Introduction to Gardening: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The world of gardening can be intimidating to those of you who haven’t yet tried to grow anything, or who may have dabbled in growing plants but failed. While there’s a seemingly endless amount of gardening information out there, much of it is out of context which can leave beginner gardeners bewildered about where to start.

Our advice is don’t overthink it: jump right in—but start small. Choose to grow a limited number of relatively foolproof plants to increase the odds of success which will, hopefully, motivate you to keep at it. Otherwise, you may end up giving up in frustration, having decided that you were simply not born with a green thumb. Don’t give up! Successful gardeners are a tenacious lot, always learning from experience. You can do the same.

To get started, you need to answer a few basic questions and follow some tried and true best gardening practices:
  • Where do you live?
    • How cold does it get in winter?
    • How long is your summer growing season?
    • How much sunlight do you have?
    • How much space do you have?
    • Does your area have animals pests (deer, rabbits, woodchucks, chipmunks, rodents) that are likely to be a nuisance?
  • What do you want to grow: flowers, herbs, vegetables or all three (vs. what you can realistically grow taking the above into account)?
  • Best practices: soil, water and mulch, fertilizer.

What is your Planting Zone?

USDA Hardiness ZonesThe first piece of advice generally given to new gardeners in gardening books and websites is to determine what U.S.D.A. hardiness zone you live in, to determine what plants will thrive in your area. These zones are based on ‘average annual minimum winter temperatures, divided into 10-degree Fahrenheit zones.’

While determining your U.S.D.A. zone is important for growing semi-permanent landscape fixtures such as trees, shrubs, and perennials, it’s less important for summer annuals. What is important is that you learn when your average last spring and first fall hard frosts are likely to occur, because that will determine how long your summer growing season is. The length of your growing season has a bearing on what plants you can grow—or how you start them from seed—particularly if you’re considering vegetable gardening. Some vegetables, such as eggplant, are both slow growing and sensitive to cold, so if you live in a northerly climate, and wanted to grow them from seed, you would have to start them indoors eight to ten weeks before the anticipated last spring frost.

Plants Need Space and Sunlight

sunglightThere are several other important variables related to your location that need to be ascertained up front, before you move on to selecting plants to grow: how much space do you have for your garden, how much daily sunlight will your garden receive, and what kind of animal plant predators are in your neighborhood?

Many flowers and most herbs and vegetables require at least eight hours of sunlight each day to grow properly. This is a tough thing to hear if you happen to have a shady yard. You may be tempted to ignore it—and you wouldn’t be the first. But, that’s a recipe for failure. If you can’t make landscaping adjustments to increase the sunlight in your garden area, consider planting a shade garden. While the selection of shade loving plants is more limited, there are some beautiful options.

It’s also important to figure out how much space you have for your garden since some plants you might be tempted to grow require a lot more space than you have available. Most flowers and herbs (not mint!) grow in a contained, orderly fashion, and can be planted in small spaces, including pots and window boxes. However, certain kinds of vine-based vegetables such as squash and pumpkins, require plenty of space to sprawl.

Finally, you should take stock of what voracious plant-eating critters are in your neighborhood. That beautiful deer family that regularly traverses your neighborhood may add to its charming bucolic nature, but will become your foe in the battlefield that your garden will become. If you’re not prepared to fence out or otherwise repel rabbits, woodchucks, chipmunks, as well as deer, then only consider growing plants they don’t like—which is a short list.

What Plants to Grow?

Do you want to grow flowers, herbs, or vegetables—or all three? Generally speaking, flowers and herbs require less care and maintenance than vegetables. But, if you’re among the many new gardeners who are principally motivated by the idea of growing your own vegetables—go for it—just be sure to make judicious choices.

Easy-to-grow vegetables include various leafy greens such as lettuce, arugula, spinach, and Swiss chard. These leafy greens are among the vegetables that grow best in the relatively cool temperatures of late winter/early spring or fall. Lettuce, arugula, and spinach will bolt (turn to seed) in high mid-summer temperatures, so climate and timing are key.

