12 Tips for Having a Successful Garden (Beginners and Experts!)


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onion sets vs onion seeds

Starting a garden can be a bit overwhelming. Many beginner gardeners get caught up in thinking that creating a garden will take a great deal of time and money. I’m here to tell you that gardening doesn’t have to take much time or money! When gardeners are resourceful and research well, they can easily grow a successful garden without sacrificing too much time or breaking the bank.

Every gardener has experienced or will experience nutrient deficiencies, pest issues, diseases or other types of problems. Rather than waiting to research after these problems occur, I recommend taking steps to prevent these issues from happening in the first place. A majority of the tips below are my exact strategy each season. Fortunately, I have not encountered issues with all of these situations, so I will also provide information based on my research.

1. Location and Sunlight

Location is crucial when starting a garden for the first time or creating a second or third garden bed. Several factors come into play when choosing a location for a new garden bed.

Ask yourself this question: Is your land in a low area that gets a lot of rain or up on a hill that might dry out easily? Low areas could flood easily, so, in this case, consider a raised bed. On the other hand, a drier area may be better for an in-ground garden. Check out this article for more information on choosing a raised bed or an in-ground garden.

If you plan to plant your garden on a hill, consider which direction that hillside is facing. Depending on your location, a north facing hill will get less sunlight than a south facing hill. If you live in a more northern area, this is especially evident in the spring and fall.

Depending on plants, most gardens will need a minimum of six to eight hours of sunlight per day. The majority of vegetable plants require full sun. It is important to be aware of the amount of sun the area gets from morning to evening. To figure out this information, take pictures or notes at different times of the day to see which areas are receiving sunlight and which areas are in the shade. Keep a close eye on trees, sheds or buildings that may block the sun.

Remember, too, that sunny spots could be much different at different times of the year when the sun is higher or lower in the sky, so that also needs to be taken into consideration when choosing a garden location.

The shape of a garden can also make a difference in sunlight exposure. Garden beds, in most cases, should be rectangular. A good size is four feet wide by eight feet long. Most of the time, beds/rows should run north and south, so that plants can get the most sunlight without blocking the sun from each other.

If location is a concern, container gardening is always an option. This gives the advantage of being able to move plants into the sun as they need it and into the shade when it gets too hot.

If you are just starting out, don’t go overboard. Start small. Decide on location and choose a few vegetables to grow. Be successful with a small garden first and expand it as you learn more and more. It does not have to be stressful!

2. Build and Maintain Healthy Soil

Healthy Soil

Many people think of water and sunlight as the two main components of a successful garden. While both are important, the health of the soil cannot be overlooked! Rich and strong soil is the foundation of our method of gardening. We definitely practice what we preach!

Do not till the garden! Healthy soil contains living organisms that not only add nutrients, but they also naturally work the soil. They are the key to growing successful plants. Tilling destroys this soil life.

Keep the garden bed mulched at all times! Mulch helps keep the soil cool and moist. It makes for less work for the gardener because watering is not necessary as often since the soil is kept moist. Also, weeds cannot grow through the mulch as easily, so weeding is not necessary as often either! Mulching keeps the soil alive and undisturbed. This way of gardening mimics nature as God designed it. Perfect!

Shredded leaves, grass clippings, trimmings from plants, wood chips or straw/hay can all be used as a mulch covering in the garden. Most of these things can be found for free and they are so helpful in the garden!

3. Understand Your Gardening Zone

It’s important to understand gardening zones. Basically, a gardening zone tells you the average lowest temperatures in your area. Certain perennials will die under colder temperatures and, therefore, are not recommended to be grown in certain zones.

For example, northern zones regularly experience cooler temperatures and less sunlight. Warm temperatures and sufficient sunlight are necessary to grow certain plants like tomatoes and peppers, so they are not likely to do well in a northern zone. This is not to say these plants are not able to be grown in this area, but it will be more difficult because you may need to start these plants indoors in order to have enough time to grow a mature plant. Check this website to find more information about your zone: USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.

Certain plants will thrive better in certain zones. When considering plants to plant, research your specific zone first and make sure that your preferred plants are suited to grow well in your zone. If you are a beginner, choose plants that grow well in your zone for the best chance for success.

