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How to Start a Garden - 9 Steps for First Time Gardeners

Table of Contents

How to Start a Garden

Growing your own flowers, herbs, fruits or vegetables is so rewarding. There's nothing like cutting your own flowers and placing them in a vase—or gifting them to others. Nothing beats homegrown herbs, fruits and vegetables for freshness and flavor. Starting a garden is good for you, too. It allows you to spend time outdoors and exercising. One of the best things about starting a garden is that you can customize it to fit you. You can choose what to grow and how large or small to make it. We've provided a step-by-step guide for how to make a garden in your home's backyard or other outdoor space. This gardening 101 page is perfect for first time gardeners or those who just need a refresher!

Step-by-Step Guide to Starting a Garden

  1. Decide What to Plant

    • People are attracted to gardening for many reasons. Some like flowers. Some want to grow their own food. The first rule of thumb for gardening for beginners is to decide what you want to grow. You can choose between flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables. During the first year, it's a good idea to start small, and then you can expand in the coming years.
    • Next, you need to learn about your growing area, in particular your gardening zone, sometimes called hardiness zone, and frost dates. Your hardiness zone helps you determine what plants are likely to grow in your area. Your area will also have an average last spring frost date and an average first fall frost date. The time between the two frost dates is your general growing season. Your local or state university extension service often has information about these.
    • A Gardening 101 principle is to choose plants that align with your gardening goals, whether that being growing fresh flowers, growing herbs, or growing fruits and vegetables, and with your growing conditions.
  2. Buy Garden Tools

    • There's nothing more frustrating than being ready to plant and realizing that you don't have a shovel or trowel to dig in the dirt. While your tool needs will vary depending on the type of gardening you are doing, you'll want to have some garden tools. Some tools that we recommend include:
    • A shovel or trowel. If you're container gardening, you may only need a trowel, but if you're working in a garden or raised bed, you may want a shovel. Many gardeners choose both.
    • A garden or scuffle hoe. Weeds are a fact of gardening, and a hoe is helpful in keeping them under control.
    • A rake. Rakes can be used to level soil and gather leaves and garden debris.
    • A gardening knife. Knives can be used for weeding, cutting sod, dividing plants and opening bags and containers.
    • Pruners. These can be used to cut wood or softer plant tissues, like tomato vines.
    • Gardening gloves. Not only do gloves help keep your hands and fingernails clean, but they also protect your hands from blisters, cuts and scrapes.
    • As you continue on your gardening journey, you'll likely add more gardening tools to your collection.
    • When shopping for garden tools, select quality metal tools. Not only are these likely to stand up to the tough gardening jobs, but they are more likely to last.
    • To get the most out of your gardening tools, clean them after each use and store them in a garden shed or enclosure where they are protected from the weather. Sharpening blades keeps your tools in good condition and makes gardening work easier.
  3. Choose a Space to Start Your Garden

    • Taking time to site a good garden location will help you be more successful in your gardening project. In fact, it's one of our top tips for how to make a garden. We recommend choosing a flat space. This will reduce chances for erosion or water run-off. It also makes gardening easier for you.
    • Next, you'll want to observe how much sun the space receives. Most herbs, fruits and vegetables require full sun, or 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight, daily. Some annual and perennial flowers thrive with more shade.
    • Consider how accessible your garden is. A garden near your home that you can easily walk to for harvest and care will likely get more attention than something that is far away.
    • Avoid areas that are exposed to high winds or low-lying areas that could be frost pockets.
    • Choose a space where water is easily accessible. During planting and dry spells, you'll have to water the garden.
    • Consider what is involved in clearing the area. If the site is now part of your lawn, you will need to get rid of the sod.
  4. Test & Prepare Soil

    • Soil is the foundation of your garden, as plants get their nutrients from the soil. Knowing your soil's characteristics and pH will give you an indication if the soil is suitable for your plants. Often gardeners add garden soil & amendments, like compost, to the soil to improve it.
    • A soil test will indicate your soil's pH level. Soil can be acidic, alkaline or neutral. Most plants like a soil with a pH close to neutral. However, some, like blueberries prefer acidic soil.
    • To test your soil, you can purchase a pH tester & maintenance kit or send it to a laboratory. You can also contact your local university extension service for information about soil testing. When testing the soil, take slices of soil about 6 inches deep from several locations.
    • Soil is often described as sandy, loamy or clay. Loamy soil is ideal for most plants. Sandy soil may drain too quickly while clay soil may hold water. Both soil types can be improved by adding organic matter, such as compost, to it.

