Gardening 101: How to Start a Garden

Gardening 101: How to Start a Garden

Learning how to start a garden can feel overwhelming, but with some research and planning, anyone can grow a garden successfully. To get started, you'll need to decide what you want to grow and the type and size of your garden. You'll also need to determine your garden growing zone, climate and soil type. Let's break down everything you need to know before you dig into the wonderful world of gardening.

Where Do I Begin? Questions to Ask Before You Start

Before you begin a garden, ask yourself these questions:

  1. How much time will I realistically be able to devote to my garden?
  2. How large an area do I have for a garden?
  3. What do I want to plant: vegetables, fruit, flowers, trees or shrubs?
  4. Do I have lots of sun or shade?
  5. What kind of soil do I have?
  6. What's my garden growing zone?
  7. Will I grow from seed or plants?

How Much Time Will It Take?

How much time you spend in your garden depends on what you want to grow and how large an area you wish to cultivate. Gardening is a season-driven activity. The seasons requiring the most work are spring and fall, with summer generally being a time of maintenance and harvest, and winter a time to dream, plan and start your seeds indoors.

  • Watering, fertilizing and tidying the garden may only take an hour total each week.
  • Annuals will need to be planted every year, which you can complete all at once in spring. They're generally easy to maintain, requiring only deadheading for flowers and pruning or staking and harvesting for vegetables.
  • Perennials don't require planting every year, but they may need more care during the growing season, such as staking, dividing and prepping for winter in the fall.
  • Trees and shrubs generally require little care after establishing. They may need watering, fertilizing and pruning. Some fruit trees may require annual pruning on a larger scale.

Start small, see how much time it takes to maintain the garden to your standards and grow from there!

What Type of Garden Do You Want?

Do you want an edible garden full of fruits and vegetables, or do you simply want to add color to your landscaping with a flower bed? Maybe you want a combination of several types of plants. Before you start a garden, think about what you want to grow.

  • A vegetable garden requires full sun and plenty of water. You can often grow three seasons of crops, changing cool season early spring crops for warm season late spring and summer ones, then back to cool in fall. You may need to fence in the garden if you have animals or local wildlife.
  • A flower garden can be grown in the sun or partial shade, depending on the plants you choose. This type of garden will make use of your creative design skills. Consider the color, shape and texture of the flowers and foliage and the height of the plants. Create pleasing combinations, and plant tall plants behind shorter ones (or tall ones in the middle of an island bed with shorter ones around the edges). Don't be afraid to put flowers in your vegetable garden. They'll help attract pollinators.
  • Trees are a long-term investment, and you should always plan for their mature sizes when choosing a location. They add structure to the garden and can define its boundaries. They work well in combination with flowering plants and shrubs, as long as they have plenty of room for their roots to grow.
  • Shrubs are wonderfully versatile long-lived woody plants that can form the backbone of a flower garden and help maintain color year-round. They generally don't bloom for long, so consider the foliage when choosing a location for them, as you'll see it for much of the season.
  • No space, no worries! Container gardening allows you to grow veggies, fruit and flowers right on your porch, patio or deck.

Where Will You Put Your Garden?

Decide where you'll put your garden. Look at your property and consider the following:

  • Are there tree roots to deal with? Avoid planting close to tree roots because these will compete with your garden for water and nutrients, and the tree roots can be damaged when you work the soil for your garden. Don't add soil on top of tree roots. Covering roots can smother them and kill the tree. If you have trees, try to plant outside the canopy or area shaded by the tree.
  • What is the access to the garden? If possible, choose a site visible from the house. Close proximity will allow you to see anything that may require your attention as soon as possible, such as wilting plants. It will also allow you to enjoy the garden from inside your home or on your porch or deck.
  • Is it near a water source? It's essential to water your garden when it needs it. Ensure your garden hose can reach the area, or you can easily bring watering cans from a water source to the growing bed.
  • Think of the four seasons before choosing a prominent location: What will it look like in winter? How much sun will it receive in summer?
  • Where will you see the garden? What do you see from the main windows in your home?

