Know These Garden Basics and You'll Have the Best Garden on the Block
Make a Plan
Determine Plant Types
Get to know the basic garden plants you may want to use. Match plants to the growing conditions in your garden, especially the amount of sun or shade available. Group plants with similar needs for light, soil, and water in the same part of your garden. Check out our Plan-a-Garden tool for a guide on basic garden design principles.
For variety, consider adding a mix of these general plant types:
Annuals: Flowering or foliage-only plants live colorfully for a single growing season.
Perennials: These mainstays fill beds with their vast range of shapes, colors, textures, and fragrances year after year.
Bulbs: Plant cold-hardy bulbs in the fall for spring blooms in most regions.
Climbers or Vines: Annual or perennial, these versatile plants cover vertical spaces such as arbors and trellises with foliage and flowers.
Shrubs: Flowering or evergreen shrubs work as accents or hedges and for seasonal interest.
Select Color Carefully
If you’re a beginning flower gardener, you may want to stick with a single accent color and variations on it for easy planning. Add depth to greenery by considering all leafy hues, from chartreuse to blue-green to gray.
Plant for Your Zone
Understanding your region’s climate and the length of your growing season will help you decide what to grow and when to plant and harvest. Plant cool-season crops (leafy greens, peas, and beets) early and late in the growing season for two harvests. Plant warm-season crops (tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants) for summer harvesting. Mix ornamental and edible plants to create beautiful and bountiful results in any size space.
Gather Gardening Tools
- Spade: Breaking ground and turning soil are among the most basic of gardening tasks. A sturdy spade or shovel is essential.
- Hand trowel: A must for planting transplants.
- Garden fork: Cultivating soil is key to preparing new planting areas and uprooting weeds. A wide-tine garden fork loosens soil, mixes in compost, and lifts and moves mulch.
- Hand pruners: Choose the best-quality cutting tools you can afford, and keep them clean and sharp.
- Loppers: Needed to snip stems and branches.
- Hoe: Useful in seeding and weeding.
Ensure Healthy Soil
The key to every plant’s health and any garden’s vitality is in the soil. Healthy soil holds enough water, air, and nutrients to sustain plant life and help it thrive. Building healthy soil is a gardener’s most important task. Most soils fall short of the ideal, which is: loose, rich in organic matter, and drainable.
Start Saving Compost
Compost is called “black gold” for good reason. No matter where you garden or what you grow, adding compost improves soil.
To start a compost pile, layer organic waste from the yard and kitchen in a pile—that’s it. Sunshine, rain, and nature do the rest. Don’t add meat, bones, fat, animal waste, or diseased plants. Consider these sources for compost:
Yard Waste: This includes plant stalks, leaves, twigs, and pine needles.
Kitchen Scraps: Mix in fruit and veggie waste, coffee grounds, and eggshells.
Soil: Starting with a bag of earth introduces good bugs.
Grass Clippings: Gather them as you mow, or rake them up after mowing.
Begin a Compost Pile
Pile yard and kitchen waste ideally in a bin, which can be bought or built. It provides a tidy place to manage compost.
A two-bin system allows you to make compost in one bin and keep a supply of finished compost in the other. By alternating the heap and harvest cycles of each pile, you’ll have a continual source of compost.
When worked into the soil, compost slowly gives plants nutrients and makes more air and water available to them.
Prepare Your Garden
The initial preparation of a garden is the biggest workout. But routinely loosening soil becomes easier each year before planting as you continue to add organic amendments. Work soil only when it is damp or dry, not wet. Avoid walking on beds and compacting soil.
Go Plant Shopping
One of the decisions beginning gardeners need to make is whether to plant seeds or transplants. Seeds present more plant options and it’s easier to grow some crops—lettuce, radishes, beans, squash—from seeds. However, growing from seeds requires planning further ahead.
Where the growing season is short, start seeds indoors in advance. Opt for nursery-grown seedlings/transplants if you don’t want to take the time to start seeds indoors and if you plan to grow only a few plants.
When shopping for transplants, select lush plants with lots of buds. Pass on sickly plants with withered, mushy, or disease-spotted leaves. Check the soil and under leaves for signs of insects.
Read Plant Tags
Check the information on a plant’s tag. It tells you what a plant needs to thrive and what size it will ultimately become. Look for each plant’s hardiness rating, which indicates its ability to withstand cold temperatures. Match the plant’s rating to a USDA Zone map that shows how cold your area gets.
Peek at the Roots
Here’s a tip for when you’re out plant-shopping: Peek at the roots. Select plants with smooth, pale roots that are not tangled or growing out the bottom of the pot. Plants in cell packs or small pots take a season or two to unleash their flower power. Larger plants give more impact sooner.
Transplant and Water
It’s best to get your transplants in the ground soon after you get home from the garden center. After planting, water well. An inch of rain or supplemental water each week sustains most plants in garden beds. Deep, thorough watering infrequently is better than a light sprinkling every few days.
Add Some Mulch
As a time-saver for you and a lifesaver for plants, spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch around your plants, including in beds and containers. Mulch conserves soil moisture, blocks weeds, insulates soil and plant roots from extreme temperatures, prevents erosion, and attracts earthworms (nature’s soil builders).
Defend Against Pests and Diseases
Keeping plants and soil healthy is the first line of defense against insect pests and diseases. Visit your garden daily to spot problems early. Pests and diseases cause symptoms such as holey leaves or discoloring. Problems may also be related to a plant’s age, size, or location, the weather, recent care, soil conditions, and more.
If you see insects, try a homemade pest repellent: Blend six cloves garlic, mashed; one hot pepper, chopped; and 1 teaspoon liquid Castile soap in 1 gallon of water. Strain the liquid after two days and pour it into a spray bottle.
Deter Deer and Rabbits
Discouraging deer, rabbits, mice, and other hungry critters requires gardeners to be proactive. A combination of barrier and repellent often produces the best results. Try tall fencing. Stake garden mesh to make an 8-foot-tall enclosure for a vegetable garden and to prevent deer from browsing. Or cut a length of hardware cloth (stiff, gridded wire) and form a simple wrap around young plants to keep rabbits and other creatures from munching them before you can.