10 Tips for the Beginning Gardener
One of the questions I most often get asked about gardening is, "How do I get started?" and it's such a difficult one to answer, for me, because there are hundreds of avenues to wander down when it comes to growing something outside in the soil. Truly! I often think I shy away from this one because there's not really a "catch-all" style of gardening. Everyone is at different levels of experience (both in actual gardening and mental gardening) and everyone's yard is so, so different. I could tell you to plant in a 500 square foot space, but that would look completely different to you than it would to me - landscapes vary in multitudes. But you have to get started somewhere, and I hope that this little guide can help you get some insight into where to begin, or what to look into.
Plant What You Eat
Start by planting only what you and your family like eating. This is something that I constantly tell friends and neighbors who are looking to grow their own garden. It can be really tempting to want to plant everything under the sun. Things like heirloom tomatoes, funky eggplants and beets, weird cucumbers, and microscopic flower seeds are something worth trying in small amounts as a beginner. If you are looking to just get some great results year one, stick with tried and true types of veggies and flowers then upgrade each year. You'll have far less disappointment when it comes to crop failure. On the other hand, planting what you already like to eat helps you to actually get outside and grow those vegetables. Let's say you've never tried a kohlrabi before, yet you plant one in your garden. You neglect the plant slightly, harvest it, and then it sits on your counter/in your fridge until it rots away. I did that with a lot of vegetables in my first garden. I didn't know how to cook with them, and as time got away from me, they were just completely wasted. Don't plant funky things. Plant the tomatoes you like to eat, like cherries or big red slicers. Plant sweet corn. Heck, plant Iceberg Lettuce if that's what you normally eat (I do not condone this, but whatever)!
Don't Expect Help
Get used to doing things on your own out there. This seems like a super negative metaphor for life, doesn't it? I think most people give up on their family garden because they end up being the only member of the family out there actually weeding or picking off cabbage caterpillars. Been there? When we planted our garden at the Little Homestead, I was the only person that weeded. It didn't start out that way! I had some help the first week. Then it slowly trickles out. And that's okay! Maybe you do actually have some help, and that person or persons enjoys being out there with you. If you go into the season looking at the plot with the idea that you may be the only person working out there, it should give you some perspective as to what you can actually handle on your own. Don't plant an entire acre in your first try if no one will be there to experiment with you. Toddlers are great flower pickers, but not such great weed pullers! Ha!
This can be really confusing as a first time gardener, but essentially companion planting is planting a tomato next to a basil plant. Tomatoes and basil are companions for many reasons: basil actually improves the flavor of tomatoes, basil keeps tomato hornworms away, and acts as a natural fungicide (they actually grow more tomatoes with basil nearby than without). Plants also have antagonists, meaning plants that should not be grown side by side. One of these I learned last year (thankfully not the hard way!) was to not plant winter squash by summer squash, especially if you are planting late. A squash with a hard exterior will cause a squash with a desired soft exterior, AKA zucchini, to harden more quickly. Interesting stuff! Companion planting with flowers also attracts native bees to your garden, which is great for pollination amongst vegetables. You need bumblebees to pollinate tomatoes!
Label Your Plants
Label them always. I still mess up with this. I do really well at the seed starting stage, and then once the plants get out to into the garden, I lose all sense of putting labels on them. Which can make it a real pain when someone asks you which type of tomato they are buying. I do a lot of guessing and fact checking! Next year I will be better! Label your plants. You will forget (you will) what you planted and which variety it is. Find some cute plant labels on pinterest or buy the plastic ones at the garden center. This is a great way to remind yourself of what you liked and did not like in the following growing seasons.
Keep a Garden Journal
Write down when it rains and how much. Write down how many tomatoes your plants produced and if they had any pest problems. Write down what you added to the soil that year and if you used mulch or not. Keeping a garden journal is a great way to remind yourself in future growing seasons what you did in the past. I don't write much in mine or get into too much detail. I mostly just write what the weather was like, if I had any problems, what I planted or did in the garden that day, and how much I harvested. I love looking back at my previous journal entries to compare to my current season, especially when it comes to harvests!
Find A Good Book, Blog, Podcast, or Club
There is nothing better than finding a really good gardening book that you get. And there are a lot out there! From what I have found, there really is not one single book on the topic that can answer all of the questions that you have. I wish there was! In fact, I'd really love to write a gardening book of my own one day (so look out for that in the future if you are still on the hunt!). If you don't feel like a book would help you out, find a blog (hint hint) or a podcast or even a club! There are gardening clubs out there. Maybe you can become a Master Gardener! You do not have to have any previous gardening experience to become a Master Gardener, at least not in the state of Iowa. You take a few months of night classes (which teach you so much), take a test, and then become part of a network of experienced gardeners who will help you no matter what. I have learned so much from the women in my county, and I can never thank them enough!
Every good garden has a good compost pile nearby! It's just the truth. Adding organic matter back into your soil (otherwise known as compost) is what help enrich the earth that you are planting in. Compost is amazing! And it's pretty darn easy to make. Just pile up all of the scrap from your garden into a big pile mixed with dried natural materials like mulch, fallen leaves, or newspaper and turn it once a week until it breaks down and looks like potting soil. If you start doing this in the spring, it should be ready by fall, when you can spread it over your garden and put it to bed for the winter. Easy! Of course, it can obviously get more complicated so go read my other posts about how to compost first!
Figure Out a Watering Schedule
Water can be really difficult to figure out. From what I have learned in this past year already, watering with a drip or soaker hose can change your life. Did you know that water needs to be focused at the roots and only the roots? Watering overhead with a sprinkler on certain plants like squash or cucumbers can result in some nasty fungal problems, namely powdery mildew. Most vegetables only need about an inch of water a week, so buy yourself a rain gauge and figure out how much water your plants are getting. Supplement what you can back with the hose. Water in the mornings or evenings, never in the middle of the day, to make that moisture stick in the soil.
Watch Your Leaves
Plant leaves can tell you a lot! If they are turning yellow, you're probably over watering them. If there are holes, you might have a pest issue. If they are turning brown around the edges and wilting, it's probably a fungal issue or disease. Your leaves are your guide to problems, and once you notice something that resembles anything other than bright, happy, and green then you can start looking into what might be wrong.
Know Your Frost Dates
This is so easy to do. Knowing your frost dates is a big help in figuring out when to start plants indoors or plant them into the ground outside. Also knowing your zone is a big help, too! My zone is 5b, and we are in eastern Iowa. Iowa actually has multiple zones, so it can be difficult to compare your planting dates even in your own state! Crazy, right? Figuring out where exactly you are located on the "frost map" can help you determine when the best time to plant zucchini or zinnias is.
Gardening is truly a labor of love, and while hard, is not that difficult to get started. You just have to try it! I think one of the most confusing things in the beginning is figuring out where exactly to put everything. It can be hard! But you can do it. Growing your own food, herbs, and flowers is such a wonderful thing to do. Once you start you just can't seem to stop! Take your time, start with only a couple of things, and continue to grow.
I hope you are having a wondering growing season so far!