“How do I even start to garden?” I get asked this question all the time, so if you are pondering this, don’t worry – you are not alone! While it seems like there are hundreds of details to learn, and it can feel completely overwhelming at times, it really doesn’t have to be! This article will go over the essential elements to consider to help you plan your first garden space, but the simple answer is:
Just start gardening, don’t give up gardening,
and the rest will fall into place.
If you are here reading this, honestly interested in trying to grow fresh food for you and your family, you’re already on the right track! The most essential element is a willingness to learn and try!
Think in terms of setting up a small, manageable little plot first. You’ll have plenty of time to design your dream garden or worry about the details of pest control and automatic irrigation later. As time goes on, through trial and error, looking up information as questions arise, and chatting with other gardeners, you’ll figure it out. You WILL make mistakes, but you will learn from them. And your successes? They’ll be oh-so-sweet (or spicy!). I will be here to help guide you on your way.
No matter what happens, the most important thing you will be growing is your health and happiness.
We started our first garden 12 years ago, plopped in the grassy side yard of my college rental house. This was long before the days of “Instagram-worthy” designs, Pinterest vision boards, and online how-to tutorials. We seriously had No. Freakin’. Clue. what we were doing! It consisted of two little raised beds made from salvaged wood, a couple large pots, and a few things planted straight in the unamended ground. It was not neat, nor was it pretty. Let’s be real ~ it was a weedy, haphazard, hot ass mess! BUT we successfully grew some of the beginner basics: cherry tomatoes, summer squash, basil, and even one nice big honeydew melon! It was the juiciest, sweetest melon I’d ever tasted. It was then I got hooked, hungry for more!
I think it’s time we get you hooked too. Whaddya say?
THE BASICS OF GETTING STARTED
At a glance, these are the essentials to consider:
- Location – As sunny as possible
- Size – Start small
- Style – Raised beds, containers, or right in the ground?
- Soil – Don’t skimp here! Rich, organic soil with lots of aged compost
- Plants – Choose plants right for your zone and the season
- Water – Moist, but not soggy
- Protection – Consider the wildlife in your yard, and make a plan if necessary
Now let’s go over them one by one now, shall we?
Choose a location in your yard that gets maximum sun exposure – all day long, in all seasons, if feasible. Yes, even if that means right in the middle of the front lawn, because… why not?! #growfoodnotlawns! Most vegetables prefer to get as much sun as possible, with a few exceptions.
Disclaimer: If you are removing grass to install raised beds, or have an issue with invasive weeds like crabgrass, please do not install your bed straight on the ground or grass without a good landscape fabric weed barrier below first! Learn from our mistakes! If your space isn’t too weedy, you can line the bottom of your beds with cardboard. This will suppress the growth of less invasive weeds.
If you have a small space or obstacles to work around, creating a few garden areas that end up with partial shade is okay. We have a handful of beds that get far less sun than the others. Some are shaded by our house in the morning, or neighboring trees in the afternoon, depending on the season. We can still utilize them to plant veggies that are more shade-tolerant like lettuce, asian greens, arugula, or mustard greens, to name a few. If you live in a climate with extremely hot summers, your garden may even thank you for a little late afternoon shade!
If you are in an apartment and practicing container gardening, these same things still apply. One benefit of using containers is that they can be more mobile, such as on rolling dollies. This enables you to move them as the seasons and sunlight changes if needed! For indoor gardens, like a countertop or windowsill herb garden, I suggest morning to midday sun. Be cautious and keep an eye on your plants if they’re in direct hot afternoon sun right near a window. The amplified heat and intensity of rays through the window may be too much for the plant to handle (particularly if we are talking herbs here). Using artificial lighting is another option for indoor gardens, but we’ll save that for a later post.
Try to take some time to observe your space in various seasons. Remember, the sun follows a different path and will be lower in the sky in winter. If you live in the northern hemisphere like us, the sun dips lower on the southern horizon in the winter. Will trees, your house, or other structures shade your garden in different times of year? This is especially important to consider if you’re in a mild climate like ours and want to winter garden. If you live in the arctic however, and plan to take the winter off and just chill (rightly so!), the winter sun pattern isn’t quite as important.
Gardening In the Northern Hemisphere
If you’re in the northern hemisphere, a south-facing garden is an ideal choice. This orientation will provide your garden maximum sun exposure from the south.
