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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.

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Photo: Photo by Mick Telkamp

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.

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Photo: Mary Palmer Dargan

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.

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Photo: DuTo/Shutterstock

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."

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