Gardening For Beginners: Ultimate Guide
Gone are the days when gardening is seen as a tedious and menial task. Today, lots of celebrities and billionaires have embraced the joy of gardening not just as a way of producing crops, but also as a habit that relaxes the mind, the body, and the soul. You, too, can find sheer happiness and contentment even without too much technical background.
Let this beginners’ ultimate guide aid you in building a solid foundation in gardening.
Your garden is your very own haven—your recluse from harsh reality and the stress of a fast-paced world. It is only right that everything in your garden is what you would love to see every time you start your day.
Nonetheless, there are certain factors that you need to consider before starting your very own garden from scratch.
Location is very limiting. With it comes several other sub-factors that might determine whether your garden will thrive or not, such as type of terrain, type of soil, weather and temperature. You cannot wish to have sunflowers in your backyard if rain and cloudy skies are more frequent in your place than a peek of sunshine.
Your purpose for starting a garden is also a huge consideration. Is it for aesthetic purposes? Then perhaps it is wise to prioritize flowering plants, groundcovers, and ornamental plants. Is it for eating and cooking? Then why not give herbs, root crops, leafy greens and fruit-bearing plants a try?
The availability of space, which will be discussed in a while, might also restrict the range of plants to choose from. However, coming up with a list of priorities is helpful as you check the other requirements of starting your own backyard garden.
Efficient Use of Space and Total Environment Control
Gardening need not be limited by the space available in your home. You can adjust your method and plant selection depending on how much space and control you have over your environment.
There are various tools that you can use to improve success rate and modern methods that you can apply according to your limitations. There is really no excuse nowadays to avoid gardening altogether.
Many people living in cities have embraced more unconventional gardening methods. Vertical gardening, aeroponics, hydroponics and bonsai planting are just some of the choices that you have.
Ease of Use and Simplification of Gardening
Gardening need not be expensive and toilsome. Planning ahead can certainly cut down the expenditures. Maximizing the availability of space can also maximize possible income, should you plan to make money out of your harvest.
Choosing the location and planning the garden bed come first before the actual planting and caring. Can they really be that simple? Indeed, they are.
Choose a Location to Start Your Garden
Location has significant effects to the quality of yields. To a certain extent, it is even used as a unique selling proposition by commercial plantations, same as how location dictates the appreciation of real estate properties.
Take the barley grass and wheatgrass industries for example. The controlled environment where these herbal medicines are cultivated is already sufficient to add as much as $50 per bottle of their processed dietary supplements. In some European nations, peanuts grown in “tougher” areas also sell higher as they contain more nutrients when compared to those that are grown in finer environments. Peanuts are known to pack more nutrients when they survive in harsher environmental conditions.
Some plants need milder environments while some plants mature faster in tougher environments, so it all amounts to what you like to grow in your garden. Nevertheless, there are general principles that you can consider when selecting a location.
Contrary to popular belief, the soil may not be prioritized if you are not going to plant sensitive high-value crops to begin with. Most species of plants, whether ornamental, vegetable or fruit-bearing, thrive in loamy soil, which is the common garden soil across the country. Many plants survive just fine even in a slightly sandy land, which you can mix with loam afterwards.
What you should be more mindful about is the land’s exposure to sunlight and rain. Fruits and vegetables need direct sunlight for at least six to eight hours a day, with or without the aid of a greenhouse. Setting your garden bed 12 feet from the wall of your house is recommended for vegetables, but many ornamental plants would love this setup for as long as they are exposed to the morning or afternoon sunlight (from either side).
A water source nearby is essential but can be easily solved with a few meters of hose, if unavailable. To prevent waterlogging, the garden should be slightly elevated and has access to the nearest drainage. Sloped land is not advisable, but this can be easily solved by leveling. If the land is really terrible for cultivation, you can always opt for raised beds filled with specially mixed soil.
Exposure to open air is harder to manage, so you need to find a place where plants can breathe and where the soil can dry up naturally. Minimal airflow oftentimes leads to the development of pathogens in the soil and of molds and mildews on fruits and leaves.
The location should also be far from possible sources of chemicals, such as workshops, garages, and chemical storerooms, as toxins can be absorbed by plants, which in turn can be eaten by humans.
Your ideal garden is accessible from the main house, but open spaces in your backyard may be laden with gas pipelines and water pipes, so it is better if you call your utility provider first before you start digging. Some areas also impose certain prohibitions when it comes to gardening (e.g. height restrictions, plant restrictions, construction restrictions), so might as well consult with your home-owners association or local government before enacting on your plans.
