A Complete Beginner's Guide to Home Gardening
Gardening is a terrific hobby on so many levels. It provides physical activity for those of any age, and a wonderful learning experience for younger growers. Gardeners stay better connected to nature and enjoy fresh air more often. The key to true enjoyment of a garden is deciding on your goal and reasons for wanting one. Is it to have a sense of accomplishment or have fresh flowers? Is it to grow your own fruits or vegetables? Perhaps it's to have a hobby you can share with other family members or friends.
Most limit their thinking to either flower or vegetable gardens when in fact, there are so many more types of gardens to consider. In this Complete Beginner's Guide to Home Gardening, we'll explore your options in planning a garden and address the various factors that should be considered before making a choice and diving in. We'll discuss the various elements that can affect a garden as well as the must-have and nice-to-have gardening tools for beginners. Our guide will explain the critical role of good soil and the role it plays in properly caring for a home garden and how to maintain it. Finally, this guide will take you through the harvesting and transplanting processes and how to best prepare your garden for the next growing season.
Green thumbs are not given, they are earned. If you are ready to start a garden for your home, this guide will help you approach it with the greatest opportunity for success.
No matter your age or experience, gardening is a hobby that will pay dividends for as long as you care to enjoy it. Get all of your questions answered in this Complete Beginner's Guide to Home Gardening.
Table of Contents
- Common Types of Gardens
- Fruit, Vegetable & Herb Gardens
- Container Gardens
- Butterfly and Hummingbird Gardens
- Specialty Gardens
- Moon Gardens
- Factors to Consider Before Getting Started
- Planning Your Garden
- Gathering Your Tools
- Prepare Your Soil
- Planting Your Garden
- Garden Maintenance
- Other Gardening Tips
Common Types of Gardens
Most view planting a home garden as either a clear choice between vegetable or flower gardens. This is understandable. Most gardens are either planted to make a home look better with colorful flowers and native plants, or to produce fruits or vegetables for personal consumption. We will certainly explore these two garden choices in-depth, but homeowners should also be aware that there are other choices for a personal garden such as herb gardens, container gardens, butterfly and hummingbird gardens, moon gardens and specialty gardens. Differing types of gardens may provide the benefits you seek if one type doesn't. Keep in mind your choices are not limited and you may decide upon two or three of these. This section explores the types of gardens to choose from so gardeners can make a choice that will provide the greatest rewards for their goals.
Fruit, Vegetable & Herb Gardens
When most consider planting a backyard garden, these are the types most frequently considered. Fruit, vegetable and herb gardens not only provide the satisfaction of planting and growing, like other gardens do, but they also provide the added value of producing fresh snacks, side dishes, and seasonings. One of the biggest payoffs of this type of gardening is the fresh smells and tastes a home garden will bring to your kitchen that store-bought fruits and vegetables simply can't match. These types of gardens are generally planted in rows and in sections based on the variety and types of plants grown. The type of plants grown will be somewhat limited by the location, climate, season and type of soil, but gardeners will have a wide choice of plants to grow no matter where they live. Popular fruit plants include strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and watermelon. Herb gardens often include basil, parsley, sage, thyme, rosemary, dill, cilantro, and others. Depending on available space, you may want to include tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, broccoli, peas, beans, beets, carrots, and a number of leafy greens. When planting fruits, vegetables, and herbs, space them for full growth and to provide enough space for you to water, weed, fertilize and eventually harvest. This means knowing whether what is being planted will grow up, out or around where you plant it. Ideally, gardeners don't want to have to transplant growing plants prior to harvest. It can be difficult added work and often harms the plant or roots in the process.
Those who don't have a backyard or are limited in outdoor space can still enjoy gardening by planting a container garden. A container garden grows plants in pots or other containers that can be placed on a patio, balcony or even indoors. Those who live in a condo or apartment in the city are often surprised at how productive and rewarding a container garden can be. Start by deciding what types of plants you would like to grow. If you are looking to add some color, choose a flower garden grown in appealing containers. A container herb garden is popular in small spaces due to the variety of plants you can still grow in a confined area. Container gardens are also a popular choice for fruits and vegetables. Tomatoes, strawberries, peppers and more can be grown in abundance in containers. Make sure your containers are either in a position to get sufficient sunlight or at least can be moved to areas where sunlight is plentiful. When planting a container garden of any form it is important to provide containers of sufficient size so the plants do not become “root bound" in the container. So a little bit of research on specific plant varieties will help your likelihood of long-term success. It is also critical that plants not be over-watered and have proper drainage to avoid roots from rotting. And remember, containers don't just have to sit at ground level. In the case of herb gardens, a kitchen or dining room window is a superb area. Some indoor growers have even had success with growing plants in hanging containers, especially vine-like plants like strawberries.
