10 Simple Tips for Starting a Garden
Gardening is good for the body, mind and soul. Getting out in the fresh air and nature to produce healthy food for our family is one of our favorite things to do. Gardening is a great path to self-sustainability. We love that during the uncertain times of the past year, people were inspired more than ever to grow their own food. We have found it very satisfying to nurture a garden over the years. Fresh, organic vegetables that you worked hard to grow yourself, never tasted better.
We are sharing our top 10 tips for new gardeners. Some of the more seasoned gardeners may be able to relate to some of these tips, perhaps even share a knowing giggle, or a great tip of their own with us.
1. Start Slow, Small and Simple
Consider beginning your gardening journey slowly with an herb or cocktail garden in pots for your kitchen window, balcony, front porch, or yard. We know very well how hard it is to scale back when you are super excited to get started planting your first garden. But try to restrain from planting everything you have ever dreamt of cultivating in your own little piece of earth the first time out.
- Create a Container Garden
Our first home in New Orleans had a small yard, so we enjoyed planting a small herb garden in pots. We also tried different varieties of tomatoes that grow well in large pots. Cocktail gardens are also extremely popular and a fun way to start gardening. Grow fresh spearmint for your Mojitos and Mint Julips. Rosemary, basil, and sage are also favorite herbs to use in cocktails.
1. Start with Hardy, Perennial Herbs: We recommend starting with planting perennial herbs such as, rosemary, oregano, chives, and thyme. These herbs are hardy, used frequently in many recipes (think the tastiest spaghetti sauce you have ever made), grow well in pots, and come back each year.
2. Spearmint: It is best to grow mint in an extra-large pot instead of in your garden because it will takeover! We learned this the hard way.
- Build Raised Garden Beds
If you really want to give growing a diversity of vegetables a try but have limited space, or do not want to go the extra steps of tilling, raised garden beds are a great option. My sister and sister-in-law started their first gardens in their backyards with raised beds. The garden boxes were built by their husbands as a Mother’s Day gift.
- Buy Pre-started Plants from Your Local Nursery
You don’t have to grow your plants from seeds right out of the starting gate. The last six years we purchased young herb and vegetable plants from our two favorite locally owned garden centers. We didn’t start growing all of our plants from seeds until this year. Or perhaps you’d like to try a mix of purchased plants and seeds since some vegetables, like okra, can be sown directly in the ground.
- Try Not to Over Plant
The biggest mistake we made, and we often see with many over-zealous new gardeners, is planting too many vegetables in too small of an area. Our advice is to pick a handful of your favorite vegetables and herbs you know you and your family will eat and start there. Also, it is important to provide enough spacing between plants.
In our spring/summer garden in South Louisiana we have found that cucumbers, bush green beans, okra, eggplant, radishes, cherry tomatoes, green onions, jalapenos, and many herbs are easiest for us to grow. We haven’t had much luck with zucchini and bell peppers, and raccoons and squirrels always seem to find their way into our fenced garden right when our cantaloupes and watermelons are absolutely perfect for picking, leaving behind a half-eaten shell.
2. Planning is Key
Planning and preparing for your garden ahead of time is half the fun and pays off big in the long run. Gardening and seed catalogs are a lot of fun to peruse when planning what to plant and they also contain a lot of good information.
- Decide What Kind of Garden
Do you want to plant a container garden, a raised-bed garden, or a traditional garden in the ground?
- Draft a Garden Map
We have found that drafting a garden map before we plant is invaluable! A map helps you know exactly how much room you need to plant each vegetable with proper room to grow. It is important to follow spacing guidelines for each plant. For example, zucchini and other squash demand a lot of real estate and will take over. Planting too close may also increase the chance of disease and decrease yield. That said, try to be creative with maximizing every inch of your garden. We grow our cucumbers along the perimeter of the garden. This way they are stabilized and climb the fence as they grow, not needing a trellis.
- Keep a Garden Journal
We have also found it helpful to take notes on what worked each year and what did not. These notes and the maps of each year’s garden help us to rotate what was planted and learn what vegetables or varieties seem to work best in our soil and climate.
Our fall/winter garden usually consists of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, kale, red mustard greens, red lettuce, green onions, parsley and cilantro.
3. Timing is Everything
Once you know what you want to plant, research when these plants grow best in your zone (see USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map), during what months of the year. Plants only grow within specific temperature ranges. Annual vegetables and flowers cannot tolerate frost, while perennials have adapted to colder temperatures. When buying perennial plants, be sure the plant is recommended for your zone. Farther North, be careful not to plant until the danger of frost is over. In south Louisiana, if you plant your summer garden too late (which we did one year) you may risk losing most of the garden. We lost everything that year except cucumbers and basil, but boy were those cucumbers and basil beautiful and plentiful!
