Gardening for Beginners: 12 Simple Steps to Starting Your Own Garden
Get started with your very own garden with these easy tips on gardening for beginners…
There are so many amazing benefits to growing a garden! But if you’re just getting started and have never gardened before, it can seem intimidating. The good news is, gardening can be much easier than you may think! Getting started with gardening for beginners is simply a matter of doing a bit of planning, and starting simple with just the basics. As your garden grows and you get more comfortable with growing your own food, you can add more tricky crops or complex growing methods to your plot.
Below are 12 steps to getting started with gardening for beginners:
1.) Choose a Location
The first step in planning out your garden is deciding where it will be located. Depending on your living situation, this may be a simple patio container garden, or a larger, raised bed plot. Even if you have plenty of space available for your garden, it’s still best to start small if you’re a beginner. Otherwise, it can be easy for your garden to get out of control and create too much work for you to maintain. Consider how much time you have available to devote to garden tasks like planting, weeding, and harvesting. There are certainly methods you can use to minimize these tasks (like mulching, irrigation systems, etc.), but you will still need to dedicate a certain amount of time each week to maintaining your garden. If your time is limited, take this into consideration when planning the size of your garden.
You will also want to consider other aspects when siting your garden, such as its proximity to a water source, and, most importantly, the amount of sunlight your garden will receive. Most plants do best with at least 6-8 hours per day of full sun during the growing season. This doesn’t mean you can’t grow a garden in a more shaded area, but it will limit the types of crops you can successfully grow, so you’ll definitely want to choose a sunny spot if at all possible. That said, if you live in a warm climate, some shade may be preferable, and you’ll need to consider your weather (including high and low temperatures) during the growing season to choose a location that is appropriate for your area.
If your area gets a lot of rain or has poor-draining soil, make sure you aren’t placing your garden in a low spot where water will collect. Not only will this make for a mucky and unpleasant garden experience, but wet roots can also rot, causing damage to your garden plants or even loss of crops altogether. Standing water can also attract mosquitoes and cause plant diseases to spread.
If you live in a flat area that can get windy, you will also want to consider this when choosing a location for your garden. In very windy areas, you may need to provide additional support for plants, plant or build a windbreak, or grow in a sheltered location such as near a building that can provide some protection.
2.) Decide What to Grow
When deciding what to grow in your new garden, you’ll first want to consider what vegetables you and your family enjoy eating. If you hate turnips, for example, don’t grow them – even though they are a quick and easy crop to grow! In general, beginning gardeners should choose crops that are easy to grow and productive. This way, you’ll get a reliable reward for your labors and be inspired to add more crops as you gain confidence! You may also want to choose high-value crops that are expensive to buy or hard to find at the grocery store, and easy to grow at home.
However, you also need to take into account which plants grow best in your particular location and climate. For example, if you live in an extreme Northern area where the growing season is very short, you’ll want to choose short-season crops, and avoid ones that take several months to produce a crop, such as peppers or okra. Learn your gardening zone and first and last frost dates for your area, and match this with the average time to maturity for the crops you want to grow (this is usually listed on the seed packet if you’re growing from seed).
Again, consider the amount of available sunlight when choosing crops to grow. If your area is partially shaded, try greens, herbs, or root vegetables. If you have full sun in your garden area all day, you’ll have many more options available such as sun-loving tomatoes, peppers, melons, corn, or beans.
You’ll also want to consider the space you have available for your garden. If you only have a small amount of growing space, choose smaller or more compact crops, and avoid large vining crops that sprawl out on the ground and take up a lot of space like pumpkins or melons. Or consider growing vining crops vertically to save space. Vertical gardening can be a great way to maximize your growing space and allow you to grow crops that may otherwise take up too much room.
Lastly, don’t forget some flowers! Flowers such as marigolds or borage not only add some lovely color to your garden, but they also attract beneficial pollinators and may help to repel pests.