Butterfly and Hummingbird Gardens
Butterfly and hummingbird gardens are exactly as the name implies; gardens that attract butterflies and hummingbirds. These gardens are exceptionally rewarding because they provide the general benefits of the garden, while also attracting some of nature's most interesting and beautiful creatures. In addition, plants in a butterfly and hummingbird garden generally are tall and colorful, although ground flowers can also attract a wide variety of butterfly species. Properly planned, a butterfly and hummingbird garden can provide hours of natural, relaxing entertainment and contentment as well as education for younger gardeners.
Plants that attract butterflies include:
- Butterfly Bush
- Black-eyed Susan
- Blazing Star Flowers
- Pot Marigolds
To attract hummingbirds, consider plants with lots of nectar. These include varieties such as:
- Red Cardinal Flower
- Bee Balm
- Trumpet Honeysuckle
- Trumpet Vine
Other good ways to attract visitors to your butterfly and hummingbird garden is to provide some sort of shelter and water. A shelter may be as simple as planting the garden behind some bushes or near a tree. You could also hang artificial hummingbird houses and feeders that you can buy at the store, online or even make yourself. The area should have some form of water like a birdbath, fountain or pool as well.
Since most of the flowers in a hummingbird and butterfly garden are grown from seeds, it is particularly rewarding to experince your efforts growing into place. It's hard not to feel a sense of joy and accomplishment when your first hummingbird or butterfly pays a visit.
Specialty gardens are inspired from a certain era, landscape or traditions of a certain country. It is not only an opportunity to plant a garden with natural characteristics in mind, but it adds another layer to learning in the gardening process. Here are some types of specialty gardens and the plants that can contribute to their authenticity.
- Japanese Gardens – These often include some sort of water feature like a small waterfall and/or pool. Moss and ferns can be placed near the water. A small Japanese Maple Tree is a nice way to add some shade with azaleas and rhododendrons along the ground. Hedges like Japanese barberry can serve as an excellent border plant. Japanese holly and irises are also often used in these types of gardens. A large Japanese garden is a perfect location for a pagoda.
- English Garden – Manicured bushes and bulbed flowers are a common feature in English Gardens. Phlox, hibiscus, hydrangea plants can be added as well. Perhaps on the most favored flowers in an English Garden is one of a variety of rose bushes that can be planted, but these can be particularly tricky for beginners.
- Mediterranean – Those who live in a more moderate or temperate climate may consider a Mediterranean Garden to include grapes, figs, flowering vines, palms, and even bamboo. Colors can be added with sedum, blanket flower, coreopsis, and even sunflower. Large potted plants in large vases can also add texture.
Other specialty gardens include German Gardens, French Gardens, Chinese Gardens, and even Victorian Era Gardens. Beginners can start with a simpler approach and add plants and decorative items as skills improve.
For those who enjoy, or want to enjoy, their outdoor space a bit more in the evenings should consider a moon garden. This is a garden that is meant to be at its best after the sun goes down and the moon shines. It will typically have plants that bloom in the moonlight, give off their fragrant aromas in the evening and have textures that are particularly attractive at night.
Light blooming plants popular in moon gardens include:
- Night-blooming jasmine
- Mock orange
Choosing just the right location is important when planting a moon garden. Select a spot where it is easy to enjoy your efforts and shows best in the evening. A moon garden can be a simple bed of flowers or an elaborate garden complete with a bench or swing to enjoy evenings. It is an unusual, fun, and more unique choice when deciding on a garden and is worth showing off to friends and family.
Factors to Consider Before Getting Started
Now that you've got a better idea about the goals you would like to achieve and the type of garden you want to achieve those goals, it's now time to make it a reality. Before putting a shovel to soil however, there are still some factors to consider. You'll need to be honest with yourself about any previous gardening experience so you don't get in over your head. The space your garden will require needs to be chosen and your garden will be impacted by the time and ability you have to put into it. Of course, it's very helpful to create a budget as well so your new hobby doesn't become too costly or need to be abandoned. As you begin to blend your goals with your vision along with the above factors, your garden will begin to take shape. Here's a little more in-depth look at the variables that will help shape your sucessful garden.