Be sure to choose a location with the right conditions needed for the type of plants you want to grow. Then, measure your area, draw a map to scale and start to dream!

The Power of Knowledge: Understanding a Plant's Needs

A knowledgeable gardener is a successful gardener. The more you understand a plant's needs and your own growing environment, the better your chances of growing a thriving garden.

Plants' Basic Requirements

Like all living things, plants have essential needs to grow and thrive. The basic needs all plants share are:

  • Soil
  • Nutrients
  • Water
  • Sun
  • Proper growing temperatures

Each type of plant has its own specific needs within these categories. For example:

  • Some plants can tolerate more shade and burn in the sun, while others require full sun and will be weak in the shade.
  • Some prefer wet soil and will wilt if the soil is too dry, while others need well-drained soil and will rot if the soil is too wet.
  • Every plant has a preferred soil pH range and won't grow well if the pH is too high or too low.

Soil Requirements

Soil is the starting point of every garden and where a plant's roots live. The roots anchor the plant and take up the water and nutrients from the plant's soil to survive. The roots must have room to grow, so the ground must be somewhat loose and workable, or the roots can't become established. Most garden plants require rich soil that's high in organic matter such as compost, which drains well yet retains moisture. You can purchase compost, or you can make your own compost.

How to Determine the Type of Soil You Have

Soil is defined as either sand, loam or clay, depending on the size of the soil particle.

How can you tell what kind of soil you have? Pick up a handful of moist soil and rub it between the palms of your hand. If it's clay, it will be a sticky ball. If it's loam, it crumbles easily but doesn't run through your fingers. And if it runs through your fingers quickly, it's sand.

  • The smallest particle is clay soil. Water doesn't drain well in clay soils, but these soils retain nutrients. Roots may have difficulty penetrating clay soils. Most vegetable crops, especially root crops such as carrots or onions, won't thrive in clay.
  • The largest particles are in sandy soils. Sandy soils drain more quickly but also lose nutrients rapidly.
  • Loam is a happy medium with a balance of small, midsized and larger particles. Loam is the best type of soil for most garden plants.

How to Improve Your Soil

Every year, your garden can benefit from the addition of well-composted (decomposed) organic matter. Compost should look like soil, so it shouldn't have components that haven't fully broken down yet, such as eggshells. Compost will improve the ability of clay soil to drain well and improve the ability of sandy soils to hold water. Compost also releases nutrients into the ground as the decomposing plant parts break down, decreasing the need to add extra nutrients as fertilizer. Other ways to improve your soil include adding lime to raise the pH, adding garden sulfur to lower the pH and adding nutrients in the form of fertilizer.

Soil pH Basics

Your soil pH will affect your plants' ability to take in nutrients. Too high or too low a soil pH will directly impact whether your plants will grow successfully.

  • Soil pH is measured on a scale of one to 14. Seven is neutral, lower numbers are acidic and higher numbers are alkaline.
  • Most garden plants grow well in slightly acidic soil with a range of 5.5 to 6.8. There are exceptions, such as blueberries, which require a more acidic soil of 4.2 to 5.2.

The Benefits of a Soil Test

Before adding products and nutrients to your soil, it's a good idea to test your soil. You can test it yourself with a soil testing kit, or you can send a sample to your local Cooperative Extension Service to have it tested. Once you have your soil sampled, you'll know what specific nutrients to add to meet particular plants' needs.

Nutrient Requirements

Plants take nutrients from the soil to make food for themselves in the process of photosynthesis.

  • Macronutrients are nutrients plants need in large amounts, compared to secondary nutrients.
  • Micronutrients are needed in small amounts and may even be toxic if present in more significant amounts.
  • The macronutrients plants require are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Nitrogen aids green growth. Too much nitrogen may cause excessive green growth at the expense of flowers and fruit. Phosphorus aids in solid root formation. Potassium aids in fruit formation and disease resistance.
  • Secondary nutrients include calcium, magnesium and sulfur.
  • Micronutrients include iron, boron, chlorine, zinc, copper, molybdenum and manganese.

