Vegetable and flower gardening can be very intimidating for beginners, but this is a quick & dirty summary to get you started. If you find you enjoy gardening then you can dig a bit deeper into the nitty gritty of gardening, soil health, and composting but these are my best gardening tips for beginners.
Gardening for Beginners – Table of Contents
- Location, Location, Location
- Types of Gardens
- Seeds or Seedlings
Location, Location, Location
The most important factor in growing a successful vegetable garden for beginners is location. Most vegetables require full sun which means they need direct sunlight for 8 or more hours a day. Some ornamental flowers, on the other hand, have more leeway in their light requirements. Be sure you purchase the right plant for the right location.
We have lots of microclimates within our yards that change throughout the year. Taking the time to understand them is very important. For example, I have a bed that gets full sun in the summer but nearly full shade in the winter. Just because it has full sun on the day you go outside doesn’t mean it stays that way all year.
I like to use the Sun Surveyor App to help me visualize how the sun travels around my home as seasons change. Since my home is located on the cardinal points (North, South, East, West) I have a very good perspective on the different growing conditions beginner gardeners may encounter.
Things to consider
– How much sun does the area get?
– Is it close to a wall that reflects solar heat or light during the day?
– Does it hold water when it rains?
– Is it an area you pass by daily or see from inside your home so keeping an eye on things isn’t a hassle?
– Is it close to the hose pipe?
All these will factor into how successful you are as beginner gardner. If the garden can be easily ignored or it’s a hassle to get out there and water, then it’s not going to be enjoyable for you. So makes things as easy and as convenient as you can.
Types of Gardens
A raised bed will always outperform container gardens when it comes to vegetables and landscaping. Yes, you can grow an abundance of vegetables and have overflowing flowers in pots but they are a lot of work, especially in the middle of summer.
Raised beds are defined as areas of dirt at least 6-12 inches above the natural ground level to allow for drainage. Beds can simply be neat piles of dirt or they can have wood/metal/brick installed around the perimeter for a taller, tidy look.
I am very tall so I opted for 2 ft high raised beds using metal stock tanks. No, they will not overheat as the sun will not be hitting them directly all day long and since they are 3 ft wide, heat will dissipate before reaching the roots.
I built my own raised beds 3 years ago out of untreated 2 inch thick wood planks and I am going to be very frank with you. They rotted within 2 years. Some people online stated they got 5 years out of their wooden beds and they are big fat liars. Just know, even with landscape liner between the dirt and wood, things did not last.
I have seen people put foam board between the dirt and wood to delay rot but I have not tried it myself. Let me know if you have had good luck doing this.
Best Soil for Raised Beds
Dirt used for raised beds will be labeled Garden Soil or Raised Bed Soil. It usually contains a blend of peat moss, hardwood, and sand. Garden soil is noticeably heavier than potting soil and should not be used in pots that need to be moved.
Soil for raised beds is best bought in bulk from your local nursery. Most nurseries will deliver for a fee and it’s always cheaper than buying by the bag from a big box store. I like to buy 2+ cubic yards at a time when building new beds and also purchase at least 3 cubic yards of mulch while I’m at it to refresh my entire landscape.
New garden soil needs to decompose a bit before it’s productive so if you can plan far enough ahead, build new beds in the fall for spring planting. If you don’t have the time, mix in several bags of manure or compost before planting.
Give new soil time to mature
Since garden soil is usually full of hardwood bits, nitrogen is tied up as it decomposes and is not available for plant use. Once everything is fully turned into compost by soil microbes, then the nitrogen is there for plants to use. In the meantime, you need to add compost so your new plants have enough nitrogen to grow. Your plants will look sad and yellow instead of green if there is a nitrogen deficiency.
If you must use containers, buy the largest plastic or resin pots you can. The bigger the container, the longer you can go between watering. Small, terracotta pots require twice daily waterings in South Louisiana while my large, resin pots require water once a day. There is no exception to this rule in July/August/September so keep that in mind when planning your garden.
For extra insurance, I like to mix in Miracle-Gro Water Storing Crystals into my potting soil so if I forget to water one day, it’s not the end of the world. It also helps to absorb excess moisture so plants aren’t left in swampy soil.
Do not add pea gravel, rocks, or plastic bottles to the bottom of your pots. This is a long held practice in the gardening world that made sense in theory but not in practice. The video below demonstrates why it’s a bad idea.
Best Soil for Pots
Pots require a lighter soil that drains quickly but retains moisture. They are often labeled as Potting Soil and contain mostly peat moss and perlite. Available for purchase by the bag at most nurseries and big box stores.
Make sure to never let the potting soil dry out as peat moss is about impossible to rehydrate, which means no matter how much you water, your plants will die from lack of water. Adding a drop of dish soap to your watering pail will help rehydrate your potting soil if needed.
Seeds or Seedlings
There is a weird stereotype in the gardening world where beginners think you’re not a “real” gardener unless you start from seed while buying live plants is a copout. Screw that. Starting from seed is an advanced gardener skill and as an advanced gardener myself, it’s not worth my time for most plants.
I find that when beginners start a vegetable garden from seed using starter trays, grow lights, etc., they always end up with more plants than they can handle. They plant every seedling, overcrowding the area which leads to pest and disease issues. It’s also not the least expensive option that everyone claims it to be when you add in all the accoutrements too.