Many of us have at least some pleasant memories of gardening-related activities in the past that anchor us to the activity. It may have been planting sunflowers in the backyard or helping grandparents with their vegetable garden. It could have even been watching a soybean sprout roots as part of a school project. Or maybe it was just as simple as picking a bunch of wildflowers for mom. No matter where your interest started it is time to be upfront about your experience and how it affects your choice in a new personal garden of your own. If you are a true beginner, for example, planting a few potted plants or a container garden may be enough to start you into the hobby. If you had gardens previously, you may want to step up your game with a larger, varied vegetable or flower garden. Even experienced gardeners can test their mettle with an exotic specialty garden or moon garden. The key is growing with the hobby so it stays enjoyable and doesn't simply become extra work. Use whatever experience you have to challenge yourself to see what you can accomplish. Continuing to build upon your experience is one of the most rewarding aspects of gardening.
The space available to dedicate to a garden will significantly impact the direction your garden will take. Are you in a position to use a large area of your yard? Will a smaller plot or garden in the front of your home satisfy your desires? Perhaps a raised garden or potted and hanging plants will do. Even if space is extremely limited you can still get involved in gardening with smaller potted plants or an herb garden.
If you are fortunate enough to have a larger area, you can consider a bigger vegetable garden that can supplement your food supply, paying dividends in fresh fruit and vegetables. Growing enough may allow you to be generous with your harvest; sharing with friends, neighbors, and family. It may even lead to another hobby like cooking or canning.
Space around the front of a home is a perfect spot for a colorful flower garden to accent and even add value to a home. If available space limits you to potted or container plants around the porch, a beautiful impact can still be made with the right choice of flowers and utilization of the space. Virtually everyone can enjoy gardening on some level depending on the space they have, or want, to dedicate to the activity.
Time & Ability
One mistake some can make when planning a garden is underestimating the amount of time or skill it takes to take care of their plants. They also may overestimate their physical ability to care for a large garden. Before undertaking a garden, be honest about your available time and ability. If you're already overworked or have a physical limitation, just be sure to plan your garden accordingly. Several other elements will also factor into how much time and talent a garden requires.
- Space – While one would think the larger the garden, the more time and talent it would take to manage it, but that is not necessarily the case. A large garden, for example, with one type of plant and a sprinkler system may actually require less time and talent than a smaller, more involved garden.
- Type of Plants – The type of plants will have a huge impact on the skills and time required for a garden. Easy to grow plants for beginners include sunflowers, geraniums, sweet peas, and marigolds. Beginners will likely want to avoid more challenging flowers and plants like orchids, roses, ferns, and azaleas.
- Number of Plants – It makes sense that the more plants you have to take care of, the longer it will take to maintain them. It may not require any more talent to take care of more plants but it certainly will take more time and physical effort.
- Variety of Plants – The more variety a garden has, the more time and talent it will take to keep it flourishing. This is due to the slightly different care each variety may require. Plants can either complement or fight each other and may need varying degrees of sunlight and water.
Obviously, beginners will want to keep initial gardens simpler while more adept gardeners may choose to challenge themselves.
Although gardening isn't by nature, an expensive hobby, starting at the beginning or growing more elaborate gardens can indeed, add up. Planning for a successful garden should include a logical budget to ensure you have the ability to finance the hobby. Your budget should include money for tools that will be required and those that you may want to have on hand. If you are planting in containers or pots, those will need to be accounted for as well. You should budget for seeds, starter plants or full-grown plants depending on your chosen garden. You may also need materials like mulch, topsoil, and fertilizer. If you have decided on a specialty or decorative garden, elements like a water feature, lighting, or statuettes can be significant budget items to consider too.
Again, there are a variety of factors that will affect your required budget including the size of a garden. A large garden area, for example, could benefit from a power rototiller. This is something that could be rented as opposed to purchasing. A drip irrigation system, however, is something that would need to be purchased and installed. All of this, of course, will depend on the budget.
Few will be surprised to hear that their geographical location will impact the types of plants that can be grown in an outdoor garden. This is due to the length of the growing season and climate extremes of a given area. There are nine growing zones in the United States. They are divided by the average dates of the last frost to the average date of the first frost. While these zones generally change North to South, they are affected by geographic elements like elevation and water. The shortest growing season is in the very northernmost central U.S. with the longest in southernmost California, Arizona and Texas and South Florida. This southernmost zone may not experience frost, so the growing season is marked by “dry season”. You can find your local growing season by typing in your zip code into the helpful map from the Burpee Seed Company website. Keep in mind these dates are on “average” and are not foolproof. You may be able to obtain more precise dates from your local Extension Office.
A plant's ability to withstand the cold is measured in one of four “hardiness” levels. The hardiest plants can withstand some cold and frost, while gardeners should wait two to three weeks past the average last frost date to plant their more sensitive plants and vegetables. Keep in mind the soil temperatures along with the air temperature can affect a plant's growth.
