Beginning Your Garden Journey
For some of you, the idea of starting your own garden, from scratch, can be a daunting idea, especially if you have never gardened before. You have found your way here though so well done for taking the first step - the rest is easy! Some of you on the other hand may be really excited but just aren't sure where to begin. Regardless of how you came to the decision to begin your first garden, below are some simple steps that anyone can follow.
Start at the Start
So first things first. This garden is going to belong to you (and whoever else you choose to share it with) so what you do with it is entirely up to you (although you may need permission from your local council for some things). Don't listen to anyone who tells you that you absolutely must do something a particularly way. The recommendations here and in other sections of the website are ones that generally work best or that are the easiest etc. but that doesn't mean that you won't find something that works for you so experiment once you know the basics. It is much more fun that way.
So what are the basics? Well firstly, most plants (there are exceptions to every rule) need light, water and carbon dioxide. They use these for a a process called photosynthesis whereby they use light to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugar, which they use for energy. Plants need energy just like we do! This process also produces oxygen, which the plants release into the air. Also like us, plants need oxygen for respiration. Ensuring that your plants have access to these basics, is essential to growing healthy plants. Most of these things are supplied by the environment but here's what you can do to help your plants:
- Pick a spot with the correct amount of light
- The majority of plants like at least 6-8 hours of full sun. Most food plants fall into this category.
- There are some plants though that like dappled or part shade, or even full shade. It all depends on what their natural habitat is.
- The plant label or seed packet should tell you how much light your plant needs.
- Water your plant when natural rainfall isn't enough.
- If you're not sure whether you plant needs water, check out Beginners: Tips for some helpful hints.
- Make sure your plant has good drainage. Plant roots need oxygen too!
- This is particularly important if you have clay soil, which doesn't drain well. A good solution is to use raised garden beds.
Plants also need nutrients to be healthy and you can supply these with fertiliser, worm castings, worm pee, mulch, companion plants, compost or compost tea. If your plants develop a deficiency in a specific nutrient, you can often add that specific nutrient (epsom salts for magnesium definciency for example).
Picking a spot
Many books will tell you to spend at least a year observing your garden so that you can see where frost settles and where the sunniest spots are etc. They tell you to do that because there are different light levels in summer and winter and there may be deciduous trees that affect light and frost levels etc. Now you can do that if you want but it is a long time to wait before planting any plants at all. My recommendation is a little different.
Have a look at your garden space, be that your front yard, a spot in your back yard, your balcony or your living room. Pick a spot that appears sunny (no trees nearby, near a windowsill etc.) and build your first garden bed (see below) or pick a few pots. You can then get some plants, seedlings or seeds and plant them there. I recommend starting with annual plants. The reason being, if the spot you pick isn't a good one, you don't have to transplant a perennial plant later on.
Throughout the year, as you care for your chosen annual plants, you can keep notes or perhaps a garden diary (very very helpful) on light and frost levels throughout the year and this will then enable you to select more optimal places for new garden beds later on. This way you can get started right away but you're don't make constly mistakes with expensive perennial plants.
A perennial plant is one that lives for many years. An annual plant is one that completes its growth cycle and then dies all in one year. A biennial plant lives for two years, producing seed (or another reproductive product such as a bulb) in the second year. A triennial plant does the same but in three years. Some people label biennial and triennial plants as perennials so do a little research if you're looking for a long lived plant.
Constructing a New Garden Bed
If you don't have any existing garden beds in your yard, allotment or community garden then you'll need to start a new one. This will give you some excercise! There are a few ways you can go about this and there are two broad categories of garden bed:
- In-ground or 'normal' garden beds
- Raised garden beds
Standard garden beds are level with the ground and may have a border of rock or wood or purchased plastic edging to help keep weeds (and the lawnmower) out. If you're making one where there's lawn, you may need to dig up the lawn with a mattock, spade or similar tool. If so, try to pull sheets of the lawn up - it saves time and effort. The alternative is to build a really hot compost heap that will kill the grass. You can then remove the compost or dig it into the new bed. Pull out the dead grass though because if not all of the grass roots have died, you'll end up with grass growing in your new bed.
