How to Start a Garden

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It’s never too early or too late to start thinking about gardening. If you have ever wanted to start a garden, it’s a good idea to first begin by researching what kind of garden you want. I’m going to give you some things to think about as you plan the perfect garden.

Are You Growing Your First Garden? Start SMALL

If this is your first year growing a garden, START SMALL. I can’t emphasize this enough. Smaller is better your first year. Otherwise, you may become overwhelmed with too much to do and decide you don’t ever want to garden again.

a small spring garden with carrots and peas
When growing your first garden, it is always a good idea to start small so you can find the joy in growing your own vegetables without getting overwhelmed.

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Container Gardening

Carrots harvested from a container garden
Carrots harvested from a container garden

One easy way to start small is to garden in some type of container the first year.  Tubs, buckets, or planters are an easy way to grow a few veggies. You may even have a few laying around the house that would be suitable.

You can also purchase grow bags if you prefer. This is a cheaper alternative if you aren’t sure you’ll enjoy gardening. Plus these are easier to store at the end of the season.

Just be sure that whatever type of container you choose has drainage holes in the bottom. You don’t want the roots to rot. (Grow bags will drain naturally.)

You can tuck several of these planters in sunny locations around your yard and grow a few different vegetables without much work.

The only downside to these containers is that they dry out quickly so they will need to be watered frequently. Be sure you don’t place them too far away from a water source.

Even though I have a full-size garden, I still use planters sometimes for various crops. I find it very easy to grow lettuce in containers. They can be moved into the shade when it gets really hot so the lettuce doesn’t go to seed as fast.

I also like to grow carrots in containers. Here in North Carolina, we have red clay soil. It is difficult to grow carrots in the ground. However, they perform beautifully in containers.

Read more: Growing a Garden in Containers

How to Start a Garden on New Ground

If you want to start a garden in the dirt, you first need to pick a location. You need to choose a sunny location-somewhere that receives a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight, preferably 8 or more. A flat area makes it much simpler to set up your garden.

Placing your garden near your house will make it easier to maintain it. Weeding and picking your vegetables will be much more convenient if your garden is close by.

You also want this area to have easy access to a water source. Hauling buckets of water is never fun.

Again, as you are choosing your area, pick a small area. If you think you may want to expand later, choose a location that will allow you to do so, but don’t plan on converting a large portion of your yard into a garden the first year.

Once you have chosen your location, there are several ways to convert the area into a garden.

Of course, you can always use a tiller or hire someone to do the work for you, but there are several other methods that are much easier. While I’ve been gardening for over 20 years, I have never used a tiller and don’t ever plan to!

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Square Foot Gardening

One method is to start a square foot garden. Mel Bartholomew pioneered this method of planting in raised 4′ x 4′ boxes with grids. I highly recommend his book, All New Square Foot Gardening II.

He details his whole method in the book, but basically, he recommends building raised beds that are placed on top of weed fabric and then filling them with a soil blend he calls Mel’s Mix.

He has you divide the box into 16 equally spaced areas and then plant your vegetables in those grids. The book has a detailed guide of how many plants of each type you can plant in each grid.

This is the perfect method for someone who wants to grow a variety of crops their first year but has heeded my advice to START SMALL. It is also a great method if you have poor soil since you will be purchasing soil to fill the raised bed.

For more information on the square foot gardening method, check out my post on How to Start A Square Foot Garden.

Lasagna Gardening

A second way to start a garden is to build a lasagna garden. This method, also known as sheet composting, uses layers (like lasagna) of newspapers, leaves, cardboard, and compost to build garden beds.

As the materials decompose, they create a nutrient-rich soil in which vegetables thrive. For more information, you can check out Patricia Lanza’s book Lasagna Gardening for Small Spaces.

Gardening with Black Plastic

squash, tomatoes, and beans growing in a black plastic garden
Growing a garden in black plastic can help conserve moisture and control weeds.

Another method to get a garden started without too much work is to use black plastic. This is the method I have used many times and what is shown in the photos above.

A few years ago we decided to move my garden, but the area we were converting to a garden was overrun with crabgrass. I decided to cover the new area with black plastic and it worked so well,

I continue to use it in my garden today. I described how I do this in two posts-Is Gardening with Black Plastic Right for You and How to Use Black Plastic in Your Garden.

Using black plastic is ideal if you will not have nearby access to water because the plastic not only smothers weeds but helps hold the moisture in the soil.

You can lay the plastic down as soon as the ground is not covered by snow. The sun will warm up the ground underneath and start to kill the weeds.

By the time you are ready to plant, the soil will be looser and most of the weeds and grass will be dead.

Reasons to Use Garden Beds

garden beds surrounded by pine needles
By using dedicated beds with pathways, you don’t compact the soil in the planting areas.

Whichever method you choose, I highly recommend using garden beds with designated walkways. Keeping pathways separate from garden areas means you aren’t compacting the soil by walking on it.

I never have to till my garden because my planting areas are not trampled down. (I am not a fan of tilling anyway. It is dangerous and it disturbs the ecosystem of the ground.)

When you use beds, you also aren’t watering and fertilizing walking areas, just planting areas. You can save money on water and fertilizer costs. I currently just cover my framed beds with plastic and cover the walkways with mulch.

