Green Up Your Thumb: Tips for a Beginning Gardener

Anyone can have a green thumb. Even if you're a total gardening newbie, our tips will start you out on the right foot.

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Start Small

The surest way to become frustrated with gardening is to bite off more than you can chew. Of course, small is a relative term; in an area of, say, only 100 square feet, you can plant a lot more than you might think.

Small gardens are easy to manage, and by starting on a small scale you'll quickly learn gardening basics such as weed control, pest and disease control and watering requirements without being overwhelmed. As you develop more confidence and skills, you can expand the area or create a new garden bed elsewhere.

Start a Compost Pile

Whether you choose to build an elaborate bin and compost on a grand scale, create a simple pile in an out-of-the-way corner of your property, or place a store-bought composter in a sunny spot in the yard doesn't matter. All that matters is that you make compost — and use it, of course. Spread a thin layer over your garden beds at least once a year. Mix it with the native soil when planting. Apply it as a topdressing to lawns. Top off containers with it. And use it to make compost tea.

And, if for whatever reason, you can't make your own compost, you can always buy it. Many cities across the country make and sell compost in bags or in bulk, producing it from leaves and other lawn refuse collected throughout the year.

Add Paths to Protect Soil

The use of compost goes hand in hand with maintaining healthy soil, but there are other things to consider. Try to avoid walking on the soil in established gardens, because every step compacts it, and compaction makes it difficult for roots to grow. Create paths between rows or in beds, or place a board on the soil adjacent to areas where you work to distribute your weight more evenly over the soil.

Maintain Soil's Good Health

Also, avoid working the soil when it's wet. Otherwise, once it dries, you'll wind up with big clumps of hard-packed soil. And finally, don't overwork the soil, especially with a rototiller. Good soil isn't powdery; it's a mixed bag of particles of varying sizes and shapes. "Personally, I don't use a rototiller because, in my opinion, the tines disturb the soil way too much," says master gardener and HGTV host Paul James. "And I rarely turn the soil with a shovel. What I occasionally do is loosen the soil with a broadfork, which aerates the soil without disturbing its complex structure."

Mulch, Mulch and More Mulch

Mulch suppresses weed growth, maintains soil moisture, stabilizes soil temperatures and much more. So do yourself a favor: Mulch everything in sight with whatever organic mulch you like.

Water Wisely

Don't water frequently for only brief periods of time. Doing so causes plant roots to hover near the soil's surface. Instead, deep soak each time you water to encourage roots to grow deep down into the soil. And, whenever possible, water early in the morning so plant leaves have a chance to dry during the day. That will help minimize fungal diseases.

Go Native

Native plants tend to be easier to grow, have fewer pest and disease problems and require less supplemental watering. As a result, if you grow a lot of native plants, you'll develop more confidence with fewer hassles.

There are hundreds of non-native plants that are well-adapted to various areas of the country and are easy to grow. Many non-natives, however, are notorious for pest and disease problems or require special care. To learn more about native versus non-native plants in your area, visit your favorite nursery or contact your local master gardeners' group.

Fertilize Judiciously

The right fertilizer applied at the right time can be the difference between a landscape that's struggling and one that's thriving. Especially beneficial for flowering plants, fruits, veggies and any plants grown in a container, fertilizers are also the key to a lush lawn — but too much of a good thing is, well, too much. Follow this guide to find the right balance.

Prune With Care

Fertilizing and pruning cause plants to produce tender, succulent growth, which is what bugs prefer most. Says master gardener Paul James: "Who says that plants should be forced to grow faster than their normal growth rate, or that plants should necessarily be pruned in some fashion other than the way nature intended them to grow?" Get more tips for when and how to prune trees and bushes.

Consider Light Conditions

Shade-loving plants, like hostas and ferns, need much less sun than sun-lovers, like salvia and daisies, to thrive and will actually blister and shrivel up if planted in direct sun.

Visit the Garden Regularly

If you spend just 10 minutes a day wandering around your lawn and garden — say, early in the morning with a cup of coffee or right after work — you'll form an invaluable bond with everything that grows. And along the way, you might stop and pull a few weeds, spot a plant in need of water, realize that slugs or aphids are on the move, and so on.

By dealing with those little things each day, you won't be so overwhelmed by the time the weekend rolls around. In fact, you may discover that by tending to your garden daily but briefly, you'll have time for alternative weekend activities.

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