It’s Earth Day, a few weeks into Spring in the Northern hemisphere, and no time like the present to get your garden going — even if (and perhaps especially if) you’re a total gardening novice.
Fear not. Even if you’ve never grown so much as a pansy, the following steps will get you and your garden up and running.
Select your site. Ideally your plot will get 6-8 hours of full sun per day. If such a site is not available, be sure to buy crops specifically intended to grow in the shade. If you don’t have adequate flat space, explore other outdoor space like patios, pass-throughs, or decks. You can still get a lot of usable space by planting in large boxes and having plants climb up trellises, which many love to do. Your space needn’t be too large. A 10×10 foot plot can support a few rows of different crops. Often gardeners get overly ambitious and plant more than they can reasonably maintain. If your site is traveled by munching animals, such as deer, you will want to construct some kind of fence around it.
Prepare the soil. Use a pitchfork to loosen the ground, preferably down to about 8 inches. Clear the surface with a heavy-duty rake. Break up dirt clods and pull weeds. These can be added to a compost, if you’ve chosen to compost. If you wish, you can buy packaged soil for a nice even top layer that will have some nutrients in it, especially if you suspect your soil is poor. (You can always take a sample into your local garden-supply store for an opinion.) Either way, some sort of packaged fertilizer should be added as well. A general mix for new plantings is usually good, but the folks at the garden center may have more specific advice based on your soil and what you’d like to grow, as well as how much organic matter you want to add. Always water thoroughly before adding fertilizer. (And have kids wash hands after handling.)
If possible, plan some paths in your garden. They will make it easy to water, weed, and harvest without stepping on plants. Some people cover the paths with tanbark or other material (available at garden-supply stores) to mark them and to discourage plants from taking root there. Make sure you have a good path for your hose and a water source.
Plant the seeds or seedlings. For most people, this part is especially fun. Follow the packet instructions for seed spacing and conditions. You may want to lay a line of string as a guide, or create a furrow. Some stores carry seed tapes, which you just lay down in a straight row. Tapes are great for tiny hard-to-handle seeds like carrots, which can be difficult, even for adults. Large, easy-to-plant and -grow seeds include nasturtium and pea. If you’re planting bedding plants, be sure to give each lots of room to spread out and grow. Try to anticipate the heights of your plants to get the tallest ones into the back. And don’t forget to grow something that you’d like to see or eat!
Fertilize. If you didn’t add fertilizer to the bed while preparing the soil, you’ll want to add a little bit while planting. There are fertilizers on the market that are designed specifically for new growth. Your local garden center is the best bet to point you toward a good fertilizer for your garden and conditions. Many people fertilize plants again at about six weeks into the growing process.
If you are gardening in containers, get the biggest containers you have space and money for. Check for adequate drainage holes. If you don’t have good drainage, you can add netting or pieces of broken pottery to the bottom of the pot. You may also want to add perlite, which will aerate the soil while helping it retain moisture. Fertilize as you would in a garden plot.
Water your plants or seeds. New transplants and freshly planted seeds like lots of water. The best kind of watering is done gently and deeply, so that the water soaks through to the growing roots of the plants. Once your plants are established, you will probably need to water every other day or so when the weather is sunny. (Plants in containers usually need water more often than plants in the ground.) If a plant droops during the day, or the soil feels dry more than a couple of inches down, it needs water. It’s best not to water in bright sunshine because the sun can evaporate the water or even cause burned spots on the plants.
Keep up the good work. Continue watering and caring for plants as needed. This can include pulling out obvious weeds and cutting back any growth that has died or become unattractive.
Be sure to harvest what you’ve grown. Sometimes I’ve been so proud of my work and/or not sure when to harvest that I’ve let plants go past the point when they’re edible or useful and all the way to seed. Take a chance and cut and enjoy what you’ve done. More will usually grow back!
Get comfortable. There are lots of items available to make gardening more comfortable. I suggest knee pads, if you’re going to be doing a lot of kneeling, a sun hat to protect your skin, and old shoes you don’t mind getting dirty or gardening clogs made specifically to get wet and dirty. (A pair of gardening clogs lasts for years. They’re also very comfortable and you can leave them outside.) Most people like gardening gloves and there are a range of them on the market. I find them irresistible to buy at gardening and hardware stores, with their cute patterns, but I almost always end up taking them off and getting my hands really dirty — the better to feel the plants, the dirt, and what I’m doing.
Have fun entering one of the oldest and most rewarding hobbies around!
Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman