9 Things to Know About Starting a Garden From Scratch

Mom and daughter gardening in the yard

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Gardening can easily become a lifelong hobby with no limit to the knowledge you can develop. But there are some basic skills you will need right from the beginning as you create your first planting bed. Here are nine gardening aspects to help you get started.

  • 01 of 09

    Grass Removal

    green grassy lawn
    David Beaulieu

    Establishing a new garden bed often means sacrificing a portion of the lawn. You can kill grass (or other ground cover) with chemicals, though this is often harmful for you and the environment. There also are several effective organic methods of removing grass and the roots that go along with it.

    Sheet Mulching (Layering)

    Known as sheet mulching or layering, this method involves putting down layers of some organic material, such as newspaper or unwaxed cardboard, to smother the grass. It can take several months, but it is typically an effective way to kill grass. It is also organic and not harmful to the environment, as both the grass and the newspaper or cardboard simply break down and can be mixed with the soil.

    Start by defining your planting bed, and then lay a thick layer of cardboard or newspaper over the grass. Ensure that any seams overlap by at least 6 inches. If you're using newspaper, make sure the sheets have black ink only (no color), and layer them at least 10 sheets thick. Then, add a layer of compost 3 to 4 inches thick over the paper or cardboard to hold it down. Wood chips will also work.

    In warm climates, the grass will break down in about 3 or 4 months; in cooler climates, it might take an entire growing season. Once completed, add a thick layer of compost over the top of the planting bed. Your bed is now ready for flowers and shrubs.

    Solarization

    Another natural method is solarization: killing grass and weeds by utilizing the heat of the sun to bake the soil to a high temperature. 

    Start by mowing the grass in the planting area as short as possible. Then, hose down the area to dampen it thoroughly. Next, cover the area with a clear plastic tarp that's been cut to the desired size of your new garden space. With a moderate amount of sun exposure, the ground beneath the plastic can heat to around 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This will scorch living grass, as well as weeds, seeds, and soil bacteria.

    Within about four weeks, your grass should be dead and beginning to break down. You can then dig the dead grass into the soil, adding compost or other soil amendments if you wish, and plant your garden bed.

    Manual Removal

    Manually removing grass is a lot of work, but it is great exercise and entirely natural. It's also very effective.

    Moisten the lawn area thoroughly a day or two before you plan to remove the grass. This will soften the turf and loosen the root system. Next, use a sharp spade to cut the lawn into 1-square-foot sections. Remove each section by sliding the spade beneath the segment and levering it up and out of the ground.

    The unwanted grass can be placed in a compost bin or discarded with other yard waste. But be aware that unless your composting process delivers sufficient heat, some grass seeds will likely survive and might sprout new grass when you eventually use the compost in the garden.

  • 02 of 09

    Garden Soil

    crumbly soil
    David Beaulieu

    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. Perform a soil test on your garden bed. If the results suggest a deficiency, you'll need to add the necessary amendments to remedy the problem.
    • Incorrect soil pH: Many plants tolerate a fairly wide range of soil pH levels, from acidic to alkaline. But soil that is too acidic or too alkaline will have trouble growing certain plants. Your soil test will also give you information on your garden soil's pH.
    • Incorrect soil type: The soil type refers to the texture and composition of the soil. For instance, some soil contains too much clay, causing drainage problems. And other soil is too sandy, draining water before plant roots can make use of it. 

    Furthermore, no matter how good 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 by hand. 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. 

  • 03 of 09

    Plant Types

    black elephant ears contrast in texture with cosmos
    David Beaulieu

    As you select your first plants, there are several qualities you should understand about them. First, plants commonly used in landscaping generally fall into certain classes:

    • Herbaceous annuals: These are plants that go through their entire lifecycle in one growing season. Many flowers fall into this category, including marigolds, impatiens, petunias, zinnias, and cornflowers. In addition, some plants that perform as perennials in warm climates can be used as annuals in cold climates.
    • Herbaceous perennials (and biennials): These are plants that return every year, often dying back to the ground in the winter but regrowing from the roots the following spring. Some perennials are very long-lived, such as peony and daylily, while others are relatively short-lived, such as lupine, columbine, and delphinium. Moreover, plants categorized as biennials can be considered very short-lived perennials. They often spend their first year developing and then flower in their second year before dying. Foxglove, hollyhock, and sweet William are examples of biennials.
    • Woody trees and shrubs: These are 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 regrowing from ground level, these plants sprout their new growth from a main trunk or main branches. All common trees fall into this category, as well as many bushes and shrubs.
    • Vegetables, fruits, and herbs: These are generally defined as any plant that offers edible seeds, fruit, stems, or roots. Most are annual plants, though there are some biennials (carrots) and perennials (asparagus, strawberries). Plus, some are woody shrubs and trees, such as blueberries, peaches, and apples.