Pictured above is an example. We placed the front yard raised garden beds, intended for growing veggies, on the far north side of the yard to maximize southern sun exposure. In the winter, the sun dips low behind the house (behind me) to the south and casts shade on the yard area closest to it. It wouldn’t have been wise to put our garden beds there. We also kept the tallest features – those with potential to cast shade like trees and trellises – on the far north side where the sun rarely goes behind.
Shown below is our coop garden area. When we first bought our home in 2013, it was the middle of the summer. There was a patch of dirt in the back yard that nice and sunny – the perfect spot for the raised beds we dragged from our rental house, right?! Wrong. Winter came and they were in nearly 100% shade. Some greens did okay, but grew very slowly and bolted quicker. Between the shady location, the very low shallow beds (we prefer taller beds now), and the need for better chicken-proofing fencing, we were more than okay with re-working this spot after a couple of years!
Now the garden beds in this area are on a south facing wall. This not only maximizes sun exposure in all seasons, but also takes advantage of the radiant heat the wall emits. That extra warmth is much welcomed in our climate, with our cool, foggy summers!
The last important piece to ponder when you’re choosing your garden location is proximity to a water source. Is there a hose bib within a couple hundred feet? Can an average garden hose reach and be used to water the space? Are there existing pipes nearby that could be modified to add a spigot if needed, or to connect an automatic irrigation system to later if you desire? Though there are many times I prefer hand-watering to using automated systems, you probably won’t want to lug heavy watering cans a far distance as your primary watering method. We’ll talk more about water in a moment.
When you’re just getting started, go for something small and sustainable, both in the size of your garden and in the variety of plants you attempt to grow. If you want to go big or go home, then do it, by all means! But the last thing we want is for you to feel overwhelmed and like you’re “failing” from the get-go! I suggest to build just one or two manageable raised garden beds, or give container gardening in grow bags or pots a try. We definitely started small.
If you can avoid setting up anything too elaborate or permanent until you get your hands dirty for a season or two, you’ll have the benefit of time to get a better feel for your space, dream a little, and better gauge the size and landscape design that you’d prefer for the long run. You never know what ideas you may come up with over time, like the addition of fruit trees or pollinator-friendly borders. Leave some room for growth and evolution! Trust me, we have changed, re-arranged, and slowly evolved our garden spaces SO many times before reaching this point. It doesn’t happen overnight! Most of our spaces were done in phases over several years.
Also related to size, I suggest choosing just a handful of types of veggies at first. I know that this is easier said than done though, because if you’re like me, you want to GROW ALL THE THINGS… now! Chill. You’ll get there!
Decisions, decisions… Do you dream of having a nice, streamline, dedicated area of several raised garden beds, all in a neat row? Do you want to plow land and plant straight in the ground, creating something a bit more whimsical or winding? Or, despite your wildest plant dreams, are you restricted by your current home or situation? If you are in an apartment or townhouse, or have a home with a small patio yard, you may have to stick to container-gardening for now. Don’t worry, there is still so much you can grow in containers! I will put together a post on container gardening soon.
On the other hand, even if you have a large amount of land to work with, your dreams of planting straight in the ground may not be the best idea. For example, if you have an issue with burrowing pests like gophers or voles.
Personally, we love growing veggies in raised beds.
There are so wonderful benefits of raised bed gardening! In a nutshell: You have more control over the condition, quality and texture of your soil. We create and fill our raised beds with the “perfect” organic soil. Burrowing pests and weeds can be blocked off from below with hardware cloth and landscape fabric. Our bodies and backs really prefer the ergonomics of raised beds over in-ground gardening! Last but not least, I love how they look. Raised beds create dimension and interest in the garden. In my opinion, these benefits greatly outweigh the few drawbacks, such as the upfront cost.
That said, we also like to have plenty of more “wild” space around the gardens. Some areas are overgrown and overflowing with fruit trees, perennials, flowers, herbs, and edible shrubs ~ just the way the local wildlife likes it! To learn more about creating a wildlife-friendly garden, and even get Certified as a Wildlife Habitat like we are, check out this article!
Here is our “How to Design & Build Raised Beds” post with step-by-step photos, supply lists, written instructions, and a demonstration video! But if you aren’t feeling up to building your own raised beds, that’s okay! There are some sort of flimsy kits out there, but there are also some really excellent, durable, beautiful cedar raised bed kits available too! These ones from Gardener’s Supply get great reviews. They come in a variety of sizes, and at 15″ deep, will provide a nice amount of root space for your plants.
