How to Start a Garden ~ The Ultimate Guide
I have gardened for many, many years and have many, many books ranging from communing with nature spirits to controlling pests with their natural enemies.
What are the most important lessons I have learned over the years? How would I advise someone to begin for guaranteed success?
People garden with different objectives in mind.
Some are seeking a serene oasis, a time they can spend alone in nature, even if it is just a tiny plot on their urban lot. Many do not know of the serenity gardening brings until they have one.
Some simply want an ornamental garden, pretty landscaping to admire.
Some people just want tomatoes and basil for spaghetti sauce.
A widowed mother with three young children my primary goal was to grow fresh organic food we could eat during the growing season, enough to store for the winter, herbs to heal our illnesses and injuries and flowers to fill the house.
I didn’t have extra time on my hands to be weeding the garden every evening, which may be a peaceful mantra for some after a day at the office, but was a disastrous waste of time in my book.
Nor was I interested in scouring plant leaves for camouflaged sacs of insect eggs and pulling slimy caterpillars from tomato plants they were devouring at alarming speed.
So I read and experimented, experimented and read. And after many years I came to understand what it takes to start a garden that yields the crops I want with minimal effort.
Table of Contents
- Garden with Nature
- Follow the Sun
- Don’t Try to Keep Out what you Can’t Keep Out
- It’s All in the Soil
- Organizing the Garden
- Buying Seeds, Starters, Bulbs and Seedlings
- Companion Planting
Garden with Nature
The first rule is to garden with nature, not against it. What type of soil do you have? Is it sandy or is it clay or is it a mix? What is the acidic level? How long is your growing season? How hot does it get? How cold does it get? How much rain do you get?
You will want to select plants that thrive in your soil in your climate.
It’s not hard to do. There are thousands of plants out there. It is nothing to be bemoaned if for, example your soil is clay and you cannot easily grow potatoes, which prefer sand. Well, then grow corn, cabbage, squash, echinacea, and black-eyed susans.
Most leafy greens prefer a good rich soil and the clay stays cooler longer than sand so it extends the growing season for this cool-weather crop.
Too, there are many different purposes you can grow plants for apart from beauty and food. I have grown plants for natural dyes and fibers.
I have grown plants for making gifts like sunflower wreaths, table centerpieces or raspberry liqueur filled chocolates.
I have grown plants to make insect repellent, set broken bones, heal sprains and clear congestion.
So when you are considering the plants you can grow in your area, broaden your horizons.
A good place to find out what grows well in your region is your extension office. This is what they do and they are paid tax dollars to do it, so don’t hesitate to stop by or call them.
I had an extension agent spend an afternoon on my farm discussing the site I had in mind for my vineyard. It would have taken two years of college classes and many growing seasons to learn what I learned from her in one afternoon.
Be aware, however, that many of the university agricultural departments in part subsidizing extension offices are themselves subsidized by large agricultural corporations that profit from the sale of fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides.
Here, for example, is the 2017 Midwest Fruit Pest Management Guide which recommends extensive spraying of pesticides on the very fruit you will be eating.
It is worth opening just to the first page to give you an idea of how much the university agriculture departments contribute to the knowledge base of extension offices.
Their advice may be skewed toward priorities antithetical to a sustainable view of the planet. Take what you need and ignore the rest.
Check around. There are probably co-ops of sustainable and organic farmers in your area happy to help as well.
Pick up a farmer’s almanac too.
Back to your soil. We will talk about the beauty of compost fertilizing your soil and breaking up dense clay clumps that deprive roots of needed oxygen and drown them in mud.
Compost can also augment your sandy soil with some substance so that water doesn’t just rapidly drain through the soil leaving your plants thirsty only moments after it’s rained. Although there are many varieties of potatoes: red, gold, white and blue, perhaps you don’t want to be eating potatoes until your ears fall off.
You can add sandy soil to clay soil and clay soil to sandy soil, but the truth is unless you change the soil’s ecosystem, which happens over time when you shovel in compost, the soil will probably ignore your efforts and return to its natural state.
So unlike many guides out there, I am not going to advise you to believe that you can actually do much to permanently change the soil by adding amendments.
I have heavily compacted soil around my side door that seems to have served as a construction debris dump when my cabin was built. Attempts to change the clay by adding some of the sandy soil from other parts of the yard proved futile.
