Learning how to start a garden can give you a great sense of satisfaction, enjoyment, and it will help you develop a vast library of horticultural knowledge. However, to be a successful and efficient gardener, several aspects of gardening are important to know and consider before you create your first planting bed. Then decide what type of garden you want to start: consider a cutting garden, a pure wildflower garden, a vegetable and herb garden, or maybe you want to start a butterfly garden. Start small, like learning the best month to begin planting in your zone, then you can move on to envision your garden and exactly what you want to grow.
Here are 14 tips and techniques to help you start a garden from scratch.
14 Pre-Planning Steps to Start a Garden
01 of 14
Choose the Best Month to Start Your Garden
Typically, seeds and plants are put in the ground in early spring as soon as the soil is no longer frozen, there's no longer a threat of a frost, and the soil has warmed up and is workable. But that's a general rule because some vegetables, flowers, and other plants require planting seasons such as mid-spring, early summer, late summer, or fall (usually for spring blooms and harvests), depending on your zone.
02 of 14
Learn About Hardiness Zones
Before buying plants, know your zone. Learning about USDA hardiness zones will help you choose your plants because not every plant will thrive in your zone, while others will prefer growing in your region. The hardiness zone map divides the United States into 13 areas, and plants are assigned zone numbers based on their tolerance to cold temperatures. For example, a plant rated cold-hardy in zones 7 thru 9 won't survive in a colder zone 4.
03 of 14
Pair Companion Plants
In addition to the climate, plants need to be grown near like-minded plants for optimal growth and health. There are many benefits to companion planting. Companion plants that share specific sunlight and moisture needs can thrive together. For example, you can't plant sun-loving and shade-loving plants together in full sun and expect the shade-loving plants to survive. The same thing goes for planting thirsty plants next to drought-tolerant plants—you'll either be giving one group of plants too much or too little water and the other group won't survive.
Companion planting for vegetables and herbs can seem like a science. Some plants are placed next to others to control insects or pull nitrogen from the air to help the soil for surrounding plants. It's helpful to refer to charts that have taken the guesswork out of the process.
04 of 14
Decide Between Raised Beds or Inground Gardens
There are pros and cons to raised bed gardening and inground gardening. Raised bed gardening is the opposite of inground gardening because it involves growing plants in soil that is higher than ground level, whether it's done in containers or frames made from wood, or even bales of hay for example. Here are some quick pros and cons of each type of gardening:
Continue to 5 of 14 below.
- Raised bed gardening pros: Minimal bending down, good for small spaces, fewer weeds and pests, keeps soil healthy
- Raised bed gardening cons: More watering may be necessary, it takes time and money to design, build, and maintain
- Inground gardening pros: Lower watering needs, less time and money to plan and maintain, no construction needed
- Inground gardening cons: Takes a physical toll, more weeds and pests, soil can become contaminated
05 of 14
Consider Vertical Gardening
If you have a small space or live in an urban setting, you can still create a beautiful and bountiful vertical garden. Try planting succulents, flowering vines, ornamental grasses, fruits, and vegetables. On fences and walls, use wall pockets, wall bags, repurposed bottles, or trellis to build your garden. If you don't have a fence or wall to build a vertical garden, you can find stackable vertical planters at garden stores to start your garden.
06 of 14
Remove Some Grass if Necessary
If you can't see an empty space for a garden, you may have the option of removing a small portion of the lawn. There are several effective organic methods to remove grass and the roots that go along with it so you can begin your garden:
- Sheet mulching involves laying down an organic material, such as newspaper or unwaxed cardboard, to smother the grass. It takes several months to kill grass, so start in the summer to be ready for the following spring planting season.
- Solarization kills grass and weeds by utilizing the heat of the sun to bake the soil to a high temperature. Lay a clear plastic tarp over mowed, wet grass and the sun will scorch the grass away in about four weeks. Then, dig up the dead grass, add compost, and plant your garden bed.
- Manual removal of grass is a lot of work and very effective. Soften turf by moistening the lawn a day or two before removal and use a sharp space to cut small sections. Slide the spade beneath the grass to lift. If you have a large area of grass to remove, you can rent a sod cutter from a home improvement store.
07 of 14
Optimize Garden Soil
Healthy soil is the foundation that makes any garden a success, and most plants have an optimal soil type in which they thrive. Common issues with soil that can affect the health of your plants include:
- Nutritional problems: Plants derive all of their nutrients from the soil they're planted in. Perform a soil test on your garden bed to determine its nutritional content. If the results suggest a deficiency, you'll need to add the necessary amendments to remedy the problem.