    Test & Prepare Soil

  5. Starting a Garden Bed

    • If your garden bed is part of the existing lawn, the sod will need to be removed. Next, loosen the soil either by tilling or digging by hand. This is also a good time to mix in compost or other organic matter.
    • Also consider the size of your garden bed. While garden beds can be different sizes, keeping them less than 4 feet wide allows you to work in them without stepping in them and compacting the soil. Some gardeners make raised garden beds, which is a good option if you have poor soil.
    • Also consider garden design. If planting flower beds, take into account the plants' mature height and width. Also take into account the flower colors and bloom times.
    • While garden beds can vary in size, raised garden beds are usually 3 or 4 ft. wide by 6 or 8 ft. long. While flower beds are often 4 ft. wide, their length can vary greatly.
    • By growing your garden in beds, rather than long rows, you can maximize your growing space.
    • Planting in containers is a good solution for those who may have limited space or don't have a sunny location in the yard. Containers and Grow Tubs are available in different sizes.
    • One important reminder for gardening for beginners is to give your plants enough space. Take into account their mature height and spread.
    • Also keep in mind that you can maximize space by growing vertically. Vining plants like clematis and peas can grow upward on a trellis.
  6. Choose Seeds

    • When selecting plants for your garden, choose varieties that are easy to grow. Zinnias, marigolds and pansies are some of the easiest flowers to grow, while lettuce, radishes and green beans are easy vegetables to grow. Many herbs are also easy to grow.
    • Some plants, like lettuce, are easy to grow from seed. Other plants, like tomatoes and many flowers, are transplanted as small plants, or seedlings, into the garden.
    • If buying plants from the nursery, they should look healthy and free from insects or signs of disease (yellow or brown leaves may be a sign of disease). Also the plants should be about the size of the pot.
  7. How to Plant a Backyard Garden

    • Gardens are usually planted in the spring or the fall, depending on the plant varieties. Some cool season vegetables, such as lettuce, radishes and peas, are planted in early spring and late summer. Bulbs, such as tulips, daffodils and garlic, are planted in the fall. Many perennials are planted in the spring and fall.
    • Before planting, look at the planting instructions on the seed packets and transplant containers for information on planting times, planting depths and spacing tips.
    • For warm weather plants that are susceptible to frost, wait until after the average last spring frost date to plant.
    • Mulch plays an important role in the garden. It suppresses weeds and retains moisture in the soil. In many cases, it also adds organic matter to the soil.
  8. How To Grow a Garden

    • While watering rates will depend on the plants, the soil type and weather, the general rule of thumb is that garden plants need about 1 inch of rainfall weekly during the growing season. If you do not receive that, plan on watering.
    • However, check the soil before watering. If it is wet or damp, you may not want to water. Overwatering is just as bad as underwatering as overwatering can lead to root rot and other plant disease.
    • Weeds and pests are part of gardening. Cooperative extension services often have information about identifying garden weeds. While mulching helps with weed suppression, you'll also want to weed weekly. Healthy plants are less susceptible to pests. However, you'll want to inspect your plants regularly for pest damage and identify the type of pest causing it. Organic solutions are available for insect & pest control.

    How To Grow a Garden

  9. How to Harvest a Garden

  • Vegetables often taste best when they're harvested at the baby or "just-ripe" stage. Identifying when fruits and vegetables are ripe depends on the type. Often this information is included on seed packets or is available online from cooperative extension services. To avoid spreading diseases, many plants, such as tomatoes, should be harvested when they are dry and free from dew or rainfall. Most fruits should be harvested at their peak ripeness. One of the advantages of growing homegrown fruit is that it doesn't have to travel far from garden to mouth.
  • By following these tips for how to grow a garden, you should be well on your way to successfully growing your own plants.

Expert Advice

Q. Mike: I would like to start my first vegetable garden next year. Is there any particular info I need to get started? Our Winters are fairly mild; Summers hot and humid.

