Last Updated on August 5, 2020
How to plant a garden, even if you’ve never grown anything before:Here’s what you need to know to get started this season. Welcome to Gardening 101!
This is a guest post on how to plant a garden from scratch written in conjunction with Emily of Conservation Folks.
If you’ve never had a garden, starting out might seem intimidating, but don’t worry, it’s easier than it might seem. These beginning gardening tips are all you need to start enjoying your own homegrown produce. Find out what you need to know about how to plant a garden, and then get growing. This season can be full of delicious vegetables from your own garden!
Decide Where to Plant
Even if your garden would look great on that sloping hill on the side of your home, it might not be the best place for it. Think about which parts of your yard typically get sunlight. Are there other parts that get flooded if it rains? Where you grow your plants is a crucial element to their success.
You’ll want to choose a spot that won’t get flooded in heavy rain, trampled by people enjoying your yard, or baked in the hot summer sun if you’re in a very warm climate. (Up north, the more sun the better, especially if you’re growing heat-loving crops like tomatoes, eggplants, and melons.)
But even if your yard has quite a bit of shade over the course of the day, you can try growing vegetables that grow in shade. More than 40 crops can get by on less than six hours of full sun, and some need only 2!
Check You Have Permission
If you rent, be sure to check with your landlord before digging in your yard. Even if you own your house, it turns out you can’t necessarily do whatever you want with your yard. Some homeowners’ associations and condos don’t allow vegetable gardens, and some city ordinances restrict where and what you can plant, especially food plants, which are sometimes banned from front yards and parking strips. Check the rules in your neighborhood.
But even if you live in an apartment, there are plenty of ways to grow your own food without a traditional garden patch, whether it’s in pots on your balcony or in a plot of a community garden. (Here’s a database of community gardens to find one near you.)
And if you’re reading this in winter and want to get growing right away, here’s how to grow vegetables indoors any time of year.
Gardening 101: Budgeting for Your New Garden
If you’re just getting started in gardening, it’s wise not to invest a lot of money up front. Great news: there’s no need to. Freecycle and garage sales can set you up with your first simple tools, and gardeners in your area will be more than happy to share seeds and plants with you.
Your local library may even have a seed library set up, and you might find or set up a tool share in your neighborhood.
Here are some money-saving ways to repurpose things to use in your garden.
As with any big project, you’ll want to go into gardening knowing what your budget is. You’ll need the basic things like seeds and soil, and you’ll also need some starter tools. If you don’t have a shovel, clippers and other garden maintenance equipment, you should look into getting some, either new or used. You can find some sets that package tools together for a reasonable price, like this one.
Gardening 101: Know Your Planting Zone
Something new gardeners often don’t know is that the entire country has been mapped out into planting zones. It’s important to know your planting zones because they affect what can grow well in your area.
Sourcing plants suited to your own zone will help you understand how to plant a garden for optimal production. It will also dictate the timing. In the north, you have to wait for the soil to warm before you can plant, while in the south, some plants don’t grow well in the hottest part of summer. This excellent beginners’ garden bundle from Brown Thumb Mama includes a planting schedule for zones 3-10.
A local nursery can be a great help in choosing plants and learning about their needs. Don’t be shy about asking questions as you shop.
Gardening 101: Prepare Your Soil
How you prepare your soil for planting depends on what you’re starting with. If you’re converting a part of your lawn to garden, you’ll either need to till or dig up the area (which will involve some work and/or expense) or try the far easier method of sheet mulching, which uses large sheets of cardboard to smother grass and weeds.
If you’re planting right away, you can cover the cardboard with a few inches of garden soil mixed with compost and seed it directly. If you plan ahead, you can lay the cardboard in fall and cover it with leaves, seed-free weeds, and kitchen scraps. Worms will get to work over the winter and turn it into a nutrient-rich planting bed for you come spring.
Another option is using raised beds, a great way for beginners to start. They allow you to control soil quality better than a garden using existing soil, and they can be planted intensively to minimize the needs for watering and weeding.
