If this is your first year gardening, then you may be wondering where to get started. There is plenty to learn about gardening, but if you get a few key things right, you will have a good first harvest.
So, what are some tips for first time gardeners? First, choose a good location with plenty of sun. Next, get the right tools and prepare your soil for planting. Then, choose what you want to plant, and get your seeds and seedlings. Finally, maintain your garden by watering, weeding, and fertilizing as needed.
If you get those things right, you will be well on your way to growing a productive garden. You might even have enough vegetables to share with your friends!
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Tips for First Time Gardeners
First things first – before we do anything else, let’s talk about choosing the right location for your vegetable garden. Without a good location, even the best seeds will not grow, no matter how much care you give them.
Choose a Good Location for Your Garden
When choosing a location for your garden, here are a few important things to consider.
Amount of Sunlight
Most plants in your garden will need at least 8 hours of sunlight per day. Choose a spot in your yard that gets plenty of sun and will not be shaded by trees later in the season.
Even if a spot looks sunny in early spring, it may get too much shade once the leaves start growing on trees later in the spring. So, avoid planting your garden too close to trees in your yard.
For the same reason, avoid planting too close to your house, garage, barn, or shed. Any tall building can provide too much shade and rob your plants of the sunlight they need to grow!
Most plants like well-draining soil (that is, you don’t want the soil to stay wet for too long). If you know that certain parts of your yard get flooded in the spring or summer, then avoid planting your garden in those areas.
Also, if you know that some areas are heavy clay (a thick, dense consistency that sticks together), then find an area with lighter, looser soil (sandy or loamy soil).
Try to avoid areas with lots of rocks and roots close to the surface of the soil, since you will need to clear some of this debris away before planting.
Ease of Access
You want it to be easy for you to get to your garden, but hard for animals to get to. A small chain link fence around your garden will discourage some animals from getting in (deer may jump right over it though!). However, you can also use a scarecrow, hanging CDs, or some other method to scare away animals that want to munch on your vegetables.
Remember that you will need to water your plants at some point during the dry and hot months. Unless you want to haul heavy buckets of water to the garden, make sure to plant close enough to your water source so that your hose can reach.
How to Prepare Soil for Planting Your First Garden
Now that you have chosen a good location for your garden, it’s time to prepare the soil for a good harvest. It all starts with the right tools – there are lots you could buy, but let’s go over a few essentials.
Get the Right Tools for Your Garden
Here are a few of the most important tools that you will need for your garden:
- Shovel – a shovel is absolutely essential for gardening, and should be your first purchase. You will use it constantly to dig up rocks and roots when preparing the soil for the first time. You will also need a shovel every year to move compost, manure, and soil around.
- Trowel – I like to think of a trowel as a mini-shovel, for when you need a smaller hole than a shovel would give you. A trowel gives you more control than a shovel and makes it easier to mix a little bit of fertilizer into the soil.
- Rake – a rake is useful for cleaning up debris such as leaves and sticks. A rock rake can also help you to remove larger stones from the top few inches of soil.
- Stakes – a stake is often used to support tall, climbing plants, such as tomatoes or pole beans. You can also run a length of twine or thin rope between two stakes to give you a straight line for planting a row of crops. You can even put stakes around the perimeter of your garden and use it to support chicken wire to create a makeshift fence. Stakes have lots of uses in your garden, and you can use just about any metal, wood, or plastic pole you have available.
- Boots – you will need boots for gardening unless you want to ruin your sneakers or shoes. Boots are especially helpful when the garden is muddy after a few days of rain.
Till or Loosen Up the Soil
When you first plant your garden, you will need to loosen up the soil, either by digging or by rototilling.
Digging by hand with a shovel may be perfectly fine for a small garden, and it can give you a good workout. However, be careful and don’t overdo it – you can end up sore for a week if you do a lot of digging when you are not used to it.
If you don’t want to risk it, you can always hire someone to rototill your garden for you. You could also rent a rototiller, but they are heavy, and they can be tough to control if you are not experienced with them.
For more information, check out my article on the cost of rototilling.
