How to Start a Garden for Beginners

Gardening for Beginners: How to Start a Garden

Gardening for Beginners: How to Start a Garden

You’ve decided to start a real garden. Up until now, you bought fresh veggies at a farmers market and maybe you had a pot of tomatoes growing on the patio. This summer, you want to change that—but where do you start? It’s easier than you think if you follow these basic steps to start a garden. 

Step 1: Plan your garden

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Type of garden

You probably have a lot of ideas, and it’s time to narrow them down. What type of garden do you want to have? Will you plant directly into the ground-level garden, or do you want raised beds? On one hand, raised beds are more costly to start with since you will have to purchase the building materials. Raised beds also warm up earlier in the spring, giving you a head start on the growing season. Knowing the pros and cons of different types of gardens may be a great way to narrow down your decisions.

Location of the garden

Once you know the type of garden, it’s time to decide where your garden will be. If you have a large yard, there are probably several options. The biggest factor in determining the location is that your garden must be exposed to the sun. A small amount of shade can still work, but it may limit what you are able to grow successfully. 

In addition to sunshine, you may also want to consider access to water (plan to use a hose if you’re far from the house). As a beginner, you may want to keep your garden a little closer to your house, making maintenance, weeding, watering, etc. much easier than if you have to walk across a giant backyard. It also will make it easier to see if you have any critters on the prowl looking to eat your peas! 

Plan your garden graphic

Types of plants to grow

You’ve got the type and the location. Now, what do you want to grow? Do you want to just grow enough to eat fresh throughout the summer, or do you want to provide all the vegetables your family or friends will eat throughout the year? 

Be realistic about the amount of time you can give to gardening. If you are planting a salad garden with lettuce and other salad greens, some onions, and a couple of cherry tomatoes, a few minutes each day to harvest and check for weeds is all it will take. If you want to raise a lot of tomatoes and plan on using them in salsa and sauces that you can or freeze, plan on spending significantly more time. If you are a true beginner and have never gardened before, it might be better to start small and gradually increase the size of your garden as you grow in confidence.

Step 2: Stock up on gardening tools

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It’s time to build out your gardening tool kit. If there’s one piece of advice you need, it’s that good tools are worth their weight in gold. The price tag might be a little higher, but they will last forever and make your work much easier. That means you should try not to buy anything plastic. While the price might be more attractive, it will likely break before the end of the season the moment you hit a stubborn root. 

Big garden tools

The rake, hoe and shovel are your workhorses in the garden, and you want a strong, long handle with a good connection between the wood handle and the metal blade or rake. Your garden rake is not the type you use for leaves in fall. This is the type that is about a foot across and has evenly spaced tines.

gardening shovel in soil

Handheld garden tools

Essential hand tools include a good trowel, a hand pruner and a tool for working the soil next to the plants and for weeding. Hand tools come in many designs. Today, you can buy tools with an ergonomic design. They have different designs for tilling including a hoe type blade, a three-tined cultivator or a shuffle type blade that cuts the weeds off below ground. Every gardener has their favorite and you will, too, after you garden for a while. Don’t forget garden gloves. They’re essential to keep blisters at bay.

If you are starting from scratch with garden tools, it’s a great idea to hit up end-of-season sales and even estate sales. Often, they will have really good quality garden tools for sale at much less than what you would have to pay for new. Check out our selection of gardening tools—this way, you know you’re always getting a quality tool.

Step 3: Prepare your garden’s soil

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What’s growing where you plan to start your garden plot? It’s time to get it out of the way. Just trust us–if you’re removing sod, rent a sod cutter. This machine has a blade that cuts the sod underground so you can roll it up and either use it in another part of your yard, or you can compost it. You can remove sod with a shovel, but it is a very labor-intensive job. Once the sod is removed, the ground needs to be tilled. You can rent a tiller, also, but you might be able to borrow a tiller from a gardening neighbor or relative. While you till or turn the soil with a shovel, remove any stones, roots or other debris. 

This is a good time to have your soil tested. There are kits you can purchase online to test the soil yourself, or you can take a soil sample to your local cooperative extension for testing. The test will tell you the pH of your soil. Most plants prefer a neutral pH. For those plants that prefer a slightly acidic or slightly alkaline soil, you can amend the soil just by that plant. Your soil test will also tell you if the soil contains enough of the needed nutrients for plants to grow.

have your soil tested graphic

Once you have an idea of the nutrients in your soil, you can add organic material. The richer the soil, the healthier the plants that grow in the soil. Add lots of compost and aged manure and mix it into the existing soil. Your goal is to have a rich loam that will just get better year after year.

