Home Improvement

A Beginner’s Guide to Gardening in Your Backyard

Fewer things feel as satisfying as stepping back from a garden you planted and witnessing everything in full bloom.

Gardening is one of those activities that can truly appeal and provide some sense of fulfillment to literally anyone. Regardless of your skill level or previous experience, if you couch-surf or own multiple homes, climate conditions being hot or cold… whatever your circumstances… gardening can accommodate them. For this article, all you need is a backyard.

Must-Know Gardening Terminology for Beginners

Your first lesson as a beginner gardener is learning some horticulture terminology. Some of the words may seem basic, but they’re mentioned to draw distinctions and avoid misuse or overlapping of terms.

  • Yard” refers to the walled- or fenced-in open-sky land adjacent to a building.
  • Garden” refers to the planned space within the yard used for the cultivation of plants, flowers, trees, herbs, fruits, or vegetables. A garden displays an element of control that differentiates it from uncultivated areas. “Yard” and “garden” are often used interchangeably, which is fine. Just note that the technical difference between the two is cultivated vs. uncultivated land.
  • Horticulture” is the intensive cultivation of plants. It refers to both indoor and outdoor crop cultivation, and usually represents large quantities of plants (like at a nursery, for example).
  • Propagation” is the process by which large numbers of plants are obtained. Propagation can be done sexually (seeds) or asexually (cuttings, plant divisions).
  • Landscaping” is both a noun and a verb. The verb form of landscaping means to either be making new or maintaining past improvements on an area of land for practical (fruit and vegetable gardening) or aesthetic (ornamental plant, flower, and tree cultivation) purposes. “Landscaping” as a noun is also used interchangeably with “garden” and refers to additions and modifications to an area with the purpose of environment management, enhancing aesthetic appeal, or increasing the amenity or value of a property. It encompasses all softscaping and hardscaping.
  • Softscape” refers to the living components in your garden design. It includes all annual and perennial plants, turf (grass), trees, flowers, and soil.
  • Hardscape” is everything else. It includes the non-living elements that are usually hard to the touch, as they consist of hard materials. Their use may be purely functional, or purely aesthetic. Elements like decomposed granite, containers/pots, retaining walls, pergolas and gazebos, flagstone, boulders, rip rap, raised planter beds, trellises, and pavers are all examples of hardscape.
  • Annuals” are plants, flowers, herbs, fruits, and vegetables that have a one-growing-season lifespan. They are planted as their season is beginning and when they die off or are harvested as the season ends, any remaining parts of the plant are removed completely. A new plant (of a different species, usually) is then installed for the new growing season. Summer and winter flowers are a good example of this. Annuals usually have a longer bloom period than perennials, have blooms on them when planted (or are just about to bloom, so there’s immediate gratification), and tend to be more expensive.
  • Perennials” are plants that have a life span of three growing seasons or longer. They’ll bloom for their season, go dormant in the off-season, and then wake up and do it all over again when their season comes back around. Perennials often go in the ground with very little growth and no blooms, and will take some time to reach mature size.
  • Decomposed granite, or DG, is the material that wears down and breaks away from huge pieces of natural granite. This material is 1-inch in size or smaller, sometimes so fine that it resembles sand. It’s the least expensive way to pave a patio, walkway, or driveway.
  • “Aggregate” is fractured or rounded stone used as a footing, sub-base, or decorative surface. It’s also a hardscape element. Pea gravel, ABC mix, and DG are good examples of aggregate.
  • Mulch” is simply a topping that’s applied on top of soil. It can be in vegetable and fruit gardens, in flower beds, and on plants and trees. Most people think of shredded wood or bark chips when they think of mulch, but aggregate applies, too—you might hear it called “rock mulch”. DG (decomposed granite) is a common example and is used heavily in warmer climates like the desert southwest.
  • Plant material“, for this article, is an all-inclusive term that refers to plants, flowers, trees, herbs, vegetables, and fruits — basically anything you’re planting.