You can start with a single raised bed either from a kit (like these) or with some boards you screw together yourself. When you decide to expand, there are some cool combnation kits that let you arrange the boxes in different appealing patterns.
It’s always best to add a little extra nutrition into the soil, so learning how to compost will benefit your garden and save money on fertilizer. Composting can be done at very little cost in your own backyard.
The easiest way to start composting is using natural waste from your home and yard. You can compost fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, grass cutting or branches from pruned bushes.
Fallen leaves and crushed eggshells break down more slowly and can provide additional nutrients. Here’s a good guide to composting from Small Footprint Family.
Even if you’re not up for composting, you can use vegetable scraps and leaves as mulch and they will break down and feed your soil. Here’s more on this method of composting in place from the University of Oregon Extension.
Gardening 101: Choose Your Crops
Knowing what zone you live in will help you figure out what kinds of plants you can grow. Keep in mind that it’s better to start your first garden with fewer plants, so you can get the hang of it and learn what each of plant needs. Your first time out, choose just a few of your favorite vegetables, and keep your garden small to avoid getting overwhelmed.
Some easy choices for beginners are lettuces, spinach, and radishes. They grow quickly from seed so you can enjoy them in a matter of weeks, but you’ll need to plant in the cooler months. If you can create some supports, vining plants like peas (also a spring and fall crop — they don’t like heat) and cucumbers also grow well from seed. Here’s a list of the fastest growing vegetables so you can harvest your first baby veggies in as little as a couple weeks.
If you want to grow something like tomatoes or eggplants, it’s best to buy a plant from a nursery rather than trying to start seeds yourself. While growing these crops using plant starts (seedlings someone else raised) isn’t difficult, growing them seed takes a little more advanced know-how. Save that more challenging project for when you have a bit more garden experience.
Some perennial vegetables and herbs can also be grown in a pot or an existing garden bed and will add amazing flavor to your garden-fresh recipes! Here are herbs that tolerate shade if you have a less sunny yard.
Gardening 101: Get Growing!
Once you’ve got your soil prepped and have your seeds and/or plant starts, it’s time to get planting! Invite friends and family to help. Make a big afternoon out of it, maybe play some music while you garden together. Then sit back with a cool drink and enjoy your handiwork.
Don’t forget to mulch after you plant. A good layer of shredded leaves or straw will keep in moisture, prevent weeds, keep the soil temperature stable, and add nutrition to the soil as it breaks down.
(You may already be growing food in your yard that you can harvest while you wait for your plants to mature. Find out which weeds you can eat in this post on edible weeds.)
Gardening 101: Write Down Your Plants’ Schedules
It’s easy to forget what your plants need and when. Write yourself a reminder to check if your plants need water somewhere you’ll see it often, like on a kitchen cabinet or in your planner.
You might get used to your routine later on, but as you’re getting started, you’ll be glad for some written help to remember everything you need to do. You might also find a gardening app that can help you track plants’ needs.
Protect Your Produce
You might think your garden will be fine because you’ve never noticed and small animals eating plants in your backyard. Once you have a vegetable garden growing, more critters will come looking to nibble the tempting food you’re growing!
You can build some protection around your garden by installing a fence. Build one out of wood or get wire fencing and zip tie mesh to it to prevent small animals from squeezing through. Hot pepper sprinkled on your plants or some natural pest deterrant sprays can help make your garden less tasty to poachers as well.
Grow With Your Garden
Gardening isn’t just about learning how to raise plants. As you continue to care for your garden, you’ll notice that you learn about yourself and how you work. Gardening can promote peace and self-care, so you may find yourself paying just as much attention to your own needs as your plants as time goes on.
Pin to save these beginner gardening tips for later!
About Emily: Emily is the editor of Conservation Folks and writes about sustainability and eco-friendly living. She is a big fan of growing lavender, mint, sugar snap peas, and cucumbers.
Photo credits: Salvadonica Borgo del Chianti, stux, woodleywonderworks
Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.