5 Tips For Beginner Gardeners

Proud moment — my baby brother has decided to give gardening a try. [all the warm and fuzzy feels] After chatting with him a bit about seeds, plants and what his newbie goals are it became clear to me that this blog has deviated a bit from the original intent. The purpose of this platform was to break down topics and concepts that can be very complex and provide a simple overview so as not to overwhelm the novice gardener. I often find that people are averse to the idea of gardening because they assume that it must be an elaborate, arduous process. I assure you, friends, that does not have to be the case. Given the current circumstances, global pandemic and all, it seems that more people have decided to take the plunge and try their hand at gardening. Online seed distributors have openly communicated that their shelves are nearly empty as sales hit record highs and homebound individuals turned to nature to supplement their groceries, entertain their restless children and refuel their souls. In response, I thought now might be a good time to provide the first-timers with a few tips for success. If the beginner gardener approached me and asked for five tips to get them started this is what I would say…

Thin those carrots and use the tops for pesto!

Start small. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to stick to an herb garden in your kitchen window BUT you don’t want to start with so much earth that you feel you can’t keep up. A few planters, a nice raised bed or a small tilled plot (5’x5′ or 10’x10′) should be more than enough dirt to get you started. If you love the experience and gain some confidence you can always expand next year. Set yourself up for success!

Future Glass Gem popcorn — movie night, anyone?

Plant things you’ll actually eat. I know this seems like a no-brainer but sometimes we are tempted to plant things that look cool or that your friend/family member insists you must try. Don’t. You’ve started small to keep your garden manageable, don’t waste space growing plants you won’t eat. You will lose interest, they will go untended and ultimately they will just be a waste of precious soil. Don’t bother.

Patterson yellow onions are known for exceptional storage.

Spacing is critical. You will want to squeeze as much as possible into your little patch of earth. It’s an exciting project and seed shopping evokes the “kid in a candy store” effect. I get it, I’ve been gardening my whole life and I still struggle with spacing. That being said, if you plant too many things too close together they will not achieve their productivity potential. Often times a description on a seed pack or website will give an estimate of what your yield should be. i.e. Hot Lemon peppers are said to produce ~100 peppers per plant. This estimate is based on the assumption that you have maintained appropriate distances between plants and rows. If you don’t give them enough room to grow, your yields can be reduced by as much as 50%. Get the most bang for your buck by spacing your plants properly.

My first immature Yellowfin zucchini soaking up the sun.

Sunshine or bust. While many herbs and flowers enjoy shade and there is a short list of vegetables that will grow in a partial shade environment, most vegetables and fruits require full sun for optimal growth. If plants do not receive sufficient sunshine they become “leggy” developing unusually long, brittle stems as they reach for the light they need. Sunlight is how plants get energy for photosynthesis (the process by which they make food) and is therefore required for fruit production. In other words, no sunshine = no tomatoes. Make sure you pick a sunny spot where your veggie patch can thrive.

Mexican Sunflowers are a tall variety that attract an assortment of flying pollinators.

Plant flowers. I know what you’re thinking, “but you said don’t waste space with things you won’t eat.” Flowers are the exception. Flowers attract pollinators to your garden; without pollinators the critical exchange of genetic material between plants will not occur and they will not produce offspring, aka fruit. Bees, butterflies and other critters feed on pollen and in doing so move said pollen from one blossom to the next, facilitating fruit development. Sure, the fruit and veggie plants have flowers that appeal to insects but by planting bright colored pollinator favorites you increase the quantity attracted to your plot and ensure that there are plenty around to get the job done. Additionally, some of those pollinators also feed on pests that cause problems in your garden so by attracting the good guys (like ladybugs) you also enlist natural pest control. If you really want your flowers to be dual purpose, try sunflowers, calendula, nastrutiums or other edible varieties.

Purple Top turnips are a quick and easy cold tolerant crop.

In addition to these tips I thought I’d provide a short list of options that I consider fairly fool-proof. No pruning necessary, resilient and climate hardy, these fruits and vegetables are suitable for someone just getting started on their gardening journey.

  • Turnips
  • Potatoes & Sweet Potatoes
  • Peppers
  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Radishes
  • Squash (summer and winter varieties)
  • Lettuce, Chard & Kale
  • Eggplant
  • Onions & Garlic (onion plants or sets are recommended for beginners)
  • Cantaloupe
  • Tomatoes (determinate varieties do not require pruning)
  • Okra

If you follow the suggestions above and stick with easily managed crops you’ll set yourself up for an enjoyable first season as part of the gardening community. Don’t be afraid to be resourceful; use online platforms (blogs, social media, etc.) as well as your local garden centers and organizations to obtain information regarding specific crops and tricks of the trade. They’re always willing to help a green thumb in training. Cheers, friends!

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