“What do you wish you had known before you started gardening?”
We asked the thousands of home gardeners in our Facebook group what they wish they had known before they dug into a lifetime of gardening. The result? A bumper crop of tips for beginning gardening from a diverse, experienced, and generous group of folks that want first-time growers to fall in love with growing your own vegetables the way they did.
Location, Location, Location
“It's important to find more about what works for your specific growing zone. I had to learn the hard way that full sun did not mean full sun in Florida—it actually meant partial shade. Zones are extremely important and that's what you should focus on when planning.” —Melyssa Ferenczy-Zumpano
The first of our basic gardening tips is one of the most important: location. Home gardeners should put themselves in the best possible position for a successful harvest right from the start.
Big picture? You need to know your local microclimate, or growing zone, and your frost dates. And then you need to zoom in on the parts of your property that will best support a home garden.
The seed packets and the seedlings you purchase will often have different planting and tending instructions for different climates. The amount and intensity of sunlight you receive vary by latitude (how far north or south of the equator you live). The amount of rainfall you typically receive is a factor in your microclimate as well. But perhaps the most critical factors in your growing zone are your first and last frost dates.
The first and last frost dates in your region will determine your growing season. Seed packets will tell you if the seeds within can be sown in place before or after the first frost or should be started indoors and planted out. They will also show you dates to maturity.
If your seed packet says 60 days to maturity, you need to start that seed 60 days before the last frost or your crops will die before they can be harvested. Typically, days to maturity is from time of transplant. If you live in a warmer growing zone with a longer growing season you have a lot more flexibility. If you are located in a microclimate with a shorter growing season, you need to choose your seeds wisely (many common crops have early or quick-growing varieties) or use strategies like starting seeds indoors in late winter or early spring or installing cold frames or row covers around your crops.
One of the best tips for easy gardening for beginners is choosing the right backyard garden site. Selecting a location that receives the maximum amount of sunlight, that is protected from wind by bushes or trees, and is located nearby an easily accessible water source gives you the best chance of healthy crops.
Once you have the best location you need to think about your soil. Pinetree Garden Seeds has an in-depth guide into backyard garden soil that gives great tips on how to test, improve, and tend different soil types.
“I started 3 years ago with 1 4'×8' raised bed. Just kinda threw a bunch of stuff in, worked but didn't suit the needs of different plants. The next year I had 2 4'x8' and 2 2'x8' beds. Was better for suiting the needs of specific plants but found it wasn't as easy for me to reach into the 4' beds. Also found crop rotation to be difficult. Last year I had to break it all down and constructed 10 2'x8' beds. I can easily navigate these beds and because they are all the same crop rotation is less of a concern.” —Jon Koeppel
Our second piece of advice for learning to grow your own vegetables is to start small and expand as you gain experience and confidence. The same way your eyes can be bigger than your stomach at the dessert cart or kitchen table, you can get too greedy flipping through gorgeous garden catalogs or Instagram.
It’s hard to imagine in early spring but the tidy rows you are planting will get unruly quickly. If you plant too many seeds, the seedlings will crowd each other out and compete for sunlight, water, and nutrients and none of them will flourish as they should. If you plant too large of an area than you can manage, you can easily fall behind on weeding or watering. (Both tasks ramp up as the growing season does when spring rains give way to hot summer days.) And if you plant too much of one type of crop, you can tire of eating or preserving it come harvest time.
Be realistic about the time and effort you are willing to put into not just gardening but preparing or preserving the crops you grow. Even a small garden can yield so much sustenance and joy!
“Don't waste space on something you won't eat.” —Kathryn Belt
The third secret to vegetable gardening for beginners is to choose crops you actually want to eat. Yes, radishes grow quickly and easily in most growing zones. If you don’t enjoy eating radishes, however, how rewarding will growing them really be?
There is always a point in your growing season when weeding, watering, and fertilizing feel a lot less fun. You will be much more motivated to keep going if you truly can’t wait to eat or share what you are growing!
Seeds to Savor
At Pinetree Garden Seeds, we try to provide flavor profiles on all of the web page descriptions of our seeds. If a particular seed has won any awards for great taste, we’ll tell you! We also let you know if a particular crop tastes best freshly picked or is better suited for cooking or preserving. Check out the user reviews of our seeds as well—our generous community gives honest, helpful feedback on their experiences growing and eating different types of seeds.
Be open to trying a few new things, though. If you are used to store-bought vegetables that have been picked before they are ripe and trucked long distances to your local grocery store, your home garden will be filled with surprises. You may think you don’t like sugar peas or snap peas, but have you tasted one right off the vine on a brilliant summer day? If you think tomatoes are watery or tough, wait until a perfectly ripe one practically falls into your hand, bursting with bright juice.
Here’s the #1 thing our experienced home gardeners want eager newbies to know: it’s a hobby, so have fun with it. You are going to make mistakes. Experienced gardeners still make mistakes! Things will not always go your way, or they will take some wild turns before they do. Nature is wonderful but it is unpredictable, and every growing season will present you with unexpected challenges and opportunities.
Crows digging up your seeds or robins descending on your strawberries. Seedlings that perish from too much or too little water. That seedling you pulled because you thought it was a weed. That weed you tended so carefully because you confused it for one of your crops. Aphids, beetles, and other bugs chewing holes in your leaves. Deer or rabbits snacking in your rows. Droughts. Deluges. Mildew and blight. Thunderstorms or hailstorms that damage crops. Late freezes and early frosts.
Gardeners are full of madcap stories of mayhem. They are also full of stories about enormous harvests, happy accidents, and the everyday joys of being outdoors in all seasons sustaining their bodies and spirits through sunlight, water, and soil.
Gardening isn’t just about the harvest. It’s about navigating and trusting the natural growth process. If you find yourself getting frustrated or dispirited by small failures, read our list of gardening’s many benefits to remind yourself of all you are gaining by growing your first home garden!
Get more great advice for new gardeners in our Facebook group! Our helpful and generous community can’t wait to weigh in on your first-time gardening questions and concerns. To join Rooted, please click here.