Dreaming of growing your own fruits, vegetables and herbs, but not sure where to start? Growing a garden can feel overwhelming, especially for those of us who feel like we don’t exactly have a green thumb.
But don’t worry, this is a beginner’s guide to gardening.
EcoWatch spoke with master gardener Kathy Ging from Eugene, Oregon, who said the biggest misconception about gardening is that it requires too much time and money.
Sure, you’ll need a bit of both of those to get started. But Ging says gardening is a “priceless activity [that] enhances tranquility and personal, community homeostasis.”
Throughout this article, we’ll share some of Ging’s expert tips that will have you turning your fingers green in no time.
Environmental Benefits to Starting a Garden
Before we get into how to start a garden, let’s talk quickly about why you should start gardening (aside from growing your own food, of course).
Gardening has a ton of environmental and health benefits. You’re probably aware that plants take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, but you may not know that plants also absorb a ton of harmful chemicals, bacteria and other elements that may be floating through your backyard.1
Growing your own fruits and vegetables saves you money at the grocery store and reduces the carbon emissions associated with traveling to get ahold of the produce.
Gardens also provide valuable habitats that support biodiversity, and they reduce the amount of pollution stemming from agricultural runoff. Plus, no plastic bags or packaging is required when you’re picking your produce right from the backyard.
But gardening has some mental and physical benefits for humans as well. Studies show that those who garden are more likely to eat vegetables, giving you essential nutrients like vitamin A, calcium, potassium and fiber.2
In addition, working outside in the sunshine is a great way to get in some vitamin D, as well as some exercise — yes, gardening can be quite the workout!
“It is mentally healthy, even essential, to take a break from screens and noise that dominate fast-moving lives,” Ging adds. “Exercises in food security create a degree of self-reliance and appreciation of nature’s food web.”
10 Steps to Starting a Garden
- Find the Best Location For Your Garden
- Determine What You Will Plant
- Prepare the Garden Area
- Purchase Gardening Supplies
- Test and Improve Soil
- Prepare Planting Beds
- Choose the Right Plants
- Begin Planting
- Nurture Your Garden
- Enjoy and Maintain
1. Find the Best Location for Your Garden
A backyard with big garden beds and plenty of sunlight would be a gardener’s dream, but it’s not a requirement to have a successful garden. It’s possible to grow herbs and vegetables in small spaces, like on a balcony or even on a windowsill.
If you don’t have a yard or home suitable for gardening, consider joining a community garden.
There’s one thing that you can’t compromise, however, and that’s sunlight. Almost all garden plants need direct sunlight in some capacity.
Fruits typically need about five to six hours of direct sunlight to grow, while some vegetables and herbs can grow in partial shade. If your garden location is mostly shaded, you’ll want to consider leafy greens (arugula, kale) or root vegetables (potatoes, carrots), as they don’t require as much sunshine.
Also, pick a spot that will be easily accessible for you to regularly water, weed and pick your harvest.
2. Determine What You Will Plant
The next step to starting a garden is figuring out what you want to grow. Of course, you’ll need to be realistic about your garden space and climate and which plants will be able to thrive there.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a helpful Plant Hardiness Zone Map you can check to see which plants are most likely to thrive in your location.
If you’re growing edible plants, pick ones that you or your family members actually enjoy eating or cooking with, or find a place to donate or sell what you grow. Otherwise, you’ll have a full harvest that’s going to waste.
If you’re lacking space, consider vertical gardening. Exactly as it sounds, you can use fencing or trellis to grow your plants up instead of out. This works especially well for tomatoes, peas and cucumbers.
3. Prepare the Garden Area
You’ll need to prepare your space and soil to properly grow a garden, whether you’re growing directly in your yard or from other containers like a raised garden bed. If you don’t have space, or your soil is rocky or clay-like, you won’t get the best results from planting directly into the ground.
Ging said using containers is great for starting plants. You can also repurpose food containers for this purpose, like egg cartons.
“I have used tofu containers, [they’re] a tad deeper and stronger than many garden six-pack [containers],” Ging said. If you do use a food container that’s not made from cardboard, make sure you put drainage holes in the bottom.
Ging added that plants in containers and raised garden beds are preferable in wet areas, as they require more water than plants in the ground. If you’re going this route, know that you’ll have to stay on top of watering.
If you’re growing directly in the yard, you’ll need to clear a patch of weeds and sod and loosen the soil. For quick results, slice under the sod with a spade and put it on your compost pile to decompose.
As an expert tip, Ging recommends adding mycorrhizal fungi to enhance your compost, and some worms if needed. She said you should add fresh compost to your garden area every year.
4. Purchase Gardening Supplies
You don’t need us to tell you that you’ll need seeds, soil and fertilizer to start a garden — but a healthy and successful garden also requires other tools.
Which garden tools you’ll need will depend on the size and scope of your garden as well as the plants you’re growing. Here’s where we’d recommend starting.
Gardening Tools to Consider:
- Gloves: You’ll want a thick pair that is durable but not bulky.
- Pruning shears: These come in a variety of sizes and styles, but bypass pruners are best for live plants.
- Garden fork: Just as it sounds, this big fork-like tool makes it easy to turn your soil and compost piles.
- Hand trowel: This small hand tool is helpful for planting crops and herbs in containers and for weeding.
- Spade: A spade is used to dig deeper holes and is especially useful if you have harder soil.
- Rake: A standard leaf rake is needed to clean up your garden area and gather debris if you’re making your own compost.
