5 top tips for new gardeners

a crash course on the "need to know"

Gardening, at its core, is very simple. If you provide the three basic things plants need (sun, water, and soil), they will grow. Even if you are under the impression that you are a bad gardener and kill houseplants , if you can provide a plant with sun, soil, and water, there is no reason you can’t be successful.

Location

The first thing to determine is where are you going to plant a garden. Ideally, it should be in a site that is reasonably sheltered from the wind, and you really do need full sun. What does that mean? Full sun means a location that gets at least six hours of direct sun per day. Ideally, it should be eight to ten hours of direct sun. (*At least when we have long hours of daylight.) Many times a tag or a label for a plant will say “full sun to partial shade”. What this means is that a plant will put up with a site that is partly shady, but will flower much better and look way nicer in sun.

Gardening in shade is difficult. Not all shade is created equal. Is the shade from a building or a fence, or is it from a tree? Shade from a tree can also mean competition from tree roots. It’s very challenging to find plants that do well in shade, but there are a few. Partial shade means that it gets a few hours (perhaps two to four) of direct sun. A dappled or filtered shade means that the light is broken up by tree branches or a screen and that the location is never fully sunny but nor is it dim and dark. If you have a choice of where you are gardening, choose the sunniest site possible. Gardening in shade severely limits your plant choices. If you want to grow fruits or vegetables, there is not a lot of selection for growing in shade (basically just leafy stuff like spinach). 

Soil

You are only as good as your soil. If you use poor ingredients while baking, your cake won’t turn out as good as it could. Gardening is the same. Before you plant anything- anything at all- you should have a look at your soil. If your soil is predominantly clay (heavy and sticky) you need to get as much organic material into that soil as possible. Your soil might be very sandy, or it might be (if you are very lucky) rich and black and humusy.

Soil should ideally be a rich, dark loam- meaning that it contains equal parts clay, sand, and organic material. You will often see tags that say “best in well drained soil.” This means that the plant will not tolerate standing in water. Heavy soils that drain poorly often lead to root rot and other problems. If you tend to your soil, your plants will grow and perform well. Amending your soil with compost, well rotted manure, kelp meal, shredded leaves, etc. is an excellent garden practice. Preparing a bed for planting can often mean working in large amounts of organic matter and this should be done before you ever buy a single plant.

Soil is for the garden. Don’t use garden soil in your planters or it will turn into concrete. Buy special potting mixes from your favorite garden center.

Mulch

Mulch is a layer of materials placed on top of the soil. It is absolutely critical for long-term plant and soil health and your strongest ally for a pesticide free garden. Its job is to protect your soil and plant roots from damage, sun, wind, and help slow down weed growth. If you use organic mulch, which comes from a once living source, it will also provide a home for the good bugs like ladybugs or spiders who will protect your plants for you. Suggested mulches around plants or in pathways include shredded leaves, post peelings, arborist wood chips, wood shavings or wood chips of various sizes.

Additional pathway mulches include gravel or, in an area where the mulch will be removed seasonally, such as in your garden, you may also consider cardboard, boards, or landscape fabric.

Whatever mulch you choose, make sure you move it out of the way when you plant. You do not want uncomposted materials mixing into your soil as it will cause soil problems. Once you’re done planting your seedlings, replace the mulch but make sure it doesn’t touch the stem of your plants until they are woody enough to handle the extra moisture. If you’re mulching around seeded plants, you will probably have to leave the mulch off until the seedlings grow big enough.

Purchasing

Where are you going to get your plants from? Well, hopefully you have a gardening friend who can mentor you and possibly share plants or seeds with you. Otherwise, you can buy your plants from garden centers or greenhouses. Quality is never an accident- buy only healthy, vigorous looking plants. Ask gardening friends where they like to shop.

Buying plants can be quite expensive, so ideally you should have a budget set up and a list of things to buy before you leave the house. If you have no idea what plants cost, take a gardening friend with you and go to a garden center together. Make a list. Roses cost approx. 30 dollars. A pack of veggies costs 3 or 4 dollars, a packet of seeds costs 3 bucks, etc. Sometimes plants can be had much more cheaply if you are willing to buy them small.

We recommend that new gardeners buy seeds. Specifically, buy things that you can direct sow. Don’t bother even attempting to start seeds in the house until you’ve gotten quite comfortable with the whole idea of gardening. Direct sow means that you can tear open a seed packet, and sow those seeds right in the ground where you want them to flower. This is how our grandparents gardened, and it’s very easy, and fairly inexpensive. You will have to keep your little seedlings moist and you might need to thin them out, meaning that if many little plants have all come up in a single clump, you remove the weakest, smallest ones so that the strong can survive. We've included a list of direct sow plants here.

A friend might also have some perennials that they can divide, which is exactly what it sounds like. Basically, a plant gets really happy and grows into a large clump, and then you take a spade and split it into four or five pieces. You can replant the new pieces and voila! New plants.

Fertilizer

“My plant isn’t doing very well. Maybe I should give it some fertilizer.” We hear this quite a lot, but this is really a problem because fertilizer is food- not medicine. It is the healthy plants that should be fed! Plants in containers will need to be fed much more often than plants in the ground. Why? Because plants that grow in the soil are getting nutrients from the soil. The plants in containers should be planted in potting mix, which is not soil, so it probably doesn't have any fertilizer unless you add it.

Compost is an ideal fertilizer for both. If you don't have compost, then you can buy fertilizer too.

Always follow the instructions on the container down to the letter. If you over fertilize, you can create serious problems. Every fertilizer you buy, regardless of brand, will have three numbers on the label. It might say 20-20-20 or 10-15-10 or something like that. Those three numbers represent nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These are the three most important plant nutrients. Nitrogen stimulates lush, vigorous, leafy growth. Lawn fertilizers tend to be high nitrogen.

Phosphorus stimulates root development and also blossoming. Potassium helps with hardening cell walls and helps plants to get ready for winter and fight off disease. If you are feeding plants that you are growing for the blossoms, a fertilizer like 10-30-15 would be good.

There are slow release fertilizers such as bonemeal (which break down slowly and feed over a long period) and immediate release (water soluable) fertilizers such as Miracle-Gro, and one isn’t better than the other. How often you feed is largely determined by what you are growing. Most fertilizer labels will have at least some details about frequency of feeding.

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