I didn’t want to use my compost, reserving it for the garden. At last I found gypsum, renowned for being nontoxic and for breaking up clay. Although touted as natural and nontoxic, I am a mistrustful soul.
Still, I did not intend to grow a food crop there, so I wasn’t terribly concerned about an unknown negative effect on the soil. I figured the soil would heal itself once I got some healthy growth activity going.
The immediate results looked promising and some plants were able to struggle through, but the results were, as with all of the other soil amendments I have tried short of compost, short-term.
Our focus on composting will be to add nutrients to the soil, which is always good as plants will deplete the soil of nutrients as they grow.
Consider a forest floor. Fragrant with the aroma of decaying leaves, it is replete with nutrients. Rain and wind have worked to bring down twigs, leaves, and nuts from the trees and pummel them all back into the earth along with animal scat. Fungi and bacteria feeding on the plant life further the decomposition.
The forest floor becomes even richer and will yield fiddleheads and morel mushrooms for a divine Spring breakfast. Where the tree canopy is not too dense, berry bushes will take over in the summer.
Nature regenerates itself and that is what we will emulate in the garden.
Follow the Sun
Where are you going to place your site? And how large should it be?
First, what are you hoping for?
If this is an ornamental garden, go with the contours of your land. An excellent book to assist you here is Ann Lovejoy’s Organic Garden Design School, published by Rodale in 2001.
My advice here is going to focus on the small home garden that includes herbs and vegetables for the kitchen. I say small because that is how you should start out.
You can easily expand it once you know how much effort it is going to take and have identified what else you might like to grow in a single season.
Go out to your proposed site and take a look at where the sun is in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening. Bear in mind that if it is winter, the arc of the sun is going to be a bit different than in the summer.
What you are trying to determine is where any trees might be in relation to the sun that might block your garden for periods of the day. You can use this to your advantage.
I like to plant leafy greens where they only get morning and evening sun and the blazing midday sun is blocked by a copse of tall evergreens. Direct sun makes lettuces bolt, that is, the center core shoots up to reach the sun, to the detriment of the tasty leaves that would otherwise grow.
If you have the luxury of a lot of land, by all means take a shovel and dig up the soil at a few different sites to see what you’ve got. The best soil is a mix of clay and sand, a rich loamy silt that will hold water and nutrients, without forming into hard clumps of mud. The acid level should be a pH between 5.5 and 7.5. It probably is, but a simple soil test kit from the garden center will conform this.
Do not at any cost choose a site humans have contaminated with poisons of any sort. That includes Round-up, termite spray, and debris from a burn pile. If you wouldn’t eat it by the forkful, you don’t want to grow edible plants in it. Plants absorb nutrients from the soil and they will absorb toxins as well.
Consider too, who might be living near your garden. You won’t be able to keep them out, but if you have rabbits living nearby, at least make them have to cross a broad open field if you can. This is something they are reluctant to do as it makes them visible to hawks and other predators.
To save work, you will want the garden near your compost and your kitchen and reachable by a water hose.
Don’t Try to Keep Out what you Can’t Keep Out
You might mistakenly believe the woodland creatures or those in the shrubbery of your suburban neighborhood to be of lower intelligence but trust me, they were actually born highly psychic and are greedily contemplating the abundance from your garden even now as you are indoors innocently planning it.
There are gadgets and gizmos and wives tales of many a fix to deter animals, but save your money and just nod kindly at the neighbor telling his tall tales. The scarecrow with the banging pans, the sensor flood lights, the hose blasting shots of cold water, the fox urine, the Irish Spring soap, the locks of cut hair… these things may cause a deer or groundhog to hesitate once, but the second time they will simply ignore it.
You might try a kinetic sculpture like one of these. You could strategically place bells on it to further terrify the foraging beasts.
Then even if it doesn’t work to deter deer or groundhogs, birds or rabbits, you will still have a cool piece of artwork to console you.
A lot of the advice about deterring animals appears to have a solid premise, but don’t be seduced. I have an entire book on deer proofing my garden by planting only plants that deer don’t eat.
But I have seen them eat them.
The other premise is that deer don’t like to be near plants with a pungent smell because it will mask the smell of any predators they are on high alert for. But I have seen them linger near the mint as they demolish the corn.
