Gardening is more popular than ever, and there's no shortage of websites, magazines, podcasts, online classes, and TV shows to tell you how to do it. But there are some basic things every new gardener should know before they head to the garden shop. We've gathered a few tips to get you started, along with some things to consider before you commit to your new gardening practice.
1. Set Some Goals
What do you want from your garden? A pleasant place to sit and read and commune with nature? Fresh herbs and tomatoes from the vine? A lush lawn with a few flowering shrubs? A fragrant bower of roses? An oasis in the city? Knowing what you want to accomplish can help you take a look at your space and figure out how to make it happen, or adjust your goals to fit your space. Maybe there's not enough sun for tomatoes, but lettuces would grow fine in containers.
2. Shade or Sun?
Don't buy any plants until you know how much sun they'll be getting in the area where you plant to put them. Making sure your plants have adequate sunlight for their needs—not too little and not too much—is one of the most important aspects of gardening. Most tags on nursery plants will indicate how much sunlight they need. Partial shade is a flexible situation that gives you lots of options. Some perennials simply won't bloom properly without adequate sun: for example, peonies, sedums, echinacea and chrysanthemums.
3. Know your Zone
Your USDA hardiness zone, that is; also known as your "growing zone." This system classifies your geographical area according to its seasonal temperatures and can help you choose plants accordingly. Most plants available at commercial nurseries or via mail order will provide information on the growing zone. Lower zones mean colder average temperatures; higher ones mean warmer average temperatures, Sometimes you can grow a plant slightly outside your zone; for example, a Zone 6 plant in a Zone 5, but you'll have to make adjustments: for example, planting it in a spot that gets plenty of sun in the winter and has shelter from harsh winter winds.
4. Know Your Soil
If you're lucky, you have perfect garden soil ready for planting! But in most cases, your soil will probably benefit from amendments. Garden soil needs good drainage so that moisture and nutrients can reach the roots and base of your plants. Is your soil hard and clumpy? It may contain a lot of clay, and will need amendments to give it better drainage. Is your soil thin and crumbly? It probably lacks nutrients and moisture. In both cases, adding amendments like compost, aged manure or used coffee grounds can help. Clay soils tend to need amendments added every season, and you want to really work them in, instead of just spreading them on top. Some plants do well in any kind of soil, but some prefer acidic or alkaline soils. It can be helpful to determine your soil's pH level before you start.
5. What Kinds of Water Needs Can You Handle
If your climate tends to be dry, consider planting drought-tolerant plant varieties (like sedums, agastache, catmint, echinacea, Russian sage and lavender), so you can cut back on watering plants in summer, which can be quite time-consuming. Even in climates that aren't so dry, consider how much time you're willing to spend watering your plants. If you go on a lot of long weekend trips, maybe skip the plants that require consistently moist soil.
6. Know Your Weather
Gardeners watch the weather forecast a lot. You'll want to know when your last frost date will be, so you can safely sow annual seeds. You may have to cover your plants if you get an early autumn frost or ice storm. And a drought means extra watering.
7. Know Your Time Limitations
Gardening is one of those things that beginners can quickly become obsessed with. But even if you find gardening enjoyable, it's still time consuming. Consider how much time you realistically have to devote to it and manage those expectations by not planting more than you can comfortably maintain. Weeding on its own can eat up a lot of time, depending how much space you need to cover. Some practices can help you save time: for example, using a good layer of mulch will keep weeds under control and also preserve moisture, cutting down on both weeding and watering time.
8. Be Aware of Your Physical Limitations
Gardening is enjoyable, but it's work. If you don't enjoy working outside in hot weather, or would find it difficult to do the bending, pulling, or digging gardening often requires, consider adjusting the scope of your garden plan. Maybe you could start with some container gardening to get a sense of how physically demanding it will be. There are many tools and products for elderly and differently-abled gardeners on the market to accommodate physical needs.
9. The "Yuck" Factor
Most likely if you're interested in gardening, you don't mind getting your hands dirty. But how do you feel about getting your face dirty, or your clothes? How do you feel about bugs? Poison ivy? Sunburn? Dry hands and sweaty clothes and muddy shoes? Working outside does have some hazards, so before you leap into gardening you want to be aware of these and take appropriate precautions. A pair of garden gloves is a must. Sunscreen and insect repellent are also necessary.
Some plants may have more of a "yuck" factor than others. Tulip trees have sap; lilies have pollen that can stain; vegetables can attract pests or turn mushy and rotten. Think about how down-and-dirty you're willing to get before picking your plants and garden location.
10. Know Your Budget
Like any hobby, gardening can incur expenses. But there are plenty of ways to garden for a low cost. Try to buy things on sale. Shopping season sales at your local nurseries can save you money on plants, tools and materials. Big box stores often sell somewhat droopy annuals for affordable prices; they usually have a whole season of flowering left in them, so pluck off the dead bits, give them a drink, and they're ready to go! If you buy a lot of bulbs, some vendors sell them at wholesale prices, and they have end-of-season specials too. Go to plant swaps, or start a plant swap in your community. See if your town has free mulch available. Also, befriend your fellow gardeners, and share resources and perennial divisions.
11. What's Your Season?
Are you a summer lover? Enamored of autumn? Think spring is king? Planning your garden for maximum enjoyment in your favorite seasons isn't hard to do. Spring is all about bulbs that you plant in the fall. Summer means lots of deadheading and maybe planting some annuals. Autumn is harvest, enjoying the fruits (and flowers!) of your labor, and putting the garden to bed for winter.