Starting a garden can be exciting. It can also be a little intimidating. My first memories of gardening when I was a kid revolve around weeding. I remember sitting in the hot sun, making sure that I pulled out the entire root of the weed. The dirt was dry and rough on my knees as I wondered why people would ever enjoy this. That is what I thought gardening was for a long time. Honestly, I thought gardening was not fun and a waste of time.
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I dabbled a little bit more in gardening when I lived in the city. I had a small raised bed, but at that time, I had other priorities that didn’t allow for me to really use the space to its fullest potential.
The next time I started a garden, I was lucky enough to have more space. I still didn’t know exactly what I was doing. The first couple of years weren’t my most successful, but they ended up being good experience and a great jumping off point for determining what worked and what didn’t for my space.
I found that gardening is a journey, not a destination. I also came to realize that what is "tried and true" for a lot of gardeners wasn't my path. After a couple of years of spending hours pulling weeds and spraying chemicals, I changed the way I looked at gardening. Here are the steps that I take when starting a new garden (no chemicals or weeds involved)!
To get a free checklist printout for starting your garden, click here.
To get the free garden journal and planner, click here.
Finding an ideal space for you garden is a top priority. You will want something with plenty of sun (at least six hours). Make sure that you will get enough sun in all seasons. If you are planning your garden in the winter, your spot may look sunny enough during the day, but when the leaves are on the trees, there may be too much shade. Ideally, you can check this space in all seasons to see what kind of light it gets.
If your chosen spot has some shady spots, don’t worry. There are plenty of plants that like partial shade. If you live in a very hot climate, a little shade could also benefit your plants.
Keep in mind that you will most likely have to water your garden periodically. Make sure that you have access to a water source close by. This may be a faucet or even a rain barrel. Just make sure it is easy to get to; otherwise, you will be lugging buckets of water from the house. Trust me, this isn’t fun (but it is a good workout).
Build the garden
Depending on your soil and location, you may decide to plant a raised bed garden. I personally don’t have a raised bed garden, but there are a lot of benefits to gardening this way. You have a lot of control over the health of the soil, because it is contained. If you plant multiple raised beds, you have paths between, so your soil doesn’t get compacted. Raised beds are easier to reach (think less bending and kneeling). Disease doesn’t spread from bed to bed. To learn more about raised beds and how to make them, here is a really good article.
You can also create a plot for your garden. I have areas fenced off for my gardens. Benefits to gardening this way include not having to buy materials (other than fencing). You don’t have to build anything. You can use the soil you have and place amendments and mulch on top rather than having to fill the raised beds.
If you decide to use a plot and fence it in, a temporary fence can work great. Here is what I have used to make a sturdy fence that has held up really well: Netting, Posts, Zip Ties. Or a kit like this would work really well.
If you don’t have the space or have other issues that make it hard to work the soil or build a raised bed garden, there are other alternative methods to gardening. If you don’t have a lot of space or have trouble with mobility, you can use pots on your porch or patio. These can be placed on a table so no bending is required.
Another alternative is straw bale gardening. With just a few straw bales and a little time to “condition” them, you will have a perfect area for planting. Take a look at my post about straw bale gardening here.
Amend the soil
Whichever garden you decide to start with, you will have to start out by amending the soil. All that this means is that you are adding things to make your soil better. There are many ways to make your soil healthy.
You can always run a soil test to see what your soil needs. Buy one online for simple measurements of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. This is the one I use. You can contact your extension office to have them send off a sample for a more complete picture of your soil’s health.
I keep meaning to get a full sample done through my extension, but I have found that even using the quick and easy test that I bought online is a good way to get an idea of what my soil needs.
The main thing to remember is that most of the time if you add organic matter, like compost, manure and mulch, you will get to a healthy soil status in no time at all. To learn how to make compost, take a look at this post.
No Till Gardening
You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned tilling your garden. That’s because you don’t need to! There are so many no-till methods that you can use in your garden to create better soil health without disturbing your soil. Take a look at this post to learn more about no-till methods. I would encourage you to consider employing these methods before going out and buying a tiller. You can see from my experience how much more productive my garden has been without using the tiller.
A lot of people will till their plot the first year to get it prepared for planting. That’s definitely one way to do it, but I highly recommend that you hold off on tilling. It is really not a necessary step at any point in a home garden.
Some books I recommend for no-till methods: Anything by Charles Dowding: Here's a good one. And anything by Ruth Stout: This one was my inspiration. Another book I love is from Susan Vinskofski over at learningandyearning.com. She has an ebook that talks about no-till methods as well as tons of other information for getting your garden started. You can grab her ebook over here.
Decide what vegetables you want to grow
Now that you have your garden spot picked out and ready to go, you need to decide what you’re going to put into the garden. Ideally, you would be picking out your plants during the winter or very early spring so that you know when you need to order your seeds and get ready to go. Don’t fret if you don’t get started early enough. You can always skip the spring garden or even buy plants from a nursery. There are no excuses for not starting your garden this year!
