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Updated on Jun 1, 2019. Posted on May 24, 2019

31 Seriously Useful Gardening Basics Every Beginner Needs To Know

Make your yard, windowsill, or porch containers bloom and grow!

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1. Determine the right time to start planting outdoors: it all depends on the hardiness zone for your zip code, which also helps you figure out which (and when) specific plants will actually thrive.

avantgardendecor.com

The USDA lists the hardiness zones on their website; it also lets you zoom in on your state and zip. Your local garden center will be able to help you choose the right plants for you, and the information's often on the back of seed packets.

From Avant Garden Decor.

2. Shake up a scoop of dirt and some water in an old peanut butter jar to figure out the approximate composition of the soil in several different parts of your yard. It will settle after about 24 hours, so you can see all the proportions of clay, silt, and sand.

thehypertufagardener.com

You'll also need to add a teaspoon of liquid soap! Then do some math, as described on The Hypertufa Gardener, and enter your numbers on the USDA website to find out what type of soil you have. Each type of soil is best suited to specific plants!

3. Or opt for a soil test kit, which can give you much more detail about both the pH of your soil and all the other nutrients it either has or lacks.

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In general, you probably want to test before you plant in the spring, and after you finish harvesting in the fall. But if you've never tested before, there's no time like the present! You can also send your soil to a lab for more thorough results, but unless you try this first and still have trouble, or are an experienced gardener who's obsessive about your soil, you probably don't need to go that far.

Get this pack of 40 tests, which covers pH, Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium, on Amazon for $14.25.

4. You may even want to consider mixing in compost or (erm) well-rotted manure to boost your rows or beds.

amazon.com

Those are things you'll probably want to ask around for at your local garden store at first; but eventually you might want to set up your own compost tumbler. This one's $85.38 on Amazon.

Read more about soil on Better Homes and Gardens.

5. Plan everything out with the help of a gardening journal. That way you can track what you plant where year to year, when specific vegetables are ready to harvest, and the histories of your more permanent plants.

amazon.com

It's also useful to start drawing up your garden plan, kind of like a floorplan but for plants! You can start with a simple spiral notebook, of course. But if you'd like a little more guidance, something like The Vegetable Gardener's Handbook could be helpful! It pairs advice and checklists with space to take notes, and is adaptable to whatever zone you live in based on your first and last frost dates. Get it on Amazon for $12.70.

Promising review: "I’ve had some gardening experience with others over the years but have really wanted to have my own little garden. This book recommended in the back of an heirloom seed catalog and added it to my wish list. It did not disappoint. The dates tell me what to start, what to plant, how to prepare my garden. In fall and winter months it still gives ways for you to prepare and do maintenance. It has lots of resources and great new info and tips. This book was a great immersion into getting started and having my hand held a bit as I learn my own timelines and such. I can see this book being a great little guide for years to come." —Kayla L.

6. And an old-school photo album is the perfect way to keep track of your seed packets.

onehundreddollarsamonth.com

If you grow from seeds and not seedlings, that is. From One Hundred Dollars A Month. Get a small album on Amazon for $11.99.

7. Try out a system like Square Foot Gardening to help you get the hang of how to actually grow veggies you can eat, and how to grow more in less space.

amazon.com, amazon.com

It's very straightforward; you grow in several square-foot-divided areas, instead of in traditional rows. It won't feed a family of six, but it's an easy way to get started! Get the paperback on Amazon for $18.59 (or an older edition for $15.89).

Promising review: "Love this book. I grew up helping my Dad with a large garden and have always loved gardening. The square foot garden is quick and easy to build and use if you have limited space or just want to keep it simple. This book is a great resource and has plenty of photos to help visualize everything." —Haley Rider

8. And make grid gardening even more foolproof with a Seeding Square kit, which helps you both evenly space plants and bury your seeds at the correct depth.

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The color-coded system help you space everything just so, and the measuring stick (called a dibbler!) instantly makes holes that are exactly 1–4 inches deep. (Your seed packets will have info on how deep to plant each variety.)

Get it on Amazon for $25.95.

Promising review: "Love this thing! I have been gardening for a while and this takes all of the guess work out of spacing. I used this for the first time this spring using the planting chart/guide and it has worked out perfectly. I have had little to no weeds (I mean come on, you're gonna get some weeds). Planting per the Seed Square will for the most part choke out the weeds, while promoting growth for the plants. I even used this to plant growing plants and not just seeds. Just put the square on the ground used the stick to mark the spot and dug a hole where it was marked. Simple enough. Would highly recommend. Super easy!" —Jennifer Geisel

9. Never grow the same type of veggies in the same plot of soil two or more years in a row — instead, rotate them so every bit of your garden soil stays rich with the nutrients each specific type of plants needs.

bonnieplants.com

Read more about it from Bonnie Plants.

10. Consider ~companion planting~ as you plan: particular plants may help keep another's pests under control, and others just naturally grow well together.

anglianhome.co.uk

For example, corn makes good climbing material for peas and beans, while the wide leaves of squash hide all of the roots from getting too much sun. This graphic's from Anglian Home.