10 Foundational Guidelines for Beginner Gardeners

Before you get started with any planting, let’s take a bit more time to get educated on practices that will make the gardening experience less problematic and more enjoyable. You may be anxious to skip all this and start getting things in the ground, but if you don’t know how to prepare the ground for your plant material, or how to care for it once it’s in the ground, your precious crops will suffer for it.

If you put the following 10 guidelines into practice, they can come together to form the solid foundation upon which you build your gardening expertise.

1- Pests and the diseases they spread can be a death sentence for a crop or even an entire garden. Infestations, gone unnoticed and left untreated, spread remarkably quickly. The best way to treat pest and disease issues is with prevention. A big way to aid in prevention is to avoid planting large quantities of the same plant material in the same space. Pests that affect that plant material will be far more attracted to the larger quantity, and a crop-destroying infestation can occur. Instead, plant in smaller sections, mixed in with other plant materials.

2- Get into the habit of mulching early on. Mulch everything. Grass, straw, dried leaves, or almost anything else you might already have access to will work. Mulch is a weed deterrent, and thicker mulch like wood chips is an easy but impactful way to hold moisture in the soil. It also won’t blow away as easily (leaving plants exposed) as other mulches might.

3- Soil is the single most important factor in whether plant materials live or die. With this in mind, implement either a fertilization program or a soil testing and amending program. Supplemental nutrients in the soil are very important for successful gardening. With fertilizer, different plant materials respond to different types of fertilizers at different times in different amounts. Just as important is knowing when not to fertilize at all, when to wait, and when to cut back. One type rarely works well for everything (even the all-purpose options); plant materials need to be evaluated and fertilized individually for best results.

Instead of a fertilization program, you can instead focus on improving the quality of the soil. Regular testing and amending as needed, including with organic materials, will eventually build up a nutrient-rich medium that contains everything needed for all the different plants. If you’re regularly checking and amending the soil, you should be able to skip additional fertilizing.

4- If prevention fails — and it will sometimes — decide how you want to address pests once they’re in the garden. The two solutions to that problem are chemical treatment or all-natural remedies. If going the all-natural route, encourage and allow wildlife in your garden. Insects, birds, butterflies, all of it. If you notice you are having an issue with one particular insect, find out what that insects’ natural predator is, and grow plant material that will attract it. Soon nature takes over and begins to synergistically run the whole thing, and it works just like in nature. Every “bad” bug has a “good” bug that will eat it. If all the bad bugs are gone when the good bugs show up, they won’t stick around.

Pesticides are a sensitive topic, and many gardeners avoid the practice altogether. Some can be quite vocal about their disapproval.

5- Implement the “no-till method” in your garden. Soil only needs to be tilled if it’s extremely old, compacted, and inert. When it’s in this condition, tilling can occur during the amending process. But once the soil has been amended enough, has a healthy, loose structure, and is testing satisfactorily, tilling is no longer needed. Tilling serves only to break up the structure you just spent all that time building, and it’s literal death for the microorganisms and earthworms living there.

Raised planter beds are an excellent way to implement the no-till method. They enable you to start with healthy amended soil right away, and they’re large enough to mulch as if you’d mulch in-ground plants. Mulching is a perfect way to add needed organic materials to the soil, increasing it’s ultimate nutrient-richness.

6- One of the most important things you can do for your garden is weeding. It doesn’t rank high on the list of why gardening is awesome, but it plays a huge role in why your plant material looks awesome. Weeds compete for light, nutrients, and water in the soil. Their roots are aggressive and grabby; they reach in and grab the dirt they’re planted in and hang on, over time causing problematic compaction. They’ll overcrowd and suffocate the plant material in their aggressive quest for space. Anytime you go out to work in the garden, even if it’s everyday, make weeding the first task you do. If you stay on top of it, the process will go quickly. Just remember: when pulling weeds, make sure you pull the roots too, not just the part you see above-ground. And don’t forget to mulch!