Think about what vegetables you and your family love. Think about vegetables you want to try. Think about vegetables you don’t like. You are going to want to plant mostly vegetables you know you and your family will eat. It might be fun to plant something different or something you just want to test out, but the majority of your garden should be tried and true.
Don’t let all the choices overwhelm you. For your very first garden, you may only want to plant three or four things. Take a look at this post to find out the easiest vegetables for beginners to grow.
Keep in mind that depending on your climate, you may not be able to grow every vegetable successfully. You can check out this link to find out your USDA Hardiness Zone. As you get more comfortable with gardening, you may even decide to try out plants that are more difficult to grow. But to start, keep it simple so that you can ensure success.
Decide how much to plant
For your first garden, you may want to plant a couple of each plant just to get an idea of what you like and what does well in your space. Again, you want your first garden to be successful and not too overwhelming. As you get more comfortable with everything that gardening entails, you can expand to grow vegetables for preservation (including drying, canning and fermenting). You can also decide if you want to expand your garden after the first year or even try alternative methods of gardening.
Here’s a really good post about how to figure out how many of each plant you need to grow to feed your family. Again, this may not be something you are striving for your first year, but it gives you an idea of what it would entail to get to that point.
Order seeds or decide if you want to plant from seedlings
Once you know what you are going to plant and how much you are going to plant, it’s time for the fun part – ordering seeds! Find a seed company that you trust. I personally use Baker Creek Seeds. Find out more about different types of seeds here.
One thing I worried about when I first started gardening was making sure my seeds were non-GMO. It turns out, us gardeners can’t buy GMO (genetically modified) seeds. These types of seeds are only sold to farmers and are usually only soybeans and corn.
Whether you decide to buy heirloom, hybrid or organic seeds is completely up to you and what you are looking for. I love heirloom seeds. I find that they tend to have the most flavor. Heirloom seeds can also be saved from year to year.
If you aren’t sure about whether to start plants from seed or seedlings, look at my post about the benefits of starting seeds. If you are trying to figure out which plants should be started from seed, look at this post.
Determine when each seed needs to be started and get to planting
After you have received your seeds (yay!), you will need to make a plan of when the seeds will need to be started or planted in the ground. You can use a calculator like the one at the Farmer’s Almanac website to figure out when you need to start planting each seed. Just plug in your zip code, and the website will tell you when to start seeds indoors, when to transplant and when to plant outdoors.
Use this information to start your seeds at the appropriate times. If you are starting plants from seed, here’s a beginner’s guide to help you out.
Plant in the garden
If you decided to start plants from seed or if you are buying seedlings from the nursery, you will want to wait until your last frost date has passed to plant in the garden. Make sure the weather forecast isn’t calling for any nights going below freezing in the near future.
Space plants according to the instructions on the seed packet or seedling tag. If you aren't sure how to read a seed packet, take a look at this post. I know it’s tempting to put as many plants in a space as possible, but they need room to grow. They will be competing for nutrients and water if you plant them too close together, so try to stick with the recommended spacing.
Water your plants after you have planted them in the ground. Keep them moist throughout the summer. I have a tool like this that makes it easy to see how my soil moisture is doing. Keep an eye on the forecast. You don’t want to over water your plants. A lot of sources say about one inch of water per week is a good amount. It’s hard to measure the exact amount you are watering, so do your best and observe your plants and their health.
I am a huge fan of mulching your garden. Read more about my love of mulch over here. A simple layer of clean straw about two to three inches thick is a great mulch. Whether you choose to do a no-till garden (you should) or not, a layer of mulch will help keep weeds down and keep moisture in. As the mulch breaks down over time, it will also feed your soil.
Make sure you know where you are getting the straw and that no chemicals were used on the straw.
Keep an eye on your garden. Really observe it and see what’s going on. You may notice insects. Insects can be beneficial. To find out how to attract beneficial insects to your garden, look at this post. Before you think about spraying for insects, consider that if you wait a little while, beneficial insects will show up to take care of any pests you may have. A lot of sprays (even organic) kill ALL insects.
Look at the leaves and stems of your plants. Are they changing colors or showing signs of damage?
Look at the soil. The soil is what feeds your plants. Keeping up soil health is one of the most important things you can do for your garden.
The more you get to know your garden and it's changes throughout the season, the easier it will be to see when something is going wrong.
Reap the harvest
After all of the hard work you have put in, you should be getting a good harvest. I love to eat fresh from the garden. I try to plant enough to preserve some of my harvest as well. There is nothing better than making a meal in the middle of winter with vegetables that you grew in your own garden. It is so rewarding. Here are some ideas of how to use your vegetables.
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If you are anything like me, you have probably been researching all day. When it comes to gardening, research will only get you so far. Experience is the key. Just plant something and see what happens. One thing I can assure you is that you WILL make mistakes. Don't let that deter you. Just know that the more you do this, the more you will learn. Gardening is a journey that never ends, so enjoy the ride!