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A couple of years ago I wrote a post about 4 Beginner Gardening Mistakes to Avoid, so this year I wanted to write another gardening post about some of the things to do right if you want a successful beginner garden.
These are all things that I wish I had started doing the first year that I planted a garden because they would have made my life so much easier and I would have had a much better harvest than I did!
These four tips for a better beginner garden are all really simple things, but they can dramatically improve your chances of having a successful garden your first year. Or, if you’re like me and you’ve been gardening for several years with just so-so results, they can improve your already existing garden, too.
(Note: Some of these tips could apply to any type of gardening, but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll be specifically referring to vegetable gardening.)
4 Tips for a Better Beginner Garden
1) Get Your Soil Tested
The importance of getting your soil tested is something I’ve heard about for years, but it was something I had never actually done until just now. I really wish I had done it earlier, though! For some reason, it had always seemed to me like it would be a big hassle to try to get it tested or that it would be really expensive, so I had always just ignored the advice in gardening books and articles. But now that I’ve actually done it, it wasn’t anywhere near as big of a hassle as I had imagined.
The reason why getting your soil tested is so helpful is because it allows you to know exactly what might be wrong with your soil and how to fix it. Otherwise, you end up just taking a stab in the dark trying different things to try to improve the soil that might not work or might even make the problem worse.
One of the biggest factors when it comes to healthy soil is the pH of the soil because if the soil is too acidic or too alkaline, then your plants will have a much harder time growing and getting nutrients from the soil. If you know that your soil is too acidic, for example, then you can add lime to the soil to help balance the pH. Soil tests will tell you what the pH of your soil is, and some tests will also give you information about some of the important minerals in the soil such as phosporous, potassium, and nitrogen.
You might be able to get your soil tested at you local hardware store, but if not then you can usually send soil samples off in the mail. I was able to mail mine to the University of Massachusetts to their soil testing lab, and it was much cheaper than I had imagined it would be, (only about $15) and the sample was easily to collect, too. (Update 2022: This was a few years ago now, so the price might have gone up, and prices could be different where you live, too, just so you are aware.)
A quick Google search should help you to find a place where you can get your soil tested in the place where you live. The cost and instructions for collecting a sample will probably vary some depending on where you get your soil tested, but here’s a link to the instructions I followed just so you can get an idea of what the process was like.
2) Grow Plants Native to Your Area
If you want to have a good harvest for your first year gardening, it’s helpful to grow plants that are native to the area where you live. These native plants will have a better chance of growing well because they’re adapted to growing in the same soil and climate conditions.
Where I live in New England, for example, beans and squash are vegetables that tend to grow pretty well because those plants have been grown here for centuries by the Native Americans even before the Pilgrims came to America. Other plants that are native to warmer or tropical climates, though, might not grow as well or accommodations might be necessary to help them grow such as starting seeds indoors several weeks before the growing season starts.
You don’t always have to grow only the plant varieties that are native to the area where you live, but it will be much easier to grow those plants and plants that are not native may be more difficult to grow. You can also sometimes find plants that might not necessarily be native to your area but that have been adapted over the years to do better in the climate where you live. Some varieties of vegetables have shorter amounts of time that they need between the amount of time that you plant a seed until the plants produce a harvest, so you might be able to get away with growing a plant that prefers warmer temperatures if you choose a variety that matures quickly. (If you live in a cooler climate and have a short growing season, for example, you might do better choosing a tomato variety that will mature in 75 days than one that will take 90 days to mature to give you a better chance of being able to harvest plenty of tomatoes before the cool weather starts. )
It’s also a good idea to pay attention to the hardiness zone for the plants that you’re considering putting in your garden to make sure that they can withstand the climate where you live. If you are growing perennials, you want to make sure that your winters won’t be too cold for them to survive. And, if you are growing annuals, then you want to make sure that you will have enough time for them to grow and produce a harvest before your first frost date in the fall. (Your seed packets should tell you how many days until the plants will reach maturity, so you can use that as a guideline.)
3) Use Mulch for Weed Prevention
This is another thing that I wish I had started doing years ago. Since I want my garden to be organic and I don’t want to use any chemicals on my plants, that means that I don’t want to spray my garden with anything to keep the weeds away.
And as much as I always tell myself at the beginning of the season that I’m going to stay on top of pulling the weeds this year, we all know how that turns out. I usually end up doing a pretty good job pulling weeds in May, and in June I’ll give a halfhearted attempt at keeping them under control, but by the time the heat of July and August comes around, I usually opt for relaxing in the air conditioning and just let the weeds have their run of my garden.
While there are several different natural ways to try to get rid of weeds, not all of them are appropriate for a vegetable garden where you’ll be eating the produce and not all of them are very convenient either.
I think one of the easiest weed solutions for gardeners, whether you’re a beginner or whether you’ve been gardening for years, is to use mulch around your seedlings. The mulch will help to keep the weeds from growing so there will be much less to pull by hand, and it also helps to keep moisture in the soil so your seedlings won’t dry out as quickly on hot summer days.
I’ve been able to get some organic mulch (a seedless salt marsh hay) from a local farm, but you could also use other things for mulch, too, like grass clippings (if you know your grass hasn’t been sprayed with anything), shredded leaves, etc. One thing that I’ve learned more recently, though, is that you do have to be careful about where you get your mulch from because some gardeners have had problems with using straw for mulch that had herbicides in it that ended up actually killing their plants. You can read this post by The Prairie Homestead for more information on what can happen if you use contaminated straw mulch for your plants.
So, the safest bet would be to get mulch from a source that you know isn’t going to be contaminated with any herbicides, such as straw from a local farm you know doesn’t use herbicides, grass clippings and/or leaves from your own yard or from a friend’s yard, etc.
4) Know What Plants Are Best to Start from Seeds Rather than from Seedlings
If you want the best chance of having a successful garden, especially if it’s your first year gardening, it’s a good idea to know which plants should be sown directly into the ground as seeds and which ones are best grown from seedlings.
Seeds are often the cheapest way to plant a garden, but not all plants are easy to grow from seeds. When I was first starting my garden, I got so excited about the heirloom seeds I was ordering online that I bought six different varieties of heirloom tomato seeds. The problem was that I hadn’t realized that it’s best to start tomato seeds in pots indoors several weeks before you’re ready to start planting your garden (which is usually mid-May for where I live in New England).
When I planted the seeds directly into the ground, the plants were pretty pathetic, partly because I wasn’t as consistent about watering them as I probably would have been if I had been walking by them in the house everyday, and partly because the New England growing season is fairly short and the plants didn’t have as much chance to fully grow. When it comes to tomatoes and other warmth-loving crops like peppers, it’s a lot easier to buy seedlings to plant than it is to start from seeds, especially if it’s your first year gardening or if you live in a cooler climate with shorter growing seasons. You could also use a grow light to start some of your seeds indoors, too, as another option if you don’t want to have to buy seedlings.
Other plants, though, actually do better when they’re started from seeds because they don’t always transplant very well. Beans, for example, usually do much better when they’re started from seeds, and they tend to be pretty easy to grow, too.
Here’s a quick overview of some of the most common vegetables that tend to do better when planted from seeds or that are typically easy to grow from seeds that you plant directly into the ground:
- Leafy Greens
Hopefully these tips can help you to have a better garden this season! And if you have any other great gardening tips to share, let us know in the comments!
Other Gardening Posts:
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The information in this post is not to be taken as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.