7- When you’re in the design stage of your backyard, be sure to educate yourself on the watering requirements of each different type of plant material you’re going to grow. Then, plant that material in groupings with other plants that have the same or similar needs. The same applies when you’re adding new and replacing old, dead, or missing plant material. This not only makes the watering process much easier for you, but it’s best for the plant materials as well. Planting something that needs very little water (like a cactus) with plant material that’s very thirsty (like melons) will result in a very unhappy plant that gets root rot, turns chlorotic, and is now exponentially more susceptible to issues with pests and diseases.

Devise your irrigation plan at this time. Whether you water by hand or use an irrigation system, a reliable water source needs to be onsite and in a location that allows all areas to receive water. If you are in a wet climate, consider collecting and using rainwater as your source. Drip irrigation is a common and efficient way of watering, with the added convenience of a “set it and forget it”-type approach. Hand watering with a hose or can is just as effective as drip irrigation, but potentially less efficient as there’s risk of excess run-off. You can avoid this by researching your crops and knowing how much water they need at specific times of the year.

8- Labeling your plant material is not only an easy way to remember what you have when it comes harvest time (if you have fruits and/or veggies), it’s also a good way to learn your plant names. Everyday as you go out into the garden, you can look at the labels just in passing, say the botanical and common names to yourself, and cement them into your memory a little more. This will help you get more comfortable with using the botanical names, which is a good habit to get into. This is also helpful if you’re following the suggestion to avoid large groups of the same plant material in favor of groupings with a lot of variety.

9- Create a schedule with reminders of important, timely tasks to be performed. This is important because there are small windows during which various plant materials respond best to certain activities. Doing so too early can either kill a plant, or create more work by having to do it again, and doing so too late can be more time consuming as you’re dealing with overgrown specimens. As your planting all your plant material, make notes by species:

  • herbs, fruits, and vegetables: when they should be harvested
  • flowers: when they should be planted, deadheaded, and removed
  • plants: when to perform spring cutbacks, when to trim, when to fertilize
  • trees: when to perform different types of pruning (crown thinning, structural pruning, and limb removals), when to fertilize

Getting into the habit of walking your herb, fruit, and vegetable gardens (if applicable) before meals and pulling whatever looks ready is a great way to stay on top of harvesting, and also create fresh, healthy meals with food grown by your own two hands.

10- Always be educating yourself. The best, most knowledgeable gardeners and landscapers know they’re far from knowing it all, and that valuable knowledge can be found in sometimes surprising places. Never pass up the opportunity to learn more about gardening in general, and about what you’re working with specifically. With plants and botany, no matter how much knowledge you acquire, there will always be something new to learn. If you embrace that fact, and take heed not to close your mind because you think you’ve mastered a certain aspect, you’re well on your way to being a respected expert as well.

The First Planting Season: Step by Step for Beginners

You know some basic terminology. You’ve studied the 10 foundational guidelines and are prepared to implement them. Now let’s start applying what you’ve learned thus far and do some gardening. These steps break out into three parts: pre-planting, planting, and post-planting.

Pre-Planting Checklist

Decide Style and Theme

There are a lot of options to weigh. You could go the landscaping route and plant softscape with hardscape materials strictly for ornamental value. It could be themed in the style of a cottage garden, or maybe a mediterranean garden. Maybe you’d rather grow your own food, or even do a little of both in defined areas. If you have a very small space, perhaps you are gardening entirely in containers, or you have a huge space you want to fill with sports courts, water features, and other site amenities. This is just the tip of a very big iceberg, but there are some key points to focus on, regardless of the style or theme.

If going the ornamental route, make sure you choose plant material that’s growable in your climate. Find out what hardiness zone you’re in and use plant material proven to thrive in your zone. You can find out your zone here just by typing in your zip code in the search box in the upper left-hand corner.

Also consider watering needs. If you live in a hot, dry climate that practices conservation, you’ll need drought-tolerant xeriscape plants. On the flip side, if your climate experiences a lot of rainfall and water run-off, you’ll want plant material that absorbs water.

