coat blades and handles with mineral oil or WD-40 to prevent rust and to keep wood from splitting.

Essential tools you’ll need include:

    • Hoe
    • Pruner(s)
    • Trowel
    • Weeding tool
    • Garden fork
    • Spade

compost in planter   

3) Find a place

It’s best to find a location that receives at least six hours of sun a day because most plants you’ll grow thrive in full light conditions. If you want to get really serious about your garden spot, observe your chosen area for an entire day and watch how the sun moves across the soil. You’ll soon see if the area receives more or less sun than you thought. If less, check tags for the plans you want to grow at your local nursery to find out if they can still grow well in partial shade. 

Also, locate your garden where you can see it easily, so you are reminded to check on it daily. Place your garden close to a water source, too, so you won’t be dragging hoses or buckets a mile to water. If you’re going big, Plan walkways, and planting beds that are the appropriate size to make harvesting and pulling weeds simple. Assume you’ll place taller plants toward the back and shorter plants closer to the front.

Cymbidium orchid (hybrid) at Kew Gardens

4) Know your dirt, or fix it

Buy a basic soil test kit online or in a hardware stores and test where you’ll plant for the right balance of soil pH, the nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), and organic matter. For optimum growth, soil should have a proper pH somewhere between 6.2 and 7.2. Adjust soil with organic material such as compost to balance pH. Amending soil with lime will raise its pH level, and sulfur will lower the pH.

It’s generally a good idea to add a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost or dry grass clippings, or old manure and rototill the organic matter into the soil. If you’re not in a hurry, you can also leave the organic matter on the surface to work its way into the soil, which will take a few months. Break up any hard, packed soil with a garden fork. Alternatively, you can buy bagged soil, which can be found at a garden center or nursery.

If you are getting rid of sod in the area where you plan to plant, you can either dig the sod out or choke it out with a layer of five to 10 sheets of newspaper. Spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost on the newspaper and wait until the compost and paper decompose, which can take up to four months.

5) Pick your plants

There’s a few ways to select the plants you’ve decided to grow. Either visit a garden center, review a garden catalog, or order seeds online. Some good place around the Web for seed purchasing include Pinetree Garden Seeds, Fedco Seeds, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. If you buy from a garden center, as a reminder, read the plant tags and do some research before deciding what to plant.

Quick tip? Buy perennials in one-gallon pots because smaller perennials take longer to grow and flower. This isn’t an issue with annuals, which grow to a mature size quickly.

When buying plants look for healthy root growth and leaves and avoid yellowed, browned, or stunted leaves.

Also, as previously mentioned, some flowers and vegetables are easier to grow than others. Below are some recommendations:

Vegetables

    • Lettuce
    • Tomatoes
    • Cucumbers
    • Carrots
    • Radishes
    • Green beans
    • Zucchini

Herbs

    • Basil
    • Mint
    • Dill

Perennials

    • Blanket flower
    • Goldenrod
    • Peonies
    • Daylilies
    • Black-eyed Susans
    • Lamb’s Ear

Annuals

    • Marigolds
    • Calendula
    • Cosmos
    • Morning Glory
    • Sunflowers
    • Zinnias

 Simple Gardening: 10 Steps for Beginning Gardeners

 

6) Prepare to plant

For Southern California beginner gardeners, nearly any season is an acceptable season to plant. In other parts of the country, gardeners will want to consult the last frost date as a guide as to when to plant. Mid-spring and mid-autumn are excellent times to plant perennial flowers. Check a local garden center for a list of recommended planting dates. 

When you plant, remember that digging loosens the soil to let roots penetrate easier. Dig in moist, but not wet soil, use a spade to turn the top 12 inches of soil, mix in organic matter, and plant. Some plants, like lettuce and sunflowers, can be simply grown from seed and sown in the garden. Read all seed packets for information about when to plant, how deep, and how far apart seeds should be planted. If you want to first sow seeds indoors, plant them in containers in seed-starting soil mixes, follow packet instructions, and leave the seeds to sprout in their containers in a sunny indoor spot.

7) Mulch

To help prevent weeds and retain water in the soil, cover dirt with two inches of mulch. For a vegetable garden or annual bed, pick a mulch type that decomposes in after several weeks. Perennials can be surrounded by longer-lasting mulch, including bark chips.

Hose water conservation

8) Water

Water seedlings and new transplants daily when they are still small and roots are being established. As the plants get larger, you can cut back on daily watering and water how often you need depending on your soil, climate, and plant type. Water deeply, so the water soaks in, and water in the early morning to prevent evaporation.

In dry areas such as San Diego, consider using a drip irrigation system to get the water deep in the soil to the roots. 

9) Use organic gardening methods

Organic gardening is just plain healthier for you and better for the environment overall, and should ideally be used in all home gardening cases. Take a look here for natural pest control methods, and in general, try to avoid chemical/synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.

 Growing a Home Garden

10) Harvest

Pick mature vegetables and herbs often to stimulate new growth and enjoy your new garden’s bounty!

Your Turn…

Few things give as much satisfaction as those you’ve grown or created yourself. Starting a garden can be fun – with the right planning – and healthy. Like we said, start small to get the hang of it, and then get the whole family involved and make some gardening memories! What are your gardening tips?