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Want to learn how to start a garden, but not sure where to begin? In
this post I’ll cover the basics of gardening, and provide links to more
detailed information so you can garden with confidence and have fun
doing it. Get ready to enjoy some of the best tasting fruits, vegetables
and herbs you’ve even eaten.
Rule #1 – If you won’t eat a crop, don’t grow it in your vegetable garden.
(I break this rule for flowers. Edible or not, I like to see at least a
few in every garden.) Focus on the fruits, vegetables or herbs that
your family enjoys the most.
Make sure your top choices make sense for your area. Figure
out your gardening zone and estimated first and last frost dates. If
possible, talk to successful gardeners in your area to find out which
crops grow well and which don’t.
See “USDA Hardiness Zones & Your Microclimate” for a more information on how growing conditions affect garden plans.
In my northern garden, crops that take over 100 days to mature or
high temps are a gamble. For example, we enjoy watermelons, but I stick
to varieties like Blacktail Mountain (70 days) instead of Carolina Cross
(90 days). My southern gardening friend, Amber, has challenges with
crops like peas, which prefer cooler temperatures, and vine crops like
cucumbers, which are prone to mildew in high humidity.
If you only want a small garden, don’t attempt to grow something like a giant pumpkin, which will spread over a very large area.
Do you want to plan for storage vegetables, or only enough to eat fresh? It’s probably best to start your garden mainly with fresh eating in mind, but some vegetables are extremely easy to store. See The 5 Easiest Vegetables to Store for more information.
Most fruits and vegetables need full sun, with a minimum of five hours of direct sunlight per day for fruiting.
Greens, herbs and root veggies will grow in partial shade. Southern
gardens may benefit from late afternoon shade, whereas northern gardens
likely need all the sun they can get.
Think about how you will access the garden for picking, watering and caring for your plants.
Out of site often equals out of mind – and a neglected garden. Avoid
high wind areas and frost pockets (low areas where frost is likely to
Watch out for wildlife, pet damage and children’s play areas. When
we first moved here, our neighbor’s dog would randomly visit and dash
through the garden. This was very hard on new seedlings. Now the dog is
gone, but the deer and wild bunnies come to visit, so we plan
For more ideas on gardening in limited space, see “Small Garden, Big Yield – 10 Tips for a Great Harvest”.
Once you know where you want your garden, decide on the type and size of garden bed(s).
Raised beds are attractive and may make it easier to work in your
garden, but they also dry out more quickly. In very dry areas, sunken
beds can be used to gather available moisture.
Think about planting your garden in blocks or beds of plants instead of single rows. Beds should be 3 to 4 feet across – narrow enough that you can reach the center from either side. Beds should be roughly 10 feet long or less, so you’re not tempted to step into the bed and compact the ground.
Within the garden beds, place plants in rows or a grid pattern. The
goal is minimize walkways and maximize growing space. You only add
fertilizer and soil amendments to the planting area, which saves time
and money. Work with companion plants to attract beneficial insects and improve yields.
Start small, and make sure to give each plant enough room to grow. The
seeds and transplants are tiny, but full grown plants can get huge.
Overcrowded plants have difficulty thriving. A small, well-tended garden
can produce as much or more than a large, poorly tended garden.
Rectangular or square beds are the most common, but you’re only
limited by your imagination and building skills. Most raised bed kits
are rectangular, but you can also plant your garden in found items like
old livestock water tanks or sections of drain pipe.
See “Raised Garden Beds” for more information on different types of raised beds and how to work with them.
If you grow vertically, you can squeeze more crops into less space. The best book I’ve found to date on the subject is “How
to Grow More Vegetables, (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other
Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine“.
I trellis/fence or otherwise grow vertically my tomatoes, beans, peas, cucumbers, and occasionally other crops. Check out 10 Reasons to Garden Up Instead of Out for more details.
What if you have a yard with limited growing space? Consider grow bags or containers to start your garden. Self-watering containers are a lot more forgiving than terracotta flower pots, which tend to dry out quickly.
GreenStalk vertical planters
are a great option to pack a lot of growing space into a small
footprint. They have a tiered watering system so the whole growing area
is evenly watered.
You can use the discount code “commonsense10” to get $10 off of your GreenStalk purchase. Click here to visit the GreenStalk site to order or learn more.
The right tools make working in your garden a pleasure instead of a chore. You
don’t use a butter knife to chop up raw carrots, and you shouldn’t use
dull or flimsy tools to work in your garden. Basic gardening equipment
For a full list of my favorite gardening tools, check out, “The Best Garden Tools Help Make Gardening Easier”.