Plan Your Garden Beds
The specifications of garden beds come after deciding whether to set in-ground beds or raised beds (sometimes called plant boxes). The latter obviously takes more time and resources to finish, but it is necessary for lands with “bad soil” and low depression. Multi-layered beds might even be the only choice for tight spaces. In the case of vertical gardening, the design of raised beds is determined by the availability of space.
In-ground beds and raised beds have their own advantages over one another.
In-ground beds on fine-textured lands that are appropriately elevated can be dug after you come up with a design and size. Microbial life naturally thrives here, minimizing the use of fertilizers as an effect. Regardless, many gardeners find it less aesthetically appealing. It may also not be suitable for places with lots of roaming small animals. The choice for urban settings is a giveaway.
On the other hand, raised beds can solve the problems of having sandy or rocky constitution, low nutrients, exposure to toxins, persistence of weeds and pests, and plant bending. The only concern here is where to get the soil to be placed in raised beds and how to do the periodic maintenance and replacements required.
The two types of bed essentially follow the same rules when it comes to sizing. The width should not be more than four feet so that you can reach for the middle part without accidentally stepping on the edges. Beds meant for seedlings are best kept at two-feet wide while those situated against a wall, a trellis or a fence should not exceed three feet (as you can only reach from one side).
Beds for seedlings and leafy greens can be at least six inches in height while root crops and deep-rooting shrubs should be at least a foot high.
The length of beds largely depends on the available space. It does not really matter if it is just four-feet long or 12-feet long since beds have walkways in between anyway.
When it comes to choosing the bed frame, hardwoods that have good resistance to rotting, such as teak, mahogany, and beech, are preferred over less durable softwoods, such as cedar, spruce and juniper. However, the former is a luxury that most gardeners do not have, so opting for treated wood (soaked in chemicals) may be the only best thing to do. Remember that haphazardly choosing the bed frame results to higher chance of needing replacement after a certain period.
Multi-layered raised beds are only recommended for seedlings and leafy greens as the weight might be too much for the base. This design increases the chance of catching pathogens, although it undeniably saves lots of space. Also, keep in mind that plant boxes set on top of tables can stunt the growth of some root crops like carrots and potatoes.
One of the odd practices of gardeners when making raised beds is putting broken stones at the bottommost layer before adding the soil. This supposedly improves drainage, but it does not really make any difference in as far as plant maturity and resistance to diseases are concerned. The same is true for weed protection membranes that only degrade the breathability of the soil.
Vertical gardening is a method of suspending plants and arranging raised beds, pots, boards or trellis vertically to make it appear like they are stacked on top of each other. This is well favored by people living in small spaces, usually in urban areas, as it saves a lot of space. However, people have started embracing the concept even in their own backyards for aesthetic purposes and practical reasons.
The concept seems a little unconventional albeit steadily growing as a modern method. Nevertheless, the success of setting up your own vertical garden in your own backyard still largely relies on how you plan, prepare, plant and nurture your garden.
There is no bed involved in vertical gardening as all plants are planted in pots, trellis or boards. It is often combined with principles of aeroponics, allowing you to avoid the use of soil altogether.
In reality, the method of preparing and arranging pots or planting boards depends on the style and design of vertical garden that you have in mind.
For instance, using pots is considered more practical when vertical gardening is applied to spaces with exposure to sunlight and rain (e.g. balcony, rooftop) while planting boards is more practical when used inside the house.
Invest in Basic Gardening Tools
Standard gardening toolkits are aplenty in stores. You can buy a complete set for as low as $20 while more durable sets typically sold at $150. The price tag should not be the main concern, though, as the materials used and the sizes are more important considerations. Although more expensive, novice gardeners are recommended to buy individual tools that perfectly match the plant, the type of soil, and future plans.
You will need a wheelbarrow to transfer soil from one place to another. Some brands even come with water carrying bags, which you can find useful when watering plants that are far from the spigot.
For digging, building the soil and harvesting, it is imperative to have a digging spade made from stainless steel, a garden trowel with wooden handle (as this is easier to grip than a trowel made from aluminum or stainless steel), a fork hoe (you might need a smaller one if you only have small pots and small raised beds), and a heavy-duty hoe. There are multipurpose digging tools in the market as well, like the golden gark that serves as a soil sift, shovel and rake in one. It is also very convenient to have dibbers for planting seeds and seedlings.
For cutting, it is advisable to own a pair of pruning shears (especially for ornamental plants, berries, and leafy greens), a long-handled loppers for trimming thick bushes, and a garden knife, which is preferred for cutting flowers and stems.