How to Supply Proper Nutrients

A complete fertilizer contains the three macronutrients, N, P and K, and will have three numbers indicating the percentage in that order. Burpee Organic All Purpose 4-4-4 fertilizer, for example, contains 4% of each of these nutrients.

  • Amending your soil will also affect its pH, with additives like lime and Epsom salts raising the pH and sulfur lowering it.
  • Micronutrients may be included in some fertilizers but should be added with care when you know there's a need. A soil test will help you determine how much to add. You can apply a slow-release fertilizer when you plant and as needed throughout the season.

For more tips on adding nutrients, check out Burpee's guides to fertilizing.

Water Requirements

All plants need water to live. Plant roots take in water from the soil, and it travels through the stem to the leaves. The green parts of the plant use sunlight to photosynthesize and make food for themselves. They need water to transport nutrients to do this.

  • The water in plant cells keeps them turgid, or full of liquid, and when plants wilt, their cells collapse as they lose moisture.
  • If plants get too much water because the soil drains poorly, they'll also wilt. Plants need air in the dirt, and oversaturated soil prevents this.
  • Some plants are more tolerant of poorly drained soils, and some are more tolerant of dry conditions.

How Much Water Plants Need

Most garden plants in the ground need about 1 to 2 inches of water every week. Use a water gauge to help you determine if your plants are getting enough. Plants in containers need more water than plants in the ground, and the smaller the container or the bigger the plant, the more water they'll need. Watch plants for signs of wilt, and you'll get a sense of how often they need watering.

How and When to Water Your Garden

  • Water early in the morning or in the evening, as plants can take up water more efficiently when it's cooler. Additionally, plants lose water through their leaves in hot weather, so you'll need to water more often in hotter weather.
  • When you water your plants, try to avoid getting water on the foliage, as this is one way that diseases spread among plants.
  • Water deeply to ensure water penetrates at least 1 to 2 inches below the soil surface. If only the top of the soil receives water, the roots will stay near the soil surface and plants won't develop strong roots. You can test this by digging your finger into the soil about 1 to 2 inches to see if it's dry.
  • Plants in containers dry out more quickly than plants in the ground and may need to be watered more than once a day during the summer. Water containers until the water comes through the drainage holes. For oversized containers, you might want to use a moisture meter to determine if you need more water. A drip watering system on a timer can also be a great way to ensure your plants get the water they need.

The Benefits of Mulch to Control Water

You can have some control over how water reaches your plants' roots by using mulch in your garden.

  • Mulch is a covering applied to the soil that can help keep the soil evenly moist.
  • Mulch can also help to prevent weed seeds from germinating, which can compete with your plants for water and nutrients in the soil.
  • Alternating heavy rain and drought periods can stress plants and delay growth. Mulches can help modify the effects of water stress as they prevent the soil from drying out in the hot sun, and they also protect the roots from too much water all at once as they slow the absorption rate of water in the soil.
  • Mulches can range from plastic to newspaper to organic mulches such as shredded leaves.
  • Organic mulches have the advantage of enriching the soil as they break down.

Sun Requirements

All plants need sunlight to make food for themselves through photosynthesis. If plants don't get enough sun, they'll stretch to get as much sunlight as possible and become weak and pale in color.

How Much Sun Plants Need

All plants have evolved to require different amounts of sunlight depending on where they've grown in nature. Your seed packet or garden tag will tell you how much sun the plant needs:

  • Full sun: at least six hours per day (afternoon preferred)
  • Part sun or part shade: two to four hours of sun per day
  • Shade: less than two hours of sun per day

When shopping for plants, make sure the plant you choose will have the recommended amount of sun in the location where you plan to plant it.

Climate Requirements

Growing conditions like temperature, humidity, wind and precipitation can all impact the success of your garden. Certain plants do best in specific climates based on your growing zone.

Why Your Hardiness Zone Is Important

Plants can only grow within specific temperatures; however, we all garden in different climates. Plant hardiness zones can help you understand which plants will thrive in your region.

