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Gardening 101: What to Know Before Starting a Garden

One of the most enjoyable aspects of home ownership isn’t in the home at all; it’s right outside, on that personal patch of paradise called your garden. Here’s what to know about creating and maintaining your garden.

Raised Garden John Gruen

Though the terms “yard” and “garden” are sometimes used interchangeably, the former technically refers to the land immediately surrounding your house (regardless of what’s on it), while the latter connotes cultivation—a plot where you plant whatever assortment of flora suits your fancy. Yet an attractive garden does have practical purposes—in front it contributes hugely to curb appeal while in back it’s a private haven, an outdoors outpost for “me time.”.

As an activity, gardening is work, but rewarding in ways beyond the physical fitness benefits of bending, stretching, pulling, et cetera—as various studies have shown. Research in the Netherlands found gardening to improve mood and reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, while a Norwegian study found that gardening alleviates symptoms of depression. What’s more, two separate studies revealed regular gardeners to be at lower risk of dementia than non-gardeners.

So, if the idea of starting a garden or enhancing one you already have is growing on you, read on for essential info sure to lead you down the garden path—in a good way, that is!

Gardening from the Ground Up

No matter what you hope to grow in your garden, certain factors are fundamental. Consider the following five basics before you sow a single seed.

Stay in your zone

Nothing’s as dispiriting to a gardener than putting in plants that fail to thrive. Perhaps the biggest reason for this sad event is planting species unsuited to the climate in your region.

Fortunately, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) established hardiness zones, based on average annual minimum temperature, to help you pick appropriate plants. Because circumstances aside from temperature, such as sun exposure, precipitation, and soil quality, also affect how well plants do, hardiness zones are guidelines, not guarantees, for garden success.

But sticking with species that tend to perform in your area is a smart way to start. To find your USDA hardiness zone, plug in your zip code.

Choose a location

Observe your property at different times of day to get a sense of where you have ample direct sun (essential for many flowers and vegetables) and where there’s more shade (no worries—there’s a variety of beautiful shade-tolerant plants).

Factor in your family’s lifestyle, too: If kids and pets rule the backyard, for instance, you may wish to situate a garden on a side of your home or section off an area with fencing so that it can’t be used as a playing field.

Also consider planting in raised beds—containers made of such materials as wood, stone, or metal that sit above ground level. Raised beds allow for easier garden management, be it to improve soil drainage and aeration or to discourage crawling pests from reaching your plants. Plus, the higher the bed, the less stooping and kneeling for the gardener, which makes raised beds a boon to anyone with back pain or mobility issues.

Get a soil test

In addition to sun and water, plants need nutrients—and their soil is their food source. So once you know where you’d like to locate a garden, get a soil test to find out what kind of smorgasbord you’re offering.

A soil test gauges the soil’s pH level (acidity/alkalinity) and determines what nutrients, such as nitrogen, magnesium, and phosphorous, are present and which are lacking. The test will also evaluate soil texture. The degree of sand, clay, silt, and rocks also has a role in plant health, as texture affects how well the soil holds and drains nutrients and water.

Armed with soil test results, a gardener can correct deficiencies with the right fertilizer and amendments (more on these below). To obtain a free or low-cost soil test, contact your local county extension office or the agriculture department of a nearby college; you can also purchase a soil testing kit from your favorite nursery or online.

Understand annual, biennial, and perennial plants

While there’s an enormous spectrum of flowers, ferns, shrubs, and grasses, there are only three classifications of plants: annual, biennial, and perennial, each term signifying how long a species lives.

Annuals last for a single growing season, during which they produce seeds and then die; biennials live for two growing seasons; and perennials continue to “come back” for two years or more.

Within the perennial category are “woody” trees, vines, and shrubs, as well as herbaceous perennials—plants whose roots persist after the aboveground portion dies at the end of the season.

Once established, perennials not only return, they’ll often spread to fill out your garden on their own. Annuals, on the other hand, should be pulled and disposed of at the end of the growing season and planted anew at the start of the next one. That’s why many gardeners opt for a combination of both types, relying on perennials to bloom every year and adding annuals for extra boosts of color and texture.

Popular annuals include pansies, begonias, impatiens, and petunias; popular perennials include asters, peonies, daffodils, and hostas.

