As seasons pass and you practice basic gardening skills, you'll get a sense for what works and what doesn't, and you'll continue to build a strong foundation of garden knowledge. Start gardening with these basics.
Evaluate 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. A soil test gives you a valuable analysis of your soil so you know what you need to make it better.
Improve soil. Building healthy soil is a gardener's most important task. Most soils fall short of the ideal: loose, rich in organic matter, and drainable. Adding organic materials—such as compost, rotted leaves, and peat moss—improves any soil.
Garden soils and potting mixes differ and should not be used interchangeably. Any soil can be improved, so customize to create a plant-perfect blend. Here's the lowdown on common types of soils and potting mixes.
1. Clay: Heavy, sticky clay holds water and compacts easily.
2. Sand: Gritty sand drains quickly and doesn't hold nutrients.
3. Silt: Crumbly silt holds nutrients and moisture, but it packs down.
4. Cacti and Succulent Mix: Equal parts sand, perlite, and potting soil provide the drainage these plants need.
5. Premium Mix: Jazz up potting soil by adding perlite, composted manure, vermiculite, and peat moss.
6. All-Purpose Mix: A blend of peat moss, vermiculite, and composted bark works well for most plants.
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.
Rough out a planting scheme on paper, and use it to figure the size and quantity of plants you will need. 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.
When shopping, opt for lush, vigorous plants with lots of buds rather than those showing off flowers. An annual completes its life in one growing season; a perennial comes back year after year.
Forgo sickly plants with withered, mushy, or disease-spotted leaves. Check the soil and under leaves for signs of insects.
Find the plant's tag. It tells you what a plant needs to thrive and what size it will ultimately become. If there is no tag, ask the garden center staff to tell you more about the plant.
Each plant is rated for its ability to withstand cold temperatures, called a hardiness rating. Match the plant's rating to a USDA Zone map that shows how cold your area gets.
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 boast plenty of flower power within a season or two. Larger plants give more impact sooner.
Stick with a single color palette for easy planning. Green is a given, but consider leafy hues from chartreuse to blue-green to gray. With green as a backdrop, select an accent color and variations of it.
Get to know the types of plants. Then learn how specific plants typically behave and what they can add to your garden. For instance, trees and shrubs form the foundation of a garden. Choose plants for disease and pest resistance, extreme-weather tolerance, and other desirable traits. Familiarize yourself with these general plant types:
Annuals: Flowering or foliage-only plants live colorfully for a single growing season.
Perennials: These mainstays fill beds with shape, 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 space with foliage and flowers.
Shrubs: Flowering or evergreen shrubs work as accents or hedges and for seasonal interest.
Trees: With large-scale form and beauty, trees add long-lived shade and shelter.
Turfgrass: Good lawns include a blend of grass types that suit the climate and light conditions.
Every plant needs water to survive and grow. Plants' needs for water vary depending on the weather, the soil quality, and the plant's type, age, and size. An inch of rain or supplemental water each week sustains most plants in garden beds. Water after planting. Deep, thorough watering infrequently is better than a light sprinkling every few days. Potted plants may need watering daily, especially during hot weather. Water early in the day to minimize evaporation. Check soil for moisture by poking a finger into it—if soil feels dry, it's time to water.
In dry regions and areas prone to drought, water conservation is crucial.
Many communities restrict water use for lawns and gardens. Saving water pays—you'll see a difference in your water bill. Water-saving strategies include using a rain barrel, mulching, and watering the garden using drip irrigation and soaker hoses.
Choose unthirsty plants that will thrive with minimal water, and use them to make areas of your garden less water-dependent. Group container gardens to reduce evaporation from potted plantings.
Adding loads of organic matter—such as chopped leaves, rotted manure, and compost—to your garden helps the soil soak up water and stay moist longer. Use a garden fork to mix amendments into the soil 3-12 inches deep to help the material do its work. This process also fluffs and loosens soil, allowing air and water to reach plants' roots.
Learn simple ways to get better soil -- and healthier plants -- this year.
Plants need nutrients to grow and flourish. Most soils provide many essential nutrients. Fertilizers replenish the minerals that aren't always available adequately.
This rich organic stuff is called "black gold" with good reason. No matter where you garden or what you grow, adding compost improves soil.
