Gardening is often touted as being a lot of work and only for those that have a green thumb. The real truth is that anyone can be a gardener. Yes, you can! Imagine walking out to pick fresh vegetables for dinner every evening, fresh vegetables that are unparalleled in freshness, flavor, and quality. If you want this but are worried it will be too much work, read on. These tips make gardening an easy choice for even the most time-strapped and inexperienced person.
- What’s your USDA zone?
All seeds and plants have a hardiness rating, from 1-13b. This number indicates the planting zone the plant will grow well in, taking into account climate, length of seasons, and overall yearly temperatures. Before you start growing anything, find out what zone you are in. And then, choose plants that grow well in your zone.
- Find out your growing season to maximize yields.
First frosts and last frosts are critical in the gardening world. Many planting instructions will suggest planting the seeds 4-6 weeks before the last frost or 5 weeks before the first frost. If you are going to be successful, you need to know when these are in your area. These dates are, of course, not set in stone since we cannot control mother nature. However, we can draw conclusions based on years of data.
- The most reliable information will come from gardeners in your area. Ask around. It can vary even in geographically close areas because of high mountain ranges, valleys, and man-made barriers.
- If you don’t know any local gardeners, call or email a local gardening club or organization and ask there.
- Enter your zip code at The Farmer’s Almanac and get planting dates for each vegetable based on your location.
- Choose the best garden space to ensure success.
Choosing the best spot is 70% of gardening. Sun, shade, soil, and water accessibility are all crucial to thriving plants. The best spot will not be the same for everyone. Everything depends on what you intend to grow. What are you planting? Read up on those plants and understand their individual needs. Not all vegetable plants are the same. If you plant tomato plants in a shady location, you aren’t going to have tomatoes!
- Sun & Shade: How much sun do your plants need? Most gardens need a minimum of 6 hours of sun per day. Before you put spade to ground, determine how much sun your preferred spot gets. Learn how to measure sun exposure here.
- Water: Water accessibility is often overlooked when it can really be a make or break point for the garden. How easy will it be to water the space? Is there an outdoor faucet and hose that can reach the entirety of the garden? If not, how are you going to water it? Hauling buckets of water is going to get really old really fast!
- Wind: That hilltop spot might be the best-looking location, however, if it isn’t protected from the wind, your plants will struggle. Excess winds cause stunted, spindly, dried out plants. A natural hedgerow can help with this but the best choice is to choose another spot.
- Convenience: Locate the garden in a place that is easy for you to access. Gardens that are too far away, difficult to access, or tucked away often get forgotten and neglected. Be honest with yourself. When you get home from a long day’s work, how far do you want to go to pick veggies?
- Make a plan
What are you growing? How much are you going to grow? Are you just growing what your family will eat during the season or do you intend to preserve some of the harvest? The type of garden space that will suit your needs depends greatly on these factors. If you’re a pumpkin lover and only want to plant pumpkins, a small shaded garden spot is not going to work for you. Know your needs before you even pick up a spade.
- Learn how to create a weedless garden and never weed again!
That’s right. You read that correctly. Weeding can be (mostly) eliminated. This does take a little bit of extra effort at the beginning of the season but you will be patting yourself on the back all season long as the necessity to bend down and pick a weed is gone.
Learn More about weedless gardening here. For a more detailed exploration, check out Lee Reich’s Weedless Gardening. It is an amazing resource.
- Plant perennial flowers so you only have to do it once.
Perennial flowers will grow back every year and you rarely have to do anything except water and fertilize them. This saves a lot of time from starting and transplanting new flowers each year. And, it saves money too. Find a few varieties that you especially like and place them around the vegetable garden (as long as they will not expand and invade it!) or create a designated flower area. Perennial flowers are the way to go for those lacking time.
- Mulch, Mulch, Mulch
This goes hand-in-hand with weedless gardening, yet mulching does so much more than just eliminate weeds. Mulching also helps the soil retain moisture, insulates the soil from extreme temperature shifts, and adds nutrients to the soil. The benefits of mulching make the effort of doing it a simple necessity.
Inexpensive Mulch Options
- Lawn Clippings: Collect the grass clippings in a large pile to dry. Alternately, let them dry on the lawn and then collect them in a few days after they’ve mostly dried. Grass seeds aren’t an issue unless the lawn hasn’t been mowed in a long time and has gone to seed.
- Wood Chips and Sawdust: Collect from any trees you’ve cut down. Alternately, ask your town or city if there is a public supply. Farmers and other landowners might have sawdust or wood chips laying around as well.
- Autumn Leaves: Rake them up into a big pile and spread them over the garden. It’s even better if you can run over them a few times with a lawnmower to shred them. Non-shredded leaves can form large, suffocating, clumps and smother the garden and plants. Leaves can be piled up and saved for the following year.
All these can be used for mulch and if you have them already on your property, the only cost is your time gathering them. Alternately, all these options can be purchased from local farmers and garden supply stores.
- Do not waste time tilling.
Tilling has been used by generations to prepare the garden for planting but it seriously needs to stop. This is excellent news for all gardeners, new and old.
Tilling brings healthy microbes up from the soil where they bake and die in the sun. Very bad for the soil. Tilling also cuts up and brings up earthworms that are necessary for healthy soil. Also extremely bad. And there’s more. Tilling brings dormant weed seeds up to the surface where they will quite happily sprout all over your garden. Not cool!