Raised garden beds can be a little more expesive. They are built up above ground level. They may be raised just by the width of a wooden sleeper or they may be raised to waist height. These beds are particularly useful for the elderly, those in wheelchairs or those with otherwise impaired movement. To build one, gather some edging materials such as old wooden sleepers, wood from your local building supplies shop, corrugated metal sheets, or a purchased raised garden bed kit (available from most DIY centres and some nurseries and garden supply shops). Avoid using treated timber because it leaches chromium and other toxins although newer treatment options are reported to be safer and may be worth investigation. Then build a bed of the desired height and shape. It can be rectangular, square, circular or any shape you choose. If you're not sure how to build one from scratch, ask a friend or your DIY shop for help, otherwise look for a DIY kit which will have all the instructions you need and which will contain all the pre-cut materials. Then fill the bed with dirt from another area of your garden, compost or purchased soil/compost and you're all done.
Another type of raised garden bed you may wish to consider, is called a no-dig garden bed. These are constructed from manure, straw and compost, all layered like a lasange. You plant in the top compost layer (or wait for it to break down first) and it slowly breaks down like a compost heap. As it's name suggests, you don't have to do any digging and when it shrinks you just top it up with more materials.
If you grow plants from seed, you'll notice that the first leaf or set of leaves that come out of the seed - each one is called a cotyledon - usually don't look much like the rest of the leaves on the plant later on. These leaves are present inside the seed and give the new seedling enough energy to live until they've produced their next leaves - the first true leaves - from which the seedling can start to make it's own energy.
You can chose to plant ornamental plants that have no benefit other than that they're pretty to look at, or you can plant food crops (including edible flowers). You can also plant plants for the purpose of attracting local fauna. Whatever you choose to plant you need to decide whether you will grow it from seed or purchase seedlings. Perennial plants are also available as more mature plants and you can buy small trees as well. Seedlings are more reliable as they're small enough that they shouldn't be shocked too much by being transplanted. Seeds are usually the cheapest option.
To plant your new plants, gently remove them from their pot. If you have trouble, soak the whole thing in a bucket of water for a while and then the plant should come out more easily. If there is more than one seedling in the pot, gently separate them, teasing the roots apart. Trim any damaged roots. If the plant is root bound (the roots are spiralling around the outside of the root ball) slice some of the outside roots with a sharp knife. Then dig a hole for your plant. If it's a seedling, just big enough for the plant is fine. If it's a bigger plant or a tree, the hole should be at least twice as wide and deep as the plant. Put your plant in the hole and back fill any gaps with the original soil. When back filling you can add fertiliser if you want. Water the plant in well with either water or a seaweed fertiliser (diluted as per the instructions on the bottle) and you're done.
If you're planting seeds, you can either plant them in your new garden bed or in a little punnet (to transplant later as you would if you'd bought a seedling). Big seeds do well in the garden and root crop seeds don't transplant well so plant them directly in the garden too. You'll often have more success with smaller seeds if you start them in punnets. Plant the seeds as per the directions on the packet. Or you can plant most seeds at a depth of about 3 times the diameter (width across) of the seeds. Be aware that some seeds need light or darkness to germinate however so they may need a different depth. Once the seeds are planted, water them in well. Then keep them moist until they germinate (except for large seeds like beans and peas that may rot if they're watered after planting - watering can also slow down the germination rate of some of these larger seeds). Once they've germinated keep the soil relatively moist and look after them till they've got at least their first two 'true leaves' after which you can transplant them.
Having planted your plants you need to water them regularly (probably once a day) initially and then gradually reduce the frequency of watering as they get settled in. If you choose to use fertiliser you can start using liquid fertiliser on a young seedling and solid fertiliser can be applied on seedlings that are at least a month old. If you've just started a new garden bed, the soil is probably fertile enough without fertiliser. If you're using a garden bed that has been planted in previously it may be nutrient deficient. Have a look at other sections of this website to find out about different options for adding nutrients.
The Final Steps
As your plants grow, some can be harvested from without having to be pulled out. Lettuces and many herbs as well as flowers fall under this category. Others such as root vegetables, need to be pulled out of the ground when they're ready to be used or eaten. You can let plants go to seed (seeds are produced after the flowers) so that you can save seed for planting next year and also because some seeds are edible. Alternatively, if you've eaten the edible bits or the plant has finished flowering, you can pull it up or cut it down. Or you can just leave it there to decompose naturally. All healthy plant matter can then be used as mulch or composted. You can then plant more plants! I recommend practicing crop rotation for good gardean health.