Woman holding plants
Photo: Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock
You want to jump in with both feet. You want to do your best. You want your friends to be impressed. Yet, no matter how much enthusiasm you bring, every new gardener suffers from the same thing: a lack of experience. But what you lack, you can make up for with the right advice—on sun, water, fertilizer, soil prep and insects (both the good and bad).
Striving for excellence is a great personal quality—you are here, after all, at the online home of "living your best life." Just be aware that this might not be the season you reach it in your garden. Learning to garden is like learning a martial art—there are a series of skills and intuitions that can be cultivated over a lifetime. Even Jackie Chan started as a white belt.

Start small. Think about how much time you are ready to commit to this new hobby. What do you want to plant, and how much effort will it take to prepare your soil for each plant in your zone?

Consider the sun 
Some of your plants will require full sun. Some will want partial sun. Some will want mostly shade. Sun level is not a minor issue. In fact, of the essential elements—soil, water and sun—sunlight can be the hardest to modify.

When you're researching what plants will go in your garden, seriously consider the location. Check what kind of sun it gets through the course of a day. Don't forget one important fact—the angle of the sun can change rather drastically from spring to summer to autumn. A location that is "partial sun" in March and April could be "full sun" by July. This could work to your advantage, or else it could ruin a tender plant.

Create a watering plan
Most new gardeners wrestle with the impulse to water and fertilize with reckless abandon. Plants love that stuff, right? Well, not necessarily. For instance, you know sweet basil grows particularly well in Italy—the land of pesto. It's also the land of blazing Mediterranean sun and not a whole lot of rain. Replicating that combination with full sun and not too much watering will make your basil very happy.

Many plants require about an inch of water a week. An easy way track rainfall is to place an empty tuna can somewhere in the garden. When the can—which is approximately 1 inch high—is empty, it's time to get out the hose. Another way is to just stick your finger an inch deep in the soil and judge the moisture there. You aren't afraid of getting some dirt under your fingernails, are you?

Once you get a sense of how much water each of your plants needs, consider making up a weekly, biweekly or monthly schedule to make sure you don't over- or under-water.

So much beauty in dirt 
Before you start really planning what you will grow, you have to know what's going on with your soil. Order a soil-testing kit to determine the levels of acid or alkaline, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

Make sure you conduct the test early enough to give yourself time to fix any problems before you find yourself with a bunch of dead plants.

If you have...
  • A pH greater than 7: You have alkaline soil. Add sulfur.
  • A pH lower than 7: You have acidic soil. Add lime.
  • Low nitrogen: Use a nitrogen-rich fertilizer.
  • High nitrogen: Probably caused by over-fertilization; stop adding fertilizer.
  • Low phosphorus: Add superphosphate, or bone meal, to your garden soil.
  • High phosphorous: Probably caused by too much high-phosphate fertilizer. Grow plants to use up the excess.
  • Low potassium: Add wood ashes. (Be careful. This could limit the growth of any acid-loving plants.)
  • High potassium: Do not use potassium-rich fertilizers, and add nitrogen and phosphorous to help balance the soil.
Not all insects in your garden are pest 
Not every insect in your garden is bent on destruction. Some of them will be perfectly respectful of your garden, and you should be happy to see them. Earthworms will keep soil aerated and full of nutrients. Once you witness a ladybug's appetite for dastardly aphids—and the real damage those tiny aphids can do—you will always be grateful.

If you are growing a fruiting plant, such as garden tomatoes, bees will help with pollination. You can actually attract bees to your plant by planting brightly colored flowers like marigolds.

The one thing you do not want to do is upset your garden's ecosystem with chemical insecticides. These harsh treatments could upset the delicate balance between helpful and harmful bugs—leaving you with only bad bugs and no good guys to defend your garden.

Keep Reading
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Organic gardening essentials
How to grow your own herbs


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