Geography will also have an affect on the amount of light that a plant has available. Light, whether artificial or natural sunlight, helps a plant turn carbon dioxide and water into the sugar required for needed food. It is good to keep in mind that plants that are grown for their fruits to be eaten will need about six to eight hours of sunlight, while leafy vegetables can usually do quite well in more shady areas.
Planning Your Garden
When planning a garden it can be exceptionally helpful to plot out the space on paper. For example, if your garden is going to be 10 feet by 6 feet, let one inch represent a foot on your drawing. In other words, your garden would fit in a 6”x10” chart on paper. For larger gardens, a half-inch or quarter-inch per foot conversion to paper may be required, regardless, create a scaled-down version for more accurate planning and spacing.
It is on this paper you should decide where it is best to place each plant. Vegetable gardens are usually planted in rows, with complementary or like vegetables planted in the same or neighboring rows. For a flower garden, this will serve as a pallet to help you decide what colors and textures will look best in what location. This will take some significant research to determine which plants work well together and the footprint they need take to grow efficiently.
Flower gardens can be a bit more challenging to plot as the anticipated height of the grown plants will also need to be considered. The results, however, can be a marvelous layered garden of beautiful colors that perform beautifully together.
Research Local Codes
Before investing too much time, too much money, or turning your first shovel of dirt, you will want to make sure there are no restrictions or regulations regarding gardens in your area. Some areas restrict vegetable gardens, for example, to be planted in front yards. Some Home Owners' Associations have restrictions on the size of flower gardens or flower types, the size and height of verandas, or may even ban vegetable gardens. Be aware of these regulations and restrictions prior to digging in.
Your gardening plans could also be detoured by buried cables, wires or pipes. To avoid damaging these cables or pipes, contact your local utility companies to make sure the location of where you plan to place your garden is in an area where it is safe to dig. Calling ahead may not only prevent an unintended power outage or burst pipe, but it could help avoid a dangerous electrical shock.
Once you know if there are any limitations to what and where you can plant within your yard, and are aware of any buried cables or pipes, it is time to determine the final layout of your garden. This is how and where your garden will be located on your property.
Start by walking your property and imaging the best potential spots for the garden. Observe how much sunlight reaches these preferred locations throughout the day. Make sure there is a hose or other watering source convenient to your site. Plan for any decorative edgings or small fencing you may desire. View these locations from windows inside your home or kitchen. This is particularly important if you are planting a hummingbird and butterfly garden where you will want to enjoy the view. This is also the time when you can make last-minute changes to your plan on paper, based on the amount of sun and shade.
Finally, if it is a specialty garden, flower garden or moonlight garden where you may want to spend more time, you may want to accommodate for a garden bench or other seating option. This is also a good time to consider any outdoor lighting that may add to the atmosphere of your outdoor garden.
Choosing What You Want to Grow
It's time to make the final determination of exactly what you want to grow to best reach your gardening goals. If you want a red, white and blue theme, what plants will best deliver those desired colors? Do you want low, ground cover plants or taller plants that will stand out amongst the surroundings? How dense do you want your garden? Will you need room to prune or harvest at the end of the growing season?
For those who are considering a flower garden, this is the time when you can choose between annuals; plants that flower and die in a single season, or planting perennials; plants that come back season after season.
Although annuals only grow one season and bloom until the first frost, keep in mind that they often drop seeds that will regrow the following season. They also can be planted all season if you get a late start or want to fill in areas of your flower garden.
Perennials are generally less showy and although they only bloom for up to six weeks, they will continue to grow back for multiple years. A third choice to consider, biennials, can take up to two seasons to bloom.
Learn About Companion Plants
Some plants can steel sunlight, nutrients, and water from other plants, effectively suffocating them. On the other hand, there are companion plants that can work and grow well together, even joining forces to fight off pests. Planting companion plants can help you to make better use of your space, improve pollination and create a habitat for helpful insects. This can often result in better weed control and improved crop production.
Some examples of companion plants include planting basil and dill next to tomato plant to deter tomato hornworms. Leafy greens like spinach can thrive in the shade provided by taller corn or sunflower plants. Carrots, parsley, and parsnips have been known to attract insects that can be beneficial to many and mint can help ward off ants.
Companion planting has been shown to be so beneficial that many gardeners have become specialists in the process.
While you don't necessarily need to go overboard with companion planting, especially if you are just a beginner, it can be extremely helpful to know about it and begin to apply its strategies in your garden. It is particularly useful in organic gardening where pesticide and fertilizer use should be minimized.
