Gardening for Beginners: Your First Garden and More
Gardens are a tremendous way to add brightness, growth, and a sense of vitality to your living space. Flower gardens can brighten any yard and vegetable gardens offer a sustainable, home-grown source of food and nutrition.
Not only does gardening help the land, but it also has been proven to help our minds and bodies. Planting in a garden can improve our mood, aid mental health efforts, reduce stress levels, and increase self-esteem while helping you to keep fit and healthy. Gardeners can burn 209-236 calories per hour while planting and weeding. According to the American Horticulture Therapy Association, gardening can support physical therapy and muscle training.
For some, however, the idea of starting a garden may seem intimidating. You might be worried that you don’t have enough time to garden or that your small yard or apartment might not have enough space. You might also be worried that gardening takes too much planning or that it will be difficult to learn what plants need to survive and thrive.
These are common concerns. Yet gardening does not need to be overwhelming. In fact, most advice for novice gardeners revolves around starting small and adding more when you’re comfortable. Furthermore, options like container gardens and low-maintenance wildflower gardens all help to make gardening more manageable no matter what space you’re in.
Your First Garden
Your first garden will teach you to locate and evaluate your light sources, to supplement rainfall with watering your plants on a schedule and to start growing the kind of plants that excite you the most. While preparation is important for getting your plants in the ground, growing a garden is a long process and the steps do not all need to happen immediately.
Rather than forcing yourself to over plan and grow confused, remember that gardening really only requires you to follow a few basic steps to get started. To make sure that you don’t feel overwhelmed and have to neglect some of your plants, most gardeners recommend that you start small and build up your garden as you go year by year.
How to Set Up a Garden
Determine What Kind of Garden You Want to Grow
You have plenty of options. Some people garden to create beauty; growing flowers, interesting plants, and elegant arrangements. Others garden for functionality; growing fruits, vegetables, and useful herbs to have around the home. And by no means are the two mutually exclusive.
The first step in building a garden is knowing what kind of things you want to grow. Ask yourself what plants you’re excited about.
Are you trying to grow food, flowers, or plants that attract pollinators? Are you trying to create a pretty space for entertaining?
Additionally, be honest about how much time you have available. A small but beautiful and healthy garden can be every bit as rewarding as a larger garden space.
Pick a Spot
Picking a spot for your garden will primarily depend on your sun exposure. You can alter many aspects of your garden, including levels of soil, water, and fertilizer, but all plants require some amount of light to thrive.
In many cases, the light coverage of your space will depend on buildings that might be overshadowing you, shady trees, or structures in your yard, such as garages and sheds. It’s useful to categorize the parts of your planting space based on the amount of light each part receives.
Full Sun: Refers to a spot that receives six or more hours of sunlight a day.
Sunlight Exposure: A spot that receives three to six hours of sunlight a day.
Shade: A spot that is protected from sun exposure or receives three or fewer hours of sunlight a day.
Warmth is also important for your plants to grow. Sometimes warmth is classified as direct or partial sunlight, meaning whether you can feel the sun beating down, or whether it’s bright outside without a lot of heat. As a rule of thumb, sunlight coming from the west will feel hotter to your plants than sunlight coming from the east, which will feel cool.
Some plants scorch in the hot sun while others thrive. Drooping plants and burnt leaf edges are both signs that your plant is getting too much sun. A few options for limiting a plant’s sun exposure include using a removable cloth or structure to shade the plot or planting a sun-loving plant nearby that will provide shade. If your plants aren’t getting as much sun as they need, you can sometimes fix the problem by trimming an overly shady tree limb, moving the plant to a brighter spot, or supplementing their exposure with fluorescent lights.
Ready the Land
Depending on whether you want a flower garden or a vegetable garden, you will need to prepare the land for your plants.
If you are planting a flower garden, you will most likely want to create a flower bed. Depending on the environment, this might mean digging out or smothering the pre-existing grass, loosening and feeding the soil, and even laying down a layer of mulch.
Vegetable gardens can take many shapes, from the more traditional in-ground rows to the beginner-friendly container gardens and the raised beds that a lot of residential gardening experts gravitate toward.
