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5 Gardening Basics for Beginners

Growing veggies is actually pretty simple. Last year, my 4-year-old daughter and I spent some time learning about what plants need to grow. Our conclusion? Soil, water, sun, care, and time.

Whether you’re thinking of putting a few containers on your patio, building a raised 4×4 garden box, or tearing up half of your yard, here’s a few tips to get you going.

1. Prepare your soil

If this is your first year gardening, you have a few options available to you. You can purchase and add top soil, compost, peat moss, and other amendments straight into your new containers or garden beds. This is an easy solution, and will leave you with light and workable soil. The main downside of this approach is the cost.

The other (cheaper) option is to dig straight into the ground. This is how I’ve done my own gardening. To go this route, you will want to:

  • Till your soil. Either by hand for a smaller garden, or rent a roto-tiller from your local hardware store for a larger location.
  • Analyze your soil. Most garden centers sell affordable kits to help you determine which nutrients your soil has in abundance, and which ones are lacking. This will help you decide how to fertilize.
  • Build it up. Each year, I do 1 or 2 things to improve my soil. It might be adding peat moss to lighten the heavy, clay-ish soil that I have to work with. Compost or composted manure are always good bets for increasing soil nutrients, as well as creating a more workable soil that will hold moisture well. Some high quality, organic/ecological topsoil is another option.

2. Watering matters

If there is one thing that I have learned in regards to watering my garden, it’s this: less is more.

Over-watering leads to plants with shallow, immature root systems, incapable of reaching down deeply to find water of their own. It also creates more work for you, as your plants will come to depend on regular watering.

When plants are required to extend long roots to obtain their water, rather than getting it the easy way (aka the hose), they’ll be stronger plants overall, and you’ll have less work to do keeping up with their H2O needs.

So, when should you water and how much?

  1. When you have newly-planted seeds. Germination requires steady moisture, so light but consistent watering is key during this time. Keep the soil moist, but not soaking.
  2. Once or (maybe) twice a week. This is my regular watering schedule, though sometimes I water even less. When doing a regular watering, take the time to give each plant a really good, long drink. Ideally, you should water long enough for 6 inches of soil to be saturated.
  3. During dry and hot spells. If your plants are really wilting in the heat of some particularly hot afternoon sun, pamper them a little more than usual. Same with periods of drought.

Be sure to keep your watering only to mornings and evenings. Watering that is done in the afternoon will quickly evaporate before the plants have a chance to get what they need. Try to water before 10am and after 4 or 5pm, or even later.

3. Let in the sunshine

The ideal garden location will offer your plants a good 6-8 hours of direct sunlight. When selecting a spot for your new garden, this is one of the most important factors to keep in mind. However, some plants are more shade-tolerant and others are more sun-loving.

Partial Sun (4-6 hours a day): Lettuces, Swiss Chard, Kale, Spinach, Collards, Root Vegetables (carrots, radishes, turnips, beets, etc.), Peas, Parsley, Cauliflower

Full Sun (6+ hours a day): Beans, Cabbage, Broccoli, Cucumbers, Squash (winter and summer), Corn, Eggplant, Melons (all kinds), Tomatoes, Peppers

Consider the sunlight available to your garden as you choose not only which crops you will grow, but how much of them you will be able to grow and where they’ll be planted. Even gardeners without a full sun location can grow a very respectable and varied amount of food!

4. Care for your garden

Yes, this is the part where I tell you that you need to weed your garden. You knew it was coming, right? The happy thing is that it doesn’t need to be an all-consuming or back-breaking task.

The keys to keeping the weeding work minimal?

  • Plant thickly. With crops like beans, radishes, peas, carrots and more, you can scatter your seed very thickly. When the plants come up, they’ll create a natural canopy to help shade out any weeds that are feeling ambitious.
  • Mulch! By adding a layer of organic material like dead grass or leaves, hay, or even newspaper and cardboard, you cut down on the weeds ability to get much traction.
  • Weed little, but often. Keeping up with weeds when they’re small and easy to pull is key. Just a few minutes each day, or a 15-minute block several times a week will help to keep the invaders at bay.