4. Understand Your Frost Dates

Frost dates for the beginning and end of a growing season are important to know because warm-season plants, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, will die if even one frost occurs while they are in the ground.

In the spring, it is necessary to know the average last frost date in your area. This provides a general time frame when you can expect the final frost to occur. It is likely that no more frosts will occur after this date, so you can go ahead and plant warm-season crops in the ground.

Then, in the fall, you need to be aware of the average first frost date. This is the general time frame when the first frost of the season will likely occur. Keep a close eye on the weather forecast during this time. Warm-season plants will most likely die because of the first frost.

To find first and last frost dates, go to the Old Farmer’s Almanac site and enter your zip code. These dates are only meant to be used as a general guideline. Be familiar with your area and pay attention to weather forecasts to be aware if a frost will be occurring soon.

Here is an example scenario. Let’s say you put in your zip code and get a last spring frost date of April 26th and a first fall frost date of Oct 16th. This means warm weather crops like tomatoes and peppers could die if planted outside before April 26th and may be at the end of their life starting around Oct 16th.

Knowing these dates also helps if you plan on starting seeds indoors to get a jump start on growing season. For example, instead of waiting until after April 26th to plant tomato seeds outside, you can start them indoors eight to ten weeks before your last frost date and then transplant them outside when you are sure no more frosts will occur. This means around February 22nd you could be starting your tomatoes indoors. Then, you’ll end up with tomatoes earlier in the summer than if you would have waited to plant until after the last frost!

Knowing the first frost date helps you know whether or not you have enough time to plant a certain crop. For example, cucumbers may define a timeframe of sixty-five days to maturity. If starting from seed, you also must add the days to germination, which is about ten days. If your first frost date is Oct 16th, count back seventy-five days (65 days to maturity plus 10 days to germination), which would be Aug 2nd. Knowing your first frost date tells you that you probably don’t want to plant cucumber seeds in your garden much later than Aug 2nd.

5. Start with High Quality, Fresh Seeds

Seeds

Starting a garden from seeds is a great money-saver! Purchasing transplants from a store can be expensive and they may not be organic. I purchase my seeds from MIGardener.com. This company provides high quality, fresh, inexpensive seeds at only 99 cents per packet.

Most seeds can be saved and planted next season if some are left unused. However, as seeds get older, the germination rate of the seed goes down. Some seeds last longer than others if stored correctly in a cool, dry place. Pepper seeds can last multiple years, while onion seeds will only last one year. Check out this article on seeds.

Not only does starting from seed save money, but when you start plants from seed, you are in full control of the growth of your plants from start to finish. If you live in an area where you can start seeds outside, do it! This eliminates the need for hardening off seeds. Hardening off seeds is a term that means adjusting plants to the sunlight because it is much more powerful than indoor grow lights. The more you transplant and change a plant’s environment, the more stressed it will be, which will make it take longer to grow.

If you do not live in an area where it is feasible to start from seed outdoors, starting from seed indoors is the next best thing. It is a great option for gardening successfully in colder areas with shorter growing seasons, but when possible, start from seed outdoors to avoid too much transition.

6. Mulch, Mulch, Mulch!!

Mulched Garden Bed - Small

Always, always, always keep your soil covered with mulch. The only time soil should ever be exposed is if certain seeds have been planted, but have not yet sprouted. After seedlings have pushed through the soil and as the plants grow taller, mulch should be moved back around the plants to cover the soil.

Finding mulch without spending any money on it should be fairly easy. I typically use shredded leaves, wood chips, grass clippings, used coffee grounds, and chop and drop trimmings from my plants. Other popular choices for gardeners to use are straw or hay.

Mulching the garden provides numerous benefits! Think about walking through the woods in nature. The ground is covered in leaves, sticks and other natural materials or “mulch”. This is God’s design and provides for natural, healthy, rich soil. Mulching allows soil to stay cooler and retain moisture more effectively because water evaporates more slowly. A thick layer of mulch will suppress weeds, so that means less work for the gardener! Furthermore, the organic material breaks down overtime and becomes compost.  