Choose Your Plants
Selecting your plants is one of the most exciting and difficult parts of planning your garden. The plants you select will be reliant on two factors, environment and maintenance. Your environment includes how much sun you get, how hot your planting space is, soil type, drainage, and climate. When it comes to maintenance, you’ll have to consider how much time you have available to care for the plants, as some plants are higher maintenance than others and might require more frequent watering, have picky light placement and temperature sensitivity, or have additional humidity needs.
If you are planning a food or vegetable garden, then you can begin by considering what plants you will actually use in your cooking and what you like to eat.
If you have a plant in mind but aren’t sure whether it would enjoy your yard, use online resources to look up what the plant needs and what you can do to keep it happy. Looking up your plant hardiness zone will help you understand some of the information on the back of most seed packets, such as when to plant and harvest certain vegetables and when to expect flowers to bloom. If you’re still at a loss as to what would work well in your garden, you can use a native plant finder to look up what plants naturally grow where you live.
Things to Keep in Mind
Healthy Soil Makes Healthy Plants
Plants get their nutrients from their soil, meaning that some soils support plant growth better than others. You may need to test the pH of your soil as well as add fertilizer, organic material, and potting mixes. You can test your soil using soil samples and a kit of pH test strips, or with a DIY method, using vinegar and baking soda or cabbage water. In some cases, specific plant varieties will perform best with certain nutrient and acidity, or drainage and moisture levels.
There’s no need to overfeed your garden. You will probably notice, for example, that areas with a lot of shade will need less fertilizer. Be sparing with how much you feed your garden and avoid quick feeds such as Miracle Gro which will lead to impoverished soil. Instead, choose an organic feed that will break down slowly and feed the plant as required.
Make a Water Plan
Inconsistent watering, a lack of a water plan, or misunderstanding the water needs of a garden are the top reasons that plants may fall ill and fail. A simple plan or schedule can help you keep up with your plants’ needs.
While planning, remember that plants in sunnier plots will need more water than those with less sun exposure. Container gardens need to be watered more often than ground gardens. If you plan on watering your plants using a sprinkler, hose, or drencher, you will want to configure your garden plot so that water sources are close to where you’re planting.
Weather and Climate
Temperature and humidity are major factors in plant growth. The weather throws gardens a lot of unavoidable obstacles, such as high winds that may tear plants out of the ground, flooding that may overpower drainage techniques and rot roots, and overly hot days that can scorch plants. Having materials like cloth and ties can help to shade plants and protect them from winds in extreme conditions.
Time of Year
The best time to plant and prepare your garden begins in late spring and runs through the fall into early winter when the soil is still warm, the sun cooler, and the days shorter.
When it comes down to timing, you can start your seeds indoors and replant them outside when the ground is ready. This decreases the necessary maturity time-frame. You can also germinate seeds in the late winter and transplant them into your garden as soon as spring approaches and the plants are strong enough for planting.
Pests, Weeds, and Disease
Weeds are inevitable. However, they only pose a big problem to your garden when they compete with your plants for resources and space. Weeds that are allowed to spread are liable to start choking out your plants. Consistent maintenance, such as weeding once a week, is the best way to keep your weeds from growing out of control. You might want to try your weekly weeding after a bit of watering, as weeding is easiest when the soil is wet.
Garden pests include anything from bugs to critters that want to eat your plants. Pests pose a huge challenge, even for the most experienced gardeners, so don’t be too discouraged if you’re facing an invasion. Try to take care of infestations as soon as you notice them before they become a big problem for you.
Bugs are likely to attack plants that are stressed, so keeping your plants healthy could go a long way towards warding off insects and other pests.
Animals, on the other hand, can sometimes be deterred by fencing, intimidating lawn ornaments such as life-like owls, and companion planting.
Companion planting refers to growing plants near each other according to their interaction with other plants. For example, plants that are better able to withstand direct sun are sometimes planted next to plants that need more shade.