Commit to maintenance

Except for dormant periods in cold climates, a gardener is always busy, weeding, deadheading (removing dead flowers so new ones can bloom), and pruning, as well as keeping soil quality up to snuff, adjusting, as necessary, with fertilizer, amendments, and mulch.

  • Fertilizers, which can be chemical or organic, are concentrated nutrients added to soil to encourage plant growth. Numbers on the fertilizer package refer to the nutrient ratio; for instance, 5-3-2 meaning five parts nitrogen, three parts phosphorus, two parts potassium.
  • Amendments are organic or nonorganic materials added to improve soil texture, thereby making water and air more accessible to plants’ roots. Soil amendments include leaves, compost, grass clippings, gypsum, and perlite.
  • Mulch is protective material layered atop the soil surface to reduce evaporation and runoff, and to moderate temperature. Mulch also discourages weeds and adds an attractive surrounding texture to flower beds. Organic mulches like compost, straw, and wood chips will ultimately become amendments as they decompose, while inorganic mulches such as rocks and rubber remain in place.

Garden Design and Maintenance: DIY or Hire a Pro?

Though a beautiful garden benefits everybody—from family members to bees and butterflies to neighbors and potential home buyers—not everyone has the vision to create a garden or the time and skills to tend it. So, you may choose to hire a professional to help you create and/or maintain your garden.

Hiring a Garden Landscape Designer

A garden or landscape designer will visit your property to discuss your plant preferences, how you hope to use your garden, how much work you’ll want to devote to it, and of course your budget, before suggesting species and drawing up a layout for your approval.

You may opt to accompany the designer to a nursery to pick plants and gain a better understanding of their needs. The designer will supervise the project and recommend contractors to do the physical work of clearing the ground, preparing the soil, and installing the plants.

When interviewing prospective designers, ask to see a portfolio, obtain references, and make sure they’ve got insurance. A simple plan for a small garden may cost between $850 and $1000.

Hiring a Landscaper

Ah, the buzz of lawnmowers and leaf blowers—the typical suburban song of yard work! If you wish to have a pro weed, trim, and otherwise ensure that your blooms look their best, ask neighbors for gardener recommendations, check references, and choose someone who has insurance.

Write up a list of the tasks you want done on a weekly/monthly basis; prices vary depending on your area and the extent of the work.

The Gardener’s Tool Kit

It’s unlikely that your garden will be a purely passive pleasure—and anyone who intends to get down in the dirt is going to need gear. Below, the right tools for your labor of love.

Shovels, spades, and trowels: Can you dig it? Not without these implements!

  • A long-handled shovel with a narrow, curved blade for digging holes and moving piles of soil and other materials.
  • A short-handled spade with a flat, squared-off blade for edging beds and working amendments into soil.
  • A short-handled trowel with a cupped, tapered blade is the ideal digger when planting bulbs and seedlings.
  • Hoes and weeders: With its long handle and thin, flat blade, a hoe is used to break up clumps in soil, incorporate fertilizer and compost, and help remove weeds. A miniature version with a short handle is called a weeder; use it to get into tight spots between plants to remove weeds.
  • Scissors and shears: Any hardy pair of household scissors can deadhead flowers, snip twine, and open bags of supplies. Just don’t use them on woody shrubs like lilacs and hydrangeas; you’ll need a set of spring-loaded pruning shears for that.
  • Hoses and watering tools: A rubber or vinyl hose lets you water your garden evenly and quickly. Look for a hose with sturdy connectors and a spray nozzle. You may also want an old-school watering can or newfangled watering wand to give spot attention to certain plants, particularly delicate seedlings that need a gentler sprinkle.

In addition to the proper tools, you’ll want task-appropriate attire and storage:

  • Leather or cotton gloves keep blisters at bay when you weed and hoe, while a plastic or nitrile pair with wide cuffs will protect you from thorns.
  • Knee pads are plus if you’ll be digging and planting on your knees.
  • A wide-brimmed straw or canvas hat is both necessary and de rigueur for sun protection during all garden chores.
  • A garden tool belt keeps small implements at the ready, right on your person. If you’ll be hauling heavy supplies like bags of soil, consider a garden cart.
  • To stow supplies and tools, you may wish to have a garden shed. Just large and airy enough to hold gear, perhaps with a workbench for potting and tool maintenance, a shed can also be a charming addition to your yard.