Gathering Your Tools
As with most projects and hobbies of any nature, having and using the appropriate tools can make your efforts easier and safer while yielding better results. Of course, the tools you need will depend on the type and size of gardening project you want to take on. A smaller herb or container garden may just require a few small hand gardening tools while a large landscaping garden or vegetable garden may benefit from powered tools like a rototiller. An outside garden will also likely require the use of long-handled tools like shovels, hoes, and rakes. Gardening tools are subject to moisture, dirt, sand, and stones. They frequently can be subject to significant force, so this makes it important that the tools you gather are of high enough quality to handle the job season after season.
While you want to pay a little extra for quality tools, you don't want to waste money purchasing tools you don't need. An expensive pair of pruning shears, for example, won't be required for a herb garden. An inexpensive pair of scissors will do. You'll discover there are tools you will need to plant and maintain your garden and tools that would be nice to have. In this section, we will explore both.
Every gardener should first build a collection of basic or must-have tools. These are the tools that are hard to do without. These tools will vary according to the size and type of garden you are undertaking, but here are the basics.
- Hand Trowel – If there is a single absolutely must-have tool for all gardeners it is the hand trowel. No matter what style of garden is being planted or what size it is or will become, a hand trowel will come in handy at some point. Invest in one that feels comfortable in your hand and is built to last.
- Long Handled Shovel/Spade – Necessary for just about all forms of outdoor gardening, a spade features a squared tip while a shovel is more spoon-like. Keep in mind that a long handle shovel not only will be used to lift and turn dirt, many times it is used as a lever to dig up large stones. This can require a substantial handle with solid construction.
- Gardening Gloves – Many beginner gardeners don't realize their value until it is too late. Gloves can keep hands cleaner and protect them from small cuts and scratches. They also can prevent blisters.
- Pruning Shears – Pruning shears will be important if your garden includes plants with thicker stems or small branches. They are used to keeping plants both aesthetically pleasing and growing properly.
- Watering Tools – Every garden needs some form of water delivery system. It may be as simple as a watering can or a hose. Use a hose with an adjustable nozzle for the greatest versatility. You'll also want a hose storage system to keep it out of the way when not in use.
If you intend to grow vine plants, you may also need sticks, poles or fencing for support. Fence-like “cages” are very useful when growing tomatoes, for example. Most gardeners will also benefit from some sort of bucket to move dirt and for transplanting. Depending on where and when you garden, some would consider sunscreen, a hat and insect repellant as a gardening necessity as well.
Depending on physical limitations and type of garden planted, some gardeners benefit from tools designed to make the job easier. In many cases, these tools aren't an absolute necessity but can be very convenient and handy to use.
- Wheelbarrow – This is an extremely useful tool when large amounts of dirt, mulch, plants or other landscaping materials will need to be moved. It is also useful in removing vegetation in preparation for an outdoor garden.
- Kneeling Pad – It won't take long to realize how valuable a foam or sponge-like kneeling pad can be when working out in the garden. Knee pads can work as well, but a foam kneeling pad is less prone to sink into softer soil.
- Upgraded Watering Systems – One of the more mundane maintenance duties of gardening is watering. Thank goodness, there are plenty of options and upgrades to help. Outdoor sprinklers and drip watering systems are available for just this purpose. For hanging and container plants, choose a watering wand to help water harder to reach plants. There are even easy to fill decorative watering bulbs for use in potted plants.
- Hoes and Rakes – A large outdoor garden can benefit from long-handled hoes or rakes. This can help keep rows between plants clear of weeds and help in removing unwanted vegetation and fallen leaves.
- Garden Cart - Garden carts serve to store garden tools while easily being able to be pulled into position. Some garden carts also include a seating area to make gardening easier on the back and knees.
It seems almost every year some sort of new tool or gadget hits the market to help make gardening just a bit easier. Browsing the internet or your local gardening center may yield some nice-to-have tools that are perfect for you and your budget.
Prepare Your Soil
Many avid gardeners will say the key to a green thumb is quality, rich soil. If you are planting in an area where there has never been a garden, it can take two to four months to prepare the soil for a productive garden. Even if there have been plants in an area, different plants have varying needs when it comes to soil. The Ph level should be balanced and the soil should be moist and rich in nutrients. In areas with shorter growing seasons, getting out during those scattered nice late winter and early spring days can be crucial in preparing the soil. Start getting prepared in the fall if you know you want a garden the next growing season.
Ultimately you'll want an area that is cleared of rocks and debris, tilled and aerated that is rich and ready for planting.