Companion planting is most commonly used to discourage certain animals for eating from vegetable gardens. Furthermore, learning about companion planting will help you to determine what plants are mutually beneficial to each other and are therefore able to cohabitate in the same garden plot. Some plants might also have bad reactions with other plants. This might mean that a certain plant is more likely to take over a whole plot or that the plant may exude a toxin that slows the growth or kills nearby plants.
Degree of Difficulty
The easiest way to get started growing a garden is to purchase plants which have already been raised from seeds in a nursery, greenhouse, or other garden centers. This will ensure that you get healthy plants and will cut down on the risk of sowing seeds that don’t germinate.
If you’re just starting your gardening hobby, try not to overdo it so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. Smaller garden plots allow you to give more attention to fewer plants, which will ultimately help you succeed and grow more confident in your abilities.
Gardening the Easy Way
Container gardens are catching on as an easy and lower-maintenance way to start gardening. Container plants can grow in small areas, and the enclosed aspect of the containers makes it simpler for you to control the soil, light exposure, and water of your plants.
If you plan to garden in containers, you will need to consistently water your plants, as pots dry out more quickly than the earth. The larger the pot, the slower it will take to dry out. As an upside, you can always move your plants to places that allow them to catch more sunlight throughout the day.
When picking containers for most plants, including vegetables, you’ll want to find containers that are as deep as possible. They will accommodate plants with deep roots and keep the soil wet. When filling your containers, try to use a potting soil mix rather than the topsoil you might use in an in-ground garden. Potting mixes contain important nutrients that your container plants would normally get from the ground. In wetter climates, filling the bottom of a container with rocks can help with drainage.
If you find yourself too busy for a watering plan, there are also self-watering containers available, which have a reservoir beneath the soil where the roots can reach. Self-watering containers make it so that you won’t need to water as often, though you will still need to pay attention to the reservoir so that it does not dry up.
Growing your own food gives you the benefit of easy access to leafy greens, while knowing where your food comes from and whether or not pesticides or other chemicals were used on these foods. It’s much like having your very own small organic farm in your backyard.
Growing herbs such as chives, mint, basil, rosemary, dill, and thyme is an easy and gratifying way to begin growing your own food. Herbs grow quickly and you can add them to almost any meal, which will encourage you to keep growing. Similarly, young greens such as lettuce and spinach take a while to sprout but will grow quickly and soon be available for harvesting.
Lettuces, tomatoes, sugar snap peas, fast-growing radishes, and summer squash all grow quickly and don’t take long before they’re ready to start feeding you.
When your plants reach maturity, harvest frequently. Picking the fruit and leaves from your garden will not only allow you to eat but will also stimulate new growth in your garden.
You’ll save space and cut down on ground maintenance by encouraging your plants to grow upward with trellises and support structures. These are useful for climbing plants such as peas and pole beans as well as vining crops such as cucumbers and tomatoes.
Most garden vegetables are annuals, meaning you will need to plant them each year. This means that you should pay attention to your growing season length when choosing plant varieties because your vegetables will need to mature completely to produce food for you before the frosts come around.
While the idea of prize rose bushes makes flower gardens sound high-maintenance, there are a lot of easy flowers for a novice gardener to try out.
When picking and planning for flowers and more ornamental plants, you’ll want to think about height, size, texture, and even colors. And when it comes to flowerpot containers, a good rule is to pick three plants that work well together as thriller, spiller, and filler.
A thriller refers to a plant that catches interest and is fun to look at. A spiller refers to plant that will cascade over the side of the planter to give it length, including vines, strings of pearls, and other loosely flowing plants. A filler refers to a plant that can make the planter look full without absorbing too much attention itself, such as herbs like basil, ornamental plants like dusty miller, leafy greens including cabbage, kale or chard, or flowering plants.
Many hardier flowers can give off a rustic charm and fill out an area very well. These include queen anne’s lace and lavender. In fact, lavender is not only hardy, but it is also a deer deterrent, making it a good choice for planting near a vegetable garden to dissuade animals from making lunch out of your lettuces. Flowers like snapdragons and black-eyed susans can bring a lot of colors to your yard without making too much fuss.