11. If you're planting flowers, consider a mix of annuals (which last just for a year) and perennials (which grow over many years).

12. Or scatter a high-quality wildflower seed blend (designed specifically for your region of the country) for low-maintenance but still stunningly gorgeous flower beds and containers.

americanmeadows.com

Mixes can give you easy color through multiple seasons, and because the plants are native to your region, they can also help support native pollinators!

If you live in a colder climate wildflower seeds are best planted in the fall, but if you're somewhere warmer you can get wildflowers started almost any time of year — see this planting guide for more info. Get regional mixes from American Meadows starting at $9.95 for a 1/4 pound of seeds. Or see similar regional mixes on Amazon for $14+ (which would cover 500+ square feet).

Promising review (for the American Meadows "West" seeds): "When I bought this house the backyard was overgrown with heavy brush. I cleared the brush, tilled the soil, and sprinkled American Meadows wildflower mix in April. By the end of June the area was a beautiful wildflower garden and has continued throughout September with new flowers growing later in the season. People stop their cars to say how beautiful it is." —Alli

13. Pick up a few basic tools if you don't have 'em already, and a pair of durable protective gloves.

amazon.com, amazon.com

The trowel will be your main workhorse, but the transplanter (the one with the measuring marks on it) will make all the difference when you need to measure the right size holes for different plants, and the cultivator will loosen soils that end up packed over time. And gloves, of course, keep your hands clean and protect them from spiky thorns. (These are just starters of course; if you're looking at a big project, you'll definitely need more/different tools!)

Get the set of three tools for $16.18 and the gloves for $9.97, both on Amazon.

14. And store them in a self-sharpening, self-cleaning solution of mineral oil and sand.

onegoodthingbyjillee.com

You'll still want to wipe them down and make sure they're dry to avoid rust, of course. From One Good Thing By Jillee.

15. It's perhaps cheapest to start a garden from seeds, but of course buying already-established plants at a local garden store can make success a little simpler.

Hallmark Channel / giphy.com

16. That said, if you do want to try starting seeds, reach for eggshells or citrus rinds...

17. ...or, of course, seed starter trays made exactly for that purpose.

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These give your baby plants a little more room to grow and get established than an eggshell would, plus it comes with an adjustable lid that lets you easily control the humidity levels. Great if you live in a colder zone with a short growing season! The inner part of each tray removes easily, so you can add a bit of water to the bottom of the outer tray to keep everything nice and moist.

Get the 10-tray set (120 cells total) on Amazon for $17.99.

Promising review: "What an awesome starter kit! In CO we get some late season frost so starting seeds inside is a must. I placed two seeds in potting mix and filled up four trays. Watered each cell, made sure there was a little water in the white tray, put on the dome, and had cucumbers and beans sprouting in just a little over a week. The dome holds droplets of moisture through evaporation from the soil, which means less watering needed. I keep them on windowsills and will take the domes off and transfer seedlings into another tray until it's safe enough to put them in the garden beds. Love the little tools and the "stakes" that I will be able to use outside. These trays are sturdy and will last more than a few seasons." —junipers

18. Whether or not you have much (or any) yard to speak of, you can always easily grow herbs like basil, thyme, oregano, mint, and rosemary in containers on your balcony or porch.

acultivatednest.com

Keep 'em watered, make sure they get enough (but not too much) sun, and they will thrive! From A Cultivated Nest.

19. Have absolutely no outdoor space at all? You can still enjoy growing things and eating fresh herbs with a hydroponic countertop garden!

Macy's

All you do is add water and plant food (and it even tells you when it needs more), pop in the pods, and watch them grow! The light at the top automatically turns itself on and off, so you don't even need any natural light from a window or anything. And if you don't love herbs, you can also get pods that grow flowers, lettuces, tomatoes, and lots of other things.

Get one from BuzzFeed's Goodful line, exclusively at Macy's for $189.99.

Promising review: "I absolutely love this Aerogarden! Easy to set up and use. Right away I had dill, parsley, mint and thyme growing. I love dill and seem to add it to everything. Now I was hooked. I bought several other units, including two for my granddaughter who loves them too! I have one with my herbs, one with lettuce varieties, one with tomatoes and even one in my office with flowers!!! City girl with a country heart who wants to grow my own! This is great!" —Debbie

20. Always snip your herbs with clean, sharp garden shears — never just pluck off their leaves — because thoughtful pruning will encourage them to send out more of those tasty leaves.

thethriftygroove.com

Always snip them between two sets of leaves, as close as possible to the bottom set. Make sure to leave at least two or three layers of leaves on your plant, though! This encourages your plant to send out more leaves. Read more on The Thrifty Groove and Martha Stewart.

Get a highly-rated set of garden shears on Amazon for $9.98.

21. And if you want to eat your herbs, don't let them flower — it can change their flavor, and might stop your plant from growing its leaves.

chokrihomeandgarden.blogspot.com, preparednessmama.com

This goes especially for basil and mint! If they put their plant energy into flowers and seeds, they'll have less of it to make leaves. Read more on Gardening Know How, Chokri Home and Garden, and Preparedness Mama.

