Gardening Quick Start

Gardening is an easy way for anyone to experience the joy of country living, regardless of where they live or how much land they own. Plus, the time spent outdoors and the unparalleled flavor of quality homegrown produce is richly rewarding.

Whether you are a first-time gardener or an experienced green thumb looking for fresh ideas, read on to find a variety of resources to help you grow nutrient-rich produce without chemicals. This page covers vegetables, herbs, and ornamental plants, plus some of the easier-to-grow fruits.

Contents

A Step-by-Step Guide to Starting a Garden

Step 1: Choose Plants

Think about you want to grow. Would you like a basic backyard kitchen garden? A more extensive self-sufficiency plot? An artistic herb or flower garden? A native plant garden devoted to birds and butterflies?

Make a list of the plants you want to grow, then evaluate it. Are the fruits and vegetables that you have listed things that you eat frequently? If you don’t ordinarily go to the store and buy rutabagas just because you like the taste of rutabagas, you probably don’t need to plant them in any great quantities, either. As for ornamental plants, you probably want to start out with what will grow well in your area.

This is not to say that you should never experiment—sometimes that is how you will find your favorite plants. But until you know that a particular plant is a keeper, do not buy a lot of seeds, and only set aside a small place for it in the garden.

Read more: Plant Selection »

Step 2: Map Your Garden

If you are new to gardening, first you will want to choose an ideal location. Probably the most important criterion for a good garden location is sunlight. However, it is also important that your garden be sited in a place where you will pass it frequently, keeping it fresh in your mind. Also evaluate your chosen location for drainage, frost potential, and toxins such as black walnut.

Once you have selected a garden location, draw your new garden to scale on graph paper or in a gardening journal. Mel Bartholomew, author of All New Square Foot Gardening, recommended 48 square feet of space for every adult and 27 square feet for every child in the family. A third of this space is used to grow daily salads. Another third supplies the non-salad vegetable needs, such as tomatoes for soup and onions for cooking purposes. The last third is for vegetables to preserve and for unusual plants you want to grow just for fun. This is probably a good starting point; as you gain experience, you can always expand the garden.

As you draw beds and plots, shade in areas for paths. These paths should generally be about two feet wide—narrower paths are hard to navigate, while wider paths only increase the area that must be maintained without increasing the harvest. That said, if you are seriously klutzy or have difficulty maintaining your balance, you may benefit from paths that are three feet wide.

Read more: How to Plan a Garden »

Step 3: Create a Planting Calendar

For best plant germination, growth, and yield, the ideal way to determine when to plant is based on the signs of the seasons, particularly frosts and soil temperatures. To plant using this method, you will need a soil thermometer and a calendar that lists the ideal temperature for the plants of your choice. This information is widely available online, but we strongly recommend The Backyard Homestead Seasonal Planner by Ann Larkin Hansen.

Alternatively, you can use the traditional method of planting based on average last spring and first fall frost dates. Using these two dates and the information found on seed packets, in your favorite books, or in our online guides, write down a range of safe planting dates for each of the plants you have chosen. Also note when seedlings should be started indoors, when they should be hardened off, and when they should be transplanted.

Read more: The Backyard Homestead Seasonal Planner »

Step 4: Prepare Your Garden Site

The specifics of preparing your garden will vary depending on what you have envisioned. If you plan to use raised beds or containers, you will want to have these purchased or built and filled prior to planting. If you are growing directly in the ground, you will need to prepare the soil, generally by tilling the first year but in subsequent years by adding compost and organic matter.

Soil improvement is an important part of preparing a garden from year to year. Home test kits make it easy to keep tabs on how your soil is doing. Regular addition of compost and use of mulch is also ideal for maintaining soil health. If you have a specific problem with your soil that is limiting production, you will want to create a plan to address the issue before planting, as well.

Read more: Improving Your Garden Soil »

Step 5: Start Planting

The first seeds you plant will probably be started indoors while the weather is still cold. This step does not have to be elaborate—punch a few holes in the bottoms of some roomy plastic drinking cups, fill them with quality potting mix, add seeds, and set them in a warm, sunny place. Refer to your gardening calendar to determine what to start when.