Don’t buy cheap plastic tools if you can avoid it.
Shop yard and estate sales for bargains on real metal tools, or visit
your local garden center. Get tools that are the right size for you to
reduce the risk of injury.
Good tools will save time and effort, and your back. Keep tools clean and sharp, just like you should treat a good knife. To learn how to keep your tools in good condition, visit “Cleaning and Sharpening Garden Tools”.
Before you start building your garden beds or planting, you need to know something about your garden soil.
Is your soil acidic, alkaline or neutral pH? Do you have sand, clay,
silt, rocks, or a mix of all four? Is there a risk of soil contamination
from nearby structures, roadways or other sources? Does it have a good
amount of basic nutrients?
Some of these characteristics can be determined just from looking at
the soil. Others may require home tests or professional lab tests. For
instance, lead contamination from old house paint or nearby roadways
with heavy traffic is a problem in some areas.
Most garden crops prefer soil with a pH around 7 (neutral),
although some like conditions that are slightly acidic (potatoes, for
instance) or slightly alkaline (brassicas). Balanced nutrient levels are
also important, as is the presence of organic matter.
See “Soil Testing – 5 Easy Tests for Your Yard and Garden” for easy home test options. In the U.S., you can also contact your local cooperative extension office for advice.
If you’re starting with sod, you’ll either need to cut it up in
chunks and repurpose it, till it in, or lay down wet newspaper or
cardboard to smother it and build a bed on top. Preparing in fall is
best, but don’t let that stop you from starting in spring.
Most plants prefer a deep, well-drained, fertile soil rich in organic matter. Plant roots need good garden soil to produce good vegetables and fruit.
Once you start a garden, you’ll gain a new appreciation for healthy
soil as it improves year after year. Healthy, vibrant soil = healthy,
vibrant plants with built in disease and pest resistance and more
Each year I add a combination of different types of organic matter,
including compost, worm castings and mulch. You can learn more about
soil building in the post, “Feed Your Plants, Soil and Microbes“.
To learn which plants grow best directly seeded in the garden and which plants are better as transplants, visit the seed starting calendar.
If you want to grow specific varieties, especially heirloom varieties,
you’ll probably need to grow your own transplants from seed. Starting
your own transplants is a great way to save money, too.
You can view my seed starting setup and more detailed information on tomato transplants in Grow Tomatoes from Seed – Save Money, Get More Varieties.
If you’re not ready to tackle growing transplants for your garden,
here are some tips to help you spot the best plants at the nursery:
Most seed packets and transplant containers come with basic planting instructions. Once
you’ve done the ground work (literally), you just need to jump in and
plant. Just give it a try and you can learn the rest as you go.
Rules of thumb for planting in your garden:
We have printable calendars to help you plan your seed sowing in the article, “When Should I Start My Seeds? Printable seed starting calendar”. The 5-Minute Gardener: How to Plan, Create, and Sustain a Low-Maintenance Garden is a good reference for those who are short on time.
You can also click here or on the image below to download
this handy pdf excerpted from the USDA school garden program that shows
planting depth, plant spacing, days to germination and days to harvest
for a variety of common garden crops.
There’s an old saying that says, “The best fertilizer is the
gardener’s shadow.” If you’re not prepared to make time in your schedule
to tend to your plants, you may be better off hitting the farmer’s
market, or sticking with extremely low maintenance items like sprouts or
herbs. Depending on the size of your plantings, time requirements may
range from a few minutes per day to a full time job.
Nab weeds when they’re small with a scuffle hoe – or use them as groundcover, food or medicine.
A rule of thumb for watering is that plants need around one inch of water per week during the growing season. If rains fail, you’ll need to water your garden.
Over watering is as bad as under watering, so always check the soil before turning on a tap or hitting the rain barrels. Soil that is too wet can cause seeds and roots to rot. Foliar feeds like compost tea can be added to give plants extra nutrition and a dose of healthy microbes while watering.
Bugs are more attracted to plants that are stressed or in some way
deficient. If you have healthy, well-nourished plants, your pest
problems should be minimal. For most problems, there’s an organic
solution. If you’re going through all the effort to grow your own food,
why would you want to put toxins on it?
For more detailed information on controlling everything from slugs to rabbits, check out Natural Pest Control in the Garden.
As crops mature, make sure to harvest promptly for best quality.
Leafy greens like lettuce are typically “cut and come again”, which
means you can clip off the leaves and they will regrow for another
Pick beans and peas every two to three days. Harvest sweet corn when
cobs are well filled out and silk is dark. Harvest tomatoes and peppers
green, or allow them to ripen to full sweetness and flavor.