Even if nothing is planted in a garden, it should still be covered with mulch. Every fall, after I remove all the plants that are finished growing for the season, I add one to two inches of compost to the top of the soil and then cover that with as many shredded leaves as possible. Not many people want to keep their leaves, so ask neighbors and friends for this resource! Come spring time, it is surprising how many of the leaves have “disappeared” and turned into soil/compost for the garden!

Let’s go back to that walk through the woods in nature. God doesn’t till or turn soil in nature and everything grows fine. Nature takes care of itself. Tilling every spring, which seems to be a popular gardening method, is not necessary! Rain will sift through the organic material and mix it into your soil. Earthworms, which are often referred to as nature’s tillers, will also work to turn and till soil. Earthworms love feeding on organic material like shredded leaves and used coffee grounds and their excrement is full of great nutrients for soil. Tilling by hand can kill off these advantageous creatures. Remember our main gardening tip: DO NOT DISTURB!!!

7. Compost, Compost, Compost!!

Finished Compost Bin

As I have mentioned previously, it is not necessary to spend money and time on fertilizers from the store. No one goes around and uses synthetic fertilizers on the forests in nature. Where do all those plants are get their nutrients? They can’t grow from nothing. It’s compost!

Yes, synthetic fertilizers do help plants grow, but they kill the soil at the same time. When compost is used, it feeds the soil, not the plants. Then, the rich, healthy soil feeds the plants.

Compost is easy to make and it’s free! Many different ways exist to compost. Here are a few examples:

  • Vermicomposting – feeding food scraps (ground up banana peels, orange peels, apple cores, etc.) to worms in a worm bin and getting worm castings in return.
  • Compost tumbler – great for gardeners who are short on space. Put a mix of brown and green material into the tumbler to make compost.
  • Create a compost pile to make larger amounts of compost.
Leaves by Road - Small

I am able to make large amounts of compost by obtaining shredded leaves from a lawn service company in my area. If that is not available when I need it, then I drive around neighborhoods and collect leaves (preferably shredded) from the street that people are throwing away. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure! Leaves are considered brown material. I also receive buckets of used coffee grounds from a local coffee shop and our family saves food scraps, such as banana peels, apple cores and orange peels. All of this along with grass clippings are my main sources of green material.

Every fall, I mix all of this material together and pile it as high as I can in my compost bin. By the next year at that time, I have beautiful compost – all for free!  Check out this article on turning compost!

Feed compost to the soil any time of the year, depending on the amount obtained. Each fall, I add one to two inches of my homemade compost to the top of my soil. Nature will till this in by itself and that, my friends, is all the fertilizer that plants should need for the entire growing season the next year.

8. Pay Attention to Your Plants

While the methods we preach on this site help gardeners spend less time and money on gardening, it is still important to pay attention to the garden and take time to keep up with the simple things. Spending a few minutes a day walking through the garden can be enjoyable! Try to walk through the garden at different times of the day because plants may look different, for example, in the evening versus the morning.

Pay attention to the plants! Check for bugs or eggs on plants and remove them immediately if possible. If this becomes an issue, check out this article on how to control pests. Look at the leaves of the plants. Are they yellow and droopy, or do they have brown spots?  Does it look like they have some type of disease? Are flowers dropping off? Are they not producing like it seems they should? If a disease problem is evident or you just aren’t sure what’s wrong, here’s another article that might help solve these issues – Common Garden Problems and How to Fix Them.

Check over the soil. As you do a walkthrough in the garden, check for weeds. Keep up on them before they become a problem. With continuous mulching, weeds should be greatly reduced, but some weeds may still be present. However, because of mulching, just about every weed will be easy to pull. This should be a fairly simple task, but it is necessary not to neglect or else weeds can grow and steal nutrients from precious plants!  

In mulched gardens as we recommend, watering will not be necessary as often. However, this by no means implies that the garden does not need watered! Take a look at this article on how to know when to water your garden.

On a similar note, pay attention to the weather. If it’s going to be hot for a long stretch of time, it will probably be necessary to water more often. If a storm is coming, make sure plants are secure. If an unseasonable frost is coming, make sure plants are protected with a covering.

The point is that keeping up with the garden in just a few minutes a day can make a big difference in a garden’s success for the season.

9. Don’t Go Overboard!

Try to keep the garden simple and small, especially if you’re just starting a new garden or if you’re a beginner to gardening all together. It can be quite tempting and easy to get carried away with buying too many seeds and/or plants because of excitement. Beginner gardeners may not realize what they’ve gotten into once all those plants are fully grown.