3.) Plan What Type of Garden You Want
Once you’ve decided on your location, available space, and types of crops you want to grow, you can plan out what type of garden you’ll design. This doesn’t have to be complicated. You can start with a simple container garden if you don’t have a lot of space available. If you have a lot of space, raised beds look nice and make it easier to weed, plant, and harvest. However, they also dry out more quickly, so they may not be suitable for hot, dry areas.
Regardless, you’ll want to plant your plants in a grid pattern rather than single rows in order to maximize growing space and minimize soil compaction caused by walking between your plants. Size your beds appropriately to avoid stepping on or into beds as much as possible. I find 4′ wide is about the maximum width that is comfortable to reach into for weeding and harvesting, and 8-10 feet in length works well.
Feel free to get as creative as you like when designing your garden! Keyhole gardens are fun to build if you’re handy, productive, and easy to maintain. Square foot gardening or lasagna gardening beds are also easy ways to maximize your growing space without a lot of work.
4.) Gather Your Tools & Supplies
The next step is to get a few basic garden tools to maintain your garden. There is no need to spend a lot of money on expensive equipment. When I had my little apartment garden, I didn’t have any space to store a bunch of tools, and I did just fine with just a little set of hand tools, a spade, and a garden fork, along with a hose and watering can. Now that I have a big garden with a garage to store more stuff, I have a lot more tools, but I can honestly say that the short list of items I mentioned above are still all that I use most of the time! Other good tools to have on hand if you have the space to store them include a hoe, a rake, and a wheelbarrow. I also love this small hand hoe, and of course, I can’t garden without my trusty garden gloves and garden shoes!
5.) Prepare Your Soil
Now that you’ve got some garden tools, it’s time to prepare your soil! If you are growing in containers, you may just want to purchase a good organic potting mix. However, if you have a large garden area, purchasing a lot of soil to fill a bunch of raised beds can add up very quickly. Instead, I usually opt to work the existing soil and build up the beds from the soil that already exists in my garden space. If you are planting in a brand new space that was covered in sod grass or weeds, a lasagna garden may be a good way to get started. You can dig out the outline of your beds, piling the excavated soil on top of a layer of newspaper or cardboard. Then alternate layers of soil, straw, compost, leaves, or whatever materials you have on hand to form your beds. If you have access to wood chips or leaves, mulching the pathways between the beds with these is very helpful to promote drainage and reduce weed growth.
When preparing new garden beds in this manner, it may be best to start in the fall, so that your beds have time to stabilize over the winter and allow the soil insects and microorganisms to help decompose the organic matter and enrich the soil for spring planting.
Once your garden is established, you will want to continue adding compost and organic matter such as leaves, grass clippings, and mulch to help build and enrich the soil over the years. Healthy soil is the most important component for healthy plants, so take the time to help yours be the best it can be! With just a bit of maintenance, your soil will get better and better every year.
6.) Plant Your Garden
Once your beds are prepared and spring has arrived, it’s time to plant! You have several options for planting, depending on your location, crops you plan to grow, and available time and resources. If you live in a moderate or cool climate and are on a limited budget, starting seeds indoors a few weeks before it’s time to plant outside can help extend your growing season, while saving you money on purchased seedlings. However, it’s also a bit more work up front, and requires some advance planning. Personally, I like to start most of my seeds myself, but I purchase seedlings of plants that are difficult to germinate from seed, like celery or certain herbs. Growing your own seedlings also gives you much more freedom of choice when it comes to varieties.
This handy planting calendar will give you some tips on when to plant what in your area, and this PDF from the USDA also has helpful charts on plant spacing and planting depth for many common plants.
Most seed packets or seedlings will come with planting instructions, but here are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind:
- Plant seeds approximately 3 times as deep as the diameter of the seed, unless otherwise directed on the package. Some seeds require light for germination, while others need a certain temperature – such as peppers, which take a long time to germinate and require warm soil. A germination mat can prove helpful if you’re growing crops that like warm soil for germination.