Gardens for the Busy Professional
Gardens can be beautiful and relaxing, even when you don’t have a lot of time to spend in them. Sometimes the most you can do is mist a few succulents and hope for rain to take care of your window boxes.
When you’re busy, you need reliable plants. Hardy plants are plants that can take care of themselves such as lavender. These are most often perennials that can be trusted to come back year after year.
When planning a low-maintenance and relaxing garden, you want to plan and plant for every season at once, so that no matter what time of year it is something is always showing off its colors without you having to plant anything extra.
Drought-tolerant plants such as Agastache offer height to a large yard with pretty and colorful blooms, and they are known to attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Coreopsis flowers look as bright as an annual while nonetheless thriving in dry and sunny conditions. And bright flowers that come from bulbs are easy to take care of and only need dividing every five years.
Succulents like chicks and hens can provide ground cover across entire flower beds, look interesting, and are perfectly comfortable with inconsistent watering in rocky and otherwise challenging spaces. Similarly, ornamental grasses are self-sufficient, as they are used to soaking up whatever water is available from the soil. Ornamental grasses can also look good in a small bunch, for a small yard, or in large swaths to add their height to larger beds.
For low maintenance lawn care, replace out of the way bits of lawn or xeriscape with seating areas, rock gardens, and hardy wildflowers, so that you don’t need to worry about mowing or watering. The more native the wildflowers are to your area, the less effort you will need to spend taking care of them. Investing in thick mulches like bark chipping will help to discourage weeds and feed the soil without a lot of added effort.
A garden that allows you to relax and unwind can be a major blessing for the busy professional. Meditation gardens have become common to help people heal from their day-to-day lives and spend some restorative time in nature.
Building the ideal meditation garden means tailoring your outdoor space to your relaxation and focus needs. For some, this might mean a wide open space where they can breathe easy. For others, it might mean making a tight and enclosed nook. Meditation gardens tend to be low maintenance due to a preference for simplicity and clean lines, hardscapes, and perennials.
Common elements of a meditation garden include:
- A water feature, small or large, that gives the space a nice sound
- Simple lines
- A sense that it is separated from the rest of the landscape or home
- Natural beauty
Ideas for the Green Thumb Gardener
Garden Styles Sure to Impress
Thematic gardens are likely to wow guests and bring a sense of elegant coherence to your outdoor lifestyle. While some themes are lower maintenance than others, a themed garden will often cost more money for those attempting to source rarer plant breeds. Themed gardens may often take more maintenance to nurture the health of these rare breeds. It’s best to pick a garden style that closely mirrors the climate of your region.
English cottage gardens tend to be lower maintenance when it comes to themed gardens because they allow a bit of the wild into the landscape and don’t need pruning as often as more formal gardens. On the other hand, English country gardens require more tending with a series of garden areas or planter islands connected by paths. Some may include ponds and wildlife, while others include well-trimmed hedges and over-the-top flowerbeds. Common plants include roses, lambs ear, lavender, delphinium, foxglove, and clematis, but this design can also be adapted to accommodate native plants.
Italian gardens often incorporate hardscape elements, such as patios and walled gardens to give a courtyard feel, symmetry in design, terraces and trimmed pathways, large planters, wall hanging garden-ornaments, and classical sculpture and fountains. Laurels, capers, olives, pine nuts, and saffron are all exotic cooking ingredients that grow happily in an Italian garden. Much of the Italian-style garden can be adapted to accommodate small spaces and medium-size yards with large planters, small tree groves, and shade structures like a garden arbor.
Japanese gardens offer peaceful spaces for relaxing and rebalancing. Much of Japanese garden design has to do with landscaping, including koi ponds, bridges, and mysterious paths, as the actual plantings are often spare, minimalistic, and planned out. As far as gardening goes, it’s best to stick to a few plant types. Use gravel, rocks, and stepping stones, and fill in with mosses of all kinds. Common plants are the Japanese maple, forest and mondo grass, lilies, azaleas, woodland primrose, catmint, and pachysandra terminalis for ground cover.
