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A beginner’s guide to starting a garden

colorful image with pink, green and blue and flowering plants with gardening tools

We know it can feel a little intimidating—especially if you’ve never gardened before—to start a garden. But if you’d like to make this the year you graduate from fake flowers to the real thing, we have a few tips and considerations to help make starting your own garden a little less overwhelming.

A garden doesn’t have to be in a garden.

You don’t need a big yard to plant a garden. If you’re in an apartment or condo and have a sunny or south-facing windowsill, small balcony or patio, consider an indoor herb garden or a container garden. You can even mix vegetables in with your flowers and other plants—but keep it all organic to avoid chemicals leaching into your food.

Trial and error are your best teachers.

No one starts out as a master gardener; it takes time to develop confidence and knowledge. Check out your local garden club, join a community garden, take a class through your local nursery or your city’s continuing education department, or check out how-to videos on YouTube. Ask questions, and don’t worry about making mistakes. Just get out there and enjoy the sunshine and fresh air; we suspect you’ll be hooked.

Gather your tools.

Flowers, soil and mulch are a given, but you’ll also need a few other tools to do your best work. The following can be purchased online or at your local hardware or garden store:

  • Gardening gloves—You can get these cheaply from the dollar store, but you get what you pay for. It’s worth a few extra dollars to get yourself a pair that will last you at least a full season.

  • Knee pad—Trust us on this one. A folded towel just won’t be enough to keep your knees from complaining the next day.

  • Hand trowel—Use for close weeding, scooping, planting and transplanting.

  • Spade—Use for digging, shoveling compost and fertilizer, planting larger plants, chopping roots, cutting a trench, and much more.

  • Garden fork—Shorter and thicker than a pitchfork, a garden fork can help with turning or loosening the soil in your garden.

  • Pruning shears and/or loppers—Use the shears for pruning, cutting, snipping and neatening up plants, tree branches and shrubs. Use loppers—which have handles that can range from one to three feet long—to trim hard-to-reach areas and thicker branches.

  • Hoe—Use for edging, digging trenches and weeding from a standing position.

  • Rake—Use for general upkeep of your garden and leveling soil or plant beds.

  • Watering tools—Use a garden hose with an adjustable nozzle for watering plants in larger gardens and a watering can for window boxes and container—or indoor—gardens.

  • Wheelbarrow (optional)—If you have soil, compost or mulch that needs to be hauled around—or any heavy lift-and-move project, really—a wheelbarrow can be a life- and back-saver.

Make friends with your local nursery.

If you’d rather not start your garden from seeds, nurseries usually have a great selection of already-started plants and vegetables that can be easier to grow.

Know your growing seasons.

This is more for vegetables, but it’s best to stick with the right season for the right plants. Here’s a general guide to growing seasons in the United States, and you can ask at your local garden center or do an online search for your region’s optimal growing seasons.

Set a reasonable (and realistic) budget.

The costs of a garden can add up fast, so be sure your plans are realistic, along with your budget. Ways to stick to your budget include growing from seeds, checking out the stock at big-box home centers and buying clearance plants at your local nursery.

Design and prep your garden.

This is a bigger topic than we have room for, so here are a few great articles with information geared toward beginners:

Annuals, perennials, vegetables, herbs, outdoors, indoors, sunshine, shade, location, design, delicate or easy-to-grow—yes, you’ll have some decisions to make, but these resources should help you get started.

If you keep your expectations reasonable, don’t get so ambitious you burn yourself out (please don’t do that!) and tailor your garden to your budget, before you know it, you’ll be proudly showing off your very own garden.