I’ve been gardening on my own for about 12 years now (I also dabbled as a kid, begrudgingly helping my Mom in her garden, but does that count?). Anyway, my first year or two of gardening on my own was pretty easy – I lived in a rental that already had a huge area ready to go for planting whatever I wanted, I just had to pull a few million weeds and plant some seeds. Another bonus about that garden was that a previous dweller of the home had left behind a bunch of big plastic planters that I filled with soil from the garden (I’ll touch on this more below), so I was pretty lucky since I had little to no disposable income at that point in my life. And although those first few years were very easy for me, I didn’t know a lot about gardening. Then we moved to our current residence and it was a whole different story – a dog-stained sod and concrete block nightmare. I wish I could say we had a clean slate, but we really didn’t. We had what years of previous owners had left behind. Sometimes I’m envious of people who move in to new builds with total clean slates. Anyway, now that I’ve had a few years of gardening experience under my belt, I thought I would share a few tips that may be useful to the just starting out gardener, or that may even serve as a reminder to the experienced gardener – these are all definitely things that I learned along the way from that first garden to our current garden.
1. There is a lot of information out there and everyone has advice for you. Start off by checking out a few gardening blogs and acquiring a book. My favorite gardening blog is You Grow Girl (Gayla Trail has a ton of resources for the new gardener) – also check out her first book with the same name. The first gardening books I owned were by Lois Hole who was a Alberta specific gardener (these are still the ones I refer to the most), so my recommendation is to look for a book that is specific to your climate (you can also search online for gardening blogs in your area). While I do value the advice from experienced gardeners, it can be a bit overwhelming to the new gardener. Accept and be thankful for the advice and then take it with a grain of salt. You really won’t know what it going to work for you unless you experiment.
2. Your soil is the most important thing. If you’re going to spend any money in your garden, spend it building up your soil. Spending money on dirt may seem pretty silly, but trust me, it makes all the difference. A good combination of healthy garden soil, manure and compost will be your best bet – it really depends on what you’re starting out with. My soil has quite a bit of clay naturally, so ensuring that I’m adding in materials that will provide the soil with sufficient drainage was important. The best thing to do if you’re starting fresh is to purchase a truck load of dirt or get one of those really, really big bags delivered – it will be much cheaper than buying individual bags from a garden center (I made this mistake as a new gardener). If you don’t think you’ll use a big load of dirt, you actually probably will – worst case you can spread a thin layer on your lawn to provide a boost of fresh nutrients.
3. Speaking of soil, don’t do what I did and just shovel dirt from your garden in to pots – this soil is probably way to heavy for your pots and the drainage will be terrible, causing your roots to rot. Your potted plants will also be competing with weeds for space and nutrients. If you only have a few pots to fill, you can absolutely get away with buying the individual bags of soil from the garden center.
4. Another note on potting soil – you do not need to replace the soil in your pots annually – I rarely do. The only exception for me is the smaller pots – I always replace the soil in those because most of the plants grown in them have become root bound by the end of the season, so I just throw the plant and the dirt in the compost pile. But with your bigger planters, it is totally okay to just refresh the old soil by removing the top 6 inches of old soil and replacing it with a mixture of fresh soil and compost. I do follow a couple of rules when it comes to replacing pot soil – the first I mentioned above (small pots), but the other is that I ensure not to plant the same types of plants in my pots the next couple of years in order to prevent the spread of disease. So for example, tomatoes will never be planted in the same soil twice. Healthy soil = healthy plants. The third exception would be that if any diseased or sickly plants were grown the year prior, that soil would go right in my trash bin and be replaced with fresh soil (always make sure those pots have had a good scrub as well before getting fresh soil).
5. You don’t need many tools. You need a good hose with a good nozzle, a shovel with a sharp edge, some gloves (if you choose, I know lots of gloveless gardeners), a sturdy bucket, and a good trowel (my favorite is the hori hori because it does double duty as a trowel/knife/murder weapon). I have lots of other tools like rakes, a hoe, a pitch fork, various hand tools, and so on, but I rarely use them.
6. Don’t get too ambitious on your first try. Start off with a tomato plant in a pot, some herbs, some lettuces, and a few other easy plants. And don’t be disappointed if you only get a handful of tomatoes or if everything dies. I still kill things and I still sometimes only get a handful of tomatoes – that’s just part of the game. Half the fun is learning about your climate and growing conditions, making mistakes, and thinking up ways to try again next time.
7. You don’t need to buy the biggest plant. The biggest plant will also be the most expensive. I almost always opt to buy the smaller version of a perennial because I know it will only be a year before it is the size of the large one – the key is patience. Also, if you know you’re going to have to fill a larger area, you can always purchase a couple of plants and wait until end of season sales where you can often get plants for next to nothing (about half of my garden is discount plants). Instant gratification is no fun when it comes to gardening – experience it fully and watch tiny plants grow in to unruly monsters!
8. Don’t overspend. This is easier said than done. You can garden on the cheap, trust me. The garden centre is great, but it is also really expensive. I can easily walk in intending to buy no more than a bag of dirt and walk out with $100 in plants. Connect with your local horticultural society and see when the next plant swap or plant sale is. Also, make friends with gardeners as most of them are more than happy to divide plants up for you. I also end up giving away quite a few tomato seedlings in the spring because I’ve been too ambitious with my seed starting. Keep your eye on your local Craiglist, Kijiji, or equivalent for free pots and plants. Also like I mentioned above, you only need a few tools to get you started and you’ll really want to initially put your money in to good soil.
9. Build things up over time. I am guilty for wanting everything in my garden now. But the truth is, if I went ahead and did everything at once, I would be in debt and I would probably have a bit of garden regret. Start with a few pots, then a raised bed, and then just keep building up on that each year. Don’t try to do everything in one season, you will probably not get much joy out of your garden and the whole thing will be a chore for you.
I think the common theme here is patience! Do things slowly and as you can afford to. Don’t get discouraged if things don’t happen for you right away. Keep trying and celebrate the successes, even if your Facebook friends don’t get as excited as you do about a truck load of manure. And just in case you thought my garden transformed over night, here is a before/after (it took 10 whole years to get it to where it is now – and I have a million things I’d still like to do with it!):
Before: This was the first year in our garden and we’d just pulled up those concrete blocks and dug the first bed.
After: No more grass, lots of raised beds and growing space, and new deck, fence, shed, and greenhouse. It took 10 years to get to here!
New gardeners: what are some of your biggest fears or challenges? Experienced gardeners: What tips do you have for the gardener just starting out?