Follow These 10 Steps to Start Your First Garden Off Right

Starting a garden is one of the most rewarding things you can do. Plant fragrant florals or start a vegetable garden (or both!), and everyone can benefit from getting their hands a little dirty. But if you’re new to gardening, it can be difficult to know where to start. Still, it doesn’t have to be complicated; when you break your project down into manageable steps, you can ease into gardening at your own pace. And soon you’ll see the rewards of your efforts with beautiful views, delicious flavors, and colorful blooms. These steps will help you get started from scratch, but if you have something particular in mind, you could also use a garden plan to guide your design.

Stone walkway leading into garden
RINNE ALLEN

1. Consider What to Plant

Do you want to plant a vegetable garden? An herb garden? A flower garden? If you choose vegetables and herbs for their contributions to your dinner table, plant ones your family will eat or be willing to try. If you want flowers for their flair, color, and fragrance, decide whether you want annuals that bloom most of the summer but need to be replanted each spring or perennials that have a shorter bloom time but return year after year. Each one, or even a combination, makes a stunning garden but will have different maintenance requirements. One bit of advice: Start small until you know what you’re getting into.

2. Pick the Correct Spot

Almost all vegetables and most flowers need 6-8 hours of full sun each day. So you need to observe your yard throughout the day to figure out which spots receive full sun versus partial or full shade. Don’t worry if your lot is mostly shady: You won’t be able to grow tomatoes in shade, but many other plants (such as hostas and outdoor ferns) love it. Don’t skip this step, because in order to thrive, your plants need to have their light requirements met. Check plant tags or ask the staff at your local garden center to help you understand out how much sun a plant needs.

Three additional tips: Pick a relatively flat spot for your garden because it’s more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to deal with a sloping garden. Check for windbreaks (such as your house or your neighbor’s house) that will keep plants from being harmed by strong winds. And put the garden where you can’t ignore its pleas for attention: Outside the back door, near the mailbox, or by the window you gaze through while you’re cooking. Bonus if that place is close enough to a water spigot that you won’t have to drag a hose across the entire yard.

raking soil to prepare new garden

Get rid of the sod covering the area you plan to plant. If you want quick results (if it’s already spring and you want veggies this summer), cut it out. Slice under the sod with a spade, cut the sod into sections to make it easier to remove, then put it on your compost pile to decompose.It’s easier to smother the grass with newspaper, but it takes longer. (In other words, you should start in the fall before spring planting.) Cover your future garden with five sheets of newspaper; double that amount if your lawn is Bermuda grass or St. Augustine grass. Spread a 3-inch layer of compost (or combination of potting soil and topsoil) on the newspaper and wait. It’ll take about four months for the compost and paper to decompose. But by spring, you’ll have a bed ready to plant with no grass or weeds and plenty of rich soil.The more fertile the soil, the better your vegetables will grow. The same holds true for other plants. Residential soil always needs a boost, especially in new construction where the topsoil may have been stripped away. Your soil could be excessively wet, poor and infertile, or too acidic or alkaline. The solution is usually simple: Add organic matter. Add a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost, decayed leaves, dry grass clippings, or old manure to the soil when you dig or till a new bed. If you decide not to dig or are working with an established bed, leave the organic matter on the surface where it will eventually rot into humus (organic material). Earthworms will do most of the work of mixing humus in with the subsoil.To learn more about your soil, have a soil test done through your county cooperative extension office. They’ll lead you through the procedure: How much soil to send from which parts of the garden and the best time to obtain samples. Expect a two-week wait for the findings, which will tell you what your soil lacks and how to amend it.

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