How to Start a Garden

How to Start a Garden

If you’ve ever eaten homegrown vegetables, you know that there is no competition between them and store-bought ones. When it comes to certain fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, sweetcorn or strawberries, the difference is night and day. Once you eat that first homegrown tomato, it’s hard to go back to ones you can find at the grocery store.

Not only is homegrown produce tastier, but gardening can be a therapeutic exercise. A range of studies show that tending a garden is beneficial both to physical and mental health. The combination of exposure to sunlight and green plants, the sense of responsibility and accomplishment, and mild physical activity is all good for us.

Why wouldn’t you want a garden? If you’ve got space on your land with exposure to sunlight, you can easily convert it into a garden and start growing beautiful fruits and vegetables.

Starting a garden is relatively easy, but there are several things you’ll need to know to be successful. Here is an outline of the steps, tips, and some essential things to consider when creating a garden from scratch.

Planning Your Garden

The very first thing you’ll want to do when starting a garden is to factor in where you live. Certain regions and climates are better for certain types of crops than others. Your local environment will inform the best place to set up your garden.

Picking the Right Crops

If you want to be successful, research the types of veggies and fruits that grow well in your area.

A significant consideration is the local temperature, and by extension, the growing season. Certain types of fruits and vegetables have long life cycles before producing, and if your growing season is short, it’s best to avoid these crops.

Certain vegetables grow better in cooler climates and will struggle if the temperature is consistently too hot. Vegetables like green peas, for example, are more suited to northern climates where the summer isn’t so oppressive.

If your area has high humidity, you may have trouble with certain vined crops such as cucumbers, which are prone to mold when subjected to constant high humidity.

One great tip if you’re unsure about what crops to grow is to ask local expert gardeners for advice. They’ve been growing successfully for years, and have probably seen both triumphs and failures. This could be a green-fingered neighbor, an employee at a gardening-related store, or a local online forum.

Placing the Garden

Ideally, you want your garden to receive at least five hours of direct sunlight each day. So, one of your first considerations when picking a spot for your garden is a place that’s not too shaded or obstructed. If you can’t find a spot that gets enough sunlight, certain root vegetables can grow in more shaded areas.

If you’re in a northern, colder climate, your garden location should be all about maximizing sunlight. Your crops will need all they can get, so don’t be shy about putting them in the sunniest part of your property.

In more southern climates, it’s not ideal for your plants to take the full force of sunlight during the entire middle of the day. Instead, they should be shaded for the hottest stretch of the day. As long as they end up getting five hours plus of daily sunlight, a partially covered location is the best choice.

Another important consideration is whether your garden is likely to be disturbed or trampled on. Keep your garden location away from areas where children or pets are likely to be running around.

Finally, I would advise that you pick a spot that is within natural sight from your home. As a beginning gardener, it’s easy to fall into bad habits as far as neglecting your garden. There’s a correlation between taking regular care of your garden and good crop yields. Putting your garden somewhere prominent helps you remember to care for it.

Rows vs. Beds

When you think about farming, you probably envision the long, narrow rows of crops in a traditional farm. However, in most cases, this isn’t the best pattern for a home garden.

Choosing to create blocks or bed rather than a garden with rows is advantageous for a couple of reasons.

First of all, beds are more space-efficient. Keep garden beds to a maximum width of 4 feet or so. This will allow you to reach into the center of the bed to tend the crops or pick fruits and vegetables. Now, you’ve got four solid feet of plants growing. With a row, you’ve only got a single plant separated by two paths of unused ground.

Rows also encourage you to walk between them, packing down the soil and compacting it over time. If you separate your beds with some type of divider, you won’t have to worry about this happening.

If you want your garden to look particularly nice, you can invest in some raised beds. This means putting more money into your garden upfront, but it can make your property more aesthetically pleasing.

Be careful where you install raised garden beds because, in more arid climates, they tend to dry out more quickly than ground-level beds. If you’re worried about water retention, putting your beds lower in the ground will keep them wetter for longer.

Another reason that beds help to establish your garden is that they enable you to get into gardening in smaller steps, rather than just diving in over your head. Some first-time gardeners try to create a massive garden for their first attempt. This isn’t usually a good idea.

Planning and building a garden is an involved process. Tending to one is a learning process, and some occasional bumps and missteps. Trying to build a huge garden with lots of different crops right off the bat can lead to a first-time gardener becoming overwhelmed.

I would suggest that you start by creating a single bed for your first year of gardening. Stick to one or two types of fruit or vegetable. If that goes well, feel free to build another bed or two next year. Develop your garden gradually, and you’re more likely to find success.

Creating Your Garden

Once you’ve picked out your spot, the type of crops you’ll be growing and obtained any materials you need, you’re ready to get started.

If you’re going to use raised beds, you’ll need to assemble the wooden structure. If you aren’t using any structure for your garden, you just need to mark out the dimensions of the land you’ll be converting into a garden.

The Soil

When it comes to growing fruit and vegetables, nothing is more important than the soil. If you’re fortunate, you might be able to get away with merely digging and cutting away any sod and planting into the native dirt. Often times, however, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Three major factors go into the quality and composition of soil: pH balance, what minerals make up the soil, and the amount of nutrients in the soil.