    ---Dick; on Maryland's Eastern Shore

Hi, Mike! I would like to have a vegetable garden next season, but have no idea where to begin. My soil isn't the greatest, AND it contains a lot of rocks. The side of my house gets full sun all day; the backyard only gets sun in the afternoon. Any tips you have would be very helpful! Thank you!

    ---Kim in Mapleton, Maine

A. My pleasure! And great timing—with the economy looking more like one of those movies where a tidal wave takes out The Empire State building every day, a lot of people are planning on trying to grow some of their own food for the first time next season. And making that possibility a reality is a LOT easier when you get started the previous Fall. Here's a little ten step primer for all of you first-timers:

  1. Start slow; start small. If you try and create a farm overnight, neither you nor the farm are going to be happy with the results. Start by building a couple of raised beds the first season and add a few new ones every year. Which brings us to:
  2. Build raised beds! You get better yields, prevent weed woes and only feed and water the important plants when you create a physical barrier between your crops and the rest of your landscape. Raised beds can be any length, but never wider than four feet, so that you can reach into the center without stepping into them. That loose, uncompressed soil is your ticket to a lot of food with a minimum of work.
  3. Be creative. Kim should try and use the rocks she is so blessed with to make her raised bed frames. They're free, won't have to be removed from the area, and will heat up in the sun, warming the beds in the evening, an essential bit of assistance in her chilly clime. Dick could use local stone, any kind of naturally rot-resistant wood, or pretty much anything except toxic railroad ties or pressure treated timbers. Here's a Previous Question of the Week with lots more raised bed info.)
  4. Play to your region. With Kim's short season in New England, she should grow everything in that full sun area by the side of the house. Dick's plants, however, would greatly benefit from some afternoon shade when his hot and humid summers really crank up the old scorch-o-meter.
  5. Build the beds now, so you can hit the ground running first thing next Spring. If the garden-to-be is currently a lawn, remove the grass with a sod-cutting machine, or use a sharp knife to cut strips a foot wide and roll them up. (Use that sod to create an instant lawn somewhere else, or to patch up a bad area—or hey, maybe even sell it, if its really nice looking turf!) Or do the old standby instead: Till the area up, rake out as much of the green stuff as possible and then use a barrier against weeds.
  6. Use a barrier against weeds! After you remove whatever is there, lay sections of cardboard down to prevent whatever it was—and all the buried weed seed you uncovered—from growing back. Lay the cardboard at ground level and build the beds up on top of the cardboard. You can use sheets of newspaper instead, but cardboard is a better barrier.
  7. Enrich the soil now. Find a good source of bulk compost or aged mushroom soil and use it to fill your beds. Aim for a 50/50 mix of compost or aged mushroom soil and your native soil, unless your native soil is 100% nasty clay, which is better pitched into the woods.
  8. Protect your investment with mulch. Shred up every fall leaf you can find and cover your beds with two inches of this excellent weed-suppressing, soil-improving mulch. Save many more bags of shredded—NOT whole—leaves for summer mulching and to begin your own compost making initiative.
  9. Don't start your own plants from seed the first year. You'll have MORE than enough other stuff to do. To grow salad greens, pull back the mulch completely, sow the seeds thickly and harvest with scissors "cut and come again" style when the plants are four or more inches tall. They'll grow back for several cuttings. Same with other direct-sown crops like string beans; pull back the mulch and plant the seeds. But for the serious plants of summer—tomatoes, peppers, cukes, melons and such—buy started plants, pull back just enough mulch to install them, and then leave the rest of the mulch in place to prevent weeds. You can start your own plants from seed after you get good at not killing the ones professionals have grown for you.
  10. Have fun. Please don't do this if you have no appetite for learning, failure or having many more reasons to laugh at yourself then you did the previous year. Yes, you'll get good things to eat, lots of fresh air and exercise, and you'll save money—especially in the long run. But you'll also learn more than you perhaps desired about the tenacity of weeds, the vagarieties of weather and the formidable abilities of wildlife that take a fancy to your plantings. Remember to breathe; remember to laugh—especially at yourself—and you'll see why people like me can't wait to return to this challenge year after year.

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