The rewards of gardening are great — fresh air, exercise, beauty and relaxation, to name a few. But designing and planting your very first garden can feel like an overwhelming task. Luckily, gardens are surprisingly forgiving creations, and the best way to learn is by simply diving in. Here are 10 tips to help get a new garden off on the right foot.
1. Get to know your site. Take your time to get familiar with your property before beginning a new garden. Here are a few things you may like to try while you’re getting to know your landscape:
- Take a leisurely stroll around your property with a notebook and make a rough sketch of the existing planting areas.
- Add notes to your garden “map” about which areas get the most sun and which are shaded.
- A simple soil test from your local garden center will tell you whether your soil is well-balanced in nutrients and pH.
- If you’re thinking of growing edibles (vegetables, fruit or herbs), it’s a good idea to have your soil tested for lead. Most at-home kits aren’t reliable indicators of lead in the soil, but you can send your soil samples to the Lead Safe America Foundation for a free lead test. If you find that your soil has an unsafe level of lead, you can still grow edibles in raised beds or pots with new soil.
- List which existing plants and features (such as fences or paths) you’d like to keep and which need to be replaced or removed.
- Spend time just hanging out in your garden. Let yourself daydream and see if any creative ideas present themselves.
2. Determine your style and goals. Gather a few images that inspire you and look for a theme. Are you drawn to lush flower-filled gardens or more crisply defined modern outdoor spaces? It helps to pair a few words with the pictures you’ve chosen, so try to come up with something that evokes the sort of garden you want, even if it’s not an “official” style term.
For instance, maybe you’ll decide your style is Industrial Zen or Playful Modern or Simplified Cottage. While you’re figuring this out, it helps to keep a photo of the exterior of your home at hand — whatever style you choose should be able to work well with the architectural style of your home as well as your personal preferences.
Once you’ve named your style, take a moment to jot down the activities and features you imagine enjoying in your landscape. If you have children, you may need a lot of open space for running around. Or perhaps you dream of relaxing in the middle of a big wildflower meadow — whatever it is, write it down.
3. Start small. Dreaming is wonderful, but when it comes time to begin digging in the earth, it’s equally important to stay grounded in reality. The bigger the garden, the more time and energy it will require to maintain. Examine what you want (say, a vegetable garden) and then scale it down (for example, plant one raised bed rather than six). You can always expand next year!
This holds true for purchasing plants too: It’s easy to get seduced by the bountiful plants at the nursery and come home with far too many. Remember, planting takes time, so buy only what you can comfortably get into the ground within the next day or two.
4. Make a plan. Even if you’re planting only a single raised vegetable bed or cluster of potted flowers on the patio, having a plan is key. If you’re not sure which plants to buy, take a “research” trip to a local nursery (without buying anything!) and snap photos of plants you’d like to consider adding to your garden. Look at the tags and note down when they bloom, as well as sun and water requirements.
Pulling this information together into a sketched-out plan (no artistic skills required) takes extra time initially but will make for a more successful garden in the end. Choose plants that bloom in different seasons for year-round color, and be sure to pick plants with similar sun and water requirements to plant together.
5. Pick the right tools for the job (without going overboard). Having the proper tools makes garden chores more pleasant — but don’t think you need to buy out the store on day one. Just a few tools and supplies should keep your garden running smoothly. The basics include:
- Gardening gloves. Choose a pair that feels comfortable and protects against thorns.
- Shovel. This is essential for preparing sizable garden beds and for digging holes for trees, shrubs and large plants. A shovel with a pointed tip is more versatile than a flat spade.
- Trowel and weeding tool (or a Japanese gardener’s knife). Use these tools to dig holes for planting and pull weeds out at the root.
- Long garden hose and spray nozzle. Select a hose long enough to comfortably reach each of the main areas of your garden.
- Hand pruner. Sharp clippers can trim branches and cut back woody plants like rosemary.
- Metal rake. Use this to spread mulch and prepare beds for planting.
- Leaf rake. Use a flexible plastic or bamboo rake to gather leaves.
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6. Mix up perennials and annuals. A common newbie mistake is to grab too many plants from the “annuals” section at the nursery, making for a garden that dies back within a single year. For longevity and color, go for a mix of perennials (plants that come back year after year) and annuals (plants that bloom and die within a single season).
7. Repeat, repeat, repeat. One great way to give your garden a professionally designed look (with little effort) is to repeat the same plants and hardscaping materials in different places throughout the landscape. Avoid picking one plant of each type, as this tends to appear jumbled — even in a wild English cottage-style garden, plants look best when repeated or planted in clusters. The same goes for other materials: Choose just a few hardscaping materials for paths, pots, planters and outdoor furniture, and repeat, repeat, repeat.
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8. Combine seeds and starts for an affordable mix. Starting an entire garden from seed can save money, but it can also be incredibly frustrating. Purchasing only started plants is not only expensive, but it also may limit your choice of what to grow. The best option is usually a combination of the two: Pick up some started seedlings at your local nursery and start some of your own from seed. Good plants to start from seed yourself include lettuce, radishes, beans, sunflowers, marigolds, cosmos and zinnias.
9. Grow what you like. This sounds utterly simple, but it’s something even the most experienced gardeners sometimes seem to forget. Why grow squash if it’s not really your favorite? Over the years, we’ve stopped bothering to grow beans and zucchini, instead devoting extra garden space to family favorites like snap peas, radishes, Tuscan kale and mini pumpkins for Halloween.
10. Further your garden education. Seeking out local workshops is a wonderful way to learn more about gardening and connect with other gardeners in your community. Check plant nurseries, community gardens and botanical gardens in your area for free or low-cost workshops on a wide range of topics like container gardening, using native plants, attracting pollinators, creating a waterwise garden and composting.
Gardening is a lifelong learning experience, and even the most seasoned gardeners are learning all the time — so don’t beat yourself up if it seems that there’s too much to know. Just begin somewhere and take it one season at a time. The wonderful thing about gardening is that there’s usually room for do-overs.