Most crops grow best in soil with a pH balance of around 7. Soil that’s either too acidic or too alkaline can make it almost impossible to get a good crop yield. There are several pH testing kits you can buy, either online or at a gardening store. If you’re going to try to use your native soil, make sure to buy one and test the pH balance.

You may think that all dirt is just dirt, but soil composition can vary wildly from location to location. The two things you’ll want to be on the lookout for is soil with sand in it and soil with clay in it. Either can be a problem, although some crops grow better in somewhat sandy soil.

If you find that your soil is noticeably sandy or heavy in clay, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to use it for your garden.

The third factor, the nutrient count of your soil, is more of a consideration for pre-existing gardens. When you grow crops, those crops tend to extract nutrients from the soil to grow. If you don’t replenish those nutrients, the soil won’t support healthy growth.

There are many tricks for improving the nutrients of your garden’s soil as the years go by. Composting, saving shredded leaves in the fall, and crop rotation are all viable options. But this article is focused on starting a garden, so I won’t go into those in detail.

For our purposes, just starting a garden, the chances are that your native soil will have a decent amount of nutrients in it. But it can’t hurt to add a few supplements.

Whether your soil pH is bad, the soil’s composition is unsuitable, or you simply want more nutrient-rich soil, it’s often a good idea to buy some soil for starting your garden. If your native soil is good, you can go with a 50/50 mix between native and purchased soil.

When you go to your local hardware or gardening store, you’ll see a wide range of soil types for sale. You will want to buy any soil labeled as ‘gardening soil’ or something similar. Stay away from topsoil, which isn’t preferred for planting. Potting soil is designed for use in flower pots. It will work but usually isn’t worth the extra dollar per bag you’ll spend.

Fill in the dimensions of your garden with any soil you buy, and you’re ready for planting.

Planting Your Crops

When it comes to planting your crops, you face a fundamental decision: Do you grow your plants from seed, or do you buy an already-growing plant.

There are some definite advantages to growing a plant from seed. You have more control over the variety and condition of the plant. However, as a first-time gardener, you may feel more comfortable buying a plant. There’s nothing wrong with that.

When picking out a plant, there are a few things to watch out for. Try to avoid buying any large plant growing in a smallish pot or container. These plants tend to have root systems which have grown to the edge of the pot and doubled back on themselves. They tend to transplant into your garden poorly.

Also, keep an eye out for any plants with withered, yellow or browning leaves. This can be a sign the plant isn’t healthy to begin with. And you want to make sure you’ve got as good a chance as possible at a healthy plant.

Once you’ve got your plants, dig a hole into your garden where each one will go. Every type of crop has different requirements for spacing, and you’ll want to read up and make sure you’re providing the appropriate gaps between plants.

Bury the root systems of your plants, then water them abundantly right after planting. This lets the soil assimilate, and also gives your plant a nice drink.

Tending to your Crops

Now that you’ve planted, most of the hard work is done. You just need to take care of your plants between now and when they start to produce fruits or vegetables.

Your two most routine tasks are watering and weeding.

Watering Your Crops

You might be inclined to water your plants constantly. But this is as much of a mistake as not watering them enough. A plant’s roots can get waterlogged and moldy if the soil is soaked continuously.

A rule of thumb is that a plant needs about one inch of water per week. If you’ve received lots of rain, you should skip watering during that time. If the weather is clear, make sure to hit that threshold by watering every few days.

Keep in mind that this is a general rule and that each plant can be different. Some types of crop are ‘thirstier’ than others. You can find crop-specific info online or on the labeling of your plant.

Weeding Your Garden

You don’t have to be a fanatic about weeding, a few little weeds here and there aren’t a big problem. But if enough weeds spring up, they’re competing for vital nutrients with your crops.

It’s easier to weed when the weeds are small, as their root systems are shallow. Weeding every few days is great, although weeding once a week can also work if you can’t get free until the weekend.

Fertilizing

There are a wide range of fertilizers on the market, some even geared toward specific types of crops. There’s nothing wrong with using fertilizer if you so choose, and they can help your plants thrive.

Some people deliberately try to stay away from using extra fertilizers. And it’s definitely possible to get excellent crop yields without fertilizers.

If you’re not going to use fertilizers, you will need a long term strategy for keeping your garden full of nutrients. As I mentioned above, composting and using the natural resources of your property like dead leaves are the foundation of creating a source of natural fertilizers.

Assuming you’ve followed the above steps, then all you have to do is wait for your crops to reach maturity. Depending on how much they grow, you might find yourself using all your homegrown produce as it ripens, or you may need to consider preserving some of it.

Regardless, there are few simple pleasures better than sitting down to a delicious meal made with produce you’ve grown yourself. Don’t feel discouraged if you experience any setbacks while setting up your garden or your first year’s yield. It may take a year or two to figure out exactly works for you, I promise you, it is worth being patient for!

Sara Butler

Sara Butler has written scores of articles for Lawn Love -- everything from how to revive your dead lawn to how to start to lawn care tools every homeowner should have.