Pile it up. The easiest way to make compost is to pile yard and kitchen waste in a designated place, with or without a bin. A bin, whether bought or built from pallets as shown, encloses a compost pile and provides a tidy place to manage it.
Let nature work. Expose a compost pile to the elements where sun, rain, and other weather will prompt the process.
Start again. 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 harvest cycle with each pile, you'll have a continual source of compost.
Sustain plants. When worked into the soil, compost slowly gives plants nutrients and makes more air and water available to them.
To start a compost pile, layer organic waste from the yard and kitchen in a pile—that's all! Sunshine, rain, and nature do the rest. Don't add meat, bones, fat, animal waste, or diseased plants. If you prefer, pile only leaves in autumn and make leaf mold instead. Consider these sources for compost.
Yard Waste: This includes plant stalks, leaves, 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.
Leaves and Twigs: Shredded or mowed-over materials break down faster.
As a time-saver for you and a lifesaver for plants, spread a layer of shredded bark, chopped leaves, compost, or another material over the soil between plants—nature's way of recycling!
A 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch is one of the best multitasking materials for gardens, including 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).
Don't get overwhelmed at the garden center -- here's how to leave with the best mulch for your yard.
Having the right tools will make gardening easier and more enjoyable. Consider a garden caddy.
Durable digger. Breaking ground and turning soil are among the most basic of gardening tasks. A sturdy spade or shovel and hand trowel are essential.
Efficient 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.
Clean cutters. Choose the best-quality cutting tools you can afford, and keep them clean and sharp. Have hand pruners and loppers ready to snip stems and branches.
Keeping plants and soil healthy is the first line of defense against insect pests and diseases. Visit your garden daily to catch problems early. Reach for the least-toxic solution first.
Identify problems. Pests and diseases cause vast symptoms, from holey leaves to discoloring. Problems may also be related to a plant's age, size, location, weather, recent care, soil conditions, and more.
Prevent problems. Leave room for air between plants. Keep the garden tidy, removing spent or damaged plants. Pull weeds while they're young, then spread mulch.
Homemade spray. To make a pest repellent, blend six cloves of garlic, mashed; one hot pepper, chopped; and 1 teaspoon of liquid Castile soap in 1 gallon of water. Strain the liquid after two days, and pour it into a spray bottle.
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 one of these barrier methods.
Tall fencing. Stake garden mesh to make an 8-foot-tall enclosure for a vegetable garden and to prevent deer from browsing.
Wire wrap. Cut a length of hardware cloth (stiff, gridded wire) and form a simple wrap to keep rabbits and other creatures from munching on young plants.
Tree wrap. Wrap a sturdy plastic shield around the base of a young tree, from below soil level to above the potential snow line to deter rodents and rabbits.
Whether you plan a utilitarian plot of veggies or a few pots on the patio, meeting plants' basic needs helps parlay their growth into bountiful harvests. Shrubs, trees, and perennials, such as apples, blueberries, and strawberries, need plenty of room. Dwarf and compact plant varieties suit container gardens. Most crops need full sun, but late-afternoon shade prevents soil from drying too quickly. A convenient water source is vital.
Productive and pretty. Plant to taste the best of the seasons. Understanding your region's climate and the length of your growing season helps 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. Plant warm-season crops (tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants) for summer harvests. Mix edible and ornamental plants to create beautiful and bountiful results in any size space.
Seeds or plants? Seeds present more options than you'll find available as seedlings. It's easier to grow some crops—lettuce, radishes, beans, squash—from seeds. Where the growing season is short, start seeds indoors in advance. Opt for nursery-grown seedlings if you plan to grow only a few plants.
Grow up. Using vertical space creates opportunities for plants that vine and climb. You might think your garden lacks room for sprawling melons or beans, but give the plants sturdy supports and they'll reach for the sky. Tomatoes and other tall-growing plants benefit when supported upright: They get more sun and air circulation and suffer less from disease, injury, and pests.
One of the benefits of a raised bed is that it makes growing plants easier, a plus for beginning gardeners. They are also kinder to your back because you don't have to bend down as far. Learn how to build a raised bed with this step-by-step how-to.
Learn what materials will work best for building your own raised garden bed.