Whatever style you decide on now, most all the things we are discussing in this post today are applicable. Don’t have a style in mind yet? Start up a vision dream board! Pinterest and Instagram are wonderful (but dangerous!) places for this. Looking at other gardens help you get an idea of the design and feel you’re going for, but again, try not to bite off more than you can chew at first ~ especially if you’re going DIY. Take measurements in your space to figure out what could realistically fit where.
Know that when we first started working on our yards, we had no idea that they’d look the way they do now! Not only did our vision develop over time, but we learned tons of little tricks and practical skills during our earlier, smaller projects that enabled us to feel confident in tackling the bigger ones later. You can always, always expand and morph styles with time! We certainly have. I really enjoy having new projects to look forward to. It would have been way less fun if we did it at all once.
If you are using raised beds or containers, fill them with rich organic soil, compost, and if possible, an aeration additive (e.g. small ⅜” volcanic rock, pumice, or perlite). This is where you don’t want to skimp! Soil health and compost is EVERYTHING! It is what makes the difference between a mediocre garden or a purely magical garden.
For our raised beds, we usually do a combination of various organic bagged soil mixes and some bulk soil, volcanic rock, and compost delivered from a local landscape company. Especially if we have several big beds to fill. If we only have one new small bed, or are filling wine barrels or containers, we stick to just bagged soil, amending it with volcanic rock and compost.
Don’t skip the compost!
Compost is organic matter that has been thoroughly broken down and decomposed into rich nutrient-dense plant food. It is a killer soil conditioner and will make your garden shine! We try to add as much homemade compost from our worm bin or passive pile as possible. Often times don’t make quite enough to meet out needs, so we do end up supplementing with organic bagged compost or bulk compost too.
And worms! Don’t forget the worms. A small handful gets added to each bed along with worm castings from our worm bin. Worm castings are worm poop – also called “black gold”. Worms themselves are living soil amendments! They’ll continually enrich and aerate the soil. See this post to learn how to create and maintain a super simple worm bin at home. Also check out: “Composting 101: What, Why & How to Compost at Home”.
What about Fertilizer?
Most “virgin” soil will probably need some amending with mild, balanced, slow-release fertilizers to keep your plants healthy, happy, and productive. This is true whether it comes in trucked bulk or from a bag. A few Down-To-Earth products we like to use are this vegan all-purpose fertilizer, kelp meal, neem meal, or alfalfa meal. These are sprinkled on top of the soil and lightly worked in a couple times per year, usually when switching out crops in beds. I always suggest going a little lighter than the instructions on the box say to avoid overdoing it. You don’t want to accidentally “burn” the plants! They all have their different benefits so we usually mix a few of them. If you were to start with just one, go for the all-purpose stuff.
If you want to grow food straight in your native soil without beds or containers, you will want to till in a good amount of rich compost and organic fertilizers to help enrich it. Also make sure it is not too dense or rocky for plants to grow. We prefer not to till soil much once established (a “no-till” philosophy), but you may need to at first in order to get it loose and all the good stuff mixed in. Ideal soil holds some moisture, but also has good drainage and what I like to call “fluff” to it.
Building the perfect soil is way too important of a topic to try to quickly sum up in this crash-course. See this article all about how to fill a raised garden bed and create an excellent organic soil mix. Also, this post explains how we amend our raised beds between seasons.
Should I start from seed, or buy seedlings?
For new gardeners, it may be most simple and stress-free to start with established seedlings (aka starts or transplants) from a local nursery rather than growing from seed. But you could go either way! If possible, visit a local nursery – not a big box store – to find your seedlings. Not only will local establishments have better quality and likely carry non-gmo and organic options, but they should be carrying what is right to plant at the given moment. Unlike Home Depot, who sells tomato starts in the middle of winter. This is not the time to start tomatoes in 90% of gardens in the U.S. Hmmm…..
Do You Know Your Zone?
You’ll also want choose the right kind of plants for your zone and climate. Do a little research on what should be grown during certain times of year. If you aren’t sure, here is an easy USDA hardiness zone lookup tool. Just enter your zip code and go! For example, our little homestead on the Central Coast of California is on the border of 9b and 10a.
Once you know your zone, you can find a planting calendar that goes along with it. If you haven’t already done so, you can subscribe to our weekly newsletter and receive a free garden planning toolkit. It includes planting calendars for every zone!
If you’re growing from seed, note that you’ll need to plan in advance and start a bit earlier. If you’re choosing to purchase seedlings, note the time frame for “transplanting outside” because that is essentially what you’re doing. It is generally suggested to transplant seedlings outside a couple weeks after your last frost date in the spring. Read up on “hardening off” seedlings before transplanting if you started from seeds yourself! Nursery seedlings are generally already hardened off.