And I have seen them leap over posts freshly smeared with fox urine.
With much effort, I erected a slant fence around my vineyard upon the advice of a USDA pamphlet, indicating that tensile wire a foot apart at seven levels spanning a 75 degree plane confused deer. They wouldn’t jump it.
One of my gun-slinging neighbors showed up drunk one evening itching to shoot into the horde hovering patiently on the hill across from my vineyard waiting for me to finish my chores and leave.
In a deep Southern slurring drawl he argued, “But deer don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no optical illusions.”
Turns out he was right. Or if they did know anything about optical illusions, it was how to ignore them.
I do plant dark orange and gold French marigolds around the perimeter of my garden in the belief that the fragrance discourages rabbits. I don’t know if it does or not. This is the first year I have had a lot of rabbits, but the ground hogs beat them to the feast.
French marigolds do deter whiteflies from tomato plants though, and after they are fully established, they control nematodes, so along with their burst of color, they are welcome in my garden.
Your best defense against warm-blooded pests is a good fence and a smart, frisky, hunting dog that keeps vigil around the garden.
Your best offense is a catch and release trap. Or, uh, so I am hoping.
Turns out that the ancient androgynous groundhog who has been content living alone under the smokehouse these past sixteen years up and gave birth to a litter of strapping lusty sons.
Did you know that young groundhogs become teenagers and move out before their first summer is over? And that they each strike out and build a summer home and a winter home and multiple exits and entries to each?
And that throwing hot peppers and rocks down these holes does not discourage them at all? They just toss them right back out.
I can personally corroborate the veracity of much of Michael Pollan’s results in his war on woodchucks described in his garden manifesto, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Garden Press, 2003, available through Amazon.
My farmstead is now littered with piles of rocks surrounding holes leading to long tunnels under each outbuilding and my cabin. It was after I was startled by the scratching awfully close to my dining table that I bought the trap.
I was already a bit put off that the ground hogs did not spare any of the five varieties of squash I had planted.
I had been particularly inspired by the previous summer’s crops of acorn squash and winter squash. They were tasty and lasted well into the winter months. So I got carried away and ordered five varieties.
I don’t mind sharing ten percent of the garden with my woodland neighbors, but I lose my will to share beyond that. Maybe if they helped with some of the work on the farm, I’d feel differently.
But when I heard that unnerving scratching, I mean how does an animal bury beneath a cellar? That ‘s when I started seriously shopping for a catch-and-release trap to be delivered as soon as Amazon could get it to me.
I caught that fat sucker too.
First thing I read when I was reading about how to trap a woodchuck was how much they like watermelon and wouldn’t you know, for the first time ever, I had a watermelon growing? Indeed it was tiny, but it was perfectly formed and showed tremendous promise.
It was growing just outside his door, the entry to the long sandy tunnel running beneath my house. He would have to step over it until he felt like eating it.
This perpetual threat was eating at me and I threw the juiciest produce I could conjure into that trap and set it immediately outside his hole.
I caught him not long after I set out the trap. Nervous that somehow the door would open, I put him in the back of the car and drove him to the abandoned farmstead in the hollow a couple miles down the road.
I drove pretty fast. The sun was setting behind the mountain and my imagination was at its peak.
Next I caught a possum. That scared me a bit as well.
He kept his very sharp teeth bared as he looked at me. His fur was matted with goo and blood and he had a wild look about him that made me uncomfortable.
The trap I bought is supposed to be humane. I’m not sure what happened, but there was some bloody hair pasted to the bottom piece of metal.
I don’t mind possums around, but I drove him out to the abandoned farmstead too, for practice and to rule out possibilities of revenge.
The next day when I woke it seemed like maybe the skunk and one of the groundhogs had got in a standoff during the night. This got me to thinking: what if I caught a skunk? What if I caught a skunk?
I couldn’t leave him in there and I had no idea how I’d get him out. I still don’t.
But it’s winter now and I’ve been traveling, so I am just going to have to ponder this one and redouble my efforts in the Spring if I want to reap the bounty from my garden.
It’s All in the Soil
Healthy soil hosts a web of life from tiny one-celled bacteria, fungi and protozoa to the more complex nematodes and small arthropods to earthworms, insects, and small vertebrates.
