Inula Royleana
Midwest Gardening
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Starting your first garden can be very simple

The most important thing to do for your first garden is Just Get Started!  Don’t worry too much yet about everything you have read and heard, there will be time to learn and adjust as your garden grows.  Remember that none of us knew anything when we planted our first seeds, but we all figured things out pretty quickly.  With that said, lets talk about a few of the basics and get your garden growing.

Start a Garden

A FEW THINGS THAT WILL BE HELPFUL TO KNOW:

  • Select plants that grow best in your soil type.  If your soil is extremely poor you will need to do a few things to improve it if you want to grow specific plants and certainly vegetables, otherwise eventually you can do what is necessary to improve your soil.
  • Native plants are typically already well adapted to your region and soil.
  • Ask questions!  Fellow gardeners and garden center staff love to help and share knowledge.

THE FIRST STEPS TO GET A GARDEN STARTED:

  • Zinnias by Duncan BlackwoodThink about what you want to grow, annuals, perennials or vegetables?  The needs of flowers can be very different from the needs of vegetables or fruit and may require different soil, sun and water.
  • Pick a spot.  Generally you will need at least 6 hours of sun to grow most things well.  The garden spot should be relatively flat, hills are difficult to maneuver on and moisture will run off easily.  A gentle slope is not usually a problem.  The garden spot should also be conveniently reached with your garden hose for watering.
  • The single most important thing to do when preparing the soil is to remove all sod and weeds, then loosen the soil very deep.  Dig down as deep as you can, piling the dirt alongside the hole or trench, then dig again to loosen the soil as deeply as possible.  Roots that can easily push deeply into the soil will produce much stronger and healthier plants.  Shovel the soil back in that you piled up.  Even if you do not make any improvements to your soil at this time, there are many many plants that will grow well in poor soil with low fertility.
  • As long as you have dug so deep though, you may as well improve your soil right now.  You will avoid disappointment and frustration with plant performance.

IMPROVING THE SOIL FOR YOUR FIRST GARDEN

If this is your first garden, you may not be sure of committing to a lifetime of gardening yet.  Thats OK, start small and simple but do the right things for what you want to grow.

  • There are many perennials and annuals that do not care for good fertile soil and are very easy to grow and care for.  See Easy Plants for a few ideas.
  • If you prefer to grow annuals or perennials that like a fertile soil you should dig in some amendments when you loosen the soil for your garden bed.  An easy starter amendment is peat or dried shredded leaves, which will lighten and keep loose heavy clay soil and add moisture retention for sandy soil.  If you dug good and deep, you should easily be able to mix a small bale into a small garden plot.  Peat is a great soil conditioner but does not make the soil fertile.  To improve soil fertility you can also dig in composted manure, available by the bag at garden centers.  The bags of expensive garden soil will condition the soil and add short term fertility with chemicals, but the composted manure and peat are both natural, less expensive, and adds longer lasting nutrients.
  • If you are planning to grow vegetables or fruit, it is essential that you do a great job of loosening soil and adding plenty of soil conditioner and nutrients.  Don’t skimp on the composted manure, growing good produce requires plenty of nutrients.  If you continue to grow vegetables you will want to continually replenish depleted nutrients.  The article Soil Amendments is long but loaded with important information about easy to add natural ingredients that will help you grow wonderful delicious produce.  You don’t have to learn everything at once, you can improve the soil over time and test the soil with an easy to use kit periodically.

SELECTING PLANTS

Take your time deciding on plants, but only after you know how much sun the garden bed will get and the condition of your soil.  If you want to know more, read Will it Thrive?.  Then read the plant tags or descriptions in catalogs carefully to select the right plants for your space.  Ask questions at the garden center, they do love to help new gardeners get going with easy to grow plants.  Stay away from the newest greatest plants for now, remember they are new, not fully gardener tested yet.  New introductions are sometimes heavily marketed and then disappear after a few years because of poor performance.  You want to start with the tried and true, old reliables.

