Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Gardening

So you want to grow a garden, but you have a serious black thumb. You’ve killed cactuses. You plant seeds, but they don’t come up. Your tomatoes rot on the vine before they ripen. Luckily for you, I’ve put together this handy absolute beginner’s guide to gardening.

  1. Have you considered growing weeds?

I’m serious.

Okay, half serious.

Take a good look at what grows well in your area, particularly in your yard and neighborhood. Mint dies in my neighborhood but bulbs grow well; at a friend’s house some 20 miles away, mint grows rampant but bulbs die. Do you live in a wooded area with lots of pines, or a dry area with succulents and cacti? Do strawberries grow wild in your yard?

If you see a flower or plant you love growing wild near your house, chances are good it will grow in your yard. If you can just dig it up and take it home without running afoul of the law, go ahead! If not, take a couple of good picture of it and take the pictures to your local garden store. While you’re there, ask the employees what they recommend for your area.

(Note: I’m pretty sure that most big-box stores that sell plants, like Walmart or Lowes, sell similar plants all over the country. These are kind of generic and will probably work fine in your area, but if you want local plant varieties that may be better adapted to your area, try a local garden store.)

The most successful plants in my garden are actually plants I found growing “wild” in the area–a couple of domesticated plants that were growing so abundantly they had escaped their original garden and the gardener was fine with me digging up and taking home the shoots that were cluttering up her yard and some wild flowers I liked. These hardy plants have survived and thrived despite, in one case, being nearly murdered in the process of tearing it out the anti-weed mesh it was growing in.

    2. Now take a good look at your microclimate–the specific place where you are trying to grow plants.

Are you putting potted plants on a cement porch with no shade in front of a glass door, where they’re going to get direct and reflected sunlight all day? Temperatures here can easily reach 100 degrees every day. Or are you trying to grow plants in the shade under a large tree, where the ground is always damp and they receive no direct sunlight? You can easily have both microclimates in the same yard, and the plants that grow well in one spot definitely won’t grow well in the other. If you’re confined to gardening in an ultra-sunny location, you’ll need heat and drought-tolerant plants. If you’re gardening in the shade, look for shade-tolerant plants.

In my experience, fruits won’t ripen in the shade. I’ve grown plenty of strawberry, tomato, and pumpkin plants in the shade, (strawberries make a lovely, shade-tolerant groundcover,) and never gotten a single decent fruit off of them. My tomatoes, yes, rotted before they ripened.

It’s okay. I don’t even like fresh tomatoes. I was just growing them because everyone else does.

I can get fruit to ripen on the sunny side of the house. I’ve gotten lots of tasty fruit on the sunny side of the house. Unfortunately that’s the patio side, so everything there has to be grown in pots and watered often because they dry out quickly.

I have had luck, however, growing some vegetables in the shade.

C’est la vie!

    3. Start small, simple, and easy.

Some plants grow easily and will work almost anywhere. Peas, for example, have never failed me, whether planted in way too hot, dry, dusty soil or in a pot in the shade. Soy beans and regular beans grow well, too. (And personally, I like the taste.)

By contrast, some seeds come with a list of instructions six months long:

“Put these seeds in a container of sterile sand in your refrigerator for 3 months. Mist them once a week so they don’t dry out, but don’t get them wet. Then warm them up slowly. Put them in a container with sandpaper and shake them, and if that doesn’t work, nick them with a knife. Then plant them 1/4 inch deep in a mix of 1 part peat moss, 1 part sterile potting mix, and 1 part sand. Water once a day for 3 months, until you give up and plant peas instead.”

You see, some seeds are designed by nature to just fall on the ground and start growing; some seeds are designed to get eaten, pass through a digestive tract without getting destroyed, and then sprout; and some seeds are designed to sit around all winter until they sprout in the spring. You want the first kind of seeds. If you really want a plant grown from more difficult seeds, just go buy a plant. Trust me, it’s better to spend $8 on one plant that’s actually alive than $4 on 30 seeds that won’t grow.