Using a garden hose may not be advisable for cultivating seedlings, so owning a ubiquitous watering can and a water wand always does wonders.
Other tools are optional. It is better if their importance is assessed after the garden has been set up.
Test Your Soil
The soil is tested for several things: pH level, mineral content, texture, and porosity. The list of factors to be measured can extend a little longer depending on what you are trying to plant.
Testing the pH level simply aims to determine if the soil is acidic or alkaline. You would want to have the former in your garden as plants, especially vegetables, grow healthier in a slightly acidic environment.
The pH level is a scale from 1 to 14. Levels 1 to 6 indicate acidity, level 7 indicates neutral and levels 8 to 14 indicate alkaline. With the use of an electronic pH meter, you can easily determine the accurate pH level, which preferably falls under 5 to 7. Using litmus paper works fine as well, but you need a color chart to compare results.
Common crops like tomato, corn and carrot thrive well with a pH level of 5.5 while potato can tolerate even a pH level of 5. Many flowering plants mature well in soils with 6 to 7 pH level. Needless to say, you need to search for the pH level requirements of the plants that you will cultivate if you want to improve their survival rate.
What if your soil is not acidic enough? You have two practical solutions.
First, you need to choose plants that grow well even in a slightly alkaline soil. Many plants match that description. Some of these plants are lily of the valley, lavender, honeysuckle and lilac. Most hard trees like oak and teak also fall under the category, but you probably would not want to resort to tree planting.
The second solution would be to make the soil acidic by mixing certain nutrients. Letting lime rot in the soil is one sure but slow way. Quicker solutions would be to mix the soil with iron sulfate, organic mulches, elemental sulfur or acidifying nitrogen. These nutrients and many more, are readily available in many gardening supplies shops.
The amounts of nutrients to be applied are normally computed per 100 square feet of garden plot, with base computation depending on the pH level of the soil. It is important that these nutrients are gradually added while you test the soil between increases to avoid making it too acidic for gardening.
Nutrient levels, on the other hand, are measured using an EC meter (electronic meter). In particular, you would want to find out if the soil has sufficient amount of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous. Most EC meter brands already come with a manual containing the preferable nutrient levels of a garden soil for the user’s reference. There is no need to memorize numbers at this point.
The texture is easily measured with the naked eye. Having loamy consistency is highly preferred, but having slightly rocky and sandy consistencies are not necessary bad news either. Making raised beds is an obvious solution, but keep in mind that some plants grow just fine in unconventional environments.
Most crops for cooking thrive well in sandy soil. They include potato, carrot, radish, lettuce, bean, watermelon, corn and cucumber. Herbs are no exception. You can cultivate oregano, thyme and rosemary just fine.
On the other hand, groundcovers like hens-and-chicks and lavender, and flowering plants like pasque flower, sedum, columbine and bellflower all mature faster in a slightly rocky soil.
Lastly, porosity simply refers to the looseness of the soil, which indicates the breathability of roots, the existence of microbes and other helpful organisms, the expansion of gas and the movement of water from the top soil downwards. There is really no specific mechanism in testing this because it all depends on the requirements of the plants that you will cultivate. Just be sure to test how well water is absorbed by the ground as plant roots rot easily in highly porous soil (e.g. clay).
Build Your Soil
Building the soil means improving its health. Supposing that you have already tested the soil for possible deficiencies, the next step is to add whatever is lacking.
Aside from improving the pH level and nutrient content of the soil, one must pay attention to the amount of organic matter on the bed as well. Organic matters are naturally decaying materials that you can collect yourself or buy from stores. They help in keeping the soil moist, allowing it to absorb more nutrients and store essential gases like nitrogen and oxygen.
Fallen leaves, fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen, manures, and mosses are imperative add-ons if you look forward to a bounty harvest, fast maturity of plants or lush blooms. Adding microorganisms, such as earthworms and lichens, after plowing also boosts soil structure.
The typical organic matter-soil ratio is 1-10 (10% organic matter, 90% soil). They can be mixed together upon tilling (recommended for raised beds) or be applied layer by layer (recommended for in-ground beds). For the latter method, an inch of organic matter is spread on the bottom layer to be followed by four inches of soil, and to be repeated until the desired height is achieved. The topmost layer can then be covered with mulch, locking in the nutrients and allowing the organic matter to disintegrate well through time.
Choose the Right Seeds or Transplants
Seeds are cheaper than seedlings, but their chance of surviving after being planted is also lower. At this point when you have already decided the most suitable plant to cultivate, the knowledge to identify the right seeds or transplants will make the difference.