- Incorrect soil pH: Soil pH affects a plant's ability to absorb nutrients. Some plants can tolerate a range of soil pH levels, from acidic to alkaline. But soil that is too acidic or too alkaline can adversely affect a plant's growth and productivity. A soil test can determine the pH level of your garden soil.
- Incorrect soil type: Soil type refers to the texture and composition of the soil. For instance, some soil contains too much clay, causing drainage problems. If soil is too sandy, it drains water before plant roots can make use of it and does not contain enough organic material to provide the right level of nutrition. It's important to know the type of soil in your garden bed so that you can amend it accordingly.
Furthermore, no matter how healthy your soil is, you can't go wrong adding compost to it when you first start a garden. Work the compost into the soil with a rototiller or manually with a garden pitchfork. Then, rake the ground level to prepare it for planting.
You do not need fancy compost bins to make compost. Once you have grasped the basic concept of layering organic materials and providing just the right amount of moisture and air, composting is quite easy. Tiny natural organisms will quickly turn organic waste into the most nutritious soil additive available.2:07
Click Play to Learn How to Improve Garden Soil
08 of 14
Select the Right Plants
As you select plants for your garden, you need to do your homework to learn about a plant's specific requirements to ensure you choose the right plants for the right location. Plants commonly used in garden beds and landscapes generally fall into these categories:
- Herbaceous annuals: plants that go through their entire lifecycle in one growing season and must be re-planted every year. Many summer-flowering plants fall into this category, including marigolds, impatiens, petunias, zinnias, and cornflowers. In addition, some plants that are perennials in warm climates can be used as annuals in colder climates.
- Herbaceous perennials (and biennials): plants that return every year, their foliage dies to the ground in the winter but the plant regrows from its root system the following spring. Some perennials are very long-lived, such as the peony, daylily, and false indigo, while others are relatively short-lived, such as the lupine, columbine, and delphinium. Plants categorized as biennials can be considered very short-lived perennials. They spend their first year developing foliage, flowering in their second year, and then dying after that. Foxglove, hollyhock, and sweet William are examples of biennial plants.
- Woody trees and shrubs: plants that do not have the soft herbaceous stems of annuals and perennials. Instead, they have woody stems and trunks. Rather than dying back and re-growing from ground level, these plants sprout their new growth from a main trunk or main branches. All common trees fall into this category as do many shrubs.
- Vegetables, fruits, and herbs: plants that are generally defined as those that produce edible seeds, fruit, stems, foliage, or roots. Most are annual plants, though some are classified as biennials (carrots) and perennials (rhubarb, asparagus, and strawberries). Some are woody shrubs and trees, such as blueberries, peaches, and apples.
If there's a chance you might not remember the names of what you've planted, consider labeling your plants by writing their names on a small wooden stake and placing the stake next to the plant. That way, you'll be able to remember their name should you need to look up anything about their optimal growing environment. Some gardeners like to keep a journal that maps the plants and layout of their garden each season.Continue to 9 of 14 below.
09 of 14
Design the Garden
In addition to understanding the basic requirements of the plants you selected for your garden, you'll also need to develop some skills in garden design. This is largely a matter of personal preference, but there are a few standard design aesthetic tips to consider when deciding where to place your plants.
Take into consideration the mature size of plants when you first populate your garden bed. In general, a garden bed should be organized so the low-lying plants are in the foreground or used as edging, the medium-sized plants are occupying the middle section, and the tall plants are in the back. The rules shift a little with an island garden because it can be viewed from all angles. In that case, the center of the bed is planted with the tallest plants, and the low-growing plants are planted around the perimeter.
Garden designers frequently speak of plant form as a guiding principle when arranging plants. This essentially means that you should consider the overall shape or outline of the plants when arranging them in your garden bed. In general, if you seek a formal look, try to use precise geometric plant shapes, such as squared-off hedges and neat edging plants. If you want a more informal look, irregular forms are appropriate.
When garden designers use the term line, it often refers to the structures within the landscape or garden bed—the edges of the garden, for example. It also can refer to the directional impact of the plants. Plants can have general vertical lines (a columnar evergreen), or they can be spreading and horizontal (a creeping juniper). Straight lines and hard angles give a formal look, while curved lines offer a casual feeling.
The term plant texture refers to the fineness or coarseness, roughness or smoothness, heaviness or lightness of a particular plant. The texture comes from a plant's flowers, stems, bark, and especially its leaves. To create variety and visual interest, make sure to use plants with different textures.
10 of 14
Choose a Color Palette
In addition to size, form, line, and texture, color is one of the most important considerations when choosing plants—of both the foliage and the flowers. Landscape designers put considerable effort into creating garden color schemes, but home gardeners should not feel too much pressure to follow technical design principles. Simply pay attention to the colors you're working with so that you like the ultimate look of your garden.
