On tips for beginning gardeners

Potato flower, which looks a lot like a tomato flower:  it’s all in the family after all

Over the years I have served as garden coach to many a newbie gardener.  Strikingly, most pitfalls to a new gardener’s success have much less to do with what you would suspect (bad weather/bugs/blight) than what you might not: namely, a beginning gardener’s blinding ambition.

It’s true.  Somehow, so many gardeners (new and old) hear the officials’ calls of Onyourmarks, getset, GO! and they’re off, planting way too many seeds and plants in one way too big garden on one way too dirty, sweaty, tiresome weekend in May…and have shot their wad, garden-wise, finding themselves overwhelmed by June’s bugs, July’s weeds and August’s tomatoes.  With the exception of places with constricted growing seasons (less than 50 frost-free days), caring for a garden shouldn’t be a race at all.  And everyone:  there is no point in the spring rush.

Sacrilege alert:  What I am trying to say here is that spring is not what it is cracked up to be, garden-wise.  Beautiful spring days are often accompanied by chilly, damp soil and cold, windy nights.  If you want true success, you might want to look at the back end of the season:  the days of autumn are often crisp but the soil is warm and the nights aren’t nearly as bracing.  And the light levels in April and September are the same.  So take some pressure off yourself this spring while you extend your mind and your growing season.  You have a lot of learning ahead of you so it’s best you study up now, in January!

Here are my Top Ten Tips for Beginning Gardeners:

  1. Read up! Try to get your mind around plant families:  in more cases than not, the growing conditions and requirements across a family of plants is the same.  (Cheat sheet:  Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed.  Even if you’re not growing for seed, it’s good to know this information.  Regional guides appended at each section.)
  2. Curb your enthusiasm! Start with a garden half the size you were thinking, or even smaller.  This means starting with fewer seeds and plants, too.
  3. Read the *$^@ growing instructions! Do not, under any circumstance, empty an entire seed packet into a row.  Most reputable seed suppliers (Baker Creek is the lone awful exception) handily stick this growing information right on the envelope:  sowing distance, depth, germination percentage, days to emergence, days to harvest.  This is fabulous knowledge, people, right at your fingertips.  Bring your glasses and read it.
  4. Bring a yardstick with you into the garden! If a plant requires an 18″ square space to do its thing then give it an 18″ square slice of soil to do it.  Look to its vertical needs too.
  5. Don’t plant all the seedlings in the grower’s pack! This is a subcategory of #2.  Do you really need all 9 Scotch bonnet pepper plants?  Trade the rest with a friend but do not plant them all, no matter how tempting.
  6. SUCCESSION PLANT! Radishes (21 days) can be followed by lettuce (25 days: do a mesclun mix and use them small) and then by longer-lived bush beans (wax, 53 days) and then by rapini (42 days) and then some cold-loving lettuce again.  (LOOKEE:  you succession plant, you don’t need a big garden!)
  7. Grow what you will eat! This should be obvious, but if you don’t care for zucchini, don’t grow them.
  8. Be a tireless observer! Visit your garden, often, in as many different times of the day as you can.  This is not a chore:  gardening should be enjoyable to you.  And if you visit it often, you’ll be on top of its needs (water, weeding, bugs, etc.).  Say hello to the garden before you dash off for work in the morning.  Bring a glass of wine and a friend in the evening after dinner with no plans to do any gardening work at all, and just enjoy sharing what you see.
  9. Mulch! You don’t want to weed?  Then lay down mulch, thickly, around all but your seed rows.  I use grass clippings and I keep them 2-3″ everywhere.
  10. Let’s say it’s mid-July, you’ve followed steps 1-9, and you’re not getting “enough” out of your garden.  Make new garden beds, expanding to your original idea! Grow bush beans (dried or fresh) in your new beds or start some fennel, kohlrabi, kale and broccoli seeds for fall eating.  And give some consideration on this hot July day to thinking about covering one or two beds to grow through the late fall and winter.

The vegetable garden season, like its yields, should be savored slowly over the whole of the season.  Consider it a long multi-course dinner with some fascinating people you’re just getting to know.   And starting small, with appetizer-sized garden beds, is a great way to avoid being discouraged.  You won’t be overwhelmed, and your desire to garden will only grow.  And by understanding how seeds and plants grow, you’ll be an expert by the time fall garden planting comes around…!  Fresh peas and favas in September, radishes and spinach in October!

22 responses to “On tips for beginning gardeners

  1. You are the only person besides myself that I have ever heard express discontent with Baker Creek’s lack of information and what a relief it is. I still buy from them, because frankly their catalog is scrumptious and irresistible to me when it shows up in December. But would it really hurt them to include basic information? Really?! Ugh!

