It’s springtime and the neighborhood nurseries are a-buzz with gardeners planning their spring vegetable gardens. If you’re venturing into this whole vegetable gardening thing for the first time this year, don’t worry — you’re not alone.
As a beginner to vegetable gardening, I was extremely averse to overly detailed advice. Too much information was paralyzing, and I just wanted to dive in and get started without reading a dissertation from the Farmers’ Almanac (not that the FA isn’t amazing). One day, after weeks of deliberation, I decided to just go for it. I went to the hardware store, had them cut some 2x4s and made my first raised bed. Then I went to the nursery and picked out the first crop of seedling veggies.
Lucky for me, the folks at my local nursery were very helpful in telling me which veggies went best together in the same bed and which organic fertilizer to buy. I threw things into that bed and also put a few things straight into the ground, mostly winging it, but occasionally using internet sources and my friends at the local nursery for guidance.
For the first-time vegetable gardener, I’ve compiled a list of beginner gardening tips that I’ve picked up since venturing down this road for the first time myself. It’s most certainly not an exhaustive list, and I do have to admit that I live in one of the most garden-friendly areas you can find, but stick to this relatively universal list and you should be up and running in no time.
10 Gardening Tips for Beginners
1. Know your climate and timing
Knowing what grows best and when it’s best to plant based on your climate is key to success for a first-time gardener. There are some pretty helpful resources on the web for this, but when I was looking around as a beginner, I was confused by all the zoning. Here’s a great guide for beginner gardening for zones and timing advice
2. Start easy
If you’re like me, you don’t want to spend time, energy, or money on a hobby without at least a 50% chance that your efforts will be fruitful. For that reason, I recommend starting your beginner garden with plants that are hard to kill.
Great plants to start with due to durability and natural pest resistance are:
- kale (of any variety)
- bush beans (green beans that grow in a bush instead of up a pole)
- arugula (opt for a slow-bolt variety so it won’t go to seed before you have a chance to enjoy it)
- salad greens (like romaine or the spring mixes you can get in a 6-pack)
- zucchini (these need a lot of space — more than you’d think— but it’s so fun to watch them grow. One plant can yield a LOT of squash.)
3. Start a spring/summer garden first
It’s more fun to dive into a new outdoor activity when it’s beautiful outside and you have more daylight to work with — and more time to get dirty. It can be hard to motivate to get outside after work on shorter days towards the end of the summer and into the fall and winter. Better to get your garden going when you have plenty of time to get it right.
4. Start with seedlings
The first year at least, I’d say start with seedlings — you get to harvest sooner after planting, and for a beginner, it’s nice to get at least semi-immediate gratification from your efforts. Planting from seed requires starting indoors and much more forethought. You can also just start with them outside and skip the (very intimidating, at least for me) indoor sprouting from seed process.
5. Choose your location based on sunlight
Herbs need less sunlight than most spring and summer veggies, which need full sun. If you can find places for both to grow, you will do just fine. Be mindful that some veggies grow much taller than others. Last year, I made the mistake of planting bush beans behind kale. The kale grew to 4 feet tall totally shading the beans out. Plant your taller plants in the back of the box and your shorter plants in the front if the front gets more sunlight (mine backs up to a fence, so it makes sense to go shortest in front for me, for example).
6. Save money by using ground soil
If you’re sure that nothing suspect has happened in the soil on your property, like if you’re digging up grass or weeds that haven’t been treated, mix the ground soil into the organic soil and compost you buy. It will save you money by reducing the expenditure on bags of potting soil to get you started. Dirt can get surprisingly expensive!
Here’s a great brand of compost/soil conditioner that can be mixed directly with the ground soil with really great results.
Some people would say to test the soil, but as a beginner gardener that was a deterrent to me getting started. Doing that is up to you if you plan to use ground soil. It might be a good idea to test if you’re gardening on rented property or property that’s new to you. You can get a testing kit at most nurseries for a fair price.
7. Dive in, even if you don’t have a yard
There are plenty of things that grow well in pots, especially herbs and salad greens. The one suggestion I have is not to start with cilantro if you’re faint of heart — it bolts pretty easily and can be discouraging. But if you do decide to go for it, plant a lot, and if you can’t use it all before it bolts, let the seeds dry on the stems and you’ll have yourself some fresh coriander.
Mint, rosemary, oregano, parsley, and sage are great starter herbs — parsley grows like a weed in my yard. If you live in a warmer place that doesn’t cool off too much at night, basil is also a good starter herb, just make sure you pay attention and pluck off the ends if they start to flower — that will prevent bolting.
As for pot-able veggies, arugula, cherry tomatoes, and maybe even spring mix would work in big pots. The Container Gardening Alliance has some awesome ways to grow just about anything in some sort of container.
8. Vary your plants by harvest time
Choose some plants that can be harvested soon and some that can be harvested a little later. This way, you can get to eating your crop quickly with a healthy sense of accomplishment while you wait for the later bloomers to mature. Here’s a great list of short-harvest veggies for the impatient gardener
like me. These are great as first harvest veggies, and others like summer squash, kale, and peppers might take a bit longer to grow into edible veggies.
9. Make friends with your local nursery
Do not underestimate the power of having a live person to answer your questions. I can’t express enough how nice it is to walk into a nursery and have a knowledgeable staff person there who’s interested in the success of my garden — and yours! Ask questions, clarify the answers, and then repeat what you think you heard back to them so you know it’s right. And go to a local spot, not a big box store — you’ll be happier with the final product in addition to the superior knowledge and service.
10. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes — have fun!
Unless you’re being paid to produce food, my guess is that you’re starting a garden as a hobby. Hobbies are supposed to be pleasurable activities we do with our spare time, so make sure you keep it light and fun. There are only so many things that you can control, and sometimes stuff in the garden just doesn’t work out. Just keep it all in perspective. Ask for help when you need it and do the best you can. In the end, you’ll have a beautiful accomplishment that you can share with your family and friends.