Set yourself up for success and save money by buying live plants from your local nursery.
Best Plants to Buy for Beginners
Best Plants to Grow from Seed for Beginners
This guide provided by the LSU Ag Center is the perfect resource for beginners who want to grow their own vegetables. It even includes a calendar for planting.
Plants do not know the difference between organic and synthetic fertilizers so both kinds are perfectly fine to use. I like to use organic fertilizers but use them sparingly as I see the effects of algae blooms from fertilizer runoff every summer. It’s a really terrible thing to see.
My favorite instant release fertilizer is good ol Miracle Gro. The kind that comes in a bag and you attach to your hose. It fully dissolves so it can also be used in fertilizer injectors for precision application using a micro-irrigation system. I use it when my plants are looking yellow and can’t wait for organic fertilizers to start to work in a week or two.
Organic fertilizers stink. Literally. They all smell awful. This doesn’t keep me from using them but if you have dogs or even cats, they are going to be obsessed with eating the dirt they are applied to. Unless you can physically keep them away from the area, I do not recommend using them where pets have access. Also, you have to store organic fertilizers away from pets as they can be very harmful to their internal organs if they end up binging.
Fish emulsion is the most well known organic fertilizer but there are other good ones too like bone meal, feather meal, and blood meal. They all smell terrible at first and you’ll need to change clothes after application but the smell goes away in your garden in about a week.
Organic fertilizers are not well suited for micro-irrigation systems as they do not fully dissolve in water. Trust me. I’ve tried.
Some people see mulch as just a bit of a top dressing to make things look good but it’s way more than that. Mulch is vitally important for moisture and weed control. Do not skip applying mulch in containers. They need it even more than you think.
Natural Weed Control
I tried this method for the first time last year and holy cow. I am amazed with the results! My garden is infested with Yellow Nutsedge. No matter how much you pull it or apply Roundup, it comes back with a vengeance. Yellow Nutsedge is the most uncontrollable weed on earth and I have been at battle with it for years. Until now…
Lay 3 layers of cardboard down or 6 layers of thick kraft paper around your plants then top with several inches of mulch. This will actually keep nutsedge from needling through, unlike landscape fabric which is easily punctured. I know! Sorcery. It works for all other weeds as well.
If you are a research nerd like me, you can read more about paper mulch from The University of Tennessee and US Fish & Wildlife Service.
Cardboard will need to be replaced depending on how hot and wet your climate is as it will decompose. I currently have to replace mine every 4-6 months. Amazon boxes work well too but I like how neat the kraft paper lays down and doesn’t blow away once you wet it down. Playing tetris with boxes is not my definition of fun.
Steam is also a fun way for beginners to get weeds under control.
Reflective mulch made from metallic bubble wrap bags, like the ones used by Whole Foods’ grocery delivery, is an excellent weed barrier and natural pest control in vegetable gardens. No, it does not make your plants too hot or burn the roots. I used this setup until I pulled it out after 9 months when the foiling started to degrade. Reflective mulches at big box stores usually lasts a few months so this was a great discovery and reuse for an otherwise non recyclable plastic.
Reflective mulch confuses bugs that like to hide out under leaves by making them think they are on top of the leaf. You can read more about it here from LSU Ag.
Crushed pine straw and wood chips are excellent mulches and should be applied every 6-8 months at a depth of at least 2 inches thick for best weed control. Yea, that’s a lot but they decompose which is a good thing! I rotate the kind of mulch I apply every year, so last year I applied pine straw so we will apply wood chips this year.
“But pine straw makes your soil too acidic!”
If you have acidic soil, I am jealous. Most plants like acidic soils so it’s not a bad thing but in South Louisiana, our soil is alkaline naturally. If you have beds next to sidewalks or your foundation, lime leeches into the soil making it very basic. You want the acid to balance out the basic lime. So apply crushed pine straw like crazy!
Mulches to avoid
Cypress mulch is a major no no. LSU even came out and said they could no longer endorse its use as people are harvesting live cypress trees to process into mulch. Yea, let’s kill a tree to mulch another. Nope.
Baled pine straw and hay are terrible mulches. Hay is usually full of weed seeds and uncrushed pine straw does not compact enough to keep weeds from seeing the light of day. Hard pass.
The same goes for rubber and rock mulches. Seriously? Don’t even.
I feel the same way about color dyed mulches as well. I don’t know what they are using in the dyes, nor do I want it seeping into my soil. The color fades really fast anyway so no thank you.
Feeling overwhelmed? Let me help!
I garden in South Louisiana which is in USDA Zone 9a but was in Zone 8b only a few years ago. (Ya climate change.) My soil is 100% commerce clay several feet down. Plants take a very long time to get established and I have to bring in soil to raise beds several inches for proper drainage. Your gardening experience may be different mine so it’s best to use your state’s College of Agriculture for specific regional advice.
You can check out what kind of soil you naturally have using Web Soil Survey provided by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The Louisiana Urban Gardener: A Beginner’s Guide to Growing Vegetables and Herbs
Louisiana Home Vegetable Gardening – Also available at Clegg’s Nursery
Get It Growing Lawn and Garden Calendar
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