- Plant seedlings out at approximately the same depth as they were growing in their pot. Tomatoes can be planted deeper – up to their first true leaves – which will give them a good, deep start to their root system.
- Don’t plant warm-weather crops such as tomatoes, peppers, melons, cucumbers, or squash outside until after danger of frost is past. (I usually wait at least a week or two past this date just to be safe.)
- Seedlings – whether purchased or grown from seed – should be gradually acclimated to the outdoors before planting out in the garden. To do this, you can place your seedlings outside under a screen or in partial shade for just a few hours per day, gradually working up to a full day in the sun. Once it’s above 45 at night, you can also start leaving them out at night for a few days until you are ready to plant them out. This process is called hardening off, and helps to minimize transplant shock which can kill delicate young seedlings.
- Plant taller crops such as tomatoes, sweet corn, okra, or climbing crops on a trellis on the north side of your garden so they don’t shade smaller plants. Alternatively, plan your garden so that cooler-weather crops such as salad greens or radishes can take advantage of that shade as the weather warms up.
- Keep days-to-maturity in mind. This can be very helpful in knowing when your crops will be ready for harvest, as well as in planning succession plantings. Stagger your plantings of quick-maturing crops such as lettuce or radishes, so they aren’t all ready at once! By planting a row or so every couple of weeks, you can ensure an ongoing harvest for a longer amount of time.
Make sure you give each plant enough room to grow. They may start out small, but many plants can get quite large when full-grown. Overcrowded plants will be more prone to diseases and will have difficulty thriving and producing well. Make sure to follow the spacing recommendations given on the seed packet or seedling pot when planting out in the garden.
7.) Mulch It
The 6 steps above provide the basics of gardening for beginners for getting started. However, if you really want your garden to be successful, these next 6 steps are also important. Mulching is one of the most overlooked steps to creating a healthy, bountiful, and low-maintenance garden. This is a shame, as mulch has so many wonderful benefits for your garden, and it can usually be found quite cheaply in most areas! Mulching reduces weeds, keeps the soil moist, provides nutrients to the soil as it decomposes, and can help keep soil-borne diseases at bay. Basically, it cuts down on the amount of work you will need to do in your garden on all fronts!
Depending on where you live, you may be able to find cheap sources of bark or chipped wood mulch. Many times, you can find this for free via local arborists or tree trimmers – and they will often even deliver it right to your door. Some municipalities may also offer free mulch for those who want to come and pick it up from a central location. In some areas, wood mulch may be more difficult to find, but you may be able to find bulk pine needles, straw, shavings, or leaves at a good price. Use whatever is locally available, and put a good layer of a couple of inches in your growing areas, and more in the pathways between your beds. If you’re growing in containers, put a few inches of mulch in the top of each pot to keep the soil from drying out between waterings.
We use leaves or grass clippings from our own (chemical-free) lawn for mulching our garden beds, and wood chips for the pathways. Not only have we seen a significant (about 90%) decrease in weeds over the past few years, but the chips also soak up all the excess water which otherwise tends to pool and stand for days on our hard clay soil whenever we get a big rain.
8.) Feed Your Garden
Most types of mulch will break down over time and add nutrients to your soil, but you’ll also want to use some type of fertilizer for feeding your plants to encourage a bountiful harvest. Compost is by far the best soil amendment, as it is rich in organic matter and balanced with numerous microorganisms that help improve soil health. Purchased compost is available and in some areas, you may be able to get bulk compost at a much cheaper price – especially if you have a truck and are able to pick it up yourself.
Making your own compost is a great way to go and the most budget-friendly. It’s also very easy, but it does take some time, so if you’re eager to get your garden started, you may wish to purchase compost for your first garden season and build a compost pile for next year. You will want to add an inch or two of compost to your garden beds each year before planting and work it into the top layer of soil before adding mulch. (Don’t worry about digging it in very deeply – the worms will take care of that!) Compost tea is also a great soil amendment and may also be used as a foliar feed.