We can’t forget fertilizing in a discussion of caring for a garden. Best bets are homemade compost, or composted manure from a trusted source (like a local, ecological farmer). Here’s how to make your own compost bin.

If those options aren’t available to you, there are some excellent brands of organic and ecological fertilizers out there, completely sans nasty chemicals.

When to fertilize? Some key times are building up the soil before planting, and during important stages of development, like once your plants are a few inches tall before they really take off, or when they first start to set out flowers or fruits.

5. It all takes time

Proper timing makes all the difference when it comes to planting your garden.

Learn how long each plant needs to grow to maturity, what time of year it should be planted (early spring or summer, or even fall), and when to begin your seedlings. Knowing these details is the difference between a successful and unsuccessful garden. Here’s a zone map to know your location’s hardiness.

Make it easier by creating a garden binder or notebook, where you record these kinds of details. You can sketch it out by hand, or use free gardening software.

To learn the needs of each crop you’re thinking of growing, here’s a few resources I find helpful:

Now go grow something! If you’ve been putting off gardening because you’re unsure of how to go about it, or worried about the time commitment, just jump in and give it a go. What’s the worst that can happen? It doesn’t have to cost much.

My final advice for beginners?

  • Start small.
  • Grow what you love.
  • Keep it simple and have fun.
  • Don’t let it stress you out.
  • Enjoy the fruits of your labors!

p.s. β€” 20 ways to savor springtime.

Reading Time:

4 minutes





  1. Kari

    I love this series on gardening because I am a beginning garden and have found inspiration and answers in these posts. I would love one on composting please!!
    .-= Kari’s last blog: Rainy day kind of love. =-.

  2. Laura

    Yay! Lots of great tips here. I would just like to add a few things I’ve learned over the years…
    – Double-digging your soil (instead of renting a roto-tiller) is really effective and great exercise! πŸ™‚ Any decent gardening book should have a good explanation of double-digging, it has helped my gardens tremendously.
    – Drip-irrigation (basically, a hose with lots of holes in it laid directly on the garden bed) is a great way to get water down to the roots without losing a lot through evaporation.
    – If you’re watering with a regular hose or sprinkler, morning watering is preferable to evening watering, because if the water doesn’t evaporate off the plants themselves quickly enough, it can promote rot.

    I’m doing a weekly series on my blog (on Sundays), tracking the progress of our kitchen garden from seed to table. We’re planting seeds to start indoors every week, so check it out to find out more about starting seeds in recycled containers and such. πŸ™‚
    .-= Laura’s last blog: Custom Birdwatching Book =-.

  3. Aimee

    Great overview! I’m starting again from scratch since we moved over the winter, and this will be a good guide to refer too.
    Definitely starting small is going to be key for me.
    .-= Aimee’s last blog: Three Easy Recipes for a Snow Day =-.

  4. Kara

    Great post! I’m enjoying all of the gardening posts on S.O. this month so much πŸ™‚

    Love especially the final tips: grow what you love, keep it simple, and don’t let it stress you out. Great advice!
    .-= Kara’s last blog: Weekend Showcase: Link Love =-.

  5. kelly

    i have one question: what advice can you give on ‘reclaiming’ a wildly overgrown, weedy vegetable patch that has raspberries, asparagus and rhubarb (all of which i would love to keep) in it? would i be best to dig up the plants and then replant them? i would love to have some raised 4×4 boxes instead of the mess that was left here so i just wonder about replanting these healthy plants and going from there?

    • CarrieK

      I bet you could cut them back a lot and they will all re-grow well. I wouldn’t transplant the asparagus, but the rhubarb and raspberries could handle re-planting. Depending on where you live, Square Foot Gardening will help you with spacing and trellising. Good luck!

      • kelly

        thanks. i’ll try it.
        .-= kelly’s last blog: tuesday trigger =-.