Look for plants with strong healthy branches and full foliage.  Avoid plants with broken or bent stems and discolored leaves.  If you are selecting flowers it is not necessary to find open blooms, a healthy plant will produce plenty of blooms later.

PLANTING

Planting container grown annuals, perennials or produce is simple, just a few tips will get you going.

  • Planting by the ordinary gardenerRemoving plants from their containers can be a little tricky.  Read the tips here Annuals for keeping the roots in tact when you remove the plants.
  • Dig a hole with a trowel (small hand held “scoop”) a little deeper and wider than the container.  If the roots have heavily filled and circled the container, you should loosen the roots before planting and spread them out a bit in the hole.  Try to separate the roots gently but most plants are tougher than you think.  I often just grasp the root ball with both hands and gently break apart the roots.  I think they have a much easier time growing fresh roots if broken than trying to break out of a dense ball.
  • Push the soil back into the hole around the plant and gently press the soil lightly with your palms.  The top of the potted soil should be even with the soil surface but it is better to plant a little too deep than too shallow.  The soil will also settle and may expose the top of the root ball.  As you experiment with more plants you will find a few that are very particular about how deep they get planted.  For example a tomato wants to be buried very deep, up to the first set of large leaves, but a peony needs to have its buds barely below the soil surface.
  • Every plant will need to be watered deeply and frequently while the roots establish.  Deep soak right after planting, then water daily for at least several days.  The soil should be kept moist several inches deep for at least a couple of weeks.  Then you can reduce watering to a regular schedule according to the needs of the plant.  After the first tow or three weeks, be careful not to over water!  The roots will ‘drown’ and not be able take in air and nutrients essential to growth.
  • Feed your plants, but be sure you know what to feed them and how often.  Many annuals need high nitrogen fertilizer every week or two to keep blooming well.  Some perennials prefer to never be fertilized.  Produce generally does best when nutrition is consistently available from the soil and sometimes needs supplemental feeding.  You may want to use organic slow release fertilizers.  You can learn more about natural and chemical fertilizers All About Fertilizer.

SAVING MONEY

Gardening does not have to be expensive at all, and if you are growing your own food it should not only save you money but be much more delicious and nutritious than from a grocer.  I am a very frugal gardener and have never found it necessary to invest much in tools or even plants.  Every once in a while I decide a certain tool or garden item worth a bigger investment, but you can make your own decisions down the road.  There are a lot of ways you can be a frugal gardener.

  • trowelThe only tools you really need are a shovel and a hand trowel.  A long handled how and hand for are also handy, you can find out more about these tools and how to use them Cultivating.
  • You don’t need to buy expensive garden soil.  I have used it on occasion, but I prefer to keep the cost down by using peat, composted manure, ore even better my own shredded leaves and compost.  You can get your first compost pile started this fall Easy Compost Mix or better yet, get started in the spring Composting Basics.
  • There are an awful lot of annuals and perennials that grow very easily from seed, and they can be started outdoors right in your garden with no fancy equipment.  Certain annuals and perennials, even vegetables, not only grow easily from seed, but also grow so quickly it is silly to buy nursery plants at much greater expense.  You will find a pretty long list here:  Direct Sow Seeds.
  • As you gain just a little experience, you can propagate your own plants by dividing or raking divisions from friends and neighbors.  Dividing is really quite simple for most perennials:  Dividing Perennials.  Neighbors and friends are often more than happy to donate “extras” to you when they divide perennials or thin seedlings.

These getting started basics will easily get you going.  Of course I made reference to further information all over this page, but that is because I know you will love gardening once you get started and will want to know more right away.  There are several other articles that will help you as you expand your garden:  Gardening Methods;  Frost DatesWhat Does Part Sun Mean?Watering Your PlantsWeeding the Garden, as well as a wealth of information about specific plants of all kinds throughout this site.

So get started, JUST DO IT!

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