Other soil amendments can be used if your soil is deficient in specific minerals. You’ll want to do a soil test first to see what your soil needs, and then you can purchase appropriate amendments. Be sure to choose organic options whenever possible, and avoid fossil-fuel-based fertilizers. There are lots of great natural fertilizers that are awesome for your soil and cheap or even free – especially if you’re willing to get a bit creative. Manure is also a great form of fertilizer, but you’ll want to be careful and know your source, as some animal manures may be tainted with chemicals such as weed-killer residues, which can also kill your garden plants.
9.) Water As Needed
While some types of plants are more drought-tolerant than others, all plants need at least some water to grow and thrive. How often you need to water will depend largely on your soil type and your climate. Hot, dry climates – and container gardens – will require more frequent watering. Sandy soils dry out more quickly, while clay soils tend to hold more water, but they can also become waterlogged, which also isn’t good for your plants.
Most plants will need about 1″ of water per week during the growing season, and large garden may require substantial amounts of water during hot weather, so it’s best to set up some sort of irrigation system (drip irrigation is generally the most efficient and cost-effective, particularly if you cover the drip hoses with mulch to prevent evaporation). A rain barrel or other rainwater catchment system is also a great way to save money on watering, though it’s certainly not required when you’re just getting started.
10.) Keep the Weeds Down
Weeds aren’t just unsightly in the garden; they also compete with your plants for water and valuable nutrients. Some weeds are quite invasive if left unchecked, so it’s always best to weed early and often, before your weeds can take hold and take over. A sharp hoe can make quick work of small weeds.
You should always try to avoid letting weeds go to seed in and around your garden area, and although weeds can be great materials to add to your compost pile, be careful not to add any weeds that are in the process of going to seed, or you’ll end up spreading their seeds over your garden when you use the compost!
Covering weedy areas with cardboard or black plastic for a few weeks can be a good way to kill out stubborn patches of weeds. Once they are gone, be sure to mulch heavily to prevent them from coming back. Keeping a good layer of mulch on your soil at all times is the best prevention for weeds. Spreading mulch may be a bit of work at the beginning, but you’ll end up saving yourself hours and hours of weeding!
11.) Watch for Pests & Treat Early
Garden pests can be the bane of a gardener’s existence, but they don’t have to be! It is important to pay close attention to your plants for signs of an infestation. Look for holes chewed in leaves, missing leaves, plants cut off at the base (probably a cutworm), or small insect droppings on your plants. Taking steps to curb the problem before your pests multiply is key. Use organic treatment methods, encourage beneficial predator insects, and apply barriers if needed. Smart companion planting can help to attract beneficial insects and repel unwanted ones.
Barrier protection such as row cover is quite effective and doesn’t cost much. It works especially well for plants that don’t need pollination, such as salad greens, radishes, or brassicas like broccoli or cabbages. We use these to cover all of our brassicas to keep cabbage worms away and we have wonderful cabbages every summer and fall! The covers will usually last for several years if properly stored when not in use.
12.) Enjoy the Harvest!
Harvesting your bounty is the most rewarding part of gardening, so enjoy it! Learning new ways to cook your favorite veggie and experimenting with new recipes can be part of the fun. For best quality, pick your vegetables at peak ripeness, and close to when you’re going to eat them. Some crops, such as lettuce or other salad greens, may be picked over a long period of time. Snip off the outer leaves and they will continue adding new leaves for continued harvest. Quick-growing crops such as peas and beans should be picked every 2-3 days. If you leave them on the plant too long, they will become tough and stringy, and production may slow. Tomatoes and peppers should be picked when ripe for maximum flavor and sweetness. See this short video for more tips on how to know when to pick various vegetables
Getting started with gardening for beginners is not that difficult, and it can be extremely fun and rewarding! Just remember, gardening is a learning experience. If something doesn’t go right this year, adjust and try again next year. Learn from your mistakes. Grow with your garden. Remember that every garden season will be slightly different, and so will every garden. Enjoy the ride! 🙂