Gardening can be daunting, especially for beginners. However, with a little guidance and the right tools, it’s possible to cultivate your own vegetables and flowers.
From assessing your soil and measuring sunlight to knowing when to water, these expert tips will turn any newbie into an instant green thumb.
1. Know Your Plants
Gardening seems easy on paper, but there are a lot of variables that could affect your garden’s health. For example, the type of soil your garden has can have a big impact on what you’re able to grow. Understanding how much light your garden gets is also important. For example, many vegetables and flowers need full sun to thrive, while others can tolerate shade or even partial sunlight.
Another factor is how often you water your plants. This can be tricky, especially if you live in an area that goes long periods of time without rain. When you’re first starting out, it can be helpful to plant your garden near a water source so that you don’t have to lug a hose all over the yard every time your plants get thirsty.
You also need to know when your vegetables and flowers are ready to be harvested. This will help you make the most out of your produce and avoid over- or under-harvesting. It’s also a good idea to keep track of when you planted your crops so that you’re aware of how long it takes for them to mature.
It’s important to know your plants because there are certain things that shouldn’t be placed together. For example, placing vegetables next to tall flowers can shade the vegetables and stunt their growth. It’s also a good idea not to place plants that have the same needs in the same location year after year. Rotating where you plant your vegetables, flowers and shrubs can help prevent depleting the soil of its nutrients. This can be done by planting a new crop in the same location each year, or by adding fresh compost to your soil regularly.
2. Know Your Soil
Soil is a complex mixture of organic and inorganic matter that largely determines what will grow well in your garden. It holds nutrients and water, supports a community of microbes that recycle or decompose materials for plants and other soil biota, and plays a role in how quickly and thoroughly moisture is absorbed.
Getting to know your soil type and understanding how it changes the way you care for your garden is a critical first step toward creating healthy soil. This information helps you select plants that will thrive in your area, hone gardening practices that support nutrient availability and help manage irrigation schedules.
The best way to learn about your soil is to get a professional soil test from a county extension office or garden center. They will evaluate everything from soil pH to primary nutrients, and will provide recommendations for improving your soil health. However, you can do a few easy DIY tests to get a good idea of your soil’s qualities.
To start, make sure the soil you are testing is moist – not muddy or dry – and dig up a cupful of it from six to ten inches down. Study it, and look for different sized “crumbs” or material; this indicates that your soil has a diversity of organic matter in it.
Next, try squeezing a handful of the soil between your fingers. If it holds together and doesn’t crumble, you likely have a high clay content. If it crumbles easily, you probably have a high silt or sandy soil. A healthy, productive soil is full of life – earthworms are a sign of this, and roots that spread show your soil can hold moisture and nutrients.
3. Know Your Tools
Whether you’re planning your first garden or are an experienced horticulturist, it’s important to have the right tools for the job. But with all of the gardening gadgets available, it can be easy to go overboard and end up with a shed or garage full of tools you never use.
A good starting point is to look at the kinds of tasks you will most frequently perform and consider which tools are essential for those jobs. For example, if you’re going to be digging in the yard or around your house regularly, you’ll want to invest in a durable garden trowel. This hand tool is essentially a handheld shovel and can be used for many jobs, including digging holes for planting, mixing soil, cutting up weeds, and more. Look for one with a narrow, sturdy blade (stainless steel is ideal) and a comfortable handle, like a plastic or wood handle with a stainless steel head.
Another key tool for any garden is a wheelbarrow, which is necessary for transporting heavy items such as bags of soil and larger plants. For smaller tasks, like aerating and tilling the soil in your vegetable garden or weeding in small spaces, you’ll also want to have a spade or garden hoe at the ready.
To get the most out of your gardening tools, make it a habit to clean them after every use or at least on a weekly basis. Rinsing and wiping them down with a damp cloth can help keep them in working condition, as well as free of dirt, sap, and other debris. And don’t forget to inspect and sharpen them on a regular basis, especially the edges of a shovel, rake tines, or other cutting edge.
4. Know Your Weeds
Weeds are pesky plants that grow where you don’t want them to and can choke out your garden’s best crops. They compete for water, sunlight and nutrients that your planted plants need to grow well.
There are many types of weeds, and recognizing them is the first step in managing them. Learn to distinguish them by their characteristics, such as leaves (broadleaf or grassy), height and growth pattern, and whether they are upright or creeping. Once you know what you’re dealing with, you can choose the right tool for the job. There are many online weed identification tools, including the University of Minnesota’s Is This Plant a Weed? tool, an encyclopedic weed ID site from the University of California Davis and a handy weed gallery from Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station.
Most weeds are annual, so they germinate and drop seed each year, then die. Perennial weeds, like mugwort and quackgrass, have a multi-year life cycle and are more difficult to control.
It is important to manage weeds in the landscape as early as possible. Preventative measures include preventing them from sprouting by keeping lawns and vegetable gardens mowed, and not watering the entire area of planting beds. Annual aeration can also help. It loosens the soil, making it harder for deep-rooted weeds to get their roots down.
During a weeding session, it is a good idea to wear gloves, have a comfortable sitting pad and use a trug or tarp to collect the dead weeds as you go. Pull or dig weeds when the soil is moist, as it will be easier to remove them without breaking or leaving pieces that resprout.
5. Know Your Pests
A few key pieces of information can make the difference between a pest problem and a non-problem. Learn what the pests eat, where they harbor, their life cycle and other important biological clues. This will help you understand how to control them in a natural way or with organic options that are safer for pollinators, the environment and your family.
Learn to identify the pests that attack your specific crops. Observe the plants for signs of damage and look under leaves and inside branches to find caterpillars, larvae or egg masses. Write notes or take photos of the suspects, then consult a insect field guide and wait before spraying to be sure you’ve made a positive identification.
Many pests, including some diseases like tomato blight and downy mildew on impatiens flowers, are more likely to affect stressed or unhealthy plants than healthy ones. Minimizing stress by properly planting and spaceing annuals, using soil tests to guide amending, rotating crops into different beds each year, minimizing plant crowding and managing weeds will help plants withstand some of the pressure from insects and disease.
Avoid bringing pests into the house by keeping gardening tools, shoes and buckets outdoors. Inspect all plants, seeds and seedlings before bringing them indoors and wash your hands after visiting the garden or handling garden produce. Also, remember to use a dust mask when removing leaf debris or compost piles. Some of these materials may contain spores that will infect your garden. Finally, try not to transfer aphids or other insect pests from one plant to another with your fingers; this can cause them to spread disease. In addition, consider using beneficial insects in your gardens to control the pests that can harm them. For example, bumblebees will protect aphids from predators, and ladybugs and lacewings will destroy mites.