The Ultimate Gardening Guide
Whether you have been gardening for years and years or you are just a newbie, gardening can be overwhelming. It can be considered a tough, bothersome chore. It can be stressful. However, it doesn’t have to be! The key to keeping calm about gardening is to plan things in advance! Start reading and researching a variety of articles about gardening, plants, seeds, tools, etc. Start observing your land as well: climate, sun vs. shade, etc. If you are organized and prepared for a variety of issues, you might be surprised by how smoothly things go for your next (or first!) garden. For that reason, I have prepared the Ultimate Gardening Guide. Enjoy!
For Beginner Gardeners:
1. First thing to ask yourself: where will your garden be located?
- Don’t place your garden too far from a water source/faucet (ahem, guilty over here)
- Observe your possible location over an entire day: how much sun and shade does the land get? Is your land perfectly flat or hilly?
- Check out your soil: is it poor, or will you be able to just sow seeds into the ground right away? Figure out the natural pH levels of your soil to learn more about it (here’s a great pH soil testing kit idea).
2. Figure out your gardening zone. This will help you figure out when to start seeds, when to plant seeds and transplants, when your frost dates are, and even what plants will work in your climate. Click here for a good map for the U.S. garden zones.
3. Learn from other gardeners’ mistakes. You probably know at least one other person who gardens. Ask them for advice and pay attention to it. You can also find some great bloggers who write about typical beginner gardening mistakes. Our Heritage of Health, for example, wrote about what Beginner Gardening Mistake to Avoid and The Prairie Homestead wrote some cautionary words for Beginning Gardening as well.
4. It’s always a good idea to start out with easy vegetables so that you have a good first year of gardening memories. Check out this list for some easy growing vegetables.
5. Read some books about gardening. Some of my favorites include: The Backyard Homestead by Carleen Madigan, and Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre by Brett L. Markham. You could also get a book on beginner gardening like this one.
Types of Gardening:
Hopefully, if you are an “expert” gardener (are we ever really experts in gardening?) or a novice, you are figured out by now what type of soil you have (see #1). There are many types of gardening you can consider doing, depending on your soil conditions and what type of land you have. This includes:
- Container Gardening
- Raised Garden Beds
- Vertical Gardening (try building a wall of strawberries!)
- Square Foot Gardening
- Lasagna Gardening
- Hugelkultur Gardening
- Keyhole Gardening
- Tiered Gardening
Of course, there is also just simply placing the seeds in your tilled land. However, most people will live somewhere where something needs to be done to make the land healthy and fertile.
Planning your garden:
Now that you have a garden plot prepared, you need to start thinking about how to plan your garden:
1. Figure out the details for what you need to do in order to prepare your garden for spring.
2. Will you be having Early Spring Crops? If so, figure out which ones you will be planting and when you need to buy the seeds and get them ready.
3. Learn what needs to be planted in Late Spring. This is more complicated and you could be starting seeds on different days, depending on what you are planting.
4. Will you have a fall and winter garden too? This is starting to become more popular, and it should! Here are some ideas of what to plant in the fall.
5. Now that your gardening is done for a few months, make sure you plan early on what you need to do to clean up your garden for the next spring.
Are you going to buy seeds or transplants from the store? Transplants are way more expensive, but sometimes seeds can be frustrating and difficult (for example, check out the difficulties of growing Passionflower from seed).
If you choose seeds, here’s some important information for you:
1. First, make sure you understand the different types of seeds: heirloom, organic, hybrid, gmo, etc. Here’s a great article on it from Good Girl Gone Green.
2. Next, figure out the best place to buy your seeds. You usually do not want to go to a generic hardware-type store for your seeds: they are often old and poor quality. If you have a great gardening store nearby that you trust, you can buy your seeds there. However, I find that the funnest and rarest assortment of seeds are online (for example, check out my post on the many types of peppers I grew). I get most of my seeds from SeedsNow, they have a good variety of non-GMO heirloom seeds as well as some inexpensive seed banks with all the varieties of seeds you’ll need. Here’s a great guide from Weed ’em and Reap about how to buy seeds online.
3. Now that you have bought your high-quality seeds, it’s important to take careful steps to ensure that more of those seeds will become healthy plants. Here are some great tips on how to start seeds.
4. It is often suggested to use a root growth hormone on your little plants to help them produce strong roots quicker. Another option is to make your own root growth hormone. It’s much more natural and pretty easy to do!