Flavor is typically at a peak when the morning dew has cleared, but
before the afternoon heat has settled in. Sample and decide what tastes
best to you. See How to Grow and Cook Nutrient Dense Foods for harvesting and storing tips.
One of the reasons I love gardening is because if things don’t work
out right the first time, there’s always next year. There are dozens of
different ways to do just about everything, but you won’t know what
works best for you and your garden until you try. If a plant/crop does
poorly the first time you plant it, try again. I usually try a crop for
at least three years before I give up on it, because different varieties
grow best under different conditions.
Gardening is also good for your health. It can fight depression, reduce stress and improve your diet. See “Dirt Therapy – 8 Reasons You Need to Have a Garden” for more information.
I invite you to visit the Common Sense Gardening page
for a full listing of more than 80 gardening posts on the website.
There’s advice on everything from seed starting to preserving the
You can also use the form below to join our newsletter list and get
our Free Gardening Journal Templates AND a discount on our new course
“Gardening for Beginners: The Common Sense Way to Grow Your Own Food”.
Navigating the Sasana
The Springdale Buddhist Center held a lavish banquet for its
members, and offered the whole fare, from hors d’oeuvre to dessert. To their
great dismay, few seemed to eat lavishly. The festival committee (Bob, Carol
and Skipper) asked around and discovered that most guests who were failing
to eat well, were doing so for what they felt were unreasonable reasons, and as
a result failed to benefit fully from what was offered.
“Is this the future shape of Buddhism in the Land of the Fork?” they
They identified the following feeding patterns, which they put up on a white-
board, each with its own bullet:
Some guests were “● simply uninformed” about food. Some people, Bob
observed, would ignore items simply because they did not recognize them, or
they misperceived them, or they were unsure about the proper manner of
eating them. They could have asked, but most of the people around them
didn’t seem to know either.
Some guests were simply “● stuck in the familiar.” Fish eggs, or lychees,
or octopus would make them cringe. These mostly ate rolls, cold cuts, and cole
Some guests, in contrast, “● seek out the exotic.” One or two people,
as Skipper identified, will not intend to stay long, but will maybe take some
reindeer paté on a rice cracker or something likewise exotic or appealing.
They could be heard sharing the recollection of their experiences with friends
the following day.
Some guests seem “● more analytical than daring” in their approach
to eating. These people, Carol explained, are always quite informed of recent
incidents of salmonella poisoning, tainted shellfish, misidentified mushrooms,
typhoid. They know all about trichinosis, cancer, and how all of these relate to
the food we eat. They also carefully calculate calories; fat, protein and
carbohydrate levels; and the amounts they are getting of each vitamin and
mineral. They eye unidentified foods with great suspicion. All of these people
are terribly skinny.
Some guests can only stay long enough to “● grab something to eat,”
as Bob observed, generally a sandwich or couple of egg rolls, because they
have to rush to put in some overtime at work, or they are on their way to the
opera or a lecture and have just come from a workout at the gym. Even in the
buffet line they talk on their cell phones. These are busy people, people with
Some guests, whether they eat a lot or not, nonetheless “● eat but do
not help with cleanup.”Somecouldbeseenslinkingpastthewasharea,
others seemed to think they were at a restaurant with paid bus staff, in one case
even imperiously asking another guest, who happened to be clearing some
tables, to refill her coffee cup.
But then there were some guests who “● try everything,” and even take
great pleasure in the cleanup. Skipper pointed out that there are still rare
individuals who come with big appetites, know their foods, have let go of all
destructive preconceptions and are curious and daring about what they’ve been
invited to enjoy, who are capable of savoring the sublime and valuing the
simple. Furthermore, these people generally give themselves ample time to
enjoy food and company.
“They have a fork and they know how to use it,” Carol added with
regard to the last group.
The following year the committee met to consider again holding a Second
Annual Buddhist Banquet. There were different opinions about what to offer.
At one extreme was Bob’s suggestion. Bob’s proposal was to offer the “whole
Buddhist fare, from embodiment to realization,” exactly as they had done last
year. However, before the banquet they would send out abundant information
on the various foods, along with detailed descriptions of how to eat lobster and
some of the more difficult dishes, with photographs and diagrams. Guests
would be asked to arrive by 5:00 pm, after which the doors would be locked
from the outside and not reopened until all the food was eaten. Also pocket
calculators, cell phones and other electronic gear would be collected at the
At the other extreme was Carol’s suggestion. The other two members of the
committee could not determine if Carol was more forgiving than Bob or not.
Her proposal was to offer spaghetti, marshmallow salad and dinner rolls. And
“The greatest common denominator,” Carol called it.
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