  6. Katie

    Stephanie, thanks so much for these tips! I can’t wait to start gardening this year.

  7. CarrieK

    Great advice! I would like to add that finding pastured ruminant manure will help your garden alot. Avoid the bagged stuff you find at grocery or big box stores, it come from cafo animals. I have found that just turning over sod and adding a good, local garden mix is enough; no double digging or fancy beds needed. And if you live in the NW, don’t crowd your veggies, give them room and keep them dry. Find a book by Steve Solomon and devour it! Happy gardening everyone πŸ™‚

  8. Kait Palmer

    Thanks for the less-sun tolerant suggestions! We’re moving to the bottom floor of a house and half the backyard is under a patio so it doesn’t get all the sun…I didn’t want it to go to waste!
    .-= Kait Palmer’s last blog: The Last Day of the Challenge – Day 54 =-.

  9. Jackie@Lilolu

    Thank you so much for this info. I plan on starting a garden this spring. After reading this post, I realized I have enough knowledge to feel confident my garden will be a success.

  10. Nicole

    Thanks, Stephanie, this post was awesome! Just what I needed. I printed it out to keep it handy as a reference as I start planning my li’l garden. πŸ™‚

  11. Sandra Lee

    I’m so grateful for this simple gardening series. I’ve inherited some raised beds and a compost pile. This is my first attempt at gardening and I’ve felt a little intimidated. This article and the one on composting helps so much. I feel encouraged and ready to go. Thanks.
    .-= Sandra Lee’s last blog: Research links Gilbert’s Syndrome & Environmental Illness =-.

  12. Jen

    Thanks! I’ve been writing about building my raised beds and am very thankful you posted some vegetables that are ok with a little more shade!
    .-= Jen’s last blog: Triathlon Musings : Arm Sleeves =-.

  13. Stephanie Suesan Smith

    The county Extension Office has soil collection bags and forms to collect a soil sample, and the address for the soil lab in each region to mail it to. In Texas, the bags and forms are free and the basic test is only $10.
    .-= Stephanie Suesan Smith’s last blog: Using gardens to teach children =-.

  14. fredb

    My wife and I are working on growing our first garden, this post was very helpful to us beginners. Thank You!

  15. Jay Chua

    I enjoyed ready the tips, and agreed with all of them.
    My wife & I are into re-designing our backyard and we get some basic ideas by reading this post..just in time πŸ™‚

  16. Ria

    My dad had a garden in our backyard when I was a kid & it was a lot of fun. It also got me eating veggies. Now that I have kids of my own, I’m really thinking of putting up our own garden. These tips will really come in handy.

  17. Karen

    Some great tips. You mentioned mulching – Mulch would be my top tip. I never really used to, but in these last few years it has made such a difference to my garden (and the amount of weeding I need to do)!

  18. Ashley

    I just started working on my garden. and i love your post, it really answered allot of my questions.

  19. Stan Horst

    It is definitely a good idea to have your soil tested. I’ve been gardening in a little 20 x 4 foot raised bed for years, with little to show for my labors. Last year, I sent a sample to VA Tech for testing. I adjusted the pH of my soil based on the results, and added lots of organic material, especially some mushroom compost that I purchased inexpensively at my local garden center. This year, we had more tomatoes and squash than we knew what to do with…far more than previous years!

  20. beginner gardening

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  21. Charlot

    Hi Stephanie. What a great site you have, and lots of excellent tips. I grow my organic garden as a way to enhance my raw vegan lifestyle and stay as toxin free as possible. Keep up the great work.

    Charlot πŸ™‚

  22. Alicia

    I love my garden and it gets better every year. Thanks for some new tips to keep it wonderful. πŸ™‚

  23. Elvera

    Really enjoyed reading your article, I especially liked your tips about watering. I’m going to try and plant some Asian vegetables from seeds that I bought whilst visiting family in Malaysia. We live in south east England, so any advice would be appreciated.