Warm and Cool Colors
An easy place to start is by understanding warm and cool colors, which have different attributes:
- Warm colors include shades of yellow, red, and orange. They are said to excite viewers.
- Cool colors include blue, purple, and green. They are said to calm and relax viewers.
This color theory can be used to create a garden suitable for a specific purpose. For example, a meditation garden can be planted with relaxing cool colors, while you might want to plant flowers with warm colors around a deck intended for parties and entertainment.
Unity and Contrast
Designing a garden with colors all within the cool family or the warm family is a means of creating unity. On the other hand, you might want to contrast warm and cool colors. Using complementary colors—color pairs found opposite one another on the color wheel—can add visual interest. For example, purple and yellow are frequently used in a complementary, contrasting color scheme.
11 of 14
Use Proper Planting and Transplanting Techniques
Proper planting technique—whether it be via seeds or potted nursery plants—is critical for good results. Seed packets will contain detailed information on planting depth, seed spacing, days to germination, and days to plant maturity. The information that comes with nursery plants is more sparse. In general, potted specimens require a planting hole roughly twice the size of their root ball, planted at the same depth as it is in the pot, a deep watering at planting time, and regular watering intervals as the roots take hold.
Consider soil temperature; it's critical when deciding the right time to plant. Planting too early in the season when the soil is cool might result in a sickly plant all season long or seeds that won't germinate. But the same plant or seeds will flourish when started weeks later when the soil has warmed up Soil temperature is especially important for flowering annuals and vegetables; many are classified as being better suited to cooler or warmer soil.
It's common for gardeners to move plants around if they are not thriving. Or, perhaps they want the garden space for something else or they decide they don't like the design. Whatever the reason, many plants can be successfully transplanted. Follow the transplanting advice for your specific plant and wait patiently for the plant to adapt to its new location.
12 of 14
Weeds are a gardener's enemy, so it's important to arm yourself with some facts about them. First, you should know exactly which weeds you are dealing with.
This knowledge will continue to come in handy long after you start a garden. Weeds will pop up again and again despite your best efforts to prevent them. Many sources of information are available to help you identify weeds. Gardening books and university extension service websites often have photos of common weeds and offer tips on controlling them.
Furthermore, experienced gardeners quickly learn not everything that seems to be a weed is a weed. Many plants, especially annual flowers, freely self-seed in the garden. So if you automatically remove every seedling you don't immediately recognize, you might be sacrificing plants you would enjoy. For instance, snapdragons, petunias, cosmos, aquilegia (columbine), foxglove (digitalis), and marigolds are just some of the flowering plants that self-seed. But at the same time, this self-seeding tendency can become a nuisance because plants are growing where you don't want them, effectively turning a flower into a weed.Continue to 13 of 14 below.
13 of 14
Install Landscape Fabric
Landscape fabric is a synthetic textile that is installed on top of a planting area to prevent weeds from sprouting. It works by blocking the sunlight that is necessary for weed seeds to germinate. Holes can be cut in the fabric to insert garden plants, and optionally the fabric can be covered with mulch to hide it. Because the fabric is porous, water drains straight through to the soil. To prevent grass and other plants from invading your new bed, lay down some edging, as well.
A good place to use landscape fabric is in a shrub bed. When planting a group of landscape shrubs, simply lay down some fabric and cut holes in which to plant your shrubs. The bed should stay fairly weed-free for years.
Densely planted garden beds aren't practical for landscape fabric. For example, if you are creating a cottage garden, the plants are usually packed tightly together. It might be impossible to cut that many holes in a sheet of landscape fabric for that style of garden. Another example where landscape fabric is not practical is a vegetable bed planted with root crops such as beets or carrots.
14 of 14
All gardeners face pests at some point. In some instances, you can take preventive measures. For example, if you know your region has an issue with deer, select deer-resistant plants. Or if you've seen rabbits hopping around in your yard, surround your garden beds with rabbit-proof fences. Other plants can deter certain insects.
But in some cases, you will have to take offensive measures. Natural and synthetic chemical ways can combat pests, and each method has its pros and cons.
Furthermore, it's important to realize that good gardens are naturally diverse, and you have to decide on your tolerance level for pest damage. Attempting to entirely eradicate one pest sometimes can open the door to devastation by another pest. Your goal should be to maintain balance for a healthy garden.
Sheet Mulching. Oregon State University Extension.
Landscape Design. University of Minnesota Extension Extension.
How to Use Landscape Fabric to Prevent Weeds. Missouri State University Website