Add Compost to Your Soil
Compost is made from kitchen scraps (banana peels, orange rinds, etc.) and yard waste (grass clippings, leaves, sawdust, etc.). Adding compost to your new garden has many benefits, including:
- Adding nutrients to your soil
- Adding organic matter to your soil, which builds the structure and encourages worms and beneficial microbes that make your soil healthy for plants
- Improving drainage for clay soil, so that soil does not stay too wet for too long
- Improving water retention for sandy soil, so that your plants do not suffer from drought
You can make your own compost in your yard – for more information on how to do this, check out my article on making your own compost.
In your first year gardening, you might not have enough compost available before you plant your crops. In that case, you can buy compost online or at a local garden center.
For more information, check out my article on what to look for when you buy compost.
Add Fertilizer to Your Soil (Only If Necessary – Get A Soil Test First!)
In your first year as a gardener, your soil may already have plenty of nutrients, especially if nobody has ever planted a garden in the yard before. Over time, planting crops will deplete nutrients, which need to be replaced every so often.
Fertilizer is a great way to replace missing nutrients in the soil. However, before you add any fertilizer to your garden, it is a good idea to get a soil test. This will tell you the pH (acidity) of the soil, and also the amount of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
You can do a soil test yourself with a soil test kit, or you can get one from your local agricultural extension office by sending in a soil sample to their lab.
When you get a soil test from a lab, tell them what you will be growing. They will give you recommendations on how to treat your soil.
For more information, check out my article on how to do a soil test.
If you do need fertilizer and you use it, follow the instructions carefully in terms of the amount to use and how you apply it.
Remember that it is possible to over fertilize your plants, especially with nitrogen-heavy fertilizers, which can burn or kill plants. For more information, check out my article on over fertilizing your plants.
Choose Your Seeds and Plants Wisely
Now that you have a good garden location and your soil is prepared, it is time to choose your seeds and plants! The first step is to find your USDA Hardiness Zone, which tells you what plants can survive and grow in your area.
You can find your Hardiness Zone on the USDA Hardiness Zone map here.
Once you have your USDA Hardiness Zone (for example, I live in Zone 6b in Massachusetts), you can compare that to the Hardiness Zones you see listed in seed catalogs or online.
There is a lot of information in a seed catalog – to learn more, check out my article on how to read a seed catalog.
Buy more seeds than you think you will need. There are several reasons for this:
- You may not get all of the seeds to germinate (sprout). For more information, check out my article on seed germination rates.
- The seeds that do germinate may need to be thinned as seedlings. For more information, check out my article on what it means to thin seedlings.
- You may lose some plants when transplanting them outdoors. For more information, check out my article on hardening off seedlings to prepare them for the outdoors.
- Some plants may succumb to disease, pests, animals, or weather during the season.
Seed catalogs can be overwhelming with the number of seeds listed, so I have some recommendations below for what you can plant in a beginner garden.
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What Should I Plant For My First Garden?
Some plants should be started from seed in the garden (called direct sow), while other plants should be started from seed indoors and transplanted outside later (called transplanting).
Generally, the time to plant seeds or transplant seedlings outdoors will depend on the last spring frost date in your area. Check out this calculator from the Old Farmer’s Almanac to find the last spring frost date in your area.
For example, the last spring frost date where I live is May 8. If I want to grow carrots, I should plant the seeds outside (direct sow) 4 weeks before the last spring frost date.
Counting backwards 4 weeks (28 days) from May 8, I see that I should plant my carrot seeds around April 10 (20 days in April + 8 days in May = 28 days before May 8, the last spring frost date).
It may help to have a garden calendar handy to figure out dates for planting seeds and transplanting seedlings in the garden.
Check out the tables below for some good beginner crops for direct sow and for transplant into your garden.
Direct Sow These Crops (Plant the Seeds Directly in the Soil)
|Seed Depth |
|Beets||with soil at |
|1/2 inch deep, |
1-2 inches apart,
thin to 3-4 inches
|use a low |
|after last |
with soil at
|1 inch deep, |
2 inches apart
|Use a trellis |
or stakes for
|Carrots||3 to 5 weeks |
|1/4 inch deep, |
space 3 to 4
|Prefer loose, |
sandy soil –
or add sand
|Lettuce||as soon as |
|1/2 inch deep, |
space 4 inches
apart for leaf,
8 to 16 inches
for head lettuce
|tolerates light |
frost, but will
bolt and taste
bitter in heat
|Squash||after last |
with soil at
|1 inch deep, |
space 2 to 3
|Can also |
plant 3 to 4
hill or mound
Transplant these Crops (Plant Seeds Indoors and Transplant Out Later)
|Cabbage||2 to 3 weeks |
|1-2 feet |
at 5 inches tall
|Peppers||after last frost |
date, with soil
at least 70
|18-24 inches |
|can support |
|Tomato||after last |
|2 feet apart||can support |
with cages or
Maintain Your Garden
Once your crops are planted, now it’s time to wait for them to grow so that you can get a great harvest. Along the way, you’ll still need to provide them with some care, including watering, weeding, fertilizing, and harvesting.