Prepare Your Soil

Once you have decided on what type of garden to grow, you need to prepare your soil. If you are starting an in-the-ground garden, you will need to till the soil and add probably add some type of fertilizer.

It’s a good idea to have a soil test done to determine the best type of fertilizer to add and if you need any other soil amendments.

If you are growing a garden in containers or raised beds, you need to set them in their location and fill them with soil.

If you are using raised beds, I recommend adding a layer of cardboard on top of the ground before you add the soil. This will go a long way toward smothering grass and weeds that will try to push their way to the top.

Decide What to Plant

squash plants growing in the garden
Only plant squash if you like to eat them. There is no point in growing vegetables you don’t enjoy.

Then you need to decide what you want to plant. Since you are starting small, you won’t be able to plant everything you want to. That’s OK.

You are going to take this first year to learn how to grow some easy vegetables. You can always expand and grow more next year.

And I recommend only planting vegetables you like to eat. Don’t like eggplant? Don’t bother growing it then. Love green beans? Make sure you save room to plant some.

Decide When to Plant Your Garden

Deciding when to plant may be the hardest part of all. So many people feel that the first warm day of spring is the time to “put their garden in.”

This couldn’t be further from the truth. It could be way too early for some vegetables and even too late for others.

Vegetables like carrots, lettuce, and radishes like the cooler weather of early spring. They can go to seed when it gets too hot.

Other vegetables like peppers and tomatoes can’t tolerate cold weather and will most likely die if the temperature dips even a little bit below freezing. You need to wait until after your last spring frost to plant these warm-weather crops.

To determine your first and last frost dates you can use the Farmer’s Almanac calculator that lets you look up your frost dates based on your zip code.

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It is a good idea to record these dates somewhere as you will want to refer to them regularly. Keep in mind these dates are an AVERAGE.

You can sometimes get frost after your last expected spring frost. For warm-weather crops, to be absolutely safe, you should plan to wait an additional two weeks or have a plan to cover your garden should an unexpected frost occur.

Decide How to Plant Your Garden

Do you want to grow things from seed to save money? Do you want to buy transplants from the store? If this is your first garden, I recommend buying transplants for many vegetables, though there are some things you must plant from seed directly in the garden.

Many root vegetables like carrots, radishes, beets, and turnips need to be planted directly in the ground as seeds because they don’t transplant well.

2 tomato transplants waiting to go into the garden
These two tomato transplants are waiting for warm weather so they can be put into the garden.

Once you’ve decided when and how to plant, you need to purchase seeds or transplants. You can buy seeds at any time, but I recommend waiting to buy transplants until just before you plan on putting them in the garden.

Buying transplants too early means they may grow tall and leggy while waiting to be put outside. And before you put them in the ground or garden, I recommend hardening them off first, especially if you don’t know how long they have been sitting outdoors.

Once You’ve Planted You Can’t Sit Idly By

It’s easy to think that once you’ve planted your garden, you can sit back and wait until harvest time. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Ideally, you should walk through your garden every day or at least every other day.

As you take your daily walk, check for harmful bugs on your plants. Squish them or drop them in a bucket of soapy water. Also, keep an eye out for diseases such as early blight or powdery mildew.

Checking your garden often will help you spot pests and diseases before they become an even bigger problem.

As you walk, pull any weeds you find. If you do this every day, you really won’t have a lot of weeds to contend with. And you can also mulch your garden to help prevent weeds too.

You may also need to water the garden. Most plants need about an inch of water each week.

It is best to water deeply once or twice a week, rather than every day. Don’t forget to factor in the amount of rainfall. The more it rains, the less you have to water.

Harvest From Your Garden

okra, squash, peppers and tomatoes on a counter
Don’t forget to enjoy your garden harvest. Find a new recipe to try out your homegrown vegetables.

It is also a good idea to harvest what is ready from your garden on a daily or every other day basis. This way you won’t find overgrown vegetables that no one likes to eat.

After all, isn’t that why you started a garden in the first place? To enjoy eating all those fresh vegetables?

You can also freeze many vegetables if you have extra. You can get a free checklist of freezer supplies to get you started freezing your homegrown goodness.

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Take Time to Enjoy Your Garden

Finally, take time to enjoy your garden. Look up a new recipe to cook your extra vegetables. Savor the flavor of a warm strawberry right in the garden. These are things money just can’t buy!

While gardening can be a lot of work, it is also a lot of fun. You are growing and harvesting food for your family. This makes you less reliant on grocery stores to meet your needs. And becoming more self-sufficient is very rewarding indeed!

Are You Dreaming of Summer?

So even if the weather is still cold where you live, start dreaming of your favorite summer vegetables. Look at your yard from the comfort of your home and watch the sunlight patterns. See what might make an ideal spot for a new (SMALL) garden patch.

As the seed catalogs start arriving in the mail, look through them and see what looks interesting. If you need help deciding what to grow, check out my post on what to plant in your new garden area.

Do you currently grow a garden? What is your favorite vegetable to grow?

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6 Comments

  1. Summer can’t arrive fast enough for me! We are trying the lasagna method this year on a few of the beds. I am so looking forward to opening the gardening season soon!