With gardening, timing is almost everything, so start as soon as you can to take advantage of the long growing season. Whether you’re dreaming of vegetables, flowers, or an outdoor oasis, here are 10 get-ready-to-garden tips.
Start some seeds indoors
Depending on what you want to plant and where you live, this advice might be too late, but you can try to play catchup or save it for next year. Starting seeds indoors gives you a leg up on the growing season and is cheaper than buying starter plants. Gardening calendars like the one at All Things Plants will tell you when to start seeds indoors or to plant them outside based on your area’s last frost date. (While you’re at it, convert coffee grounds into starter pots for planting, and be gentle with your seedlings by spritzing them instead of pouring water on them.)
Get your tools ready for the season
As with cooking tools, home improvement tools, and most other tools, the sharper the better. Get your pruning shears, shovels, and other tools in shape before you have to use them and you’ll save time and effort in the long run. Even the lawn mower blade could use some sharpening and a tuneup. Bonus tip: Take care of your garden tools after each use and they’ll stay in good shape for years to come.
Start with beginner gardening projects if you’re new
What if you want to garden but don’t know where to begin at all? Or have tried but don’t have a naturally green thumb? These starter ideas and resources, such as container gardening, can ease you into gardening successfully for the first or fiftieth. Bag gardens in particular are not only low-effort, they overcome soil issues and help build soil for next year. Also, if you have kids, make sure to have them pitch in, too. It’s not only educational and fun, it might turn them into healthy eaters as well.
Get your soil ready as early as possible
Besides seeing your plants grow (or harvesting your vegetables, if you have a vegetable garden), one of the most enjoyable aspects of gardening is putting them in the soft soil. But the manual labour of preparing that soil — breaking up clods, raking, and aerating it — not so much. You have to get the soil ready before you plant. Gizmodo explains how to work the soil:
If last year’s bumper crop has depleted your soil’s nutrient content, you’ll need to amend it before planting again. The process of amending soil involves adding materials in order to augment or modify the soil’s physical characteristics. Sandy soils, for example, need amendments that increase its water and nutrient holding capacity, while clay soils need amendments that improve its aeration and porosity. Pick up a soil test kit from your local home improvement centre to determine the plot’s pH balance. This, in addition to the type of soil you have, determines the type of amenity you’ll need. Make sure you bring a small bag of soil with you when you go to buy the kit and save yourself the return trip to buy the necessary amendments. Once you do have all the amendments you need, it’s just a matter of digging up the top 6 to 12 inches of existing soil, thoroughly mixing the materials in, and then raking them level.
Mix coffee grounds into your soil while you’re at it to deter slugs and other pests, as well as put a smile on acid-loving plants. If you’re preparing a particularly weedy area for planting, try using a piece of cardboard to get rid of the weeds en masse or these DIY weed killers to keep weeds from sprouting.
Start learning to use compost
Compost is the superfood for plants. You can turn food scraps, leaves, lawn clippings, and other otherwise useless “green waste” into nutrient-rich fertilisers and soil amendments for your plants. A compost bin powered by worms will produce compost in much less time than other kinds of the aerobic kind, but if you’re not keen on being so close to a big bin of worms, you can create a compost tea instead, blend old food scraps for instant compost, or see if your community offers free compost (and mulch). After clearing the planting area and removing weeds, add a 4-inch layer of compost to new beds and work it well into the soil along with any other nutrients.
Prune shrubs and trees, and divide perennials
Actually, winter is the best time to prune your trees and shrubs, before new growth and warm weather can increase the risk of disease, so this one might be for next year. Just make sure you do it properly, lest you do irreparable damage to the tree or shrub. BHG says to prune fruit trees before buds begin to break into bloom, otherwise you could get a tinier crop due to stressing the tree. It’s also a good time to divide perennials before plants have begun their spring growth.
Choose your new plants wisely
Even the best gardeners probably couldn’t make sun-loving plants like daisies thrive in the shade. Plants need to be matched to the environment that they’ll live in, including soil, lighting, and other climate conditions. The good news is many plants aren’t too fussy. These are seven of the easiest vegetables to grow in your own yard, plants that don’t need too much water, the kinds of plants that work equally well in sunny and shady places, and the vegetables that save you the most money for your effort. You might also consider the plants that grow best together. In general, to choose the right plant for the right place, think of the amount of sunlight the location gets, the soil moisture, and your area’s hardiness zone. Tech tools like plant sensors can help optimise your garden as well.
Know when to plant and harvest
The other things you should know about your new plants are how long they will take to grow, how big they will grow, and, if they are vegetables, when you can finally eat them. This chart offers an overview for many vegetables (northern hemisphere-specific). You can also use the Farmer’s Almanac to find more information. As for other kinds of plants, you might not need to worry as much. Nurseries tend to stock plants when they’re flowering, because that’s when they’re most appealing, so you can just walk in and buy what you like (and is appropriate for that spot to spruce up your outdoor space).
Create a garden layout that works for you
Whether you have a small space but are dead set on growing 100 pounds of potatoes in those four square feet or have acres to work with, the best gardens start with a detailed plan. Smart Gardener can not only help you diagram your garden or landscape, it can recommend a garden plan based on your selected plants and location, along with a personalised gardening to do list and other intelligent features.
If you’re short on space (or just love symmetry), a square foot garden might be for you; this raised bed garden dedicates 1×1 square foot plots to specific plants and can be cost-effective. On the other hand, rounded edges could get you more planting space. We’ve also showcased several vertical and other small space gardens over the years, from the shoe organiser herb garden and this shipping pallet version to the simple salad in a box.
Calibrate and automate your garden
Finally, gardening is a fun hobby, but it’s also hard work at times. Make it a little easier on yourself with some gardening hacks. For example, calibrate sprinklers so they always water your lawn just right (which means, as little as possible, conserving water), or build a drip irrigation system so you never forget to water your garden. If you’re container gardening, you can make EarthBox-like self-watering planters.
This story was originally published in March 2014 and was updated on May 4, 2021 with new information.