    And great advice. I agree with all of the above. Except maybe number 4. I’m an over-crowder and not afraid to admit it. I plant close so I don’t have to weed or mulch. The only time weeds pop up are very early before the plants get a foothold, after that the soil is mostly shaded so few, if any, make an appearance. Works for me. But then there is the ruthless pruning and disease watch you have to go on if you choose to go that route; trade offs, trade offs.

    • Diana, hah! I am a ruthless crowder too. So yeah I am definitely advocating the “do as I say not what I do” route here! 🙂 and i hate baker creek which I suppose is also apostacy…no info, mixed-up seeds, wrong order, dirty seeds, no answer to my questions…let’s say they’ve got a long way to go to ever get another thin dime from me. Granted this was 4 years ago, I hope they improve.

  2. Impeccable wisdom, clearly born of perceptive experience, El. I second and third the tip on mulching, and my lazy man’s tip is to mulch heavily with mostly finished compost, which blocks most of the weeds and enriches the soil for next season.

    More snow piling up here today, reminding me not to start seeds too soon! But the soil will be well hydrated when spring does arrive.


  3. Awesome! I like your tip to grow a garden half the size you were originally intending. I don’t think most first-time gardeners realize how quickly things can spiral out of control. And in terms of garden spacing…I am very guilty of not following the recommended spacing guidelines. I’ve been gardening for over a decade and I still always try to cram as much in as possible. I’m probably doing the plants a disservice, but this habit is so hard to break!

  4. Great tips. A lot of things I had to learn the hard way. I LOVE the half-as-big idea. I don’t know how many times I have read (on forums and whatnot) about people who plowed up a half acre their first year, and then were overrun by weeds and ended the season feeling like they didn’t accomplish anything. MUCH better to start small and be successful and want to do more.

    Ahh, full of ideas I may take this up on my site, if that’s not rude. We have a foot of snow coming our way so I see some free time in my future!

    And any chance at first-year hoop house tips? 🙂

  5. And I was going to add more beds this month…….


  6. Yeh, I love this, El. I am sooooo gardensick this week. +4° here and pelleted driving snow. I’ve been gardening for longer than you have, decades longer, and I’ll pin that list to my garden shed door. Posted it on Facebook, too ::: hope you don’t mind!

    I’ll bet you’re getting lake effect today??!!

  7. Thanks for the great post! As a newbie gardener, I have big goals and aspirations but I know that I’ve got such a learning curve it would be easy to become overwhelmed. Since we don’t have much (read: any) decent gardening space at our rental home in the Big City, a few little plants here and there will have to keep me content until we can purchase more land and work on the garden in Wildwood. In the mean time, I’ll enjoy reading about everyone’s gardening adventures and try not to turn too “green” myself!

    City Roots, Country Life

  8. Not much to add to this stellar mini- guide, El! I agree with all its wisdom – not that I DO it all: like many others the overplanting and overcrowding and starting too many seeds is … well… deeply rooted in my little psyche. As a matter of fact: 104 cells of peppers started today (12 cultivars). Fingers getting restless, that’s what it is.

  9. curious how you’re doing with the storm there. It hit here pretty hard around 5:00 PM and is HOWLING (10:00) and shaking the windows still. No idea how much snow has come in – given that it’s coming in horizontally, no way to tell what’s drift and what’s new.

    • Hiya Hayden. Didn’t really notice anything frightful, maybe a little wind; was kind of surprised this a.m. with how much snow actually did fall. But we’re used to snow! So yeah, shoveling through thigh-high drifts to get to the goats and the poultry wasn’t, uh, fun! Hope you’re keeping warm and toasty. Lots of tea and crumpets is the prescription!

  10. That’s a great list…especially the suggestion to visit the garden often, but I don’t think I’ll ever be wise enough not to over plant.
    I just finished making a kazillion of your seed envelopes for the shop. I skipped them last year and had two little disappointed girls who came looking for them. Hopefully, they’ll come back this year.

  11. When newbie gardeners ask me for advice, my first is always start small. People just don’t know how much work it is going to be until they do it for the first year. I’m a bit scared of my garden this year. It is more than twice the size of my old garden. My townhouse mates expect to help out, but we will see. I might resort to more mulch than usual. It will be interesting.

  12. Really good advice.
    I always plant at least 5 types of tomatoes, but this year, I’m using rotating container beds. I’ve given up on improving my “lawn” of weeds, crabgrass, etc… So I’m cutting off the bottoms of 18+ gal containers and planting them directly in the garden using the lasagna technique. I planted 4 of them adjacent to the house last year when I injured my knee in a fall and the 15″ height was perfect! I figure if I plant them in pairs I will be able to use them as cold frames too! My knee is still in a brace, so intensive double digging is out of the question. The goal is to eventually have islands of grass lawn surrounded by raised beds of healthy perennial plants and edible gardens. That said, blueberry bushes are rather pretty in a raised bed with next to shade loving annuals. And my tomatoes do love the borage and marigolds! There’s a lot less weeding in the raised beds, and they extend the season. Still working on not planting all the seeds I germinate or all the plants cells that I purchased. Thank goodness for fellow gardening loving neighbors and friends!

