How to Start a Garden – A Guide for Beginngers

I’ve received quite a few comments in the last week about how to plan a garden, how to plant a garden, and how to take care of a garden. Some readers have asked about flowers and some above vegetables, but as a whole, they aren’t sure how to get started and need help with the basics.

I’m going to make this a several post series on how to start a garden, and it will apply to both vegetable and flower gardens.

How to Start a GardenHow to Start a Garden - A Quick Beginner's Guide

Choosing Plants

First, know that July isn’t too late in the year to begin gardening, even if you live in the northern US. There are plenty of plants that can be put in the ground now. If you tend them carefully (including watering them if you’re having hot and dry weather), they should become established in a few weeks and come along nicely.  There are even more plants that can be planted when the weather begins to cool off. These will thrive after the heat of summer has passed.

Annuals & Perennials

There are two kinds of plants: annuals and perennials. Annuals are short-lived plants that will die off completely when we get our first hard frost in the fall. Perennials may die back or even disappear, but should grow back in the spring year after year.

Typically, annuals bloom or produce fruit most of the season, and perennials bloom or fruit for a short period of time. There are exceptions, of course, like some roses and raspberries, but most plants follow this rule.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both annuals and perennials. Once they become established, perennials often spread and can become invasive. In other words, they can take over everything if you’re not careful. Perennials are also often gangly and can create a messier looking garden. On the other hand, perennials require little work once they’re established. That’s why I like them; I don’t have to replant my flower gardens year after year.

You never have to worry about annuals spreading or becoming invasive, though you may get a volunteer now and then that has seeded itself from the previous year’s annuals. I’ve had that happen with petunias once and snap dragons several times. Annuals are usually showier, with brightly colored flowers that bloom often throughout the summer. Annuals are also usually less expensive than perennials.

Light Needs

After you decide whether you’re going to get annuals or perennials, you have to assess your light situation. There are plants that need bright light for many hours a day, plants that need light but only indirect light, and plants that need to be in shady spots. Obviously, if you plant a shade-loving hosta in hot, bright sun for the entire day, you’re going to end up with a dead or badly sunburned plant.

You have to carefully consider the light in your garden space and compare it with the light needs of the plants you’re considering. Each plant you buy will likely have a tag with its light needs:

  • Full sun means the plant needs 6 hours or more of bright sunshine each day. These plants may need extra watering as their soil will dry out quickly because of the hot sun.
  • Part sun or part shade means that the plant needs between 3 and 6 hours of sunshine each day. Morning sun is a safe bet for these plants, and they won’t usually tolerate the hot afternoon sun between noon and 4 pm.
  • Full shade means that the plant should have less than 3 hours of sunshine per day. Morning sun is also a safe bet for these plants. They will quickly die in the hot sun of the afternoon.

If you go to a garden center or nursery, pay attention to where the plants are located. Most stores are good at meeting the specific needs of the plants they’re selling. If you have a shady area to plant, look for the area of the nursery that’s under a roof or covered by fabric. If you want plants that will be in the sun all day, look in the front of the nursery, where nothing is shading the plants.

Water Needs

If your soil is especially sandy, wet, dry, or full of clay, your plants may face special challenges. If you live in an especially dry or wet climate, you will also have special challenges. Even within your yard, you may have areas that lay in water, are constantly soggy, or dry out every day. You’ll have to pay attention to these situations when choosing plants.

You will find plants that are labeled drought resistant or prefer well-drained soil. That means these plants need their roots to dry out a little between waterings. You will find other plants that don’t mind having wet feet, meaning that they tolerate soggy soil or even standing water in some cases.

Heading Out to Get Some Plants

Once you’ve determined where this garden will go, the type of plants you want, the amount of sunlight, and the amount of water available, you are ready to go to the plant store. You have lots of options here: a garden center at a big box store, a standalone nursery, a local plant and flower shop, and even friends and neighbors.

If someone in your neighborhood has an especially nice garden, stop and talk to them about it. Every gardener I know is happy to spend time explaining and talking about her plants. She may tell you where to buy similar plants or even offer to dig you up a stalk or two. I swap plants with my friends and neighbors all the time.

Plan to spend some time at the store, looking at the needs of the plants and considering whether they’ll like the spot you have in mind. No matter how hard you try, you will never be able to put a shade-loving plant into full sun nor a sun-loving plant in the shade. They’ll die.

Consider carefully the look you want (colors, shapes, sizes, etc) and the needs of the plants, and narrow your options down to a few plants.

 

Next week, I’ll talk about how to decide where to put your plants within the garden and how to actually put the plants into the ground. In the meantime, what questions do you have about your garden space or the plants you can choose to put in it?

© 2012, Tara Ziegmont. All rights reserved.

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Comments

  1. Kathleen says

    Wow, thank you so much for writing about this! I have a space approx. 18″ by 6″ that I’m slowly trying to figure out what to do with. It originally had a holly bush in it (3 actually that grew together so that it looked like one very long one). I like lillies and hydrangeas (I just planted this at the end), and azaleas, but am not sure how to go about figuring out where to place each of them. I’m also really bad at remembering to water them, do the potting soils that claim to control moisture really help?

    Looking forward to reading the rest of this series!

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