While we’re on the subject of seeds that don’t grow, remember that unlike people, most plants produce hundreds or thousands of seeds during their lives. Obviously not all of these seeds can possibly turn into new plants. So if some of your seeds didn’t sprout, remember that the average tree sends out thousands of seeds that don’t sprout, either. So don’t feel bad! You probably still have a better success rate than nature!

Some plants don’t even like using seeds. Strawberries prefer to propagate via runners (which is why they make such nice groundcover.)

Additionally, some plants will live for years, while others live for only a season and then pass away.

If your plants keep dying, you might have annuals! They’re supposed to do that.

If you enjoy digging in the dirt and want an excuse to get outside more often, plant annuals. Annuals tend to grow quickly and look nice right away–lots of pretty flowers are annuals. If you get lucky, they might even sow their seeds in your garden, resulting in new flowers popping up next year, but there’s no guarantee.

If you want a garden that will keep going without you having to start over from scratch every year, plant perennials. I’m lazy, so I have perennials. (Except the peas.)

Perennials can take a while to get going. For example, while your peas might be ready to harvest after a mere two months in the ground, asparagus takes 2 to 4 years to develop. But once you do have a mature plant, you can harvest it every year for decades. Apple trees take 4+ years to mature, but again, last for decades. (There’s an apple tree in Germany that’s 185 years old.)

By the way, you might think cactuses and succulents are the easiest plants to grow, but my cactuses always die. Always. I am the cactus murderer. I don’t know. I over-water them or something.

    ETA: 3B. Start seeds in pots:

This has become such an established part of my gardening routine that I nearly forgot how much I struggled before I figured it out: sow your seeds in small pots, not directly into the ground.

I don’t know why it works, but I have spent years watering long rows of flower seeds I planted directly in my garden, only to get nothing in return. (Except weeds. Lots of weeds.) By contrast, when I start seeds in pots, at least some of them almost always come up. They are much more convenient, as well, because I can keep all of the little pots together on one rack on the porch and water them all at once rather than hauling the hose up and down the garden, and if you have one set of pots positioned above another set, water from the first group can drip down and water the second.

When the plants get big enough, (about the same size as the ones growing in similar pots in the garden store if you have one per pot,) transfer them to the ground.

Speaking of which:

    4. Dirt, water, and fertilizer.

You probably know all about these already, but remember that plants like dirt with plenty of nutrients. If your dirt is bad, you’ll need to fertilize. If things have been growing in your garden for a while, you’ll need to fertilize. If you want to grow corn, you’ll need to fertilize.

But… like everything, there’s too much of a good thing, and you can over-fertilize plants. Each plant has its own needs, so read up on the plants you have.

        5. What if I’ve done everything right, and my plants are still producing mealy, unpleasant fruit?

 

The plants/seeds sold at garden stores, nurseries, Walmart, etc., have been optimized for all sorts of traits, like fast growth, attractive leaves, beautiful flowers, pest resistance, ease of sprouting, etc. Some of them have been bred to taste good, but plenty of them haven’t–honestly, I’ve been surprised at what a high percent of fruit plants sold at regular stores actually produce totally inferior, unpleasant-tasting fruits.

If your plants aren’t making tasty fruit, it might not be your fault at all. You may have to experiment with several different varieties before you find one you like, or do some research into the best varieties for your region. This year I ended up mail-ordering a specific variety of fruit plants that are supposed to be tasty and grow well in my area, but aren’t available at my local big-box garden store. (Probably because they’re a local variety and I hear they have some issues with pest resistance/rot.) Wish me luck.

Just like the seeds, don’t get discouraged if your first few plants don’t work out. Plants are dynamic. They grow, flower, seed, wither, and start again. If one thing doesn’t work, try something else. Remember, humans have been growing plants for 10,000 years, and it has generally worked out well.

So that’s my absolute newbies’ guide to growing plants. I hope it helps.