Note: If you are installing raised beds, you will not want to till the soil. Some gardeners don’t even remove the sod. Simply place your frames in the location you have chosen and anchor them in the ground. You then will have to fill the frames with soil you purchase, add the organic material and mix everything together for the perfect growing spot.

Step 4: Choose your garden seeds and seedling plants

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It’s time to plant your garden! That means it’s time to get your seeds! You need to purchase vegetable and flower seeds for your garden. After all the work you did to prepare the site to produce good fresh food, don’t stop there. Seriously consider raising an organic garden. Why add toxins to the food you will be eating? Start by purchasing organic, non-GMO garden seeds from a reputable seed company like Park Seed. 

Understanding GMOs (and why you should opt-out of them)

GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) are plants that have been changed genetically to help combat pests. The original biggest selling GMO was developed to make a corn crop plant capable of withstanding the herbicide glyphosate that was applied to kill the weeds. Today, 80 percent of all corn grown in North America is from GMO seed that is planted and sprayed with Roundup. 

planting seedling plants in garden

The main ingredient in Roundup is glyphosate. The World Health Organization has declared glyphosate a probable carcinogen. Another popular GMO splices in the gene that causes the plant to produce Bacillus Thuringiensis (bT), which it would ordinarily not produce. bT is a substance that will kill  the cabbage caterpillar and other caterpillars when it is ingested by them. bT is a natural substance in nature and was an organic treatment to fend off these pests on organic cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower and on corn. The result of using GMOs in both cases is a growing resistance to both. We now have superweeds which have developed that are not killed by the main ingredient in Roundup, even at much higher doses than were ever used before. The result of that is the chemical companies want to use even more toxic chemicals, including one of the main ingredients of Agent Orange. The same is true with the cabbage worm. The caterpillars are now evolving to the point that bT is no longer effective—a super caterpillar.

Benefits of non-GMO seeds

Purchasing organic seeds ensures that what you put in your garden is clean and has never been exposed to toxic chemicals. They haven’t been modified to withstand harmful chemicals, and they don’t encourage the growth of superweeds or supercritters. Check out more benefits of non-GMO seeds here.

Step 5: Start planting your garden

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You might have seen a variety of ways to plant, including the traditional long, straight rows. Our advice is to plant your garden your way by considering how you access the garden. Traditional long-row gardening has the advantage of greater air circulation, ease of picking the vegetables like beans and peas and you can run a small rototiller down the rows to keep weeds in check. But the traditional long, straight rows may not be the best way to plant your garden. Many gardeners prefer to plant in blocks. With blocks, you want each to be no more than three to four feet across so that you can reach into the middle from the path. 

ways to plant garden graphic

That’s the key! Plant your garden knowing that you will never walk on the planted area. You plant each block with adequate space between each plant to allow it to grow to maturity without being crowded. The planting area is not compacted from walking on it, so the weeds pull easily. You will only fertilize and water the planting blocks, saving time and money. In other words, you plant much like you would a raised bed garden. 

Another piece of advice: Read the back of your seed packet. It will tell you when to plant seeds, how deep the seeds should be planted and how long it will take for the seeds to germinate. Most seeds are planted after the last frost, but there are some that can tolerate a little cold like spinach and peas. Also, you may want to plant for a fall crop as well as the early summer crop for plants that don’t like the heat of summer. Plant a second fall crop of lettuce, spinach and broccoli.

Be gentle with your seedlings

Note: If you’re raising seedlings or bought plant seeds, they will need to be “hardened off.” This basically just means you want to get those little baby plants used to the outdoors when they’ve been grown in your home or in a greenhouse. 

These plants need to tolerate the sun all day, which is much more powerful than a grow light. They also have to change over from a tender stem and leaves to a woodier stem that can withstand the wind and even a rainstorm. They have to tolerate temperature changes from the heat of the day to the cooler nights. Start by taking your seedlings outside about two weeks before you want them in the garden. Place them in a shady sheltered location and bring them in each night. Gradually increase the amount of exposure to the sun. Do not allow the seedlings to wilt from lack of water. Do not put them outside if the temperature drops. Nighttime temperatures should be 50 degrees or more before you transplant into the garden. 

Step 6: Enjoy your garden

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Get your fridge ready. Now that everything is planted, you’ll have fresh lettuce in a couple of weeks, juicy tomatoes in a couple of months and a whole crop of beautiful flowers to clip and put in your kitchen window. Gardening has a thousand benefits that go beyond food and flowers. And while it may seem like a lot to get started, remember that you can start as small as you like and grow from there.