If fruits and vegetables are more your thing, think about the meals you want to prepare for yourself or your family. Choose crops suitable to your climate, but also that will realistically be eaten.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid of empty space. You’re better off starting small and getting a feel for things. You can always add more plant material in phases as your comfort level increases.

Identify Locations by Exposure and Draw a Plan

The first thing to do is locate the spots in the yard that get 6-8 continuous hours of direct sunlight every day. These are the prime locations, as almost all vegetables and anything that flowers needs the sun. At the same time, identify the locations that are partial sun/partial shade, and full shade. Don’t worry about the full shade areas; vegetables or fruit may not be an option, but there are plenty of ornamental plants and flowers that love the shade. Coleus and Caladium mixed always make for a striking shade presence.

To the best of your ability, draw up an informal sketch that will eventually be your design and planting plan. Draw a rough outline of the shape of your yard, and mark out planting spaces in the different sunlight exposure locations. You should already know what zone you’re in, and you can now cross-reference that information with exposure requirements. This is a great tool that allows you to do a simple search by zip code only, or by desired criteria including exposure, size, season, color, growing habits, and more. If your returned results include far too many options, be more specific in your search.

Remember to stay in a convenient range of the water source. Also, keep in mind that gardening on flat ground will be easier than gardening on slopes or hillsides.

Get Your Tools

Now that you have an informal plan, you have a rough idea of the scope of the project. Knowing that, you’ll need to make sure you have the proper tools to perform the work. Someone at a hardware store can assist with gathering the right tools. There are also pre-assembled tool kits of various sizes. Your beginner kit should at least include the following:

  • gardening gloves
  • bypass pruners/hand pruners
  • watering can
  • hand trowel
  • garden hose and sprinkler attachment
  • knee pads
  • leaf rake
  • pointed tip shovel

If budget allows, you might also want to consider adding:

  • Hori-hori gardening knife
  • EasyBloom plant sensor
  • Radius Root Slayer shovel
  • CobraHead weeder

Ready the Ground

Depending on the style and theme you choose, there’s a good chance existing green materials and debris will need to be removed and cleaned out so you can start fresh. Any weeds or grass should be removed. You can either slice the sod out in small sections for easier maneuvering, or, if you have about four months, you can use newspaper and compost to break it down into even more compost. Either method gives you the clean ground you need to start with the latter resulting in very rich soil.

During this phase, pay attention to the soil’s density and topography. Soil that’s too compacted will need to be broken up and turned. Ground that’s too uneven may require leveling or grading to be ready for plant material. Let the water run in some spots to test for drainage issues. Any areas with standing water will need to be evaluated for possible repairs.

Soil Testing and Amending

Before anything goes in the ground, test the soil. A test will tell you it’s current pH, what’s in it, what it needs, and how to fix it.

Soil can be tested either by taking random samples from your yard and submitting them to a lab that performs soil analyses, or testing it yourself with an at-home DIY kit. The lab will give you a thorough report detailing missing and much-needed nutrients and how to amend it. A DIY kit isn’t as detailed, but it can still give you some good information.

Compacted soil is usually easily remedied by mixing in organic matter, but leaving it on the surface for the earthworms to incorporate works too.

Prep the Planting Areas

Loosening the soil in the bed or ground before planting is a good idea because it opens up space for the new roots to go where they need to go, to get food and water. This is achieved by either digging up by hand or using a rototiller. A rototiller is better for larger areas where the structure is less likely to be completely broken; hand digging is better for smaller areas.

Soil shouldn’t be worked in this manner if it’s too dry or too wet. As long as it’s somewhere between the two, dig up the top 6-inches and mix in some organic matter. If you can’t avoid walking across the newly turned soil, lay down boards to walk across to avoid compacting again.

Get Your Plant Material Ready

We’ve touched on this a bit already, but the three main things you need to consider when choosing plant material is your climate, your soil, and sun exposure. Any plant material that checks those three boxes will work. If that provides you a lot of options, it boils down to your personal aesthetic and how you want your garden to look.