Step 1: Clear the Area
Depending on how your new garden area was previously used, clearing the area can either be a relatively straight-forward task or very hard work. Areas that had stones or gravel previously can be an extra challenge. Areas near the foundation of a home can also contain concrete, rocks and old construction materials. The good news is that this “heavy lifting” of debris removal only needs to be done once. Preparing for future gardens in the same space will be much simpler.
Start by marking off the area with either a spray chalk line or string with a series of stakes. Remove any visible debris like branches, shrubbery, stones, and rocks. If there is grass or other vegetation in the area, it will need to removed too as best as possible. Remove any weeds or plants by the roots if possible. If there is grass in the area, a spade can be used to cut sections of the grass out, like brownies in a pan. Skim the grass just below the root surface and remove. If you have bare areas in other parts of your yard, this grass may be able to be re-sodded with sufficient watering. If not, try to shake off as much soil as possible and dispose of the unneeded grass. When the area is clear of all visible debris, you are ready to till and aerate the soil.
Step 2: Till & Aerate Soil
Once the surface of the garden is relatively level and clean, it is time to till and aerate the soil. This is to create a good growing environment for the roots of your new plants. You'll want to dig up and turn the soil at least 6 inches deep. If it is your intention to plant root crops like carrots, beets or potatoes, you'll want to turn the soil 10 to 12 inches deep. This breaking up of the soil makes it easier for roots to grow more deeply into the ground and for you to have a more successful harvest.
If you live in an area with soil that is heavy with clay, or you have a larger garden planned, a rototiller can make the job much easier than using shovels. Rototillers can be rented for this purpose, but remember, everyone is in the market to rent a rototiller at about the same time each year. Plan and reserve ahead.
When tilling and aerating the area it is important to keep an eye out for any rocks or larger roots that may need to be dealt with. If you have contacted your local utility companies, pipes, wires, and cables should not be a problem. By the time you are done with this step of the process, you should have a nice clean area of broken up soil that will only need one more step prior to planting.
Step 3: Improving Soil
Improving your soil means adding nutrients and vitamins to the soil to provide an optimum growing environment. The good news is with enough time and the right elements, any soil can be made richer. Doing this organically can take time, which is why allowing weeks or even months for the preparation of your soil is usually advised.
You may wish to start by mixing in bags of nutrient and vitamin-enriched potting soil and mulch into the soil. You may also add compost or dry manure at this time to further enrich the soil. Mixing the new mix in with the original dirt will eventually create a rich soil that is nutrient dense and should crumble easily when dry.
Your garden should now be ready for planting!
Planting Your Garden
There are two main areas of concern when planting your garden. The first is when to plant, the second is the spacing of seeds and plants to allow for proper growth.
When to plant will depend on the specific type of plant and the growing zone in which you live. This will often be reflected in the plant's hardiness. Some of the more hardy plants should be planted before the last frost, while the more fragile plants will require warmer soil.
Seed spacing is critical so plants not only have the room to grow but, in the case of flowers, will also look attractive. And when it comes to fruits and vegetables, you don't want plants to be spaced so closely that they'll be fighting for water or nutrients.
When to Plant
Every vegetable, flower, and herb has its own “personality” and hardiness level which will determine the optimal time to be planted. Your growing zone is also a critical factor to consider when planting an outdoor garden. Often, gardeners can be fooled by a sunny day or two when the ground may still yet be too cold to plant seeds. If a plant is recommended to be planted after the last frost date, you may wish to wait about a week after that date to be sure.
Another way to help plants get a start is by buying starter plants or starting plants from seeds indoors. Many gardeners will start seeds using a little soil in each space in an empty egg carton, allowing them to sprout. When they get large enough they can then be transferred to a larger container or graduate to the full garden.
The goal is allowing a plant to survive long enough to be able to withstand the average temperatures of your growing zone. You also want to plant them soon enough to reach maturity before the first frost. This will take some research on the particular plants you intend to grow.
Spacing Your Seeds
Some underestimate the importance of proper spacing when it comes to planting seeds. This is understandable due to their original size and appearance. Gardeners will want to know if a plant tends to grow up, out, or around. Some plants, like sunflowers and corn for example, will grow straight up, using minimal ground space. Other plants like cucumbers and melons tend to sprawl out over the ground. Still, others like tomatoes and peppers grow a bit bushier at lower levels. These factors will not only help you determine how to space similar seeds, but how to space seeds of different types from each other.
The philosophy is similar for flowers. Knowing how the seed will eventually grow and to what height is critical in determining seed spacing.
Pre-packaged seed packages generally have good information on seed spacing. Some seeds, especially flower seeds are even available in pre-spaced mats and tape. Simply cover with soil, water and watching them grow!
