Gardening For Beginners: Five Easy Steps
It’s time to plant a garden! Well, in my area anyway! (Click here for USDA’s interactive map of plant hardiness zones). This post has one purpose only — to convince you to get out there and go for it! To that end, I’ve compiled a step-by-step beginner guide to a successful vegetable garden. So, get out your hoe, don that floppy hat, and prepare to commune with Mother Nature!
Step 1 – Prepare…or not
Do NOT read any garden books! At least not now. Why? Because they will break your spirit with lengthy chapters on “How to properly balance the pH of your soil”, or “101 ways to prune your tomatoes”. Information like that is not necessary and can be overwhelming for beginners. The best gardening knowledge comes with instinct, experience, and a little old-fashioned mentoring. Before I am accused of being small-minded and provincial, let me just ask if you’ve ever closed a comprehensive gardening book with a sigh, poured yourself a glass of lemonade, and wondered if maybe you should take up something less complicated like…..I don’t know…..nuclear engineering. See? You’ve got to have some hope that you can eat a leaf of lettuce this season, not five years down the road when you’ve built up your beds, installed your irrigation system, and assembled your greenhouse. God gave us dirt and seeds and made it possible for the most inexperienced among us to coax a plant from the earth. Remember the marigold you planted for your mother in kindergarten? I’ll say no more!
Step 2 – Pick a spot
Find some dirt. Even just a pot full of it. It will need to be in a place that gets some sun. It is also a good idea to start small. I always pooh-poohed that idea, preferring the “go big or go home” approach. However, you are virtually guaranteed success if you keep it small at first. Too much garden, in the beginning, WILL lead to discouragement. You don’t want to hear that, but it’s as true now as it was in the early days when I ignored it.
When you’ve found a suitable spot, ask yourself, “What could I do to this dirt to make worms want to live in it? Then do it! Turn over the dirt with a shovel or a tiller and add in some old leaves or grass clippings for extra fluff. Smooth level with a rake and go to Step 3.
Step 3 – Make a plan
Make a plan. Sketch a rectangle (or triangle or circle), or whatever represents your garden spot. Rows have been a good garden choice for centuries. My new garden spot is a crescent, and I can still create rows in it. A good rule of thumb is to place rows 3 feet apart. While it’s true that some plants can be closer than that and others have to be further away, rows in that interval allow you to adjust accordingly, without having to recreate the garden plan every year. Just skip a row if you need more space. Then, when you sketch out your plan next year, you can rotate plants (a good idea) and still use the same “template”.
Don’t worry about making furrows. You can mark the rows as you plant them (more on that in a minute). The only other factor to consider is the tall plants (corn, pole beans, etc.). It is a good idea to put them on a north or east side so they don’t shade the other plants. But here’s the good news: if you can’t work it that way, everything will still grow!
Step 4 – Plant!
Plant your seeds! Seed packets usually have instructions, but there is another general rule that makes things simple. Just plant seeds at a depth of 3x their diameter. The only exception that comes to mind is potatoes (they are cut up and planted at least 6 inches deep). I am particularly fond of local bulk seed stores. Some of the advantages of buying seeds at a seed store include greater regional variety, less expense, and products that will enhance your gardening success. The greatest benefit, however, is the advice! It’s a little like chatting over the fence with your green-thumb neighbor. The folks who run those stores know everything! And their knowledge is pertinent to your area.
Use two stakes tied together with a string to make your rows straight. Simply pound the stakes in either end of the row, stretch the string out tight, and use it as a guide to make a shallow furrow. Place the seeds in the bottom, and cover with the appropriate amount of soil. If the seeds are tiny, just sprinkle them in the shallow furrow, grab a handful of dirt, and sprinkle it on top of the seeds (don’t fill in the furrow completely). In all cases, press firmly down on the seeds after covered. I even use my foot. Take just a moment at this point to smell the soil, feel the sun on your back and neck, and savor the silence and sound of birds. This is called “bliss”.
Step 5 – Weed and Water
After more than 20 years of gardening, the initial watering phase still trips me up. Once the seeds are planted, they REALLY need to be kept moist until they germinate. You’ve come this far….don’t mess up on the watering. So, keep an eye on things and water frequently. Probably at least once a day. Since the seeds are close to the surface, it really doesn’t need to be much. Soon you will begin to see the tiny plants pushing through the surface of the soil. It is ALWAYS amazing and thrilling to me! My favorite watering method is a drip system, but I’ve done everything from sprinkling to flooding to hand watering with a watering can. It doesn’t matter. Just get the water to the plants! When the plants have come up, you can scale back on the watering, every few days or so.
Finally, weed just a little EVERY DAY (or close to it). This will be such an easy thing to do, and will yield such satisfactory results. When you are a step ahead of the weeds, the very act of weeding is rewarding and, doggone it, fun! I stand by that statement! My favorite garden tool is the “hula hoe“. It simplifies weeding tremendously. I got one at Walmart, so I think they’re easy to find.
That’s it! After about a week you’ll often find yourself , bent low to the ground, straining to see the first green shoots. I’m not even going to try to explain the delight when you see them. The potential and possibilities of those miniscule little powerhouses is awe-inspiring, and the privilege of participating in the process is nothing short of thrilling! You’ve definitely got to give this a try!