  24. Bill Brikiatis

    Here’s my tip for beginning gardeners: Mother Earth News has a Google search for seeds that lets you find that special variety you had heard about or even lets you research the prices for a specificy variety from a number of seed companies. See my blog post below.

  25. Ginger

    Hi all! I’ve become a country girl suddenly! Even tho I had an idea of what country living was all about, there was sooooo much I didn’t know! Anyway, my gardening experience started by following the natural logic of Mother Nature. My garden only got tilled ~ no compost, no soil test kits, no special watering or fertilizing or weed fabric or control of anything!!! So trial and error were my friends. After a few years, I did find that Mother Nature rules! You don’t have to go nuts trying to figure out everything and making it all “just right”. Don’t be afraid, just go for it!

  26. Open Pollinated Seeds

    Thank you Bill for that nice link, I will use it to find great new selections. Cheers!

  27. sam

    must be something wrong with this cuz i’m getting thousands of backlinks

  28. urea triazone

    I really love gardening. Thank you so much for giving us the steps in preparing the land.

  29. urea triazone

    In our place, most farmers apply organic fertilizer out from the decayed rice hay. In every after harvest, those hays will be deposited altogether and wait until it is decayed. When it turned to soil, it will be broadcasted into the land ready for the next plantation.

  30. Robert

    Definitely grow what you love… there’s nothing worse than a huge plot jam packed full of silverbeet that just loves your soil – and then the realisation that you’ve never really liked silverbeet all that much πŸ™‚

  31. some newbie

    good article thanks. πŸ™‚

  32. Ben

    Preparing the soil is something I struggle with. I’ve heard someone say that if you have $50 to spend, spend $10 on the plant and $40 on the soil. I also think I have a tough time knowing which plants are good to plant next to each other. I think I sometimes plant plants that need lots of water next to plants that don’t. I’m definitely going to look into mulching as I hate when my garden grows more weeds than vegetables. That’s a good tip. I’m going to try and get the garden right next year.

  33. Michelle DeMarco

    Oh my gosh, having grown up in the “Garden State” of NJ (no its not just “what exit” it actually is quiet lush and green!), my parents always had a garden of some sort in the summer. Fresh Zucchini, tomatoes, lettuce abounded and dinner was as easy as walking outside to pick something to wash and serve. Now, living in Phoenix, AZ, it is a tough thing to navigate and would love to learn how to garden in the desert. This is inspiring me to learn! Thanks so much!

  34. Sally Thompson

    I really enjoy planting at my yard.. You inspired me.. Thanks for sharing!

  35. Maria Daniels

    One thing I would like to add is use caution in selecting your seed. We have an organic farm and for the most part try to homestead as much as possible, using GOOD seed is the main concern of growing your own. I would have to write a novel to explain it all but most of the seed available have been sterilized and altered (google Monsanto…terrible company trying to monopolize the seed industry..feel free to email me for more info). When we first started farming it was nearly IMPOSIBLE to get seed that was #1 Heirloom #2 Open pollinated #3 Organic. We finally found some places that offer and now we save our own seed. The scary fact of all of this is this genetically modified food does not have the same nutrients, and have been linked to ALL types of health issues including cancers, autism and MORE. I DEFINATELY recommend growing your own food because most of what is available even in farmers markets are GM , just do your research.

  36. Jamie

    I’m always afraid of watering the plants to much. Should I be concerned? What’s a good way to not over do it?

  37. Louise

    Can I use the seeds inside of a store bought bell pepper to plant to make pepper plants?

  38. bedroom colors

    Awesome piece of work! A blog like yours should be earning much money from ad sense.

  39. Nick Jones

    What a wonderful post and absolutely fascinating! There is no such thing as “I can’t Grow a Plant” just haven’t learned how to care for it properly yet! A really great article, thanks for sharing great tips.

  40. boris

    need advice for gardening in west africa
    thank you

  41. C

    This really is the perfect list of tips for new gardeners. I will be sure to pass it on. Thanks!

  42. Marielaina Perrone DDS

    Recently started a garden with my kids. These tips are very helpful! Thank you.

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