5. Finally, when you get pretty good at gardening, you can consider saving the seeds from your garden. This is something that I plan on learning this upcoming year in my garden. It can be a bit complicated, but if you start out learning about saving seeds from one plant (tomatoes are a good place to start), you can slowly work your way up from there. Thank Your Body has a great post about saving seeds from your garden. You can also read some books on seed saving, like this one.
Natural Care for your Garden
Now that you have figured out your garden type, your garden location, and what you are going to plant (and when!), it’s time to take care of your beloved garden. Gardens need the loving care of a loyal gardener to become successful.
**You need to keep caring for your soil so it does not get depleted of nutrients or have issues with soil erosion. Here are some things to research and consider:
- Make Your Own Compost: Compost is important for your garden soil. You can continually buy some, but that will get bothersome and expensive. Another option is to make your own compost (click here to instructions). This will not only boost your garden soil for free, it will reduce your garbage disposal, which helps the environment and possibly your wallet.
- Vermiculture: Another option for composting is vermiculture, which uses worms to break down your trash items for your soil. I prefer doing both a compost pit outdoors and a small bin of vermiculture indoors, since it will add a complexity to my compost soil for my garden by adding the two types together. Research both types and do what works best for your garden. Click here to learn more about vermiculture.
- Fertilizer: I really hope that you will avoid commercial fertilizer products whenever possible. I understand that sometimes certain plants or soils need extra care in the form of fertilizer. Please research all natural possibilities before grabbing those generic store-bought fertilizers. My absolute favorite natural fertilizer product is fish emulsion. Made from fish parts (duh), fish emulsion is high in nitrogen and other helpful nutrients for your soil. Make sure to buy a good-quality organic one (like this one). Here is a wonderful article on other types of natural fertilizers.
- Crop Rotation: Another way to keep your garden soil healthy and happy is with crop rotation. Various fruits and vegetables fall in different plant families. Each plant family is susceptible to certain pests and bacteria. If you keep planting your cucumbers in the same spot every year, that soil can become stressed, weak, and very poor. Careful crop rotation is actually beneficial to your garden because some plant families gets boosts from the stuff that other plant families leave behind. Click here to learn more about how to do proper crop rotation.
- Soil Protectors: One common issue with soil is erosion. Wind, weeds, and even the sun can damage the top layer of soil, leaving it in bad condition. Fortunately, there are many options to help keep your topsoil happy. One option for protecting your garden soil are weed cover fabrics (like this one). I personally prefer mulch. You can use many different items for mulching your soil: cardboard, newspapers, leaves, hay, or actual mulch. It depends on what is the best price for your budget. Mulch keeps your soil moist longer (which will keep your water bills down) and protect your soil from damage and weeds. Click here to learn more about deep mulching your garden.
- Cover Crops: Most gardeners either take winter off from gardening, or have just a few winter crops still going strong. One of the best ways to protect the topsoil of your garden during the winter is by planting cover crops. Each type of cover crop will give your soil a boost of different nutrients, so you can plan on planting different cover crops in different parts of your garden (based on your crop rotation plan) or make sure to get a specific cover crop that will be good for all the plants you decide to grow in the next spring. Here’s my post on how to use Cover Crops in the garden. Here’s another great post on Cover Crops for you to check out..
**Watering your garden can be expensive unless you plan things out right. Here are some ways you can water your garden without breaking the bank and also giving them the best watering possible:
- Mulch: As stated above, mulching will help keep your plants moist longer, so you won’t have to water as much.
- Make Rain Barrels: Rain Barrels will collect rain water (these are great around your home/garage/barn to collect water from your gutters) so you are not spending as much money on water bills. Rain water is very good water for your plants, too, so it will make your plants extra happy. Here’s a great tutorial on making a rain barrel.
- Drip Irrigation: drip irrigation will help keep your plants evenly moist and will also prevent wasted water. It can be expensive at first, but well worth it in the end to do drip irrigation. Here’s a book that might help you understand drip irrigation better.