Rain gardens are eco-friendly garden plots designed to catch as much rainwater as possible and allow it to reabsorb back into the earth and plants, putting a halt on damaging water runoff. Rain gardens use positioning to allow flower plots as much natural watering as possible. This will often include rerouting a downspout, as well as positioning a garden at the bottom of a slope or small trench.
Advanced Vegetable Gardens
Raised garden beds are the technique of gardening in isolated plots raised a few inches to a few feet off the ground. These are frequently used by vegetable gardeners to optimize companion planting, conserve water by only watering the plants and root-systems that need it, improve drainage, and create a weed barrier to allow easier garden maintenance. As an added bonus, raised beds tend to be easier on the knees and joints when it comes to general gardening maintenance.
Building raised garden beds is an easy DIY project that will allow you to customize your garden space to your needs. This means that you can build them as high as you need to help protect your body and joints from some of the more uncomfortable or physically damaging aspects of gardening. You can also make sure that the bed has the proper drainage for everything that you want to plant.
Whether you’re planting with raised beds or in the ground, chances are you have a vested interest in what kind of organic material and fertilizers you use in your garden. You might have your own composting solutions, or you might purchase organic material, like mushroom compost. Lasagna-style fertilizing is an eco-friendly plan for distributing organic material throughout your garden in layers to encourage absorption relative to plant growth.
The longer you have your garden and the more advanced you become, the more important crop rotation scheduling will be for your gardening plan. Most experts agree that rotating crops in a three-year cycle will keep ground fresh for each different variety of plant and discourage infestations by certain kinds of bugs and insects seeking specific kinds of plants.
Furthermore, if you have the time and resources, it might be worthwhile to invest in a backyard greenhouse. Greenhouses make it easier to alter the climate for your plants so that you can grow plants that may be more tropical or have other special needs.
Having a full garden can seem impossible when you’re living in a small space without a yard. However, urban gardening is a growing trend that just takes a little creativity to find spaces in which to grow container plants.
Ideas for good urban garden spaces include:
Even your bookshelves and railings can hold delicious greens and bright flowers when outfitted with containers, soil, and water.
Easy houseplants are low maintenance and hardy so that they are able to adapt to their surroundings. Houseplants can range from large potted ferns and small trees, to small potted cacti and flowers. Each can be a positive addition to liven up an indoor space depending on the size of the space that you need to fill. Additionally, gardening indoors can also improve air quality without expensive air filters.
Large tropical plants like philodendron do well in low lighting, while plants like aloe vera and bamboo will grow to fit their containers and will live just as happily inside or outside. Glass container gardens can create a modern look for air plants, cacti, succulent gardens, and indoor tropical plants. The glass look adds vibrancy while also demonstrating that these plants belong inside.
Designing a Garden for Entertaining
Much of your outdoor entertaining space will rely on landscape development and hardscape features. However, when it comes to filling in a gorgeous outdoor space and adding life to the garden party, a few key features reign. These are comfort, flexibility, and safety.
Making your garden comfortable will mean pruning shrubs, allowing for a variety of seating, and making shade to keep your guests out of the sun too much, whether it’s with a garden arbor or a pergola covered in vines.
As far as flexibility goes, your same outdoor space can host a dinner party, just as well as it can host tea time, a daytime crafts party, or a quiet afternoon of reading, with a few simple adjustments.
The design of your entertaining area garden can be beautiful without being intrusive. Rather than having many flowers of all different shapes and colors, this is a place where you can take it easy on yourself with simple uniformity. Try to incorporate mostly green plants with just a pop of color. You can also incorporate this color into your decor and lawn ornaments.
When it comes to keeping your plants unobtrusive for entertaining purposes, think about gardening vertically rather than across the ground. Wall trellises and privacy shrubbery can add verticality by running vines and ivy up the sides of walls.
Children’s Gardens and Butterfly Gardens
Designing a Sensory Garden for Children
Children’s gardens are both a learning tool for teaching children about the natural world and good gardening habits, and a tactile experience that stimulates the senses with textures, sounds, scents, and colors.