  13. We have just moved to an old farm in Nova Scotia. This year will be my first real attempt at having a garden. We’ve been thinking of using the square foot gardening method and will start with just a couple of 4×8 boxes this year. I’m going to save this page so I can remind myself not to go overboard! I have a lot to learn. I’ll have to read up on succession planting. Having moved from Alberta, where you’re lucky to get one short growing season, it wasn’t an option.

  14. Diana, yeah, you’ve admitted to the #1 rule that we all readily break: the overcrowding rule. Indeed, I am sometimes guilty of this myself. Mainly, I lobby against it for new gardeners because we all know (remember, that is) what tenderhearts they are and how hard it is to do hard pruning and/or thinning. SO sad to pull tiny plants.

    Yes, Brett, compost makes fine mulch. I try to define “mulch” as “anything you have a lot of,” whether that’s leaves or newspaper or grass or pine needles or compost…anything that deteriorates and keeps the soil moist is game. Even on my clay soil, I know that sounds contraindicated. Keeps that soil from cracking.

    Hi Daedre! Great to meet a fellow Michigan gardener. And yes, it’s confession time, as I like to crowd things, at least initially, when seeding! But for sure, with the new folks, I am just aiming to give them the simplest path to follow…don’t want to turn anyone off, as the world would be so much better if everyone gardened.

    Sara, go ahead and cross-post it, I don’t care. The more the merrier! And yeah, I will be doing a post in the future about life with a greenhouse. It IS a bit different than regular gardening, it has its challenges, but is usually a lot easier.

    Cohutt, well, me too if you really want to know! And yeah I just think starting small keeps the itch going. Then in a year or two no more grass in the back 40.

    Sharon, truth be told, I am a bit garden-itchy too. Might tackle the greenhouse beds of those still-growing weeds, but then again, the kitchen still needs fixing. Sigh. Glad you posted to Facebook: how modern!

    Emma, any chance of renting a garden nearby? Practice, as they say, makes perfect! But I know what you mean. I was itchy to get out of the city and garden too, and it just took me a while but here I am. Glad to meet you!

    Sylvie, hah! Maybe there’s a syndrome in here we just don’t have professional recognition for: too-many-plants-itis or something. But I do know what you mean. I save way too many seeds and I always wonder what the heck I am doing, saving 400 tomato seeds from one variety. Granted, I don’t plant them all but I still plant too many!

    Hayden, wasn’t it fun? Not. I was kind of surprised how well the wind moved the existing snowbanks around. My husband can’t.

    Pamela, glad you’re doing the envelopes again…I am sure that with beautiful paper they’ll be flying off your shelves. And yeah, wisdom. Hard fight.

    Daphne, well, you’re at least hep to your totals…so you can see what you need in January and *force* yourself to plant what you’ll need. In other words, it’s an opportunity, these new garden beds! so congrats!

    JoAnna, girl, MY knee isn’t in a brace and I have *never* double-dug. Bad information, that. Lasagna techniques are frankly the easiest way to get good soil. (Although, well, mine was horrible when we moved here so I did have to till in a bunch of stuff, but now, well, now I can brag.) I like the idea of recycling though! I am sure you’ve done it artfully, too, especially if you’re mixing annual flowers in…something I should do more of, it used to make me so happy. Gotta remember what works, after all. Think spring!

    Hi, Sharon, congratulations!!! The square foot method is a FABULOUS way to begin gardening, frankly. The main reason? It teaches a new gardener restraint!! That, and it visually helps a gardener to learn how big things truly grow. Raised beds are fabulous. As is covering them…consider it, esp. if you’re concerned about the light levels and temperatures at your new place. And: we all have to begin somewhere, right?

  15. About those seed envelopes — where did I find them before?

  16. Thanks, El!! I searched under seeds… maybe I should have searched under artist!

  17. I think this is just the wakeup call I needed. I’m so sick of winter and so looking forward to Spring that I may be jumping the gun a bit on my garden. And considering my garden is going to be all in pots and containers on my apartment’s deck, I should definitely scale back.
    Thanks for the advice!

  18. These are some pretty handy tips. I really would never have thought of that second tip without this post . I’ll definitely use some of these , they seem as though they’ll really really be fulpful some time . Thanks for sharing!

  19. Pingback: Beginning Gardeners « Gardora.net

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