We do not want anyone to be overwhelmed or burnt out on gardening in the first year! Gardening should be fun! A good rule of thumb is to start with one garden bed or a few containers and have success with about five or so favorite plants. Then, expand in future years once that size of a garden is mastered.

10. Take Notes in a Gardening Journal

Taking notes in a journal will definitely create and develop a better garden (and gardener) year after year. Here is a great gardening journal to use that helps develop a schedule for you! I have found myself having a hard time each spring remembering what I did the previous year. It helps if you write down ideas, successes and questionable situations. Here are some examples of items to write in a journal:

  • Date seeds were started
  • Seed starting mix used
  • Number of plants of each variety grown
  • Date planted seedlings outside
  • Did the plant do well that season or did it encounter problems?

Each year, learn from these notes and adjust methods accordingly. If a certain variety just isn’t working out, maybe try a different variety that is better suited for your zone. Don’t be afraid to experiment with the numerous options of plants and varieties!

11. Mimic Nature by Companion Planting

Companion planting is a concept of mixing certain plants together with other plants that help each other out, like best friends. This is a more advanced gardening practice, so I recommend that beginner gardeners need not overwhelm themselves with this concept yet.

This method is another one that is similar to nature. Nature doesn’t plant things in perfect rows. Seeds fall wherever the wind takes them and all the plants are mixed together.

Certain plants and flowers have stronger scents that can deter insects and pests. If certain plants tend to have pest issues, then plant these types of plants next to plants with those pest issues. This is just one example of the possible benefits of companion gardening. Hundreds and hundreds of combinations and opinions on plants that should be planted next to each other are out there, so don’t get too caught up in it all.

Here are some more specific examples:

  • Garlic and onion have strong scents and are easy to mix in among other plants because they are small and won’t shade out other plants.
  • Lots of different kinds of flowers can be good to mix into your garden and can deter certain insects and animals. Common examples are anise and marigolds.
  • Herbs also tend to have strong scents. Basil is a common choice to mix into a garden. Be careful with invasive herbs like mint, lemon balm, and chamomile because they can take over the garden. These herbs may do better in containers that are placed outside/around the garden and other plants can still receive benefits of companion gardening.

12. Save Seeds!

Pepper Seeds - Small

Saving seeds from plants is another more advanced gardening practice. It is not really that difficult to do, but don’t feel like it is necessary to do just starting out and get overwhelmed. Seeds are cheap enough!

If you save seeds from previous plants year after year, you will without a doubt have stronger, healthier plants that will adapt to your climate and fend off pests and diseases more efficiently.

Save seeds only from mature plants. Plants like kale, lettuce, onion, cilantro and carrots will flower and produce seeds. When the flower/seed pods dry out, shake out the seeds into a container before the wind naturally shakes them off the plant and they fall to the ground.

Other plants produce fruit, like tomatoes and peppers. With these plants, wait until the fruit is fully ripe. Then, cut open the fruit to find the seeds. Dry them and store them for next season.

9 Honor the Lord with your wealth,
    with the firstfruits of all your crops;
10 then your barns will be filled to overflowing,
    and your vats will brim over with new wine.

Proverbs 3:9-10

The Bible says you should give back your first fruits. When saving seeds, always save seeds from the healthiest plant or the healthiest and biggest fruit (tomato, pepper, etc). It’s a proven fact that the best crops produce the best seeds. It’s also a fact that seeds “evolve” and get stronger as they pass from generation to generation. The plant is smart enough to build certain defenses against climate, pests, and diseases. How amazing is that?! God’s design is perfect!

Conclusion

I hope this gives you some simple tips to follow in your own garden and help you realize that gardening does not have to be time consuming or expensive! It should be fun and enjoyable if you let God’s perfect design of nature do most of the work!

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Corey Leichty

Hi, I’m Corey and I love using gardening as a way to provide food for my family, learn life lessons alongside my wife, Andrea, and teach life lessons to my two sons. Do you have gardening questions? Not finding what you are looking for? Please feel free to Ask a Question (Click Here!) and I will get back with you as soon as I can!

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