Welcome back – it’s time to continue learning how to start a garden! Grab your garden goal sheet and let’s boogie. Today we are getting to the BEST part, the part you’ve been waiting for…the plants! Finally!!
Wait. Are you new here? Head over to read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series before continuing on any further. The only way this will work is to go in order. If you want to learn how to start a garden, trust me and all the others I’ve interviewed, there are some steps that can save you a LOT of time, and I’ve listed them all in this series. If you’ve gardened before and haven’t stuck with it, well, you know why you’re here. Let’s do this!
7. How to Select Your Plants
Okay, I know you are busting at the seams for this step to be here! You might have already purchased seeds or have started ‘window shopping’ in seed catalogs. I get it! But take a breath and read this step carefully! You might just save yourself an entire growing season if you do.
Start with the Big Picture – Ask These Questions FIRST
- What zone are you gardening in?
- When is your average first and last freeze of the year? (click on the frost calendar and enter your zip code)
Determine Which Plants You Can Plant Now
I know what you’re thinking. Can’t I just plant whatever I like to eat? I sure thought so when I first started. I planted some of my favorites, including lettuce and cilantro. I didn’t think about the time of year they should be planted, I just planted them. When my cilantro didn’t make it, I figured it was me. When my lettuce got bitter, I researched.
I found out that not all plants are created equal. There are cool season and warm season plants, and they might not be what you’d guess. For example, I thought of salads as a refreshing summer meal, but lettuce is actually a cool season crop. Learn from my mistake and do your research first.
Here is the next set of questions to ask yourself:
- Is the plant cool season or warm season?
- What is unique about this specific variety? For example, some lettuce is bred to be heat tolerant while other lettuce is bred to be frost tolerant. You want the variety that matches the season you want to grow it in. If it mentions that it is bolt-resistant that means it won’t go to seed, or flower, as soon as the weather gets hot. Once a plant bolts it puts all its energy into producing seeds to finish its life cycle. In other words, bolt-resistant varieties are good for spring because temperatures heat up as we transition to summer, and frost tolerant varieties are good for fall because temperatures cool down as we transition to winter.
- How much space does it need? In other words, how much space will it take up when it’s full grown? Think about the type of space it needs as well. For example, tomatoes will need vertical space and pumpkins will need lateral space.
- How many days does it take to reach maturity? This will tell you when it will be ready to harvest and eat. Use this calculator to find out when you will be savoring each bite.
- Should I plant seeds or buy transplants? Read this article to find out!
Go Back to Your Goal
Grow plants based on YOUR goal. If you are trying to save money, bell peppers are probably a much better option than bolt-resistant lettuce due to grocery store costs. If you are growing for fun and learning, you are probably going to grow a variety you can’t buy at the store – check out Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
Also, please do NOT pay attention to the “Easiest Vegetables to Grow” articles you see on Pinterest. Everyone has different growing variables, including climate and pests. It might not be as easy as they say, especially your first year and this will just be discouraging.
All of this information is on most seed packets but not all. If it’s not on the packet, it is usually on the website of the seed company. Here is a list of my favorite seed companies that I have ordered from and trust.
8. Plan the Location for Each Plant
You can use an app, write and draw it out yourself or create a Google spreadsheet like I do. Whatever tool you decide on, start designing where each plant will go in your garden. Think of it as a DIY planting map to your own growing space.
Does this really matter? It does. Here are a few reasons why.
- Space – Some plants don’t take up much space while others will completely take over your garden if you let them (ahem…most cucurbits). Look back at the size, determined in step 7, and plan how much space to dedicate to each plant.
- Companion plants – With companion plants there can be some controversy over whether a plant benefits or harms another, so I usually stick to these three rules: 1) plant polycultures (meaning plant a variety and spread out similar plants), 2)plant herbs and flowers in-between fruits and vegetables since the smell confuses pests, 3) follow general guidelines that aren’t controversial for companion planting (For example, I don’t plant tomatoes and carrots next to each other to be on the safe side. Some say they “like” each other and improve flavor while others say they “dislike” each other because tomatoes stunt carrots growth.)
- Plant roles – Do you need plants to play a certain role in your garden? For example, if you are planting a lot of flowering/fruiting plants that need pollinating, you will want to add plants that attract beneficials, or pollinators, to your garden.
Do your research and create a map of your space so you know where to place each plant.
9. Plant… And Don’t Forget to Mulch
Yay!!! Can you believe it? The time has come! Get those garden gloves on – it’s time to plant, and don’t forget your map! It’s always a bummer to plant seeds and then forget what you planted where. We’ve all done it.
Once you are done, if you planted transplants, don’t forget to mulch. Remember this is like the skin for your bare soil – don’t leave it exposed. If you planted seeds, wait for them to sprout and be around 3-4 inches tall before adding mulching around their base.
10. Take Notes and Observe Your Plants
The more you garden, the more you will realize how important it is to take notes and OBSERVE your space. Know what is going on out there! I know what you’re thinking. Duh! I’m going to be checking on my baby plants daily. This is awesome, but don’t let the excitement run out after a few weeks and then forget to check for a week.
The one time I had a few weeks where I wasn’t out in my garden daily, I got an infestation of squash bugs. UGH! It was the worst. Don’t let this happen to you.
Start a fun ritual of doing garden walks and observe what is taking place. Here are a few things to take note of as you enjoy your new gardening space.
- overall – What is growing well?
- overall – What isn’t growing well? Can you problem solve to improve the situation? Have you been watering consistently? Have you fed your plants?
- leaves – How do they look? Do you see any clusters of small circles on the undersides (these could be aphids or eggs of garden pests you will want to remove)? Do they have any white spots (could it be powdery mildew)? Here’s a great book to help with this step!
- critters – Celebrate seeing ladybugs and bees and take pictures of anything you can’t identify, so you can post a picture in a Facebook group or ask a gardener in your neighborhood (if it’s a pest, you will want to act fast before they multiply). Is there anything eating your plants or digging in your soil? Should you add a fence or cover? Again, this book can be helpful!
- food – What have you been able to harvest? What has been your favorite to eat? What do you wish you grew but didn’t?
Keep a garden journal to jot down notes about what you observe. This will help you be proactive next season because you will inevitably notice certain patterns.
Above everything else, HAVE FUN! Gardening is all about the experience. Nothing is fool-proof. There isn’t a single gardener out there that knows it all – there’s just too much to learn. Embrace your mistakes as they are what you will learn the MOST from, as long as you take the time to figure out what went wrong. Experiment until you find a solution and enjoy every bite you get along the way! Sending you all the best gardening vibes!