Children’s gardens generally have simple designs that are augmented with themes and bright colors to help children play safely while staying entertained and engaged with nature. Fun attractions can include fountains, bold flowers such as sunflowers, pinwheels and wind vanes, small benches and tables, and lights.
Butterfly Gardens to Delight all Ages
Butterfly gardens are a beautiful form of flower gardening that engages and attracts children, adults, and elegant butterflies alike. Butterfly gardens incorporate many flowers of many different colors to attract these helpful pollinators.
Starting a butterfly garden is as simple as picking plants that work for two main purposes. The garden’s first purpose is to attract adult butterflies into the yard with bright and colorful nectar flowers. It’s second purpose, then, is to offer the kind of plants that can host and feed caterpillars to encourage a butterfly population.
There are many flowers that will be able to fulfill both these purposes, and some simple research will be able to tell you what flowers will work best in your area. By picking plants for both purposes, you will be providing for all stages of the butterfly life cycle.
Gardening in Different Regions
Cold Climate Gardening
In colder climates, snows and frosts can happen as late as July or August. This makes for a short growing season and frosts that are liable to kill delicate plants. Nonetheless, for the intrepid gardener, a lot can be done to liven up a yard, even in cold climates.
- Plant a foundation of hardy perennials. Those that die back down to the ground each fall will probably be the best for weathering the winter. However, it is possible to carry evergreen perennials through the winter, such as lavender and sage.
- Plant flowering plants that don’t mind a cold spring, such as cornflowers and other forms of domesticated wildflowers.
- Come spring, fill your garden plots in with cold-tolerant annuals and biennials.
- Raised beds help when the earth is too cold for plants or too hard and frozen-solid to till.
- Use greenhouse space for any heat-loving plants that you want to raise.
The first thing that may come to mind when you think about a desert garden will probably be cactuses and sagebrush. Climate tolerant plants are hardy plants already adapted to deal with the amount of rainfall and heat in a certain area. Some climate tolerant plants include agave, portulaca, sage, poppies, sedum, cactuses, and succulents.
Growing food can be a real challenge in an exceptionally dry climate. However, it is possible to grow some leafy vegetables if you plan ahead and take a few provisions:
- Use desert-adapted seeds by looking for local and heirloom varieties.
- Make sure the soil is well-fed with plenty of organic material to supplement nutrients that your vegetables need to grow.
- Use heavy mulch to hold water into your soil.
- A drip, sometimes called a drencher, hose can help make sure that water is gradually absorbed into the rocky or sandy soil.
- Rain barrels are an excellent option for keeping water costs low.
- Use shade cloth to protect plants from the scorching sun.
- In you’re in a windy area, you can create wind barriers that keep your plants from being torn out of the ground.
Lawn Maintenance and Your Garden
Lawns with straight edges, as opposed to small separate spaces created by winding garden paths, take much less time to mow and are considered low-maintenance. While mowing, you can also do yourself and your yard a favor by using a mulching mower, which leaves the grass clippings on the ground to add nutrients back into your lawn.
Weed wackers and leaf blowers are also very helpful tools which can be used to keep your beautiful garden looking its best. Also, if you are wanting to go “old school” then push mowers are making a comeback!
Keeping Your Lawn and Garden in Harmony
Check your soil for the best pH levels for your grass and garden. You can take pH samples from around your lawn and flowerbeds. Grasses typically prefer a pH of 6.0 to 7.2. Adding lime will raise the pH level, while adding iron will lower it.
If you keep your soil healthy, it will be less likely that weeds invade it. Lawns that aren’t getting enough nutrients from the ground or water can be crowded out by hardier weeds.
You can bridge areas between your high-maintenance lawn and your lower maintenance wildflower beds and rock features with ground cover. Ground cover gives rock features a softer appearance while keeping out unwanted leaves, and often absorbs less water than conventional lawn grass.
While it may seem both intimidating and exciting to plant a garden, keep in mind that this is a learning process. The more you grow and nurture your plants, the more likely it is that you will come to understand them and their needs. Pay attention to your plants and their growth cycles, spend a little time with them every day or so, and you will become more attuned to their needs each year.