While not every aspect of garden maintenance may be enjoyable, it is a big reason so many decide to undertake the hobby. There's something about nurturing a growing plant, especially from a seed, to blossom into a colorful bloom or produce an edible fruit or vegetable. Watering, pruning and even weeding is a bit like parenting, keeping plants on the straight and narrow.
In this section will cover the important aspects of gardening that include watering, weeding, mulching, and pruning.
The biggest problem with watering plants is that it is frequently done too often. More is not better when it comes to watering plants.
Gardeners can benefit from remembering the key to watering is focusing on the roots. Watering deeply helps develop healthy roots, this allows the plant to get nutrients from the soil. When watering too frequently or not deeply enough, roots are forced to stay near the surface to retrieve it. In addition, if these roots remain wet all the time they can develop root rot. This is true with container plants as it is when watering outdoors.
Gardeners should strive for soil that is moist, but not wet and soil that can crumble but is not dry. In almost every case this can be done through a deep thorough watering twice a week, again, focusing on the roots.
First made popular in agricultural farming, drip-irrigation systems have become trendy in home gardens. These drip systems put a slow, measured flow of water more directly to the roots. This minimizes evaporation and uses less water overall when compared to sprinklers or hose watering.
Most gardeners feel watering is best in the early morning or evenings. This allows the water time to better sink into the soil before the sun evaporates it.
While weeding certainly makes a garden look better, its real purpose is more fundamental. Weeding helps your desired plants from competing with unwanted plants for water, sunshine, and nutrients. While pulling and digging up weeds becomes a pastime for some gardeners there are ways to lessen the amount of weeding that may be necessary.
- Weed when the time is right. A good time to weed is a day or two after a soaking rain or watering when new weeds are popping up. Young weeds are easier to remove than old weeds with more established roots.
- Focus on watering the roots of your plants. Plants need water and sunlight to grow, so there's no need to water the entire surface area of your garden, this can promote unwanted weed growth.
- Minimize sunlight for weeds. The less sunlight a weed has, the less ability it has to grow. Spacing desired pants closer together can prevent sunlight from getting to weeds.
- Don't disturb the soil. Some gardeners are actually helping weeds grow by constantly hoeing or disturbing the soil between plants. Oftentimes this is just bringing weed seeds to the surface where they can start to grow.
Another aspect of maintenance can also help minimize the weeding problem in gardens. That is the art of mulching.
There are so many benefits to mulching, almost every gardener should do it. Mulch can block out sunlight, preventing weeds for growing, and also can attract insects that feed on weed seeds. It helps to keep the soil moist and cool through the hot summer days. Mulch can also add a finished, attractive look to a garden. And best yet, and it is inexpensive and easy to apply!
It is important to buy quality mulch that doesn't contain unwanted seeds. Never mulch to more than two to three inches deep. A light covering of mulch over landscape fabric in seldom dug areas like under bushes is an effective strategy in keeping the area looking great while battling weeds.
Mulch really only needs to be replaced if it begins to negatively affect the appearance of a garden or when it is over three inches thick.
Pruning is generally done for one of two main purposes. Gardeners prune to promote/control plant growth and to keep a plant trimmed and attractive. Many plants do not require pruning at all and frequently some prune far more often than needed. For most plants, an annually pruning is sufficient to promote growth, although “dead-heading” some flowering plants can keep them actively blooming.
Various plants can benefit from pruning at differing times of the year.
- Evergreens – Evergreens are best trimmed in early spring but can also be kept in shape throughout the growing season. This is a type of plant that doesn't need pruning to spur growth.
- Berry Plants – Prune when dormant.
- Fruit Trees – Prune when dormant.
- Flowering Trees, Vines, and Shrubs – Best pruned in the very late winter or early spring.
- Perennials – These can be pruned in the fall or spring, depending on the plant.
Pruning tools range from pruning shears to loopers to pruning saws.
Other Gardening Tips
Gardeners are a terrific community of people willing to share tips and tricks they've learned along the way. While some stay to themselves, most are willing to be helpful and share their knowledge. It is easy to find gardening blogs, articles, and chat rooms. If you have a problem, odds are someone has experienced and resolved the very same issue. Here are some tips and tricks in major areas of gardening that may be helpful as you explore and enhance your gardening experience.
One of the most frequently asked questions in gardening involves the best time to cut, pick or harvest from a garden. This is because each growing season is unique and when plants are “ripe” doesn't mean it is the best time to pick them.
Some plants, like cabbage, kale, carrots and Brussels sprouts actually gain in flavor and sweetness after a frost in the fall. There is no hurry in harvesting these plants.
