Everyone should have a garden. Whether you’re out in the country or in a city apartment, at least have a container of herbs near the kitchen door or a hanging plant in the bathroom. If you’ve got the space, start an in-ground garden. Don’t miss the first tip! If you do nothing else, do this.
I’m all for jumping into things head-first but to help you get a head start, here are 16 things you should know before starting a garden. There’s an infographic at the bottom with all 16 tips, feel free to share it everywhere!
1. Mulch Fixes Our Mistakes
If you don’t do anything else in your garden, do this. Mulch is magic.
A deep layer of mulch is a must. Lay it on thick, I’m talking a whole biscuit of hay deep, or at least 6″ if you’re using a different mulch. Any mulch that will break down is good, like hay, straw, sugar cane, millet, even wood chips if you can’t find the others.
Wood chips take a long time to break down, so you won’t see as many benefits with this type of mulch. Wood chip also robs your soil of nitrogen and can acidify the soil, so try and use the other types if you can. I’m not a huge fan of rocks as mulch either. Rocks raise the temperature in your garden significantly and they don’t break down so you’re not improving your soil.
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When we over-water, mulch helps the water drain away. When we don’t water enough, mulch keeps our soil moist. Mulch increases soil fertility by attracting earth worms and other beneficial organisms. These organism break down soil particles into substances that plants can use.
Mulch keeps the sun of our plants’ roots and keeps them warm in winter. It’s like a protective, insulated blanket. There’s much more about mulch I’ll talk about in another dedicated article, but for now, just know you can’t garden without mulch.
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2. Water Thoroughly, Not Often
It’s super relaxing to go outside and give the garden a sprinkle and it’s tempting to do that every day. For best results though, water deeply and only when it’s needed. When the top 2″ of soil feels dry to the touch (stick your finger in, go on!), give the garden a really good watering. Not a sprinkle, a drenching!
Grow resilient plants by allowing them to dry out so they spread their roots. Then spoil them with a nice deep watering and repeat the cycle.
3. Don’t Be Swayed by Trends
Choose the plants that are tried and true, the good ol’ favorites everyone loves. They’re tried and true for a reason – they actually grow! New varieties pop up all the time and tempting as they may look, when you’re just getting started, the cheap, well-known varieties are the best!
4. Get Into the Zone
Your gardening zone, that is. Knowing your zone is a great start to knowing whether a plant will grow there. You can use the USDA hardiness map to figure out which zone you’re in. You can enter your postcode and it will tell you your exact zone.
Once you know your zone, you can look for plants that grow well in your zone. It’s disheartening to try and grow, for example, a cherry tree when you’re in the hot south. It just won’t flourish. Finding plants that suit your gardening zone is easy online. Nature Hills Nursery, for example, lists all the plants suitable for a particular zone to take all the guesswork out of it.
5. Grow What You Love
There’s no point trying to grow peppers if you hate eating peppers. There’s no point growing a coffee-colored rose just because someone said the coffee-colored rose is a must-have but you don’t like the look of it. You don’t need to know a thing about plants to know whether you like the look of something or not.
Visit your local nursery or have a look at Nature Hills Nursery, they ship all their plants across the US. Look at the pictures and see what catches your eye.
6. Test Your Soil
Testing your soil gives you lots of insight into what’s going on in there. It’s not a necessity, but if you’re having lots of trouble getting a garden started, or plants just die for no obvious reason, a soil test is your ticket to knowledge.
The easiest and cheapest test to start with is a pH test. Most plants like a fairly neutral pH, around 6 to 6.5. If your soil is 4, it’s going to be hard for plants to thrive. Once you know your pH, it’s easy to fix. If your soil is acidic (below 6), add a soil sweetener like lime. If it’s alkaline (above 7), use sulfur.
You can use an at-home test or engage a lab to give you the full run through.
7. There’s No Such Thing as a Brown Thumb
No one has a brown thumb. We were born as part of nature, we’ve all got it in us. Remember that the more you do it, the better you get. Even the best artists drop their paint brush sometimes, don’t worry about it and just try again. Plants are survivors, they want to grow. That’s their purpose in life; grow and reproduce.
All you need to do is provide them the space in which to thrive. Don’t over-tend them. Choose the right plant for your zone, check if it likes sun or shade, and water it when it needs it.
8. Start for Free
If you’re worried about spending money on a garden, start for free! Most vegetables you buy have seeds insides. Harvest the seeds and plant them. I recently wrote an article on saving pumpkin seeds for planting next year, have a read, it applies to many other vegetables too. You can use that method for tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, citrus fruits, apples, the list goes on.
Grow new plants from scraps too. Celery will regrow when you’ve cut it, as will most lettuce. Spring onions will regrow shoots and try leek too. A garlic bulb that’s past its best will sprout in the garden, as will a choko, a potato, a sweet potato. Experiment and have fun. This is a great way to try your hand at gardening without spending a cent.
9. You Don’t Need Space, Grow Sardine-Style
Anyone, and I mean anyone, can have a garden. There are no excuses here! You can have a garden indoors, grow microgreens and sprouts, you can hang a container on a balcony. My youngest daughter grows a garden in her bedroom for her fairies to play in. You can grow a garden in a tub, in a bucket, anywhere.