Here are some easy-to-grow options that are beginner-friendly:

Herbs:

  • oregano
  • society garlic
  • chives
  • parsley
  • mint
  • rosemary
  • thyme

Vegetables:

  • arugula
  • kale
  • lettuce
  • radishes
  • sugar snap peas
  • scallions

Fruits:

  • strawberries
  • cherry tomatoes

Annuals/flowers:

  • begonia
  • marigolds
  • peonies
  • impatiens
  • geraniums
  • echinacea
  • dianthus

Perennials/shrubs:

  • lantana
  • oleander
  • ruellia
  • sage
  • bougainvillea

Trees

  • crape myrtle
  • citrus trees
  • mulberry
  • desert ironwood

You will, at this point, need to determine if you’re going to be sowing your plant material by seed, or installing nursery seedlings.

Planting Checklist

Install Your Plant Materials

Now the moment you’ve been waiting for: you’ve researched, learned, observed, and prepped, and now it’s time to drop your plant materials in the ground.

You should know at this point if you’re using seeds or set plants.

Sowing from seed is often cheaper, and let’s you see a whole new part of the life cycle. Follow the instructions on the seed packets. Seed starter kits come with everything you need and are available at various online retailers for purchase.

If you want an easier process with far more immediate results, use immature plants (set plants) purchased from a nursery. Dig holes big enough to accommodate the root balls and transfer the specimens from their nursery containers to the holes in the ground.

Post-Planting Checklist

Water-In and Water Regularly

It’s a good idea to get into the habit of watering-in new plant material. This means that immediately after planting and backfilling the holes, or covering the seeds, the area is saturated. This is a critical time and seeds and seedlings should never be allowed to dry out. Set plants also require frequent watering for the first year until they are established. Once all your plant material is established, the frequency of watering is going to depend on your climate, sun exposure, and how the soil retains water. Once a week for a slow, thorough soaking is a good rule of thumb, but concessions must be made for windy weather and heat, both of which can dry out soil quicker.

If you need a more tangible indicator, check the soil at about 3- to 4-inches deep. If it feels dry, it’s time for another slow soak. Note that the best time to water is in the early mornings.

Mulch

Adding a 2-inch-protective layer of mulch to the top of the soil is going to have the double benefit of preventing weeds (mulch keeps sunlight from hitting the soil and germinating the weeds) and retaining moisture in the soil so you won’t have to water as often. Organic mulches will decompose and add nutrients to the soil, but heavy winds can disperse them. DG and river rock are good options if wind is a consistent problem, though they don’t decompose or add anything to the soil.

Maintenance

The final piece of the puzzle—the key to how it all functions from this point forward—is entirely dependent on regular and proper maintenance. Some plant materials are considered high maintenance, and some are low maintenance. But the same tasks need to be diligently performed in every garden, regardless of style, palette, zone, or anything else.

Here’s a maintenance snapshot you can implement daily and weekly:

Maintenance checklist:

  • water plants before they start to wilt
  • check for weeds everyday and pull before they go to seed, taking care to pull the entire root
  • immediately remove any sick, dying, or dead plant material
  • address pest infestations immediately; if attracting a predatory insect isn’t realistic due to time, pests can be individually pulled off and dropped into soapy water, and the plants can be hosed off and treated with neem oil
  • if you notice tall plants leaning over, provide support with a trellis or stake
  • harvest vegetables as soon as they are ready; do not let them sit

You’re Not a Beginner Anymore

One of the most appealing things about gardening is its malleability. The way your garden may need to be changed to accommodate your garden’s needs, the way your garden performs may need steering in a different direction to better coincide with your philosophies, and either is OK. It is your space, and your process, and there’s something about the one-on-one experience in nature that is intensely personal. Fewer things feel as satisfying as stepping back from a garden you planted and witnessing everything in full bloom, living things cycling through their biological processes like clockwork because your hands, effort, and care made it possible for them to do so. You’ll likely never see a plant more beautiful or taste a vegetable more flavorful than those which rose from the homes you so lovingly prepared for them.

Welcome to the wonderful world of gardening. We’re glad you’re here.

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