There are signs that you need to be wary of. Otherwise, the chance of geminating seeds or sustaining transplant life is practically next to none.
The most common method of testing seed viability is the water test. Allow the seeds to soak in water for 10 minutes. Those that will sink are likely to germinate successfully while those that will float are as good as gone.
Another common method is the germination test. This random testing works just fine when testing several seeds from a large batch or from the same packet or container. To do this, place 10 to 15 seeds in a moist paper towel before carefully folding it and storing it in a tightly closed jar or zip bag. The seeds should start growing within 24 hours to seven days.
The batch where the seeds come from is considered good if most, if not all, of the seeds have germinated with a week.
As for choosing the right transplant, the clues are always in the roots and foliage.
Tangled roots indicate extended period of storage in the nursery (which is bad for cultivation) while brown roots are essentially dead. On the other hand, roots that tightly hold on to soil indicate good health.
The leaves should consistently appear with solid color, usually green, and not with sporadic spotting. Inconsistency of color implies lack of nitrogen in the soil where they grew.
Plant with Care
Planting basically refers to three steps: digging, planting and backfilling. The in-betweens are the things that make a difference.
The hole should be enough to cover the roots and one to two inches above that, depending on its height. Anything sufficient in holding the plant in place is already deemed a proper hole. However, it is a must to dig using a tool with sharp edge to avoid compressing the soil, affecting its porosity in the process.
Planting is as simple as it sounds. Teasing out the roots after taking them out from the container (of any kind) to facilitate growth, and removing the dead ones are crucial for development.
Lastly, proper backfilling is done with light plowing to ensure that the soil remains breathable yet sturdy to hold the roots. Never use your feet to press down soil.
Nurture Your Garden
Nurturing your garden even further is one simple task if you have started properly. All you have to do is sustain soil health by testing it and checking its consistency from time to time, especially after every crop cycle; check plant health by looking for signs of diseases, such as spotting in the foliage, browning of stems, stunted growth, and development of molds and mildew; till the soil to keep the air flowing; water the plants and add nutrients according to plant maturity requirements; and pull the unwanted weeds.
Other methods of nurturing your garden are plant-specific, which means that requirements differ depending on what is planted.
Enjoy Your Harvest
Harvesting is also a plant-specific process that varies depending on the type of plant and its species. They key here is to use appropriate tools to avoid damaging the entire plant (although some crops are meant to be pulled out completely like in the case of root crops).
Picking fruits and flowers is best done with pruning shears or a garden knife, although picking with hands is perfectly fine for certain plants, like in the case of pumpkin and cucumber. On the other hand, a hoe is most suitable for harvesting root crops. Using a weed puller is a big no-no as its shape and size are not designed for pulling out root crops without causing damage.
Gardening seems like a gigantic task when you are unfamiliar with the processes involved and the tools required in making it a success. However, planning properly and sticking with it can turn your odds of failing into hints of certainty. External factors may still give you headaches here and there of course, but carefully researchings plant-specific requirements should proactively deal with half of them.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Easiest Thing to Grow in a Garden?
Vegetables are generally easier to grow. In particular, root crops are low maintenance because of their natural ability to adapt to harsher environments. They are living underground, after all. You may want to start with carrot, ginger, radish and peanut.
Basil and oregano are the easiest to cultivate among herbs while tomato and bell pepper are good for beginners when it comes to shrubs. Squash and cucumber are well-preferred vines by casual gardeners while spinach and surprisingly, lettuce, are sure picks if you want to go with greens.
What do you Put in the Bottom of a Raised Garden Bed?
Professional gardeners have two common answers to that question: organic matter and a special membrane used to suppress weed growth. The latter is called in many names: weed protection membrane, weed barrier fabric, weed control fabric and weed suppressing membrane.
Between the two, using organic matter is the wiser decision as weed protection membranes are not always effective. Many novices also put a layer of cardboard at the bottom, although this method is a common mistake. The cardboard should be sandwiched between the organic matter and the soil to facilitate disintegration at an appropriate pace.
What Vegetables Should not be Planted Together?
Some crops are believed to be enemies of many species of plants. For instance, garlic and onion should not be planted in the same bed together with most varieties of beans. Tomato is also deemed incompatible with corn, but corn grows well with pumpkin, squash, melon and cucumber, all of which are incompatible with potato.
In the end, with over a hundred of common farm crops to choose from, the point of reference should always be the main crop or the star of your garden.
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