Many people love the idea of a garden, but don’t know how to get started. These tips for a beginner’s garden will help you be more successful, wherever you live.
Fresh, sun-ripened tomatoes are the most common reason people start gardening, but don’t stop there. With just a little space and water, you can grow your own lettuces, radishes, beets, herbs, and more. But start small. Pick one space, a single garden theme, and just a few plants. Pace yourself. Gardeners are in it for the long haul.
Before you get started, you need to know that gardening has changed in recent years. Behind us, hopefully, are the days of ravaging rototillers and cascading chemicals. We have learned a lot about microorganisms that live in the soil. These microscopic creatures actually feed our plants and improve our mood! Extensive digging and plowing disrupt these microorganisms, slowing the transfer of nutrients to our plants. So, save your back and your plants by keeping digging to a minimum.
We have also learned that it is far better to encourage beneficial insects than to spray chemicals when fighting garden pests. Instead of poisoning our food and our soil, we now add a few umbrella-shaped flowers and let Mother Nature do most of the work.
Will your garden be perfect? Will it look like the cover of a magazine? No, it won’t. Real gardens rarely do. And that’s okay. What I can tell you is that when those first seeds germinate, when you harvest your first tomato, when you gift a friend a jar of home grown dried oregano, you will feel amazing. So let’s start gardening!
From the ground up
An inexpensive soil test from a reputable lab is the best investment you can make in your garden. And you can forget those colorful plastic tube kits you see in stores. They may look like a great idea but they are not (yet) accurate enough to be useful. Sending out a sample for testing every 3 to 5 years can save you countless hours and dollars by telling you actually what is missing from your soil and what is in excess. All too often, new gardeners create more problems than they resolve by automatically adding fertilizer every time things don’t look the way they do in magazines and seed catalogs.
Adding unnecessary fertilizer can create nutrient imbalances that make it difficult for plants to absorb the nutrients they need. A soil test will also tell you the soil’s pH, and that’s important, too. Soil can be acidic, alkaline, or neutral. Most plant nutrients can only be absorbed when soil pH is between 6.0 and 7.5. If you soil is outside of that range, you may need to acidify or lime it. These things are not difficult, but you need to know if they need doing and a soil test will tell you.
Set the stage
Most plants need 8 or more hours of direct sunlight each day. This is especially true for fruits and vegetables. Find a spot in your yard that gets plenty of sunshine. Then, prepare that space for gardening by getting rid of weeds and other unwanted plants. Until recently, people used cardboard to block weeds because it sounded like a good idea. We now know that it’s a horrible idea. Cardboard and layers of newspaper attract termites and voles. Instead, contact local arborists and ask about free loads of wood chips. Mulching an area with a 4″ layer of wood chips stabilizes soil temperatures, retains moisture, blocks weeds, and, eventually, improves soil structure. Mulching with wood chips is one of the best things you can do for your soil, and it’s free. In fact, you can use those chips everywhere you don’t already have something growing. It looks nice and it improves soil health, making your next gardening project that much easier.
What lives where you are?
Looking at what already grows well in your yard can tell you what will grow easily in your garden. If most of your weeds are clovers, then other legumes, such as peas and beans, should grow well. If your regular weeds are more of the mustard variety, then the cabbage family will love your yard.
Identify your Hardiness Zone. Your Hardiness Zone is a number or number-letter combination that identifies how cold your winters get. This is important when it comes to plant selection. Most plant labels and seed packets will tell you if a specific plant will perform well in your zone. Of course, each yard is different. The variables of sun, wind, rain, slope, and soil make up your microclimate. As you garden, you will learn more about your microclimate and which plants are best suited to it.
Contact your local County Extension Office or Department of Agriculture for recommendations, while you’re at it. They have plant specific growing, pest, and disease information for your region. There’s no sense re-inventing the wheel, right?
When deciding which plants you want in your garden, you will see notes about sun exposure. This is valuable information and you should use it. “Full sun” means 8 or more hours of direct sunlight every day. “Partial sun” means 4 to 6 hours of sunlight in the afternoon. “Partial shade” means 4 hours of morning sun. Shade means bright dappled sun all day or 2 hours of direct morning sun. Putting plants in the wrong location is a waste of time and money.
As tempting as it may be to order everything that looks good from the glossy pages of a seed and plant catalog, don’t do it. Start small. Taking on too much in the beginning can be discouraging. Pick just a few plants to start and learn about what works for you and your garden. You can expand over time, as you learn more. And you will. You may decide you have the space for a fruit cocktail tree or an artichoke bush. Maybe rhubarb and asparagus are better suited to your space.
The possibilities really are amazing! Once you know what will grow in your yard, you can really run with it. But not at first. Taking care of a garden requires effort and water. Speaking of water, avoid overhead watering, as this can translate into many fungal diseases that are difficult to get rid of, once they are in place.
Finally, resist the urge to use grocery store plants and seeds in your garden. While it seems convenient and inexpensive, these plants are not certified disease-free or pathogen-free. They may be safe to eat, but adding them to your garden can introduce pests and diseases that may take years to be resolve.
For you experienced gardeners, what plants were in your first garden? What worked and what didn’t? Let us know in the Comments!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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