How to Start a Garden

Dig in, beginners. Growing your own food and flowers can be fun and rewarding.
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©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

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©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

©2012, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Flower and Vegetable Gardens

Nothing beats the sun-ripened flavor of a tomato from your garden or the pleasure of snipping your own flowers for a fresh bouquet. Growing edibles and ornamentals is easier than you may think. First, decide if you have room for a garden, or if you'll need to plant in containers. If space is limited, or you're a beginner, try a 10x10 plot. You can expand later and even mix flowers and vegetables, as shown in the garden above.

Make a List of Plants and Seeds

The fun starts with deciding what to grow. Make a list of plants, seeds and seed-starting items that you'll need. Shop early, as popular varieties and products sell out fast. Read your seed packets to see whether to start the seeds indoors or sow them directly in the garden, and mark the planting dates on your calendar. This will help you know when it's time to transplant or sow again for another crop. Hang onto your seed packets so you can refer to them throughout the growing season.

Sketch Your Garden

Next, make a sketch of any existing structures, like a tool shed or large trees, and decide where to put your plants. Graph paper lets you draw to scale. Read seed packets or plant tags for information on how far apart to space the plants; this will help you figure out how many can fit in each row. Hang onto your sketch to help you remember what you planted, so you can rotate your garden in coming years.

Choose a Sunny Spot

You don't have to use a compass to find the best spot for your garden, but do choose a site that gets plenty of sun. Tomatoes, peppers and many other edibles need 6 to 8 hours of direct sun a day; leafy crops like lettuce and spinach can take less. Roses, daylilies and other flowers also need full sun, while impatiens and coleus prefer shade. Again, read plant tags or do some online research to match what you want to grow with the amount of sunlight or shade you can offer.

Test Your Soil

Before you plant, test your soil to see which amendments, if any, it might need. You can buy DIY kits at garden centers and nurseries, or your local extension service office may be able to test a soil sample for you. Be sure to tell the extension agent what you want to grow, so they'll know what to recommend. Testing is best done in the fall, so amendments have time to meld, but you can still do it anytime before you plant.

Well-Drained Soil

Most plants need soil that drains easily; water that stands around their roots can cause them to die. If you have heavy or clay-like soil, add 5 or 6 inches of good organic matter, or compost, to improve its drainage. (Organic matter also helps improve sandy soils that drain too fast and don't hold enough water for plants). Or consider growing in raised beds. You can build your own, or choose from a variety of easy-to-assemble kits. Then fill them with a good soil mix.

Loosen the Soil

If your soil test indicated that you need amendments, spread them out evenly over your garden. When the ground is dry, work them in, using a tiller or shovel. Try to avoid stepping on the soil you've loosened, so you don't pack it down again. Remove any sticks, rocks, weeds or grass, and use a garden rake to smooth and level the soil. Water in the amendments and wait a few days before planting. Never work in your garden when the ground is wet.

Planting Shrubs and Trees

Fall is usually the best time to add a tree and shrub to your garden, when the temperatures are cool, but you can also plant in early spring. As with a vegetable or flower garden, start by testing your soil to see what amendments you may need. Then dig a hole no deeper than the root ball, but 2 to 3 times as wide. Work the amendments into the bottom of the hole and into the dirt from the hole. Slide the tree or shrub out of its pot and loosen its roots. Then backfill the hole, gently firming the soil. Water thoroughly to eliminate air pockets and settle the soil. Add a layer of mulch to help control weeds, retain moisture and regulate the temperature of the soil. 

Transplanting Seedlings

If you start plants from seeds, the first leaves you'll see are the cotyledons, which provide stored food for the seedlings. They're followed by "true" leaves, which look more like a plant's mature leaves. Once the seeds you started indoors have 3 or 4 true leaves, they're ready to transplant. First, harden off the seedlings by moving them outside into a sheltered, shady spot. Gradually expose them to more wind, sunlight and weather each day over the course of 7 to 10 days. Once they become stronger, or hardened off, they can be planted in the garden.

Container Gardening

If you don't have space in your yard or landscape, try growing flowers, vegetables, herbs and fruits in containers. You'll find many dwarf varieties that are suitable for pots, half whiskey-barrels, troughs, or window boxes. Hanging baskets are nice for trailing ornamentals or small edibles such as strawberries. Use a potting mix designed for whatever you're growing, whether foods or flowers. Don't use ordinary garden soil in your containers, as it probably won't drain easily or contain the right nutrients. Place your containers in sun or shade, depending on the growing requirements for your plants.

Watering Your Garden

Most gardens need at least an inch of water a week. If you don't get enough rain, use soaker hoses, a drip irrigation system, or sprinklers. (Water from a garden hose tends to run off before it can be absorbed, wasting money and effort.) To determine how much water your garden is getting, set out a rain gauge, or put an empty cat food or tuna fish can in your garden, and mark a line on it to show when an inch of water has collected. You can also buy "smart" timer systems that monitor local weather conditions and turn your water on and off as needed.


Once you've got your plants in place, add a layer of mulch. Newly planted trees and shrubs, as well as flowers and vegetables, need a few inches of bark, pine straw, or other mulch to help hold moisture in the soil and control weeds. Mulching also helps regulate the soil's temperature, keeping plant roots cooler when the mercury rises.


To practice organic gardening, feed your plants with good quality compost. Otherwise, look for a fertilizer designed for vegetables, acid-loving shrubs, citrus fruit trees, flowers, or whatever it is you're growing, and apply it as directed on the package.

Harvesting and Deadheading

Harvest your edibles when they ripen, so your plants will keep producing. You'll also want to deadhead, or snip the faded blooms, to encourage more blooms on flowering plants. Do a little research on your trees and shrubs before you cut them back, to make sure you're pruning correctly and at the right time of year.

Sowing a Second Crop

You may have time to sow another crop of edibles, depending on how long your growing season is and how long it takes your plants to reach maturity.  Of course, you don't have to grow more of the same plants. You might want to replace cool-season beets, for example, with heat-loving eggplants or marigolds. If you replace short plants with taller ones, like sunflowers, make sure they won't cast a shadow on the rest of the garden as they grow. Enjoy your garden.

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