Gardening for Beginners: How to Start

Monday, March 30, 2020

So, you want to start growing your own food! Great! If you're not already sold on the idea, here are 7 Reasons to Start a Garden.  And I'll add one more, which I never thought I would need... If your local food supply gets disrupted, being able to grow food at home makes a HUGE difference in food security.

Now, obviously you need to be able to practice a little bit of delayed gratification, since even if you go out and plant radishes RIGHT THIS SECOND it'll still be a month+ before you're eating them (and they're the quickest thing you can grow). But with our governor just issuing a "Stay at Home" order that extends through June 10th (I know!!), it really seems prudent to do what we can to avoid leaving the house whenever possible. So... Why not try to grow a little something that helps tide you over between grocery trips?

But where do we even START?

Well, your garden needs three major components to be successful:

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1. Sun

But can't I grow tomatoes in the shady spot in my backyard? No Karen, no. I'm sorry. Most of your plants are going to need a minimum of 6-8 hours of sunlight every day. More is generally better. So if you're aching to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons, and the like? You're gonna need sun, and a lot of it.

If your yard is partially shaded all over the place, there are some ways to make it work - sun-loving plants might manage to eke out a decent existence, but your lettuce, kale, spinach, and other leafy greens would actually be relatively happy! Root vegetables can do okay with 4-6 hours of sunlight each day also. And herbs (especially the perennial variety) can be pretty darned productive too, even without a ton of sunlight.

Your task? Find a spot in your yard that is close enough to a water source and gets at least 8 hours of sun every day. Morning sun will be less intense in the heat of the summer, so if you have a choice between a spot that gets sun from sunrise-early afternoon, that's going to be easier on your plants than a spot that's sunny from noon-8pm. But all sun is good sun! Find some sun!!

2. Soil

I can just dig a hole in the grass and plant my seedlings, right? Karen. Stop. That grass will totally take over your seedlings! You need a dedicated spot for your garden with good soil. Not "whatever happens to be in my front yard" because while that might work, I'm betting you're not gonna go rent a sod cutter to tear up your front lawn. Or maybe you are, in which case GO FOR IT Karen, grow that victory garden!!

But truly, the easiest way for most gardeners to begin is to start small with just a handful of things to plant, and to use raised beds.

What is a raised bed? Basically, instead of trying to tear up all your grass or rip out all your weeds, you can throw down several layers of newspaper or cardboard, dump a few bags of garden soil on top, and the weeds will die due to lack of sunlight (which is even important for weeds!) while your happy plants thrive in their weed-free environment! If you want to keep weeds from encroaching on your new garden territory, you'll want to delineate where actual garden space starts, but if you're on a tight budget you don't even have to do that!

Looking online, it looks like this raised bed kit is the most economical wooden option right now (we had very similar beds at our old house in the suburbs, and the boards just slide into the posts, it's incredibly easy). You could also try using edging to mark out borders, or buy lumber and build your own. There are plastic or metal kits available as well, but I can't speak to the quality of those because I've never used them.

Once you have your beds set up, if you're starting from scratch with soil you can just buy "planting soil" or "planting mix" and that will be all your plants really need for the first year (don't worry about fertilizer, we'll get there once you make it through your first season). It will drain beautifully, so you won't have to worry about your potatoes rotting in your waterlogged clay soil (been there), and it's so fresh and loose that weeds won't have any opportunity to grow deep roots, since you'll be able to pluck them out as soon as you spy them sprouting!

I know, these are not traditional raised beds... But it's a similar idea!

3. Water 

Now that you have your beds built (near a water source) and filled with soil, how are you going to water your plants once they're in? Sure, you can schlep a couple watering cans back and forth, but you'll probably want to make sure you have a nice long garden hose with a good nozzle attachment when you need to do overhead watering. That will work great for a small garden!

Eventually though, you're going to get sick of standing in the hot sun, watching the water on the leaves of your bushy plants evaporate while nothing seems to get to the roots... That's when soaker hoses & drip irrigation come in handy! Let's say you're setting up two 4ftx8ft raised beds - snake a couple 25ft soaker hoses along the sides and in the center, and you can hook your hose up on a timer, water the plants in the morning, and not have to worry about them all day!

Your mission right now? Find a spot for one or two raised beds (8ftx4ft is a really good size) that is close to a water source. Order the materials and fill with soil, and next time we'll talk about how to choose what seeds & plants to grow!

If you want to get ahead, look up your USDA zone, grab a copy of this book (truly one of my all-time favorites, all sorts of good info you won't find on the internet), and get this handy garden planner,  which will tell you when to plant everything based on the zone you live in! 

Next up: How do I know what to plant? What to direct-sow, and what to buy as seedlings... And answering YOUR questions!


  1. You're assuming that people have a yard. But I gardened even in an apartment, on our balcony, while you were in utero! Which is possibly why you do it . . . Anyway, what about people with no easy access to dirt? Want a guest post? ;-)

    1. Right, there's a certain amount of assumptions I need to make, because I can't tailor to every single situation :) There are plenty of posts about container gardening out there if that's what people need!


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