Do not till. It is time-consuming and hurts the soil before you’ve even had the chance to grow anything. Use a trowel or hoe to make holes and channels to plant into. That way, the ground being disturbed is limited.
For more about no-till gardening, check out this step-by-step guide.
- Label everything!
In May, you plant the seeds, determined you will remember what they are. Three months later and what the heck is that? It has happened to the best of us, believe me! Use high-quality plastic markers that will not fade or wash away in the sun and rain. Do not use paper seed packets (they will disintegrate), short markers for tall plants (you’ll lose them), or anything that can’t stand up to sun, wind, rain, and heat.
- There are many great options for plant labeling here.
- Use large, flat stones as markers. Paint each stone with waterproof paint or use permanent markers to write the vegetable type. Place the stones at the beginning of the row.
- Spread out gardening tasks over the whole week to make it manageable.
1/2hr – 1 hr garden sessions spread out over the week are better than neglecting it all week and then doing a big garden day on the weekend. Use your time wisely. It’s the summer, you don’t want to be spending the entire Saturday taking care of the garden. Decide which days will be garden days and commit to it. Your garden will thank you!
- Thin those seedlings to grow the biggest vegetables.
Yes, it’s a little boring but if you put on some good music and put your mind to it, it’ll go quickly. If you don’t thin the carrots, lettuce, beets, you might as well have not planted them. The plants will be stunted, scraggly, and generally unproductive. The seeds packets will indicate the appropriate final spacing. Don’t ignore it.
- Don’t overdo it.
Start small. Really. The easiest way to be overwhelmed is to start off too big. Be realistic. You likely only need 2-3 kale plants, not 15. Tomatoes are great but what are you going to do when 10 tomato plants are ripening all at the same time. Pick 4-5 of your favorites and plant those the first year. Each year, expand on it as desired. This is a great list detailing how many of each vegetable to plant per person.
- Invest in your soil and the soil will reward you with beautiful plants.
Soil is a living organism. If your soil is healthy, your plants will thrive. Soil can be silty, clay, dry, sandy, or loamy. Plants like deep, rich, dark, well-draining soil that is close to a neutral pH. Find out what type of soil you have and amend it if needed.
- Test the soil pH to determine if it is acidic, alkaline, or neutral.
- Learn how to amend the soil by adding organic matter and compost.
- Be prepared for pests
If you see bugs on your plants, find out what they are! Even if it’s only a few, it is better to get ahead of the problem than to wait for a full-blown infestation. Some pests work surprisingly fast and can have rows of plants destroyed in days. Most take their time, though. Also, many insects are beneficial and it would be terrible to destroy them while they are helping out.
- ID the bug here.
- Determine the course of action.
- If pest repellents are necessary, choose organic or natural options so no chemical toxins leach into the soil.
- Space plants appropriately so they can reach their full potential.
This is a common mistake. When planting from seed, it is hard to imagine just how much room you are going to need for each one. It is tempting to plant them close together and plant more of them. Don’t do that. Follow the instructions on the seed packet and space the plants as recommended. Plants spaced too closely don’t mature to their full potential, produce fewer fruits, and succumb to diseases and pests quicker.
- Get rid of diseased or damaged plants to keep trouble away.
- Diseased plants can easily infect healthy ones. Certain crops are susceptible to the same diseases so while you may think you’ll only lose the tomato crop, you may lose the potatoes and peppers too. Get rid of the diseased plants immediately and far away from the garden too. It’s best if you can burn them.
- Damaged plants become ideal hosts for pesky bugs. Plus, they don’t look good. Cut off damaged branches and material so the plants can focus their energy on growing bigger, not healing broken pieces.
- Prune those plants so they can grow big and strong.
It may seem like the correct and natural thing to do, to let the plants grow as they want. While it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, you can increase vegetable and fruit yields by pruning the plants on a regular basis. Plants like tomatoes grow dozens of branches that aren’t going to produce fruit. The plant is spending energy growing these branches instead of using that energy for fruit production. Cutting off the unnecessary branches and shoots produces larger and more abundant fruit.
Pruning also increases airflow between the leaves and branches which increases healthiness. Diseases spread easier between leaves that are crowded and so do pests.
- Accumulate a collection of clay pots to protect seedlings.
Clay pots are permeable so air and water can seep through and the plants won’t suffocate under them. They are also inexpensive and can regularly be found at garage sales. They come in a variety of sizes and so can fit a wide variety and size plants.
- Protect Transplants: Clay pots are perfect for protecting seedlings right after they have been transplanted. Birds and other garden critters love tender, little plants, thinking they are the tastiest snack. Flip the clay pot carefully over the seedling and leave it there until the seedling is big enough to be ok on its’ own.
- Protect From the Cold: If you’re expecting frosts or freezes and you have young plants, a flipped over clay pot provides shelter and protection from the elements.
- You have to show up to succeed. Visit your garden, often.
Even if you have no garden chores, take a walk around and observe everything growing. The more familiar you are with the individual plants, the easier it will be to pick up potential problems before they become big problems. Plus, walking around, taking in your hard work and growing plants is good for mind and soul.
Now that you have all the gardening tips, you are well on your way to growing big, healthy vegetables even before the planting starts. Gardening is a great adventure and even the busiest and most inexperienced person can succeed given the right tools. There is no right or wrong way to garden; there is only what works for your needs. There is a garden out there just waiting for you to build it. Follow these tips and enjoy a bountiful garden harvest year after year.