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How to grow plants even if you know nothing about gardening

Even you can develop a green thumb.

Planting a seedling into the ground Credit: Getty Images / Михаил Руденко

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Starting a garden isn’t hard, but a few key factors can make the difference between a lush plot bursting with vegetables, herbs, and flowers, and a barren weedpatch.
Here’s how to plan and what to do to make your first garden a success.

First: Pick your plants

Seedlings ready to be planted
Credit: Getty Images / darrya

To give your seedlings the best chance for success, do your research ahead of time.

What do you want to grow? There are great lists of easy-to-grow vegetables, annual flowers, and herbs out there. Make a wish list, then figure out what’s possible, and make your purchase.

Start small—a 4-by-4-foot plot is plenty big for a first vegetable garden for one to two people. Read the recommended spacing for your veggie seeds and plants and follow it. That precious little seedling may look small now, but a single pumpkin vine can easily take over a small garden, shading out all your other plants.

Get the timing right

You can grow vegetables and herbs and any time of year if you have a greenhouse or grow plants indoors. Otherwise, you’re limited by your local growing season, the days between the last frost in spring and the first frost of autumn, which will kill your plants.

Consult a calendar of first and last frost dates for different regions. You can extend your season a little by digging up your plants, putting them in pots, and bringing them indoors, but most vegetables need more light than they’ll get on a windowsill. Moving plants indoors works better for herbs.

If you’re starting your garden in August in Minnesota, you won’t be able to harvest tomatoes before frost, but you might be able to harvest cold-hardy vegetables like kale, beets, and parsley before the snows begin.

Now that you have your plan, it’s time to check out your garden site.

Location, location, location

Herbs and tomatoes growing in pots on a porch
Credit: Getty Images / simonidadjordjevic

Tomatoes and herbs make great container garden choices.

Where are your plants going to live? If you’re in an apartment, your garden may consist of a few pots on your window sill or out on the balcony. If you have a yard, you may want to put plants in the ground, or you may want to use planters like half-barrels or raised beds to keep weeds and pests at bay.

Before you consider a new garden site, check with all members of your household—including the four-footed ones. Your dog or cat may be using that perfect spot in the sun for digging, bathroom breaks, or dust baths. If you’re going to take it over, you’re going to need a battle plan for keeping them out, like fencing.

Check sun exposure

Plants need sunlight to grow, but not all plants need the same amount of sunlight. Plant labels and catalogs will say a plant needs “full sun,” “part sun,” or “shade.” In most cases, “full sun” means six hours or more of sunlight each day, without any branches or roofs shading the plants. “Part sun” is four to six hours of sun, and “part shade” is two to four hours of sunlight. Anything less than two hours of sunlight per day is full shade.

Most vegetables need full sun to thrive, but some crops like leafy greens, lettuces, broccoli, beets, and Brussels sprouts will do fine with three to six hours of sun per day, as will blueberries and bramble fruit like blackberries and raspberries. And in full shade, you can always grow mushrooms. Plenty of flowers and shrubs grow well in the shade as well.

Consider watering needs

Older kids can be especially helpful in the garden.
Credit: Getty Images / FatCamera

Before you plant, understand how much you need to water, and where your closest supply is located.

Plants need water, but not too much. Take a look at the site where you’re planning to plant: is anything growing there? Is there moss on the ground? Are there puddles after it rains? If you’re looking at a balcony, are there signs of mold or mildew?

Moss, mold, and mildew are signs that your site is damp, either because it doesn’t get full sun, or there’s poor drainage, or both. Don’t plan on putting tomatoes or pumpkins there until you’ve corrected the problem, or take it easy and put in plants that grow well in wet soil in the East or the West or the Midwest.

Most garden vegetables need an inch of rain per week, especially when they’re flowering and setting fruit. Some herbs, such as rosemary and lavender, can survive with less water, as can many flowers and shrubs. To figure out how much rain you’re getting, you can either check monthly averages online, get a rain gauge or use the cat food can test. Before a rain, place empty cat food or tuna fish cans around your garden, then measure the depth of the rain with a ruler.

If your area isn’t getting an inch of rain a week consistently—and very few places in the U.S. do in the summer—you need to either put in plants adapted for drought, or make a plan for getting water to your plants. How close is the nearest water faucet to your garden? How large is your garden?

Depending on your needs, you may opt for a watering can for a few pots or containers, a hose for deep watering of a few spots, or a soaker hose for consistent, deep watering over a large area. If you opt for a hose, consider getting a hose timer to save you the annoyance of forgetting to turn the hose on or off. Sprinklers are fun to jump in, but they tend to dump a lot of water near the center, and a lot less near the edge of their range. Soaker hoses are easier to control.

Inspect the soil

Woman gardening
Credit: Getty Images / AzmanJaka

Break ground on your garden armed with as much information about your exact yard and climate.

If you’re growing your garden in pots, don’t just dig up dirt from your yard to fill them. Plain old dirt is heavy and will get compacted in pots, making it hard for oxygen and water to get to your plants’ roots. Opt for potting soil instead, a combination of dirt, minerals, and fibers that lighten the soil and promote drainage.

If you’re gardening in a yard, you owe it to your plants to check what’s in your soil before you begin. The best way to see what you have—and what you need—is to get a soil test from your local agricultural extension. Most state extension offices will test your soil for pH, nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, and minerals like calcium and magnesium (and lead) for $10 to $20.

If getting an agricultural extension office test isn’t practical, you can use a home soil test to see if your soil has major deficiencies. If there are, you can add fertilizer that matches your needs.

Soil structure has to do with how the particles in your soil are arranged. Have your soil particles been smashed together into an impenetrable mass by having a backhoe drive over them during construction for months? Or is your soil light and airy?

If your soil is compacted, your plants won’t develop the deep healthy roots they should, and their roots may not grow past their initial planting hole at all. You may want to opt for raised beds or containers instead of fighting with your soil.

Adding compost to your soil will help all types of soil. It will make sandy soil hold more water, and make the texture of clay soils more airy and open.

Buy your tools

Meg Muckenhoupt testing gardening gloves
Credit: Reviewed / Betsey Goldwasser

We put a dozen pairs of gardening gloves to the test during a rainy New England spring to see which performed the best overall.

We’ve outlined the 13 tools you’ll need as a first-time gardener, including the best gardening gloves we’ve ever tested. But if you only have $20 to spend after buying all of your plants, get a trowel.

Buy your plants

Woman shopping for plants
Credit: Getty Images / kali9

Take a close look at any plants before putting them in your yard or container garden.

You can start plants from seeds—radishes and marigolds practically grow themselves—but for most beginning gardeners, it’s easier to buy seedlings plants at the home or garden center. Check our plant shopping guide for tips on getting the healthiest plants for your money.

When you’ve gotten your plants home, get them into the ground as soon as possible. Make sure you dig a hole at least as big as your plant, and that you sink your new plant to the same level in the soil as it was in its container. The exception to this rule is tomatoes: Sink them as far up the stem as possible, because tomatoes will grow new roots along their buried stem.

After your plant is in the ground, water it deeply and thoroughly. Consider putting a mulch of compost or straw on the empty spaces around your plants to keep down weeds, help your soil retain moisture, and add organic matter to your soil.

Then, visit your garden! An old saying goes, “The best fertilizer is a gardener’s footsteps.” Watch your baby plants growing big, and enjoy the miracle of life—and check out our guide on keeping your plants healthy to keep your garden green all the way to harvest season.

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