Tomatoes, almost everyone’s favorite summer garden vegetable, on the other hand, are a little tricky. That doesn’t mean new gardeners can’t grow them. You just need to be prepared to give them the proper care they need (no cutting corners allowed), as outlined in our growing guide.


Basic Garden Design and Care


Raised Garden

Create a Healthy Garden Bed

To give your plants a fighting chance, it behooves you to create a healthy garden bed. Though some plants can grow just about anywhere, most vegetable plants require well-drained soil that includes plenty of organic matter. We recommend creating a raised bed which involves a little extra work on the front end, but will pay off in the long run. Or, you can create a garden using containers.


Watering and Mulching

Proper watering and moisture management are crucial to successful plant care, in addition to sunlight and good soil, and are, arguably among the hardest concepts for new gardeners to grasp. In your zeal to provide the best plant care, you might be tempted to water your plants all time time; that would be a mistake.Too much water is problematic for most plants and may cause them to drown.

Established plants do best with deep watering every few days versus a daily sprinkling of water—whether supplied by Mother Nature or your garden hose. By allowing time between waterings, you force the plant roots to grow deeper in the earth in search of water, making them stronger and better able to withstand drought.

How you water your plants is important too. For best results, gently water them at their base, taking care not to let water splash up on the leaves which is an invitation to pests and fungi.

Once your plants are several inches high, it’s important to mulch your garden bed to conserve moisture and prevent the plant roots from drying out. Various types of mulch will do, as long as it is dense enough to stay put on windy days.

Feeding/Fertilizing

Even if you’ve created a raised bed with enriched soil, you will still need to apply fertilizer periodically throughout the growing season, especially if you’re growing vegetables, which tend to be heavy feeders. Fertilizer is really important for container gardening because soil nutrients aren’t being replenished . There are various schools of thought on the best fertilizers to use. We recommend adding an organic, time-release fertilizer every six weeks or so, or whatever your planting instructions advise.

Introduction to Gardening: Final Thoughts

Though generally advertised as a relaxing, non-stressful activity, many experienced gardeners will tell you that gardening is like war: you’re fighting a number of battles at once on several different fronts. The aforementioned critter battles are just one example.

Somehow, though, the challenges of successfully creating a beautiful, healthy garden in the face of uncontrollable elements holds some strange appeal, especially as you learn how to overcome them.

The weather, of course, is the biggest challenge as there’s no controlling it. You can mitigate some of its effects: during droughts, for example, you can apply extra water to your plants, unless, of course, you live in an area with water restrictions, as in some parts of California. Too much rain, on the other hand, is problematic, especially for seedlings, and, occasionally, can ruin an entire gardening season. That’s life in the garden.

Speaking of seedlings, you have the choice of purchasing them at your local nursery, or growing your own from seed. There are pros and cons of each. Purchasing ‘ready-made’ seedlings may be a little easier but they’re relatively expensive and usually available in limited varieties. Growing plants from seed allows you to choose tried and true heirloom varieties and have total control over the entire growing process. Though it may seem a little daunting at first, if you stick with it, you may find gardening as satisfying as we do.

Sample Starter Garden

Below, we provide some recommendations for a full sun garden. We include a mix of flowers, herbs, and vegetables which are generally easy to grow and don’t require much fuss. It’s wise to have a mixed garden as the flowers, herbs and vegetables complement each other as companion plants. For additional details about some of the plants we recommend, please consult our growing guides.

You can create a garden of any size and shape though we recommend a rectangular design to allow easy access to your plants from both sides. Common garden bed sizes are three feet by six feet or four feet by eight feet. Or, you can create a container garden.

Full Sun Garden

Annual Flowers: Marigold Dwarf French Mix, Nasturtium Jewel Mixed Color, Phlox Drummondii
Perennial Flowers: Blue Flax, Black-Eyed Susan, Coneflower, Shasta Daisy
Herbs: Chives, parsley, summer savory, mint, thyme
Vegetables: Buttercrunch lettuce, cherry belle radish, bloomsdale spinach, black zucchini squash, sweetie cherry tomato