These organisms interact beneficially with plants.
By-products from growing roots and plant debris feed soil organisms. Soil organisms help plants by decomposing organic matter, cycling nutrients to make them more available to the plant, enhancing soil structure and porosity and controlling the populations of soil organisms, including crop pests.
Healthy soil means healthy plants.
The way to healthy soil is to add compost and not till the ecosystems, the webs of life, to shreds.
Buddhists, who do not believe in killing sentient creatures, manually crumble soil, so that earthworms are not killed.
Farmers use tractors pulling tillers and most gardeners use rototillers to turn the soil. I use a shovel rather than till.
Compost is just earth that has been made from decayed organic matter. It is called black gold because it is a sure-fire medium for producing healthy plants.
Nothing is more valuable to a gardener and it’s free. It solves the problems of what to do with dinner scraps and yard debris and it helps everything grow abundantly.
I have a pretty big compost pile that should steam but it doesn’t. Because I travel, I do not have animals, whose feces would go along way to heating up the pile, but eventually, I suppose the enormity of the weight helps a good deal, it creates lovely compost.
The compost pile requires turning with a pitchfork, the romance of which appeals to me whereas the actual doing it, does not. I highly recommend a compost tumbler.
This is a good video on how to make compost. The tumbler makes it even simpler.
I try to till and compost in the Fall, so that the soil is open to receive the compost and the compost is open to the winter snow and sun which help integrate it into the soil.
You will have to turn over the soil in Spring. Turning the soil aerates it. You need only shovel down about six or eight inches or till across the garden two or three times to get it to the consistency where it will allow germinating seeds to poke through. You can turn the compost into the soil again in early Spring.
Organizing the Garden
I would recommend a garden no larger than 25 x 30 feet to begin.
Most gardeners plant in neat rows as it is easier to weed.
Habitual walking (and of course driving heavy machinery) across the soil compacts it and makes it pretty much useless for growing anything but plantain, called by Native Americans, “white man’s footsteps.”
On the subject of weeds, you should understand the following.
Soil organisms are not distributed evenly about the soil. Each species exists where it can find the right amount of space, nutrients and moisture. This is generally around organic matter.
Thus, my sandy soil is as sterile as the desert away from plants.
But around roots there is a region called the rhizosphere where bacteria feeds from old plant cells and proteins and sugars released by the roots. Protozoa and nematodes feed on the bacteria. They cycle nutrients and help retain beneficial ones, change the structure of the soil to help the plant better access water and nutrients and suppress disease by feeding on pathogens and excreting metabolites toxic to them.
Gardeners weed to remove the competition for nutrients. However, root systems can interact in a synergistic way, providing nutrients for each other.
Tall weeds can also provide welcome shade to plants sensitive to the relentless rays of a midday blazing sun. So unless the weeds are blocking needed sun or overtaking my plants, that is, the weeds are strong and healthy and my plants weak and stunted, I let them do their thing.
If you are not going to use a rototiller and you don’t care that much about weeds that will grow among the rocks, you are not bound by the rules of symmetry and can plant in circles if you wish. You can make a rock or brick path in your garden to walk on. You can build rock walls or mounds of rock that retain moisture so crickets and small toads can live. They are priceless predators of insects who would otherwise forage your plants.
Lately I have been allowing narrow grass aisles to grow between my plots, but you do have to keep the grass down or it will attract too many grasshoppers. They will quickly devour a number of plants.
If you are more comfortable with straight rows and weeding as much as you can, by all means go for it.
Some say that a man’s footsteps are all a garden needs for fertility. Along the same line, a friend told me of an old man she knew with an abundant garden who took only one cup of water to feed his garden each evening. The point is, follow your passion and it will yield good things.
I like to intersperse flowers, herbs and vegetables and to follow companion planting suggestions.
Planting too much of a single crop creates an ecosystem vulnerable to pests and diseases of that crop and eradicates the natural system of checks and balances of a diverse ecosystem.
Over time, growing a single plant will also deplete the soil of the nutrients that plants needs. Farmers alternate their crops, often planting a cover crop that will add back in the nutrients the former planting has taken.
Certain pests like certain plants.
In your garden too, you should not plant the same crop in the same area. Last year’s pests are waiting.