Plants that are grown for their roots, leaves or stems should be harvested early. These include broccoli, lettuce, and basil.
Allow tomatoes to ripen while still on the plant, while beans and eggplants are better tasting when they are harvested young. Green pumpkins will not turn orange in storage, so they should be allowed to ripen on the vine. When growing onions and potatoes, allow the tops to die before harvesting. Peppers are very forgiving and can be picked either early or when very ripe. They will have the most potent flavor when very ripe, however.
One pro tip is to pick vegetables and fruit in the early morning. This is when they are cooler, crisper and have a higher water content.
Many seed packets will have an estimated “time to grow” or “time to harvest” on their packaging. While not exacting, this will provide a reasonable estimate to keep you on the lookout!
Transplanting is a valuable and often necessary part of gardening. It may be required when too many plants are in the same limited area or when a single plant has overgrown its container. The bottom line is plants need room to grow and sometimes they need to be transplanted to get that room. It is also a way to share your plants with others who appreciate gardening.
Potted plants need to be transplanted when they become root-bound. This is when the plant's roots don't have sufficient room to expand and help the plant grow. Turn potted plants upside down and push from holes in the bottom of the pot. Be careful if you must pull down on the plant stems for removal. Wet down the roots immediately and plant into a larger pot or hole in the ground that is also very wet. This will promote quick growth and acclimate the plant to its new environment. Mulch around the plant to retain moisture. Keep the soil moist and fertilize.
Transplanting plants can shock them if not done properly, it's often recommended to transplant on a day with some overcast, but they can often come back with proper care. Transplanting is a somewhat delicate operation and care must be taken not to damage roots in the process.
Preparing Your Garden for Winter
In some very moderate growing zones, plants can be grown throughout the entire year. Gardeners have the opportunity to change the type of plants grown throughout the cooler, dryer season. In areas where winters can be less unforgiving, next year's plants will appreciate the care you take in preparing your garden for the winter season.
This is the time to clean up your garden and remove unneeded vegetation. If it is a flower garden, cut back perennials and even save some clippings. Mulch the area to keep in warmth. Depending on your goals, type of climate and motivation, you may be able to keep some plants indoors through the winter.
If your larger, outdoor vegetable garden has been harvested, you can turn the soil so remaining vegetation becomes compost. Don't be afraid to add additional compost throughout the cold weather months. This will turn into valuable vitamins and nutrients and give you a head start for next spring's planting season!
Common Problems to Avoid
No matter the skill level, some gardeners often repeat the same mistakes. Here are some common problems to avoid.
- Not watering properly. Possibly due to the fact that gardening can be so relaxing and connective to nature, some gardeners appreciate the time it takes watering. While it is true proper watering takes time, it does not need to be done frequently. A good deep watering twice weekly is sufficient. Avoid watering daily. Remember too, that nature provides its own system for watering. You only need to supplement when the rain is insufficient.
- Wrong plants at the wrong time. Learn what plants grow best in your growing zone and plant them at the suggested time of the year. Strawberries, for example, are ready for harvesting in Florida in March when they won't even be ready to plant in northern territories. Leafy greens like lettuce and kale won't perform well in the summer heat of the South but will do well in the Midwest in June and July.
- Allowing plants to become root-bound. Pants grown in pots or containers have a tendency to become root-bound, often without the owner knowing. If a plant begins to lose its vibrancy or stops growing, it is likely it has outgrown its home and should be transplanted.
- “Forcing” a garden into a space. Sometimes the site for a garden is chosen based on convenience or the available area. If the site does not get sufficient sunlight for plant growth however, it will not be suitable. Don't force a garden into an area where it may be destined to fail.
- Over/under fertilizing. Like their human counterparts, plants need proper nutrition to thrive. Over or under “eating” is not healthy. First, make sure that any fertilizer chosen is appropriate for the type of plants(s) you are growing. Then follow label direction on how and how often to fertilize.
Simply avoiding the common problems above can help go a long way in ensuring a successful garden.
As we've shown, gardens are first and foremost meant to be enjoyed. They provide so much value in terms of beauty, nutrition, satisfaction, comfort, and relaxation. While we've tried to demonstrate the value of many forms of gardens, the list is almost endless. If tending to and growing flowers or vegetables, for example, is not your thing, consider water gardens, zen gardens, rain gardens, decorative hedge gardens, xeriscape gardens or one of the many other options available.
A garden can help boost your mood and feel rejuvenated. It can connect you with nature and provide a sense of relaxation and accomplishment. Many times, it all starts with a single, tiny seed. Enjoy.