How to Start a Garden: A Beginner's Guide

Jul 3, 2024 5 min read

Whether for health reasons or just for fun, it’s common to want to grow your own fruits, vegetables and herbs. Gardening is a fun activity that has a lot to offer. When you garden, you spend time outside, get some physical activity and — if all goes well — enjoy your delicious harvest. It’s also fun for adults and children alike to watch your plants progress. You might even get to share your bounty with neighbors and loved ones!

But gardening requires some planning, especially for beginners. The best time to start a garden is in the spring in most areas, but you might want to start planning earlier. Lots of questions come up: When’s the best time to start a garden? What should I plant? And what should I keep in mind? If you’re thinking of starting a garden and looking for gardening tips, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s a guide to how to start a small garden for beginners, from planning your space to choosing your plants to starting the growing process. 

Scout Your Location

How much sun does your location get? Most fruits and vegetables need at least five hours of full, direct sunlight each day. Many greens, herbs and root vegetables can grow in partial shade. Most seed companies and seedling sellers can tell you what kind of sunlight plants need. It’s a good idea to avoid high wind areas and places where frost could settle, since they could damage your plants.

You’ll also want to consider how much space you can allot to your garden. There are plenty of plants that will grow in small spaces, like apartments and small yards. But if you want to focus on large vegetables like pumpkins, you’re going to need more space.

Also consider how close by your garden will be for weeding, pruning, tending and harvesting. If it’s far away and out of sight, you could find yourself ignoring it. You’ll also need to consider the plants’ proximity to what they need. Where’s the closest water source for your garden? Can you reach it with a hose, or will you need to haul heavy watering cans back and forth when it doesn’t rain?

Before you start your first garden, consider wildlife, possible pet damage and children’s play areas as well. If you can’t find a good spot in your yard, you may be able to start a container garden on a patio or fire escape or get a plot in a local community garden. Some plants will even grow on your kitchen windowsill. 

Decide What You Want to Grow

It seems obvious, but it’s worth noting that when you start a garden, you’ll want to center your crops around the vegetables, fruits and herbs that you and your family will eat. There’s no use growing things you know everyone dislikes, and it’s much more fun to anticipate enjoying them.

Of course, you don’t have to eat everything right away. You can grow produce that you can make into long-lasting foods: Cucumbers can be made into pickles, tomatoes can be made into pasta sauce and greens can be turned into garlicky pesto. Some vegetables, like potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic and squash, have a relatively long shelf life. Plus, you can store lots of produce in the freezer to use all winter.

You can go online or talk to experienced local gardeners to find out what grows best in your area. Try out local agricultural extensions and garden centers, or chat with sellers at the farmer’s market. You might be a fan of bananas or mangos, but you’ll want to know if berries are a better choice in your climate.

Plan Your Plot

Once you’ve decided where your new garden will go and chosen what you want to grow, you’ll need to decide on the type and size of the garden beds you’d like. Your seed packets, online research or local nursery staff can help you figure out how far apart you need to plant to give the seedlings space to grow and expand. You might be surprised at how much space you need for a full-grown zucchini plant.

If you’re pressed for space, consider planting your garden in blocks or beds instead of rows. The goal is to minimize walkways and maximize growing space to get the most yield from your garden. Containers can also help you manage space.

Raised beds are often a popular choice, in part because they make it easier to plant your garden and they can be easier to weed and harvest if it’s hard for you to bend down. But they can also dry out more quickly, which means they might need watering more often. So, consider your needs before you build a raised bed.

Get the Basic Garden Tools You Need

When it comes to starting a garden, having the right tools can keep gardening a pleasure instead of a chore. There’s no need to spend a fortune on tools for your new garden, but you don’t necessarily want to buy cheap tools that will fall apart. Having good tools, which are available at the local garden center or online, will save time and effort.

These are some tools that can make your work easier.

  • Garden hoe with a long handle
  • Rake
  • Garden shovel
  • Hand tools, like small shovels, rakes and hoes
  • Gloves
  • Stakes for climbing plants
  • Garden twine
  • Cages for crops like tomatoes that need support as they grow
  • Tags to label plants before they come up (or if you’re growing multiple varieties of the same crop, such as lettuces or peppers)

Prepare Your Soil

You’ll want to test your soil pH and nutrients before planting. Most garden crops will prefer soil with a pH around 7, as balanced nutrient levels are important. If your soil has any deficiencies, you can address them before you start your garden by adding soil, fertilizer or nutrients.

Most plants prefer a deep, well-drained, fertile soil that’s rich in organic matter. After you get your garden started, you can compost your plants and other organic matter and your soil will improve year after year. 

Healthy, vibrant soil gives you healthy, vibrant plants. Bugs are attracted to stressed or deficient plants. If your plants are healthy, bugs shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

Start Planting

Most seed packets or transplant containers come with the basic planting instructions you will need, including the best time to start a garden for your climate. If yours don’t include directions, here are some general rules of thumb:

  • Plant seeds roughly three times as deep as the diameter of the seed.
  • Plant most transplants at the same depth they were growing in the pot (which means you should keep an eye on that depth as you remove them). The exception is tomatoes, which can be planted deeper or trenched in.
  • For heat-loving plants like tomatoes, peppers or cucumbers, make sure the danger of frost has passed before you plant.

Know How Much Water You Need

Seeds and seedlings need to stay moist, so you’ll want to water them frequently. Once your plants are growing well, they will generally need around an inch of water per week. Of course, some of this depends on the climate and whether there’s been rain. But remember, overwatering is as bad as underwatering. Always check your soil with your finger before watering — drenched soil doesn’t need more water.

Enjoy Your Harvest

Once your produce is mature, it’s time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Flavor is typically at a peak in the morning after the dew has cleared, but before the afternoon heat has settled in. You can sample at different times of day and decide what tastes best to you. And keep in mind that some crops, like lettuces, can be replanted all season, yielding several harvests before the weather becomes inhospitable again. Check a gardening book or talk to an expert to learn more about your garden.

Gardening is hard work, and even experienced gardeners have wins and losses every season. Pests, weather and other unexpected factors can get in the way. But that’s part of the enjoyment of tending to plants. Enjoy the process, be patient and give yourself more than one season to get it right.

Help Your Garden and Home Flourish

While a garden may just be a small part of your property, your home is likely one of your biggest investments. Make sure you’re covered for the unexpected by reviewing your homeowner’s insurance and other policies with your Farm Bureau agent.

Want to learn more?

Contact a local FBFS agent or advisor for answers personalized to you.