- Hoe: For a vegetable garden, you’ll likely need a sturdy, wide hoe, while flower gardens need thinner, more delicate hoes. Flat garden hoes are good for turning soil.
- Garden hose: To properly water your garden, you’ll want a gardening hose with an adjustable nozzle for different water pressures.
- Watering can: Helpful for small indoor or balcony gardens where a hose isn’t an option.
- Fencing: You may want to consider fencing your garden in to keep animals from snacking on your garden (looking at you, rabbits).
5. Test and Improve Soil
A garden is only as good as its soil. If you’re planning on a backyard garden, you’ll want to make sure your lawn is healthy. An easy place to start is with a soil examination.
You’ll need to know if your soil is clay, sand, silt, rocks or a combination. If there’s a risk of soil contamination or lack of nutrients, you’ll want to address it before planting. Most garden plants prefer neutral soil, with a pH level of around 7.
Believe it or not, there are plenty of eco-conscious lawn care companies, like Sunday Lawn Care, that will conduct soil tests for you and help guide you to improve your soil health to properly prepare your yard for your garden.
6. Prepare Planting Beds
There are typically two gardening seasons — spring and fall. Ideally, you should start prepping your garden area a few months before planting month.
If you have the luxury of time, consider the sheet composting method, also called “lasagna gardening.” And no, it doesn’t involve growing ingredients to make lasagna.
Lasagna gardening is a no-dig gardening method that helps you turn organic waste, like leaves, vegetable scraps and coffee grounds, into nutrient-rich compost and soil. You can prepare your soil or plant beds with these four steps:
- Take a newspaper or a cardboard box and lay it down as your garden bed.
- Use small pieces of carbon materials (vegetable scraps, peat moss, freshly cut grass) one-inch thick over your base.
- Add another layer of nitrogen materials (straw, coffee grounds, dry leaves)
- Repeat the process at least twice or as many times as needed to fill your garden bed, but you’ll want at least four inches of organic compost.
Most plants need deep, fertile, well-drained soil to thrive. You can also buy worm castings and mulch specific to your plant specifications. Just be sure to stay away from any products that contain toxic chemicals that can harm wildlife.
7. Choose Your Plants
We’ve talked about choosing the plants that thrive in your climate and with the right amount of sunlight in your prepared garden bed. Now, it’s time to get those plants.
If you’re not quite sure what you want to plant, these are some of the easiest garden vegetables to grow:
- Green beans
- Swiss Chard
You have two options — seeds or transplants. Transplants, also called set plants, are young plants that you can buy and plant directly into your plant bed. As a beginner gardener, you may like the idea of having a plant that’s already on its way. But be aware that some vegetables don’t transplant well from soil to soil. Seeds are also much cheaper.
We also recommend planting native flowers that attract pollinators, as they’ll help your plants grow while also helping the environment flourish.
8. Begin Planting
For best results, the majority of plants should be planted in the spring after the chance for frost has passed. However, there are some plants, like root vegetables, that can tolerate the cold and are best planted in the fall.
If you’d like, you can start planting your seeds (or nurturing your transplants) indoors in containers while it’s still cold outside. On your windowsill or under grow lights are good places to do so.
The good news is that most seed packets or plant instructions will tell you the best time to plant, as well as depth and spacing guidelines.
For seeds, you’ll typically want to moisten them (not too wet or they’ll rot) before planting them. You’ll want to plant them roughly three times as deep as the diameter of the seed unless the seed package says otherwise.
If you’re planting transplants, you’ll want to remove plants by pushing them up from the bottom. If the roots have tangled, massage them gently with your hands to loosen them before setting them into the holes. Then pat the soil around the roots and soak the soil with water.
9. Nurture & Maintain Your Garden
The job is far from over once your plants are in the ground, and the time commitment and maintenance your garden requires will depend on which crops you plant, the weather and other factors.
When it comes to watering, you’ll have to do your best Goldilocks impression and find an amount that’s “just right.” Both overwatering and underwatering are dangerous for your garden. As a general rule of (green) thumb, plants need around one inch of water a week during the growing season.
Once you have a garden, you’ll find yourself taking a bigger interest in the weather. For example, you’ll have to pay more attention to the rain to make sure you and mother nature are on the same page with your watering schedules. You’ll also have to watch out and prepare for temperature drops and cover your plants if you think there could be frost.
Keeping weeds and other pests away from your crops will become important maintenance as well.
“Learn to identify and eliminate weeds — organically, of course,” Ging said. “A permaculture pro recommends cutting weeds at ground level and leaving the roots and adding the top to compost.”
Unless it’s invasive, in which case you should discard the weed altogether, Ging said.
In this case, mulch is your friend, as it keeps pests away and helps your plants maintain the right amount of moisture. If you do have a weed problem, consider buying a toxin-free weed killer from a trusted eco-friendly lawn company like Sunday Lawn Care or Lawnbright.
Lastly, pull any dead, dying or diseased plants as soon as you see signs of it so they don’t bring your other plants down with them.
10. Harvest & Enjoy
Harvesting will look different for each crop you plant, so it’s important to educate yourself on the best time to pick for each plant.
While some crops (like berries) may be obvious based on color, there are others (like peppers) that you may want to pick when they’re still a bit green, allowing them to ripen and sweeten off the vine.
Speaking of green, for leafy greens, like lettuce and kale, you can simply clip the leaves to eat and then leave the rest of the plant to grow back for another harvest.
If you’re having any trouble, reach out to local professionals. You can find some gardening advice from your local plant nursery or community garden groups.