Please note that tender young plants cannot simply be transplanted into the garden without some time to adapt to life outdoors. This transition is called “hardening off.” About two weeks before a plant is scheduled to be transplanted, set it outside in a sheltered location for roughly an hour, and then bring it back inside. (Keep an eye on it, though; if it is wilting in the sun or being battered by the wind, go to its rescue.) The following day, let it stay outside for two hours. The next day, give it three hours, and so on until the plant is spending the entire day outdoors. At this point it will be acclimated to your climate and ready for transplanting. Keep it thoroughly watered after the big move and it should do well.

As for starting seeds directly in the garden, your seed packets should contain most of the information you will need. The only other key is to keep the seedbed evenly moist until the plants have germinated and taken root.

Read more: 3 Keys to Successful Transplanting »

Step 6: Maintain Your Garden

The best way to keep up with a garden is to visit it every single day. If a walk through the garden is a regular part of your day, you will never have to scratch your head and wonder, “Do I need to do any gardening today?” Plus you will be much less likely to be surprised by sudden insect invasions or gallons of overripe produce.

As you meander among the plants, address harvest, water, weeding, and pruning needs right away. Some tasks such as building a raised bed or a trellis will be a little too time-consuming to fit into a garden walk. Carry a notepad with you when you visit your garden. If you see that one of these larger projects needs to be taken care of, make a note of it and schedule a time to do it.

Read more: Workload »

Step 7: Keep Growing

Gardening does not have to stop after the first plants are harvested. Whenever a space in your garden is vacated, clean up any plant debris, add some compost, and plant something suited to the current season. Even if fall is around the corner, you may still be able to experiment with season extension for a winter harvest.

And keep learning! Observe, read, and take notes. With practice, you, too, can develop a green thumb.

Read more: 3 Steps to a Green Thumb »

Books

Improving Your Garden Soil: 10 Steps to Healthy Plants and Nutrient-Rich Food

Improving Your Garden Soil

by Michelle Lindsey

Healthy, nutrient-rich food starts with vibrant soil. You can build that vibrant soil in your backyard in 10 steps. Read more »

The Family Garden Journal: A Keepsake of Daily Plans, Observations, and Harvests

The Family Garden Journal

by Michelle Lindsey

Develop your green thumb while creating a keepsake! The Family Garden Journal offers an effective way to make the most of your learning experience in the garden, empowering you to become a true green thumb. Read more »

Guides

Vegetables

Vegetables

We have pulled together information on several favorite garden vegetables. Along the way, you will learn about each plant’s uses, preferred conditions, companions, pests, and diseases. You will also find tips on planting, caring for, harvesting, storing, and saving seeds from your vegetables. Read more »

Grasses of Kansas

Grasses of Kansas

This guide contains key information on the many diverse grasses of Kansas, whether they come from the tallgrass prairie, the sandsage prairie, or just the average roadside ditch. For each plant, you will learn characteristics, distribution, life cycle, ecology, uses, hazards, and similar species. Read more »

Minerals in Plants

Minerals in Plants

This guide examines the minerals plants use to grow and reproduce. While there is a great deal that remains unknown in this field, we have summarized the findings that exist to date on the role these nutrients play. Here you will also find natural sources of each mineral, as well as the causes and symptoms of both deficiency and toxicity. Read more »

Garden & Orchard Diseases

Garden & Orchard Diseases

Our guide to garden and orchard diseases contains information on the causes and symptoms of common plant problems. It also offers tips on treating and preventing diseases. Natural solutions are provided whenever possible. Read more »

FAQs

  • Is yellow soil good for plants?
    Yellow soil contains goethite, an iron oxide. Of greater importance is the shade of yellow. A bright yellow soil has good drainage and should be quite suitable for plants with the addition of some organic matter. A pale yellow soil is subject to leaching and will take some work to rebuild soil nutrient levels.

Essential Information

Reference

Planning & Design

Soil Improvement

Planting & Transplanting

Maintenance

Pests & Diseases

Season Extension

Using & Preserving the Harvest

Seed Saving

Market Gardening

More Resources