There is pretty much no way you can have a garden without interacting with bugs. Bees, earwigs, spiders, and anything else you can think of, bugs live in the garden. Don’t let that stop you from gardening. Here are some things to consider:
- Forget those chemically-loaded pest control sprays from the store! Instead, make safe and natural pest control items. Here is a great natural garden pest control spray to try out from Weed ’em and Reap. You can also use essential oils or companion planting (especially herbs!) to encourage or prevent certain bugs in your garden. Click here for a great list of natural pest controls from Natural Living Mamma. You can also find tons of recipes for natural pest control in books. Natural Homestead: 40 + Recipes for Natural Critters and Crops by Jill Winger is a fantastic book for your homestead and gives plenty of natural ideas for pest control in your garden and home.
- Make a Bug Hotel: Not all bugs in the garden are bad bugs! In fact, some bugs are very beneficial to your garden’s health. It can be hard to encourage them to live in your garden, but if you give them a place to live, they might just stick around. Here’s a great tutorial on how to build a bug hotel. These things are beautiful.
- Encourage Pollinators: Most plants will not provide you with food until they have been visited by pollinating insects. One of the best ways to get more pollinating bugs to your garden is by planting certain plants in your garden to attract them. Here is a great list of things to plant to encourage pollinators.
Natural Care for the Gardener
After many years of bug bites, cuts, and callouses from the garden, I feel that I can personally give you this advice/warning: be prepared to take care of yourself!
- Make a Gardener’s Hand Cream to sooth your skin after a hard day in the garden.
- Make a homemade and natural bug repellent spray to keep bugs away from you while you work in the garden.
- Make a homemade salve for bug bites, in case the repellent spray did not keep all of the bugs away and you get bit.
- Have an herbal poison ivy remedy ready to use, if you are susceptible to poison ivy.
Extending the Gardening Season:
**For some special gardeners, it’s hard to imagine taking a season off from gardening. Luckily, there are many ways you can extend your gardening season:
- Cold Frames: Cold frames are a wonderful way to extend your gardening season. Four Season Harvest, by Eliot Coleman, is a wonderful book to learn more about cold frames. Learn how to build your own cold frames in this post.
- Hoop Houses: A hoop house is a way to extend your growing season if you have raised beds. I plan on experimenting with hoop houses next year. Here’s a great post about hoop houses on raised beds.
- Build a Greenhouse: You can buy an already made greenhouse to garden all year round (like this), or you can build your own. Here’s a plan for building your own greenhouse for pretty cheap (okay, it’s technically a hoop house).
- Grow some plants indoors: I don’t have luck with indoor plants. I have too much shade around my home, so I don’t have enough sunlight for successful indoor planting. However, here’s a great post on growing herbs indoors to get you started. You can also consider delving into the world of Hydroponics for indoor gardening.
Harvest and Preserving the Crops/Aftermath
**How that you have a beautiful harvest of crops (hopefully), what do you do with it all to prevent any waste?
- Dehydrate your produce: Dehydrating is a great way to preserve excess fruits and vegetables from your garden. Make sure to get a good-quality dehydrator for the best success (like this one).
- Start canning: Canning excess produce is something I very much look forward to doing next fall. Here’s a great list of over 100 canning recipes. Here’s a great canning kit.
- Use a Root Cellar: If you are lucky, you live somewhere where you can dig deep in your land and make your own root cellar (or maybe your home has a basement to use as a root cellar). Here’s a book on root cellars so you can learn how to store each type of produce in it properly.
Options for Non-Gardeners:
**For whatever reason, some people either cannot garden where they live or do not want to (a mystery to me, but hey, I won’t judge!). There are great choices for you so you can still get the benefits of gardens:
- Go to local farmer’s markets: If you are fortunate, you live in an area where there are good quality farmer markets to go to. I, alas, do not live by any good farmer markets, so I know it’s not possible for everyone. Make sure to learn how to get the best produce from your farmer market. Here’s a great post to learn more about farmer market produce.
- Go to U-Pick farms: I love U-Pick farms, especially to pick-my-own apples every fall! I put on my flannel shirt and rugged jeans and pretend I own the orchard as I pick the produce with my own hands. It’s great exercise, it’s great for local farms, it’s a great thing to do as a family!
- Join a CSA: Joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a wonderful way to make connections with local farmers and eat in season. Here’s a great article on how to choose a CSA.
*Phew* Did I miss anything on my Ultimate Gardening Guide?
**If I missed anything, please comment below and I will keep adding to this post!
**For further reading:
**Check out this post Top 10 Reasons to Garden by Nourishing Liberty
I hope I encouraged and excited you about the upcoming garden season!