What types of plants should I grow?
Grow what you like to eat! Tomatoes, squash, basil, or peppers? Choose things you know you’ll enjoy and use. That said, don’t be afraid to try new things. I did not like radishes until we grew them ourselves. Now they’re one of our favorite things! Everything is better homegrown. Plus, you feel more connected to it, so you’ll enjoy it in a different way now. Remember to throw in a few flowers for the pollinators too! Check out our Top 23 Plants for Pollinators here.
It can be super inspiring to see other people’s gardens online! You may want to plant what they’re growing, but keep in mind they may have a completely different climate than you. Go ahead and take some ideas for inspiration, but also try to make friends with the staff at your local nursery. Those folks have the best insight for what grows well in your area and when! Regardless of what is “ideal”, I will always encourage you to experiment. Push your zone and season boundaries a little!
Where to plant what?
Once you’ve settled on a small selection of plants, do a quick Google search on those you’re aiming to grow. Read up on their likes, dislikes, or any special needs they have. Take into account their recommended spacing requirements and potential mature size. Do no overcrowd your plants! Also remember the sun pattern when you are deciding where to plant things. Keep the plants that will get tallest, like tomatoes, in the “back” to avoid shading out smaller plants. I am working on building up a library of specific “how to grow” posts for dozens of types of plants. See this article to learn all about companion planting*.
*Pssst! There is a companion planting chart already available in the free subscriber toolkit.
In general, most plants like to be moist, but not soggy for days. They’re usually most happy when they get a nice deep drink but then have the chance to slightly dry out between watering. I don’t mean totally dry out! It’s all about balance. Before you start to water, poke around under the soil surface a little bit. Is it still quite wet down there? Or super dry, even several inches deep? Then think about how much you last watered, when, and what the weather has been like. You’ll start to notice a pattern and get your own schedule down. This will vary by your climate, season, sun exposure, mulching practices, and depths of your bed. Deep beds stay moist longer – just one of the many benefits that drives us to build deep beds.
The goal is to water deep, down into their root zone and beyond, and then back off for a few days to let them breathe. Larger, thirsty, more established plants will require more water. Smaller babes will need a little less. We prefer to keep the whole bed moist, including the space between plants, rather than only watering right at the base of the plant. The roots will spread where moisture is. The larger the root system, the larger the plant! Plus, keeping the whole bed moist keeps the soil, worms, microbes – ALIVE! Here is an article all about watering: “Garden Irrigation Solutions: DIY, Non-Toxic, and Efficient Watering Options”.
The last item to consider is protection. No, not from the neighbors that are going to be totally jealous and thieving from your awesome new garden space! What we’re worried about here are smaller thieves: birds, deer, rabbits, squirrels, gophers, or any little critter in your neighborhood that may immediately go after your garden.
Here’s the deal though: I don’t want you guys going crazy building elaborate fences around your garden beds right away if you aren’t even sure if you need them or not. If you’re in the county and have roaming deer or rabbits, you probably do. On the other hand, many suburban or urban gardeners may not need as much protection from above. The exception could be during a limited time while seeds are sprouting, or after tender new seedlings have just been transplanted out. One example is using temporary bird netting over the beds (see photo below). PVC or metal hoops and floating row covers are another option!
If you have gophers or voles around, plan to line the bottom of your raised beds with hardware cloth. This will prevent them from getting in and destroying your hard work! No, chicken wire doesn’t usually do the trick unfortunately. Rodents can chew through it. Chicken wire will also degrade with time. Galvanized hardware cloth is rodent-proof and will hold up for the long haul.
During the first couple of years gardening, we didn’t need any physical protection from above at all! It wasn’t until our garden started becoming an ecosystem of its own, drawing in more birds and other wildlife, that we started noticing damage. Simply be aware and make a reasonable assessment based on your property. I sure would feel like a giant boob if you read this article, got stoked, tucked some new plant-babies into your brand-new awesome raised beds, and then BAM – they’re all gone the next morning. I know the feeling, all too well. It really, really sucks…. so let’s avoid that, shall we?
So there you have it!
We have barely scratched the surface of all the tools and pointers I hope to instill in you, but let’s start that. If you have questions, feel free ask them in comments and I will do my best to answer! If you found this post helpful, please share it!
One step at a time, one seed at a time, let’s build you a little paradise of your own. Now go get dirty!
For more foundation garden tips, check out our “Start Here” page of top Homestead and Chill articles.