4. Location, Location, Location
Where you plant your garden is also extremely important.
Does your garden location get enough sun? Vegetables need 6-8 hours of full sun to grow. While flower gardens can grow in sun or shade, depending on the plants.
- It is all about the Soil:
Gardens need a rich soil with organic matter that not only drains well but can retain moisture. If you are planting in the ground, it is helpful to have your soil tested to ensure your plants are getting the proper nutrition they need. In most areas, you can mail in a soil sample to be tested at your local Agricultural Extension Services for a small fee.
- Water Source
Do you have a water source nearby? We considered having the plumber put in an extra spigot near the garden when we built our house and I said nah, just another expense. Now when we drag hoses across the yard, I really wish we had spent the money. We used to water by hand or set up a sprinkler in the garden. Both are not great options. Constant water on plant foliage may cause fungal disease that could spread between plants. Many have found that soaker hoses and drip irrigation systems set to a timer work well.
5. Never Stop Learning
We are always learning and will never pretend to be expert gardeners. We have made many mistakes along the way as we learn what grows best on our land. We are on our seventh year of cultivating our 20 x 40-foot garden, turning it over twice a year for a spring/summer and fall/winter garden thanks to the warm climate we live in, and we are still learning what our soil and plants need. Each year is a new and different adventure in our garden. Depending on if we had a harsh or mild winter in Louisiana may determine what new garden pests we may have to duel with in our spring/summer garden.
- Reach Out to Your Local Agricultural Cooperative Extension Agent
We joke that we have LSU Agricultural Center Extension Service on speed dial. We call and email them regularly for advice. Their guidance and encouragement have been invaluable.
6. Make it a Family Affair
Gardening is a great family activity. Many life lessons can be learned in the garden, such as working together to reach a goal, persistence, and patience. Our teenage son is a huge help, and especially enjoys eating delicious dishes we cook together with treats from the garden. Gardening can also help children become more grounded and appreciative of nature as they grow up in this digital world.
7. Gardening Doesn’t Have to be Expensive
Sharing plants, seeds and compost with friends and neighbors is a great way to stretch your gardening budget. We know how easy it is to become intrigued with every new and shiny gardening gadget that comes along, but with a little creativity you can make a lot of the garden materials yourself to save costs. We make many of our trellises and use our plentiful supply of leaves as mulch for our fall/winter garden.
8. Gardening is a Commitment
Gardening is a true labor of love. If you want your garden to thrive, its important to spend consistent time nurturing and caring for it, especially if you have a large garden, grown organically. Tilling, planting, weeding, watering and even the fun part, harvesting, takes time and hard work.
Gardening is also not without it challenges. Caterpillars can literally strip your garden clean overnight if you aren’t paying attention. Sometimes nothing you do seems to deter pests and you must declare war and consistently monitor. There is something innately satisfying about squishing the little heads of the caterpillars that ate an entire tomato plant overnight! Then again as a wildlife biologist, I know that everything must eat to survive in nature, so we are a bit partial to Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars and happily sacrifice their host plants, like parsley, each year.
We know we had a good day in the garden when we are drenched in sweat, filthy from head to toe, have ant bites around our ankles and dirt under our fingernails. But there is nothing sweeter than harvesting your first beautiful eggplant from the plant you have nurtured for months.
9. Protect Yourself from the Sun
Gardening is a great way to improve your health and wellness, but you need to make sure you protect yourself from the sun. We have learned to put on a hat and sunscreen before we step foot in the garden because a quick trip to the garden always turns into much more. It is easy to become mesmerized by a bird or butterfly floating amongst the plants or start weeding a row quickly and an hour later you are red as a crawfish.
10. Have Fun
Although gardening can be a lot of work, we have learned to enjoy the process and have fun with it. We like sharing gardening tips with family and friends and exchanging photos of challenges and wins. We’d love to hear some of your favorite gardening tips, please share!
After a long day of staring at a computer screen, it is nice to find joy in the simple things like growing your own food. Gardening is a lot like life. Your journey may have unexpected challenges along the way, but there always seems to be a sweet surprise just around the corner.
We especially love sharing our hard-earned bounty with family, friends, and neighbors. We regularly shared fresh vegetables with our postal delivery man, Harris, who we adore. One day he said to us my mama told me, “Harris, that is what you call country love.” We believe that everyone deserves a little bit of country love, regardless of if you try your hand at gardening or not.
Even the Barred Owls enjoy the garden.