How to Start Gardening

How to Start Gardening

Anyone can achieve gardening success right from the start by adhering to some basic guidelines which include:

  • Selecting plants or plants well-adapted to your region: ‘right plant, right place’
  • Siting plants judiciously for optimal growing conditions
  • Giving plants the ongoing care they need to grow and thrive

Gardening has long been a favorite pastime for legions of humans across the globe. It’s appealing not only to those who want to grow their own food, but also to anyone who loves plants, flowers, and spending time outdoors engrossed in the natural world. There’s tremendous gratification in working the soil and watching plants grow and thrive as a result.

For the uninitiated, figuring out how to start ‘gardening’ can be daunting. What are the first steps, and how do you discover whether you have a knack for caring for plants—a green thumb? We can confidently say there is no magic to becoming a successful gardener: Like anything else in life, it simply requires desire, commitment, and a willingness to follow a few basic guidelines. Following are some commonly asked questions and answers to help you get started.

Getting Started: What to Grow?

While you may have visions of formal flower gardens, elaborate topiary, or rows and rows of delicious and nutritious crops, we recommend keeping it simple and starting small. Build on your success as you gain experience and confidence over time. There will definitely be trial and error. Experiment—it’s the best way to learn. To help you get started, we offer many preplanned garden designs and a how to design a garden primer on our website.

In general, herbs, flowers, and foliage plants (ornamentals) require less work to grow than kitchen garden plants (vegetables and fruits). Ornamental plants fall into two categories: annuals—plants that live for only one growing season, and perennials—plants that go dormant in winter and emerge on their own again every spring year-after-year (vs. biennials which typically only live for two years). Vegetable plants are annuals. Herb plants can be annuals or perennials depending on the herb and your local climate.

You can grow plants from seed or you can speed up and ease the process by purchasing seedlings from a commercial nursery or local garden center. It’s also easy to grow springtime favorites such as Daffodils and Tulips by planting bulbs in the fall.

Planting and growing trees and shrubs requires a bit more care than annuals and perennials—at least until they are established. Some involve more work than others; it helps to do your homework to understand the level of commitment required. We offer a wealth of information in the growing shrubs section of our website.

Where Do You Live: What is Your Gardening Zone?

While summer annuals will grow almost anywhere, you must learn to identify which types of perennials, vegetable plants, shrubs, or trees will grow and thrive in your local climate. Fortunately, the USDA has created a Hardiness Zone map that can help you figure this out.

USDA Hardiness Zones Map

Using historical temperature data, the USDA has divided the country into 13 hardiness zones, ranging from 1 (coldest) to 13 (warmest). Each of these zones is further divided into “A” and “B” for greater accuracy, with A being colder than B. These zones are defined by average annual minimum temperature. For example, a zip code in which the average annual minimum temperature is between -15 and -10 Fahrenheit is assigned to hardiness zone 5B.

Selecting plants is somewhat simplified once you’re armed with knowledge about your growing Zone, as commercially grown plants are labeled accordingly. So, if you live in, say, Zone 4, you wouldn’t want to select plants rated for a higher (warmer) Zone, such as Zone 7; that would be a recipe for failure.

Where Is Your Garden Site?

Where on your property do you plan to locate your garden? Is it in a sunny or shady area? Sunlight throughout the day is critical for growing vegetables and many flower varieties. Don’t worry if your yard is mostly shade: You can still garden without full sunlight, but that will limit the varieties of plants you can grow. There are many beautiful shade plants available.

Another important aspect to garden location is finding a spot with well-draining soil. Avoid locating your garden in a low-lying area where rain water regularly collects. With few exceptions, plants do not fare well when their roots are continually soaked. If your yard is generally wet, consider creating raised garden beds as an alternative to an in-ground garden. Alternatively, you can create a “rain garden” of native plants that tolerate wet soil.

How Much Space Do You Have for Your Garden?

If you have only a small yard, or a small plot in your yard—or even no yard at all—don’t let that discourage you from starting a garden. Many gardeners with limited space turn to container gardening, which can be an equally rewarding method of growing and displaying beautiful plants and veggies. Limited space will narrow your choices, particularly if you’re interested in growing certain types of sprawling vegetables or fruits such as Squash or Watermelon, but that may actually make it easier to get started.

Commercially grown plants typically include a planting guide with instructions about spacing and other growing guidelines to help you figure out what you can grow in your available space.

What Kind of Soil Do You Have?

Experienced and accomplished gardeners try not to fight Mother Nature, so you shouldn’t either. Choose native plants or plants well-adapted to your local growing conditions. This pertains not only to local weather, as described above, but also to the soil in your yard. Soil is a critical medium for plant growth: It must effectively deliver nutrients and moisture to plants. That means the soil can’t be too sandy or too dense (known as clay). Sandy soil tends to be porous and doesn’t retain moisture or nutrients. Heavy clay soil, on the other hand, doesn’t allow water to pass through freely or nutrients to penetrate, which is detrimental to most plants.

In addition to its texture, the chemistry of your soil—in terms of acidity or alkalinity—is also important for plant growth. Knowing your soil’s pH is a crucial piece in properly caring for your plants because it controls the availability of nutrients required for growth. Different plants have different needs; it’s important to choose ones well suited to your soil.

What kind of soil do you have? Admittedly, this is a tough question if you’ve never thought about it before. The easiest way to figure it out is to get your hands dirty and feel it. Soil on one end or other of the sandy–clay spectrum will be obvious—and you’ll need to amend it to make it more hospitable for your plants. You can improve any kind of soil by mixing in rich compost to make it a more balanced growing medium.

If you’re growing plants in containers be sure to use a high-quality commercial potting mix. Adding compost to containers is always a good idea as well.

Caring for Your Plants

Once you’ve selected appropriate plants for your location and planted them according to the instructions, all that’s left to do is help them grow through judicious watering, mulching, and fertilizing:

  • Ensure your plants have the right amount of water throughout the growing season. Be sure to water your new plants thoroughly upon planting; after that—in the absence of rain—water them only when the top 1” of soil feels dry. Apply water to the soil, not to the plants’ leaves. Wet/soggy plants are vulnerable to disease.
  • Apply a layer of mulch on the soil around the plants to conserve moisture and discourage weed growth.
  • Fertilize carefully according to plant care instructions.
  • Watch out for pests and diseases and address problems immediately