22. Always water a vegetable garden in the morning before the hottest part of the day, so the water doesn't evaporate before it soaks into the soil.

Disney

Plants like a good breakfast, too! You can also water in the late afternoon, but that's second-best. From Country Living and Gardening Know How.

23. Morning's also the best time to water gardens in general, and it's ideal to water both deeply (about 2 inches) and less frequently (like, once a week or so) so the plant roots can grow nice and deep.

amazon.com

In your dream garden, you'd get almost two inches of rain in weekly afternoon showers, but we know that never happens. Read more on Gardening Know How, because it's a little more complicated than that; containers may even need daily waterings, depending on where you live.

Get a highly-rated heavy-duty watering nozzle on Amazon for $15.99; it'll attach to your hose for easy watering.

Promising review: "All hose nozzles should be made like this. The settings are easily changeable and have a wide variety to fit your needs, be it soft watering of your plants to jetting gunk off your tires. We've been through so many other nozzles in the past. Some require herculean strength, some break within weeks, some you just can't get the stream you desire. This is perfect, on, off, or anywhere in between and you don't have to hold it there, that's where it's set." —slunder

24. Trim or pinch off the "deadheads" from certain flowering plants to help encourage even more blooms.

savvygardening.com

Always clip or trim back to where there's still green growth happening. Read more on Savvy Gardening here and here.

25. You can also cut flowers while they're fresh to display in vases, of course; here's everything you need to know.

26. Help attract gentle mason bees to pollinate all of your fruit and vegetable plants (so they actually produce a crop) with a bee house.

amazon.com

The Honeybee Conservancy and Bee Built cover everything you need to know about mason bees. Then you can get a little house for them — each individual tube could be the home of one bee! — on Amazon for $19.99, and refill tubes for next year for $9.99.

Promising reviews: "The mason bees really seem to love this house; they're at it constantly! I'm switching to using this type of house with the disposable inserts. I didn't know before that the blocks with the drilled holes are NOT the best homes for these bees, since they accumulate debris and mites. This was easy to mount under an eave of my house, and I expect to be using it for many years to come. Recommended." —NortheastGal

"Despite not having a way to attach it to anything, I super glued it to the top of a post and waited about a month and got my first hive. Super glad. The wood is solid and heavier than I expected. It appears to be good quality and hardy enough to withstand a new England winter." —MassRes

27. And you can take care of any slug problems by putting out a dish of beer.

Flickr: SteveR- / Creative Commons / Flickr: git

Apparently it really does work.

28. Mulching your garden can keep the weeds at bay and water in the soil.

fix.com

From Fix. Different types of mulch work for different types of gardens of course; read more about what you might need here. You can get mulch at your local garden store, or even use the ChipDrop website/app to bid on mulch cut from local trees.

29. Although you'll still probably have to do some weeding, maybe 10 or 15 minutes every day, or once a week. To make it easier on your back, you can always try a stand-up weeder.

amazon.com

Weeding's annoying, but if you devote a few minutes a day to it, or try to do it at least once a week, you can catch the weeds when they're young, and it'll be easier to pull them up by hand.

Too busy for that (or TBH just lazy)? This weeder pulls even the toughest weeds out by the root! Get it on Amazon for $29.95. (Or if you have a small garden, you can always try an ergonomic hand weeder; get a highly-rated one on Amazon for $10.24).

Promising review (for the standing weeder): "Oh my god, I friggin' love this tool. I bought this on a whim given we bought our first house and know nothing about caring for a yard. Boy has it come in handy. Our new house had a ton of weeds in the front yard and this tool helped me get most of them out in no time. In fact, the process of yanking out the weed was strangely satisfying! I don't think anyone can say that weeding is fun but this tool made it as close to fun as you can get, especially when you see a long root along with the weed you pulled." —JG

30. You can make a homemade ~fertilizer tea~ out of weeds and grass clippings to help return some of the nutrients they absorbed to your soil (and the plants you *want* to grow).

Robin Sweetser / almanac.com

You literally tear them up into a bucket filled with non-chlorinated water, cover to keep mosquitos out, and let it steep! Get the full directions from The Old Farmer's Almanac.

31. Learn the basics before you apply other fertilizers or plant food — you want to make sure you use the right ones at the right times for your particular plants.

zone9garden.com

This'll sound familiar, because fertilizers also generally give an "NPK" number — nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium — the same info you're looking at in a soil test. But this is all about getting even more of those important nutrients to your plants.

Unfortunately there's not an easy "tip" for this one; you just have to do your research and pay attention to the information about your seeds or plants when you buy 'em. There are several types of fertilizers out there; read more about it on Fine Gardening, Miracle Gro, Bonnie Plants, and Zone 9 Garden.

Enjoy your new garden, and good luck!

Fox / giphy.com

The reviews in this post have been edited for length and clarity.

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