Trying to figure out how to start a garden for the first time? These 10 tips will help get your first garden off to a good start!
It’s hard to remember our lives BEFORE we became organic/permaculture gardening aficionados. It’s now been over 10 years since we had to figure out how to start a garden of our own, and we’ve learned an enormous amount since then.
Before we started gardening, we perceived gardening as both labor- and time-intensive work. As we’ve come to find out through studying and practicing organic and permaculture gardening methods, gardening doesn’t have to be any of those things if you have the proper knowledge
In fact, for us, gardening is an incredibly fun, socially-oriented science lesson that can require surprisingly little money and work. You just have to know enough to let nature do most of the hard work for you.
While we could easily write an entire book on how to start a garden, this article is intended to focus on the top-10 tips we think will be most important to you if you’re starting a garden for the first time.
How to start a garden: top 10 tips
While each garden, climate zone, and person are unique, these 10 beginning gardener tips are pretty well universal. In addition to helping you figure out how to start a garden organically, we hope these tips put you on track to become a lifelong organic gardener!
Tip 1. Start Now.
You could spend the next 5-10 years of your life reading from experts about how to start a garden. While research is great, at some point you have to apply what you learn, e.g. actually start your garden.
When is the best time to start a garden? Right now. Literally today (or this weekend at the latest).
Ahem: if you live in Maine and it’s winter when you’re reading this, we’ll give you a little bit of a break… But we still expect you to get your gardening plans and materials together today!
We didn’t become permaculture or organic gardening “experts” simply because we’ve read piles of books and watched thousands of hours worth of instructional videos. We’ve become really good at organic gardening by actually DOING organic gardening.
The fear of making a mistake is what keeps people from the doing part of the equation.
Guess what? We’ve made countless mistakes. We’ve unintentionally killed hundreds of plants. Mistakes are the main way we’ve learned what not to do AND how to improve.
So start your garden now to accelerate your learning curve, and look forward to what each mistake can teach you.
Tip 2. Start Small.
A lot of people make the mistake of taking on too much too fast, getting overwhelmed, then quitting. The most effective gardeners we know (and the approach we take), is akin to “agile development” in the computer software world.
Translated to gardening, this means start fast and small, and make changes constantly/iteratively as you learn and interact with your garden. Then add a little bit more size to your garden once you’re comfortable with the other parts you have in the works.
This might mean starting with a single 4×10 garden bed. Or it might mean starting with a couple of pots of veggies.
Regardless, the most important thing is to start getting your hands dirty as quickly as possible and moving forward. Momentum and experience are the best seeds to sow for future gardening success.
Tip 3. Be a Social Gardener.
For us, gardening is always better when we do it as a couple and when we share what we’re learning with other people. While gardening can provide great opportunities for quiet isolated reflection, it can also be one of the most social activities you can engage in.
Get your family (including the kids!) and friends involved — especially if they have some experience under their belts. You’ll also find that many hands do indeed make light work.
Another interesting note: your brain rewards SHARING. By teaching others people what you’re learning as you go, you’re actually teaching yourself too!
Studies show that people retain more information from teaching, than from any other learning style, aka the Protege Effect.
Tip 4. Pay attention to plants’ three primary needs: Sun, Soil, Water.
Our most basic needs as human being can be reduced to three things: food/water, shelter, and clothing.
Likewise, plants three needs can be boiled down to sun, soil, and water. Granted, not all plants need these three factors in equal amounts.
The more you garden, the more intimately familiar you’ll become with every inch of your yard. What spots get the most/least sun throughout the year? Where are the wettest and driest spots? What parts of your yard need the most soil amending?
The more you know your yard, the better you’ll get at selecting the right plant combinations for these areas. There is an edible garden plant for any possible condition your yard offers. You can even have a fruit, herb, and veggie SHADE garden or a gourmet mushroom garden!
Think of your yard as a big, fun biological jigsaw puzzle. Don’t worry, you’ll get as many chances as you want to come up with the right plants for the right spots.
Tip 5. Garden in all four seasons (in most climate zones).
Almost every state in the contiguous United States has distinct seasons wherein you can grow and enjoy different varieties of fresh, delicious foods. And contrary to what you might think, gardening is NOT just a warm-weather activity.
Some of our favorite, most nutritious foods are plants that we grow in our fall and winter garden. These foods can only be grown in cool/cold weather seasons. Most people in the US live in regions where they can eat wonderful fresh food from their garden 365 days per year.
If you live in a region with relatively mild winters, consider gardening year round. More experience, more food, more fun!
Tip 6. Learn to grow plants from seed.
Your local garden center might have good garden plants, but you can only grow what they choose to make available.