    Furthermore, plants are categorized according to their growing needs, starting with their appropriate USDA hardiness zones. The hardiness zone map divides the U.S. into 13 areas, and plants are assigned zone numbers based on the climate in which they thrive. The cold limit is especially important, as this denotes the point on the map where winter temperatures will start to kill a plant.

    In addition to the climate, plants have specific light and water requirements for optimal growth. It's ideal to group plants with similar needs in a garden bed for easier care.

    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 placed near them. That way, you'll be able to look up their growing needs if necessary. Plus, some gardeners like to keep a journal that maps the plants and layout of their garden each season.

  • 04 of 09

    Plant Arrangement

    Montauk daisy flower
    David Beaulieu

    In addition to understanding plant types, you'll also need to develop some skill at garden design. This is largely a matter of personal preference, but there are a few standard design aesthetic tips to consider when arranging your plants.

    Size

    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-size plants are occupying the middle section, and the tall plants are in the background. The rules shift a little with an island garden, where it can be viewed from all angles. In that case, the center of the bed gets the tallest plants, and the smallest plants are on the perimeter.

    Form

    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.

    Line

    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.

    Texture

    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 in the garden bed.

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  • 05 of 09

    Color Schemes

    large, colorful rock garden
    David Beaulieu

    In addition to size, form, line, and texture, one of the most important considerations when choosing plants is their color—both of 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 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.

  • 06 of 09

    Planting and Transplanting

    pink rose of sharon flower with deep pink throat and prominent stamen
    David Beaulieu

    Proper planting technique—whether it be from seeds or potted nursery plants—is critical for good results when gardening. Seed packets will have detailed information on how to plant what's inside.The information that comes with nursery plants is more sparse. In general, potted specimens need a planting hole roughly the size of their root ball, along with regular watering as the roots take hold.

    In addition, soil temperature is critical when planting. Planting too early in the season when the soil is cool might result in a sickly plant all season long. But the same plant will flourish when started weeks later in a warm ground.

    Furthermore, it's common for gardeners to move some plants around. Maybe they want the 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 work carefully and patiently for best results.

  • 07 of 09

    Weeds

    Dandelion in spring

    Rebecca Smith/Getty Images

    Weeds are a gardener's enemy, so it's important to arm yourself with some facts about them. You first 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 in spite of your best efforts to prevent them. There are many sources of information 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 really is one. Many plants, especially annual flowers, freely self-seed in the garden. So if you automatically remove every plant you don't recognize, you might be sacrificing flowers you would enjoy. For instance, snapdragons, petunias, aquilegia (columbine), foxglove (digitalis), and marigolds are some flowers that self-seed. But at the same time, this self-seeding tendency can become a nuisance by putting plants where you don't want them, effectively turning a flower into a weed.

  • 08 of 09

    Landscape Fabric

    Landscape fabric

    Amazon

    Landscape fabric is a synthetic textile that goes over a planting area to prevent weeds from sprouting up. 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 then the fabric can be covered with mulch to hide it. Because the fabric is porous, water drains straight through to the ground. 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 to plant your shrubs. The bed should stay fairly weed-free for years.

    Densely planted garden beds aren't as appropriate for landscape fabric. For example, if you are opening up ground for a cottage garden, the plants are usually packed tightly together. It can be difficult to cut many holes in a sheet of landscape fabric for this kind of garden bed.

    Continue to 9 of 9 below.
  • 09 of 09

    Pests

    Groundhog in profile, with green grass in the background
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    All gardeners face pests at some point. In some instances, you can take preventive measures. For example, if you know your region has deer, select deer-resistant plants. Or if you've seen rabbits hopping around in your yard, surround your garden beds with rabbit-proof fences. There also are plants that deter certain insects.

    But in some cases, you will have to take offensive measures. There are natural and synthetic chemical ways to combat pests, and each method has its pros and cons. Some natural methods might take longer to work while chemical methods can be harsh on the environment.

    Furthermore, it's important to realize that good gardens are naturally diverse, and there are acceptable numbers of pests that can be tolerated. 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.