Starting a garden can be daunting. Where do you put it? Do you just start digging a hole somewhere? How do you know which plants are best for you and your climate?
Once you’ve figured all that out, how do you actually look after your plants and how often should you water? Do you need to feed them something, and if so, what?
We’ve all been there, which is why I’ve collected these pro tips to give you the best start to a new garden.
Pro Tips for Starting a Garden for Beginners
1. Position Your Garden
Think about what the purpose of this garden is. Is it for privacy? Then dig your garden in the best position to make that happen.
If you’re establishing a kitchen garden, place it as close to your kitchen as possible. Many vegetable gardens fail because they’re too far away. It’s just not handy to walk half a mile to grab some parsley. Consider picking beds. These are narrow garden beds along paths where you regularly walk.
Do you have a wheelie bin for rubbish? Place your picking bed along the path to the bin. You’ll walk here every day so you check up on your veggies and herbs every day.
If the garden is for show, with beautiful or fragrant flowers, place it where you see it all the time. Near the entry to your home or the gate to your property. Near the carport so you see it every time you walk to the car. Along the neighbor’s fence so you can have a chat and smell the roses.
Really think about the purpose of the garden before you position it. Once you’ve thought of the perfect position, it’s time to consider our next tip.
2. Sun or No Sun?
Watch your new garden position for a day. When does it get sun? When is it shady? If it gets sun all day, you need plants that love full sun.
In a shady garden, you need to look for plants that love shade. There are many plants in each category, but you’re a little bit limited in the shade-loving edibles category because most vegetables enjoy a full sun position. Unless you’re in a hot climate like I am, which is when they’ll appreciate shade in the hot afternoons.
Take into account how the sun changes during the seasons as well.
For vegetable gardens, you can rotate your vegetables if your garden gets sun in summer and shade in winter, for example. Most vegetables grow quite quickly, so you can plant a different crop in summer or winter.
If you have a garden that is shady in winter and you can’t find a vegetable you like to grow there, consider growing a cover crop. Cover crops are great for growing your own, free mulch. Use them to improve your soil in the “off” season.
Climate is incredibly important. You’re pushing a heavy cart uphill if you try to grow broccoli in a hot climate and taro in a frost-prone area. Working with your climate is always going to be easier!
Use the USDA Climate Zone Map to figure out your climate.
Then, get yourself a list of vegetables that grow in your climate, both in summer and in winter. A Google search works great for this. For Ontario, for example, you can get a full list of frost dates, climate zones for the state, and which vegetables to grow when. These charts are available for every state.
For ornamental plants, most nurseries with websites have a system where you can enter your zone and it shows you all the plants suitable for your climate.
4. Short in Front, Tall in Back
Think about your garden like a grandstand. If you put the tall people in the front, the short people can’t see anything. Basically, tall stuff goes in the back, short stuff in the front, with tiny stuff below.
That’s all you need to think of, really. Tall plants block the sun, which is not ideal for vegetables. Orientate your “tall-short” to the sun in veggie gardens.
5. Pack Them In
Make use of that space. Plant as much as you can in the space you have. Don’t worry about the spacing requirements you’ve seen in conventional farms – they’re there so machinery can get in. We don’t need spacing. Plants were born to grow together, just think of a forest.
The tall stuff will poke their head out the top if they want sun. Your medium stuff is protected from hot sun and cold by the taller, tougher plants. The short plants will spread and cover the ground, reducing weeds = less work for you.
Take it a step further. Grow plants that climb in there too. A passionfruit doesn’t care if it’s growing up a trellis, a fence, or another tree. One of my best passionfruits is climbing up a mango. I started it on a fence but nature always finds its own way if you let it.
Planting them close together creates a microclimate. Microclimates make it easy for you. The plants protect each other so you don’t have to. Bugs are confused because you don’t have a row of nice, red tomatoes ready to devour. Your food forest produces its own mulch to improve the soil beneath.
You can do this a very small scale, it doesn’t have to be the size of a forest.
The area of my garden I’m looking out over right now has a Native Hibiscus, 2 comfrey plants, a pumpkin, a cucumber, a pepper, a galangal ginger, a Banksia, and 2 Cordylines in about 20 square feet. The ground is covered by Lotodonis. And it still needs more!
6. Grow Your Soil
Focus on growing your soil rather than your plants. Most problems you face when you start a garden are fixed by improving your soil.
Add organic matter. Start a compost heap. Have a worm farm. Mulch like your life depends on it (when it comes to veggies, it may well depend on it!). Choose an organic mulch, something that breaks down. Don’t use rocks and plastic mulches if you don’t have to.
Use it as an excuse to buy a horse. I mean, we really need the horse’s dung to improve our garden, right?!
7. Learn From Others
Read lots of blogs like mine and get yourself some great gardening books. Talk to your neighbors or people on neighboring properties. What are they growing? What do the farmers in your area grow?
Visit local farmer’s markets to see which vegetables are in season. They’re a great resource for learning! Scoop up some vegetables from the market and reproduce them by planting the seed, like in my growing pumpkins from seed for planting next year article. More plants for free!
My top 5 favorite gardening books (keeping in mind that I like working WITH nature, not against, and I’m not a fan of raised gardens (read why not)):Amazon product
Let me know how your garden grows!