Meanwhile, there are thousands of edible varieties of amazing and interesting food plants — and you can grow any of them IF you learn how to grow plants from seed, rather than just buying seedlings that someone else grew.
Just like other aspects of gardening, growing plants from seed may seem a daunting task at first. However, after a few seasons of learning, trial & error, and improving, seed starting becomes as easy as driving a car.
For a deep dive into seed starting, check out the free seed starting tutorials (including videos) on GrowJourney.
Tip 7. Use mulches and don’t till your soil.
Wait, what? You don’t have to obliterate your soil with a tiller every season? Nope.
We haven’t tilled our soil in 10 years, but our soil’s health continues to improve each year. This isn’t sorcery, it’s soil science. Let’s get a little geeky for a minute…
First, soil is NOT a nudist. It prefers to be covered, both in nature and in your garden.
This means you should cover your soil with a combination of living plants (edible plants work just fine) and several inches of mulch. Wood chips, chopped leaves, straw, or other biodegradable organic matter.
By keeping your soil covered with living plants and mulches, you’ll be able to:
a. Reduce irrigation.
You won’t have to water nearly as much (or maybe even at all) if you get somewhat regular rain. Mulch helps rainwater absorb into your soil, rather than running off and/or eroding your soil.
A mulch layer on your soil surface also slows down the rate of evaporation, helping maintain ideal soil moisture levels.
b. Reduce fertilizer.
Soil is a living organism made of trillions of other living organisms, e.g. the “soil food web.” Mulches and living plant roots feed the soil food web and improve your soil’s biological soil fertility.
Translation: by “feeding” your soil what it naturally eats, you won’t have to fertilize the plants growing in your soil as much or even at all.
Want to further supercharge your soil health/fertility? Apply a 2-3″ layer of compost or worm castings over the surface of your beds then put mulch over the top of it during seasonal transitions.
To learn more about this process in action and see step-by-step photos, read this article.
c. Reduce weeds.
If you scrape the skin off of your arm, a scab soon forms. Guess what? Weeds are nature’s scabs.
Weeds (many of which happen to be edible) are fast-growing annual plants that quickly cover a disrupted soil surface to try to bring the soil back to health (see: early stage ecological succession). Don’t want weeds? Don’t leave your soil exposed.
Tip 8. Avoid synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
You can vastly reduce, if not completely eliminate, the need for fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides in your garden over time. If you do use these substances, use OMRI-listed products (Organic Materials Review Institute) or your own homemade concoctions using people and wildlife-safe ingredients.
If you want to find out WHY synthetic nitrogen fertilizers harm your soil health and make your plants more attractive to pest insects, read this article.
The best way to grow a healthy garden and feed your plants is to:
a. Focus on growing healthy soil.
Use compost, worm castings, and mulches. Only use fertilizers if you have to and choose organic fertilizers when you do.
Healthy plants are much better able to fend off pest insects and diseases. Beneficial microbes in healthy soil also help keep pathogenic/disease-causing microbes from building up in your soil.
b. Grow a diversity of plants.
Instead of growing the same variety of plants in your garden, mix it up!
- Add in flowering plants (which can also be edible) to attract more pollinators. Flowering plants also attract predatory insects that eat pest insects. Yes, your garden is an ecosystem, so make it a balanced one!
- Instead of planting all tomato plants in the same bed year after year, mix different plants into the same bed and use “crop rotations.”
By growing a diversity of plant species, you’ll also keep diseases and pests that affect any one plant species from over-proliferating in your garden.
Tip 9. Learn, Grow, Repeat.
Learning about gardening/nature can become an addiction for the serious home gardener. There are certainly worse addictions to have!
There is an ever-increasing bounty of online and offline resources that we use to continuously learn more about gardening in addition to the best teachers of all: experience, observation, trial-and-error.
The more you grow your knowledge, the more (and easier) it will be to grow your garden. So make it a point to read educational literature from trusted sources during your spare time. We think permaculture provides a thoughtful, holistic approach to food production, so we’d highly suggest you learn from that discipline as well.
Tip 10. Refer to Tip #1
Remember, the most important tip is #1 above, so go start your garden—even if it’s just a few seeds in a window pot—right now!
We hope this article helps you figure out how to start a garden — and how to continue growing your organic gardening knowledge for years to come.
Other articles to help get you growing in the right direction:
- How to start and maintain a no-dig garden
- 7 DIY organic lawn care tips you can start using today
- The new American yard: monoculture grass farm or organic food farm?
- Expert interview: 10 tips to help you reduce lawn pollution
- Unsoil your dirty mind: the story of soil
- Building healthy soil explained in a single photo
- Top 10 tips: How to start your own organic garden today
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