A Basic Guide for Beginning Gardeners

Beginner garden plot James Mann

This is a realistic garden size for a beginner. Photo credit: James Mann Flickr https://flic.kr/p/dQP1Pk


Beginning gardeners often rush into gardening without seeing the whole process. You cannot simply plop the plants in the ground in the spring and harvest your crop in the fall. Don’t be nervous about your new project though. With some preparation and vigilance, you can harvest fresh food all summer and fall!


Use Local Resources

One of the best tips I can give to a first-time gardener is to check out your county agent’s office. It may have a unique name in your state. For example, in Alabama, it is the “Alabama Cooperative Extension System;” in Texas, it is “Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service;” and in Wisconsin, it is the “University of Wisconsin Extension.” The agent will be able to offer literature, resources, and answer your questions. Because this person deals with regional conditions, such as weather patterns, soil conditions, growing season length, and more, he or she is a valuable resource for gardeners.


Successful Beginner Gardeners Start Small

Most knitters don’t tackle long-sleeved sweaters as their first projects and beginning gardeners need to think small, too. Horticulturists advise that first-time gardeners frequently plant gardens that are larger than they can handle. Experts at the University of Michigan advise gardeners to plan for what they can handle — and then cut that in half!


Garden Locations for First Gardens

Choose your garden site carefully. Although some plants tolerate shade, most vegetables need full sun. A few plants, like Chinese cabbage, lettuce, and spinach, prefer shade in the hot summer. Drainage is another factor that beginners need to address. If your garden site floods every spring or has no water source in the hot months, it may impossible to establish and grow healthy plants.

Removing the sod will discourage the grass from growing in your garden. After removing the grass, you will need to dig up the soil using either a spade or a tiller. For best growing conditions, loosen at least six inches of soil. You can usually rent a machine, often called a rototiller, cultivator, or garden tiller, to make this task easier.


Amend the Soil

It is wise to test the soil to determine its organic structure, nutrient content, and pH level. Check with your county agent to get a kit for testing the soil and a recipe to improve your soil. It can be frustrating and counterproductive to try to raise a garden in poor soil.

Using a spade or a garden tiller, work your soil amendments into the top four to six inches. If you cannot get a soil test, mix a bag of well-rotted manure or compost with fertilizer following the application proportions on the fertilizer bag. Mix it into the soil. You may want to add peat moss to improve the soil texture.

When using fertilizer, be careful to choose fertilizer designed for vegetable gardening. You will need to add fertilizer throughout the growing season. Consult the recommendations on the packaging or talk to your county agent. Some plants are heavy feeders but others may require much less plant food.

container gardening jbarreiros

Container gardening is great for first time gardeners. Photo credit: jbarreiros Flickr https://flic.kr/p/88iPeq

Raised Gardens and Container Gardens

Raised beds can help overcome many soil problems, like dense clay, rocky composition, or sandy soil. In some areas around Miami, gardeners have very little topsoil over the coral bedrock so raised beds or container gardening is essential. Prepare your soil for success by working enrichments into it. These include peat moss, vermiculite, and fertilizer. You can find a good recipe for gardening soil here.

Containers for gardening can range from fancy commercial pots to homemade sacks. In the picture above, a gardener is using large flowerpots and a tote with holes drilled in the bottom. In the picture below, the gardener is raising potatoes in large, very strong sacks. Notice the other containers in the background.

Container gardening is a good choice for beginning gardeners. With the addition of a few flowers, the container garden can be an asset to your landscaping. It is convenient for apartment balconies, patios, or other small spaces. Container gardens are small enough to interest an inexperienced gardener, but they are not difficult to keep.

Square foot garden Bruce Szalwinski

Mel Bartholomew created his square foot garden method to help beginner gardeners. Bruce Szalwinski Flickr https://flic.kr/p/9wL3nY

Square Foot Gardening

Watching people struggle with unrealistically large gardens prompted Mel Bartholomew to adapt his square foot garden plans to the home gardener. His method has many advantages for hobby gardeners because it blends the container, raised bed, and wide row styles into a unique method.

Square foot gardening are small plots (4 foot by 4 foot) that you subdivide into 16 one-foot square sections. Each one-foot square can contain a different vegetable or flower. You can plant multiples of many small plants, like radishes and beans, into each one-foot section. Or you can devote more than one square-foot section to large plants, such as squash or pumpkins.

If you are interested in this highly successful way of gardening, you should pick up a book by Bartholomew. His books have detailed instructions on constructing the frames, planting the plots, and maintaining the plants for a bountiful harvest.


Analyze Your Gardening Choices

Pick your garden style by analyzing some important factors. Do you have enough space for single row gardening? Do you have the equipment, such as a rototiller, to do that style of gardening? Do you have the patience to frequently water, weed, and thin the wide-row garden? This style also needs tilling.

Other choices you need to consider are the type of plants you can grow in your garden area. For example, you may be more successful with pole beans growing up a trellis than bush beans that take up more space in your container or garden plot. Research your choices before buying your plants. Bush-type squash plants may seem to be the answer, but they are susceptible to stem-chewing vine borers and may lack flavor.  Beginning gardeners need to choose plants that will be relatively easy to manage.

Potato Towers – Sunset Festival 2010

Raising potatoes in towers and planting squash at their base maximizes the efficiency of this garden. Photo credit: Ed Bierman Flickr https://flic.kr/p/896UAz

Be Vigilant

Gardening is work! Don’t plant your garden and ignore it. You will need to keep it weed-free, watered properly, pest-free, and clean. As you work in your garden, watch for harmful insects and for beneficial ones like ladybugs and praying mantis. Trim off any damaged leaves and examine them for insect or fungal infestations. Take them to the county extension agent at your county’s Cooperative Extension office if you cannot diagnose the problem by referencing books or online sources.

Remember to start small, plan ahead, select a sunny or mostly sunny site, and choose the right gardening method for your situation. With some work and experimenting, you may become the master gardener in your neighborhood.


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