Avoid Over Watering and Under Watering
If you are a forgetful person, it can be easy to under water your plants. However, a more common cause of sick or dead plants is over watering, especially with first time gardeners.
Many beginners end up “killing their plants with kindness” by watering too often, even when the plants don’t need it.
Some plants like to have the soil moist all the time, and others can tolerate the occasional drought – it all depends on what you are growing. However, there is a handy trick to know whether to add water or not.
Just use your fingers to dig a few inches down into the soil near your plants. If the soil is bone-dry and dusty, then add some water! If it is soaking wet, don’t bother, since soil that stays wet too long can cause root rot and kill your plants.
For more information, check out my article on over watering your plants.
If you live in a hot climate and expect dry soil to be a problem, then check out my article on how to treat dry soil.
Pull Weeds or Mulch over Them
Too much competition for water, nutrients, or sunlight can hurt or kill your plants. To avoid this problem, you will need to take care of the weeds that will eagerly grow in your new garden.
One way is to pull the weeds by hand – you can put them in your compost pile, or you can give them to chickens to save on the cost of feed.
Another option is to put mulch over the surface of the soil. This will prevent weeds from getting a foothold, and it can even smother weeds that are already growing (by making it too hot and denying them sunlight).
You can use chopped leaves, grass clippings, or sawdust as mulch. Just be careful with how much mulch you use.
A layer of mulch 2 to 4 inches thick is usually all you need. Don’t mulch too close to your plants, and don’t mulch too early in the season, or else the soil will stay cold.
For more information, check out my article on how too much mulch can kill plants.
Fertilize if Necessary
Some plants may need fertilizer during the season, especially if they are so-called “heavy feeders”. The same cautions as above apply – get a soil test before adding fertilizer to soil, and follow the directions to avoid burning your plants.
Quarantine Plants as Needed
Sometimes, your plants will suffer from pests (such as aphids) or diseases (such as tomato blight). If this does happen, you may need to pull out the infected plants to save the rest of your garden from the same fate.
For more information, check out my article on aphids, and my article on the top 10 blight resistant tomatoes.
Keep an eye on your plants, and walk the garden regularly to make sure nothing out of the ordinary is happening.
Watch for the Right Time to Harvest
It would be a shame to put in so much work preparing your garden, only to let your vegetable sit on the vine too long. Make sure to keep an eye on them, and pick them when they are ripe!
Not only will this avoid wasting your precious harvest, but picking some vegetables (such as green beans) will encourage more to continue growing.
If you wait too long to pick some crops, they will “bolt” (produce flowers or seeds) and become bitter-tasting or tough.
Keep Learning and Improving
Remember that gardening is just like any other skill – it takes time to learn and improve, and you learn by doing! That being said, it might be a good idea to join a community garden or a gardening club to learn from more experienced gardening enthusiasts.
You can also read books or take courses to add to your knowledge and learn new gardening techniques (such as pruning fruit trees, hardening off transplants, etc.)
In addition, you may want to keep a garden journal to record what worked and what did not. That way, you can improve next year’s garden by tracking any changes you make to improve your harvest.
In short, keep learning! As you gain more experience, you may want to expand your garden or plant more exotic and difficult-to-grow crops.
You can also try starting your own seeds indoors instead of buying established seedlings from a nursery. If you like to build things, you can also construct raised beds, cold frames, or greenhouses.
For more information, check out my article on how to be a better gardener.
Now you have some helpful tips for starting your first garden. You know the basics, and if you get them right, then there is a good chance that you will see a good harvest this year.
I hope you found this article helpful – if so, please share it with other first time gardeners who may benefit from the information. Good luck with your first garden!
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