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Pack your plants in like sardines. Plants love competition. They love growing together. No plant was meant to grow all by itself in the middle of nowhere. How would it have gotten there in the first place? Granted, birds will disperse seeds, but they don’t usually sprout as a single tree and “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”.
Make use of your space. Squish them in. The ones that want sun will fight for it. The others will be happy with the shade that’s created for them. Grow up and sideways. Let them sprawl. Install a trellis or grow next to a fence to have climbers grow vertically. Plant in, around, next to – everywhere. Squish a plant in between broken concrete. Pop them under the stairs.
10. Work With Nature
This is going to make your life a lot easier. Don’t fight nature. Let nature sort itself out. You might have aphids today, but tomorrow the ladybugs will move in and make short work of these critters. Don’t spray spiders, they’re your non-paid best workers. Learn about the creatures in your garden. The more you learn about them, the more you appreciate their role in your garden.
Let the birds in. If you net them out, you’ll be stuck with all sorts of bugs. Birds eat too many of your fruits? Grow more! Have tall trees where the birds get the top fruit and you harvest the bottom fruits. Cockroaches may be your worst nightmare but they’re a garden’s dream. They break down big pieces of organics; who else has jaws big enough to chomp wood?
Employing these creatures doesn’t cost a thing and you’ll find that they’ll work with you rather than against you. Nature has this beautiful circle where everything has a purpose and gong with the circle is so much more rewarding than going against it! Look into permaculture design, it’s a wonderful way to grow a garden.
11. Does Your Water Drain?
If you dig a hole in your garden and fill it with water, does it drain? If it doesn’t, you’ll have a hard time growing a plant. Soil that doesn’t drain often lacks oxygen. Plants’ roots need oxygen to grow well.
A big culprit here is clay soil. You can fix the issue with gypsum. Gypsum is a clay breaker, it bonds the tiny particles together into bigger particles, which creates little air pockets. Those air pockets let water through.
Mulch, again, is your hero here. If given enough time, mulch will fix every single soil issue you have. Earthworms can’t resist a nicely mulched garden. They’ll get to work to improve your soil, leaving their droppings for plant food and creating air pockets of goodness.
12. Leave the Weeds
After all, weeds are just plants that grow where you don’t want them. Weeds are better than bare soil. In fact, anything is better than bare soil. Bare soil is exposed to all the elements, like you in full sun for 12 hours a day without a hat, without sunscreen, without any form of protection. Even an ugly hat is better than a burnt head!
Leave them to protect your soil until you’re ready to plant. Then just dig a hole, plant your plant, and cover thickly with mulch around the plant. Water the mulch and the plant well. The mulch suppresses the weeds, saving you the backbreaking work of pulling them out.
13. Don’t Waste Anything
Anything that was once alive is valuable for a garden. None of that should go in the bin. Get a compost bin or start a compost pile. Get some chickens so they can turn your scraps into fertilizer. If you don’t compost or have chickens, just throw it in the garden!
A banana peel is great, full of potassium. Yeah, it might look a bit rough to have a peel just sitting there, but trust me, it won’t be there long. Worms will have it for breakfast or the next rain covers it with soil. A bird might have a peck or your beloved cockroaches will turn it into lovely, rich compost.
Try throwing all the seeds from your produce straight into the garden, you’d be surprised what grows, for free! Pumpkins are the best for this, they’ll grow in the funniest places. Rip paper up and put it in, and cardboard too. Coffee grounds are wonderful and pineapple tops will grow if you twist them off and pop them in the soil.
14. Grow a Garden That Looks After Itself
I mean, gardening is relaxing ‘n all but there are only so many hours in a day. Aim for a garden that can look after itself. Mulch it deeply and grow the right plants for your climate. Plant them close together. Planting them close together creates a little forest, a microclimate.
Microclimates are kinda like magic, each plant finds its perfect conditions. The plant that wants more sun will fight for more sun. The other plants love being in the protection of the others. You can grow an amazing number of trees and plants in a tiny space and they will love it, each and every single one.
15. Don’t Stress Your Losses
You see, it’s not always you. It’s probably them. If, despite all your efforts, you lose a plant – don’t stress it. These things happen.
Sometimes a plant gets stressed for reasons beyond our control. Beetles can dig into stems, it might have gotten stressed when it got transplanted, maybe there’s a pocket of crappy soil where it got planted. I lose lots because an overzealous kangaroo chops the whole top of a plant with not a single thought for future food security.
You just don’t know. Don’t overthink it and don’t give up. Try again in a different spot or try a different variety. This is how we learn about what grows well in our garden and what doesn’t.
16. The Soil is Alive
No, not in a creepy way… Your soil is your most valuable asset as a gardener. Don’t abuse it. Don’t expose it to the weather day after day. Cover it up and protect it. Add good stuff to it, lots of organics to feed it. Give it plants to grow, don’t leave it bare. Don’t let it dry out too much, soil dies when it’s bone dry!
I so hope you’re starting a garden today, it’s one of the most rewarding things we can do in life. Seeing things grow and thrive makes you happy. Gardens are an achievement, get the family involved, get fit, get outdoors! Please tell me about your garden, indulge me in my favorite subject matter!