Beginning your first garden patch with flowers, vegetables, fruits, or a combination of plant life, can be an exciting time.
But, where do you start and what should you consider?
We’ve put together a beginner’s step by step guide to starting a garden that should give you a very solid outline to use.
1. Decide on your garden location and size
Common options for locations are:
- Grow in your natural soil in a spot/patch in the backyard (having it in a spot that gets sun for at least 6 hours a day helps)
- Grow in raised garden beds (made of a rot resistant wood like red cedar, black locust or redwood, and made to be 12 + inches deep as most vegetable and plant roots tend to be 6 to 12 inches deep)
- Grow in pot plants or containers indoors or outdoors
- Grow in a greenhouse or controlled growing environment
For the purposes of this guide, we will outline how to grow a regular outdoor garden patch.
In terms of size, the smaller the better when you first start as it’s far easier to manage, and the upkeep is far less.
A patch anywhere up to 5 or 10 feet squared is usually manageable for beginners, but you may also just choose a custom patch to fit one or a few types of vegetables, plants/flowers and so on.
2. Find out the type of soil you have (test it), and understand your local climate and seasons
You need to understand the soil you have, and soil tests can help with this:
- Test your soil pH with a standard pH testing kit
- Test your soil nutrients with a standard soil nutrients testing kit
- Test your soil type with a squeeze test, or any other number of visual tests where you examine texture and appearance of the soil while it’s damp
Test in several different locations over your plot of land, because soil can differ from spot to spot even on one piece of land.
Read this guide about the different test you can do on soil.
Also, do an online search and find your local climate (temperature, average rainfall) and when the growing seasons start and finish. You may look at the plant hardiness zones for your area too, which can indicate which plants grow in what regions based on average minimum temperature.
3. Pick the types of plant life, and number of different types of plant life you want to grow
Research the flowers, vegetables, fruits, trees, herbs and other plant life you want to grow.
Each type of plant, and even different varieties within one type of plant, will have different conditions they grow best under, and different growing requirements.
Some plants are very hardy and versatile and can grow in a range of climates, soil types and soil pH ranges.
Other plants need very specific conditions to grow, or have specific requirements such as being very water hungry.
Research the conditions specific flowers, vegetables or fruits need to grow, and pick those that will suit your local conditions.
For example, if you want to grow tomatoes, you might try searches like:
- how to grow tomatoes
- what tomatoes need to grow
- temperature/climate tomatoes need to grow
- soil pH for tomatoes
- soil type for tomatoes
- when to plant tomatoes (what season)
- how much water tomato plants need
- root depth of tomato plants
- how many times tomatoes produce a year
- how fast do tomatoes grow
- do I plant tomato seeds or transplants
- and so on …
Note that there is a difference in the way different plant life grows and produces as well. For example, traditional root vegetables might grow differently to a plant that is a climber/vine plant that needs lattice or support framing.
Visiting your local gardening centre/shop after you know your soil test results, growing area, and the types of plants you want to grow, and asking them for advice, is another way to get information on what you might be able to grow and not grow.
Anywhere from one to a few different types of plants is good to start with.
You can concentrate on getting your initial selections right before you move onto others.
4. Understand all the factors that impact plant growth
The main things that any plant life needs to grow are – Light (sunlight), the right temperature, enough water, the right humidity and the right type and amount of nutrients. However, this is a basic list.
The full list of direct and indirect factors that impact plant growth is more comprehensive.
5. Decide whether you want to work with your existing soil, or import soil (or both)
Your existing soil might be fine to grow in – good soil is usually close to the neutral pH range, a loamy type of soil, drains well, is moist (holds water and nutrients well) and is easy to dig and work with without being too loose or too sticky or hard/compacted.
On the other hand, you might find your soil has issues and needs some level of amending or improvement.
In this instance, you might find it’s easier simply to import top soil or a fresh soil mix from the shop, and grow in raised garden beds instead (people with extremely clayey and sandy soils have done this in the past).
Read this guide about working with different types of soil that you might encounter on your land.
6. Prepare your soil
Initially, you’ll want to till or work the soil (dig it up, break it up, aerate it, and spread it out). You really only need to do this once.
Once that is done, you’ll want to add to the soil or amend it as required:
- Adding some organic matter – organic compost or manure – will help feed the soil initially with nutrients, and introduce beneficial microorganisms.
- This is also the time to start amending the soil with pH amendments and fertilizers, based on the soil test results you did earlier.
- It’s also a good time to add other soil mixes if you want to change the soil texture or type
7. Create garden/plant beds, weed proof them, water and leave
Some people don’t create garden beds, but they are good practice for a number of reasons. The width and depth of the garden beds depends on what you are growing. Some people choose spacings of 18 to 24 inches apart for each plant, about ¼ to ½ inch deep burying of each plant, and three feet between rows (but this is just one guide).
In between the garden beds, some people choose to weed proof by laying newspaper or cardboard, wetting this layer, and then laying straw or hay on top.
Once the soil is prepared, give it a final watering, and leave the soil and garden beds for a few days to a week
Because the soil has been disturbed, weed seeds may germinate, so come back and pull any weeds that have established themselves.
8. Start planting
Now you should have an area of prepared soil to work with.
You’ll either be planting/sowing seeds directly into the soil, or be transplanting seedlings into the soil.
What option you go with depends on your climate, the plant you are planting and other factors.
You can always read the plant specific information you obtained earlier, or, read the instructions or label on the seed packet, or seedling batches you buy. Obtaining your own seeds and growing your own seedlings in egg carton containers are other options if you know what you’re doing.
Water the seeds or seedlings once planted.
Some people also choose to give the seeds/seedlings a starter fertilizer.
9. Have a plant maintenance routine, and a soil improvement/maintenance plan
With your plant life planted, you’ll want plant and soil maintenance plans/routines.
Plant maintenance usually involves trimming, watering, fertilizing (slow release fertilizer application in granule or spray form), and weeding.
Protection of the plants with fencing, netting, and some form of pest control (pesticides, or organic biological pest control/Integrated Pest Management – such as soap or garlic sprays) is also recommended.
The garden shop can tell you how often you need to do each, or you can read the individual product directions (e.g. the instructions on the fertilizer packaging). Also, know the specific requirements of each type of plant you’ve planted, and also your soil.
You might get some tips for a long term soil improvement and maintenance plan from these guides:
- Best Tips For Managing, Amending, & Improving Your Soil
- How To Improve Soil Fertility, Quality, Health, Drainage & Structure
10. Observe how the plants are growing, and make any necessary adjustments to your gardening routine
Once the plants start growing and you are in maintenance mode, you’ll want to observe what is going on week to week.
You may implement new practices to adjust to what is going on.
Joining gardening facebook groups, forums and online communities, or going to gardening or agricultural meetups in your area are great ways to get local expertise and information.
11. Other notes on starting a garden
- Sunlight – you need 6 hours of sunlight a day for some vegetables. Plant in a sunny spot if you can
- Some plants produce year round, whilst others produce once a year
- Understand the seasons each plant needs to be planted and grown in
- Plant near a water source – it makes watering easier. Or, you can set up drip irrigation lines
- You may need to put up fencing or protection to protect your plants and vegetables from wildlife
- Consider netting for freestanding bushes, like blueberry bushes
- Consider support framing and lattice work for climbing or vine plants
- Plant warm season crops after harvesting cold season crops and vice versa