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Advice for Beginning Gardeners

Updated: Apr 12

Advice for Beginning Gardeners

Becoming a successful gardener is a skill that comes with a lot of practice and a healthy dose of trial and error. If you’re new to gardening, or perhaps you’ve tried to garden in the past with little success, then this article is for you. The truth is, I think it’s possible that we all have green thumbs, and what we lack is practical knowledge.

Before the pandemic, I had never actually managed even to keep a houseplant alive. But we had moved into a sunny light-filled home with floor-to-ceiling windows, and I just knew it needed to be filled with plants. So I did what I always do, researched it to within an inch of its life, and managed to keep a thriving population of succulents alive and well.

When we moved to our homestead, I knew that having a garden and using it to feed our family, was a top priority. But I worried, can I, the former killer of house plants, really manage an entire garden?? Again, I dove into my research. And in the end, we had an astoundingly successful garden that thrived well beyond my or anyone else's expectations.

The First Rule of Gardening

Soil. I can’t say this enough. Often I hear people say they can’t grow anything in their garden, and the first thing I ask is about their soil. For a garden to thrive, you need nutrient-rich well-drained, weed-free, non-compacted soil. Your average plant will fail to thrive in poor soil. Before you start on your gardening journey, spend some time learning the soil makeup of your proposed garden space. You can start by testing your soil quality to help decide what if any additives your soil will need to produce a healthy garden.

Keep in mind that if you have poor soil quality, it may take more than one season to amend your land, but it can be done and several plants will grow even in poor soil. Keep a look out for future posts about plants that thrive in poor soil as we as how, when, and why to use different soil amendments.

DIY Soil Test

Pick the Right Location

Most vegetables require a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight per day. When choosing your garden location, keep this in mind and select the space around your home that gets the most light. An important thing to remember is that light exposure is one of the most important aspects there is. If the space in your yard that gets the most light is rocky or sloped or has poor soil, you can always bring in the soil to build up the space, grow in containers or amend the existing soil. But, no amount of wishing will bring the sun to you.

Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

My motto in life has always been, go big or go home. But this is a recipe for disaster if you’re new to gardening. Gardens require maintenance, weeding, watering, pruning, and harvesting. On a large scale, all of these things can quickly become overwhelming. When you’re just starting, start small, learn as you go, and plan to increase in size little by little each year.

Rainbow Beets
Rainbow beets from last years garden

Remember to Plan Ahead

A successful garden is one that’s planned out in advance. A good gardener can make growing look easy, but there’s more to gardening than just putting seeds in the ground and watching them grow.

It pays to think through your garden project before you start ordering seeds and plants. Otherwise, you may find that you have varieties that won’t grow in your region, or soil type, and your garden could be doomed before you start. For more information on how to plan your first garden, check out the article below.

How to Plan A Garden

Select the Right Plants

This is an important one, and something a beginner gardener might not know. Every region belongs to what is called a USDA Hardiness Zone. Selecting plants that thrive in the zone you belong to can greatly impact the success or failure of your garden. Additionally, you will need to know your first and last frost dates as the length of your growing season will be a determining factor in whether your plants thrive.

Be Mindful of Plant Spacing

If plants are crowded, they will compete for light, water, and nutrients, resulting in weaker crops. Additionally, plants that are spaced too close will have less airflow and be more susceptible to fungal infections. When planning your garden and planting your crops, always follow the spacing recommendations on the back of the seed packet, or plant tag.

Don’t Plant Too Early or Too Late

It’s the bane of gardeners everywhere, the minute that snow melts and the ground thaws, it can be so tempting to jump right in and get your garden going early. On the flip side, in the dog days of summer, it can be easy to envision summer being endless.

But, keep in mind, a surprise spring freeze, or early fall frost can and will kill your crops.

To avoid this heartbreaking disaster, make sure you research the expected first and last frost dates for your region. You can find out your frost dates, by entering your zip code here.

When selecting and purchasing seeds and plants, the zone hardiness instructions can be found on most seed packets, so always make sure to look before you buy.

Protect You Plants From Frost

Get Your Water Schedule Right

It’s no surprise that plants just like people require water, but the amount varies from plant to plant and their needs will change as they grow. Under or overwatering can damage or even kill a plant, especially immature ones.

Take time to get to know the hydration needs of each crop you plan to grow and try to stick to a consistent watering schedule. When considering companion planting, pair plants with similar water needs to help simplify watering frequency.

If your plants are showing signs of thirst, such as drooping, before watering check your soil. Do this by inserting a finger 2” into the soil near the plant. If it is dry add water if it is moist, don’t. Plants can be tricky creatures. They can and will droop in the heat, even if they aren’t dehydrated.

Plan to water early morning or early evening, never during the heat of the day. Watering mid-day can cause the water to evaporate before it has time to seep into the soil.

Stay on Top of the Weeds

Depending on your personality type, wedding falls into one of two categories, absolute pain or pure therapy. Personally, the satisfaction of pulling a weed out by its root always brings me joy, so I don’t mind weeding all that much. Either way, weeds can rob nutrients from your crops and need to be removed from your garden regularly.

Mulched Garden
Our lettuce cabbage and chard mulched in straw

Getting Mulch Right

Mulch is a beautiful thing. Done right it can add aesthetic appeal, increase moisture retention, stabilize soil temperatures and decrease weed population. But there’s more to mulching than just tossing it onto your beds.

Too much mulch can pile up around the base of your plant stems causing root rot. Too little mulch and weeds may grow freely causing your plants to fail to thrive. A good rule of thumb is to apply 2” once your plants have reached about 6” tall.

Neglecting to Prune Your Plants

New gardeners tend to be hesitant to prune their plants for fear of damaging it. The truth is that pruning away dead and damaged leaves and steams serves two purposes. One, it will help to maintain healthy airflow around your plants which will reduce the possibility of fungal infections. Two, it will help to stimulate new growth, resulting in more flowers that will inevitably bring more food.

Expecting Every Plant to Thrive

Expecting everything you plant the first time out to thrive will only result in disappointment. Experienced gardeners understand that not every plant will thrive, and know to weather disappointment and celebrate success.

My first year, as I said I had an exceptionally abundant garden. Everything grew with one exception. My cucumbers. Six plants produced a total of 8 fruits. On the flip side, 6 pumpkin pants produced an astounding 25 pumpkins! I later learned that I had planted my cucumbers in the wrong spot, under our apricot tree where they were left to fight for the same nutrients as the tree. The lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, and tomatoes planted under the same tree, however, thrived.

It’s little bits of knowledge like this that will only come with experience, so give yourself the time to learn.

Grow What you Love, and Love What You Grow

Gardening has a learning curve, and there will be growing pains (pun intended) along the way. The important part is to grow what you love and to love the process of growing it. Each season every gardener from novice to pro finds that they make mistakes, and learn new lessons. This is part of the experience. It’s a learn-as-you-go kind of art.

Are you ready to get your hands dirty this year? We’d love to hear all about your garden plans in the comments below, and if you have any additional advice for beginning gardeners, be sure to leave that too! Be sure to join our mailing list to be updated about our newest gardening articles. And, until next time,

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Advice for Beginning Gardeners

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