  • Some plants, such as annuals or houseplants, can't tolerate frigid conditions and die when exposed to frost and freezing temperatures.
  • Some plants, such as hardy perennials and many types of fruit, have adapted to cold temperatures and may require a dormant period of freezing temperatures (also called chill hours). These plants won't thrive in tropical climates.
  • Temperatures will also affect the growth rate of plants. Plants tend to grow faster in warmer temperatures, but when temperatures are too hot, they may stop growing until temperatures become cooler again.

How to Find Your Hardiness Zone

Maps like the commonly sourced U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone Map divide the country into 13 different zones based on the average coldest temperatures in the winter months increasing by 10 degrees Fahrenheit each successive zone. Once you know which zone you're in, it's also essential to learn the frost dates to determine when to start planting.

Choosing the Plants You Want to Grow

The life cycle of a plant and the climates it can tolerate define which category it belongs in: annual, biennial or perennial, and hardy or tender. Hardy refers to plants that can thrive in freezing conditions. Tender indicates that a plant can't tolerate freezing temperatures. Some tender plants may be perennial in tropical climates, but gardeners grow them as annuals in the north or bring them inside as houseplants for the winter.

Annuals vs. Perennials

Annual plants grow, flower, make fruit and set seed in one year. Annual flowers usually have a long flowering period all season. Most vegetables are annual plants.

Biennials are a small group of plants that grow, bloom and set seeds in two years. The first year, they produce structural growth: roots, stems and leaves. The second year, they produce flowers and seeds, and then they die.

Perennial plants live more than two years. The first year from seed, they develop structural growth. In the second year, they flower, and they may live for many years after that. If you grow perennials from seed, they generally take one year to bloom.

Herbaceous plants have soft tissue above ground. Herbaceous perennial plants die to the ground when frost kills the leaves and stems in fall, but the roots survive the winter and then the plants reemerge in spring. Annuals are technically herbaceous, though they continue to die all the way down to the roots. Many biennials and perennials are also considered herbaceous.

On the other hand, woody perennial plants don't die to the ground in winter. They may lose their leaves in fall, or they may be evergreen. They maintain a woody stem and branch structure all year, and new growth comes from this structure every year. All woody plants are perennial.

In general, perennial plants bloom for a short four to six weeks a year, while many annuals bloom all summer long. Many perennials require a period of dormancy in winter and don't thrive in frost-free locations. Always check plants' hardiness zones to ensure they're suitable for your zone.

For more advice on perennials, check out Burpee's guide to growing perennial plants.

Growing Flowers

Flowers add beauty to the garden, but they also offer other benefits:

  • Flowers attract birds and important pollinating insects into your fruit or vegetable garden to increase your harvest.
  • Flowers add fragrance and various colors, forms and textures to the garden. They give you great scope to develop your artistic design skills.
  • You can cut almost any flowers to enjoy in your home.

How to Care for Flowers

Different flowers have different needs when it comes to maintenance and care.

  • Some flowers might require support, like a trellis for vining plants.
  • Some tall flowers may need to be staked to keep them from falling over in the wind.
  • Deadheading is a gardening activity that applies to many flowers. Deadheading is the act of removing faded flowers from the plant before they have a chance to go to seed. It keeps plants blooming longer in the garden and keeps the flower garden looking tidier. Don't deadhead if you'd like the flowers to drop their seeds, or self-sow, for next year.
  • Cut annual flowers and herbaceous perennials to the ground in the fall to help prevent pests and diseases from overwintering in the plant tissue.
  • Herbaceous perennials may require extra protection in winter. These should be mulched after the ground freezes to prevent alternating freezing at night and thawing during the day, which damages plant roots or even forces them out of the ground.
  • When herbaceous perennials are several years old, they may benefit from division. Division is a way to make several plants out of one.

For more tips on growing flowers, check out Burpee's guide to flower gardening for beginners.

Growing Food

Growing edible plants like fruits and vegetables has several benefits.

  • Many varieties are available for each vegetable and fruit you grow compared to what you usually find at the grocery store or farm stand.
  • Growing your food gives you control over how your food is grown and processed.
  • Nothing tastes as good as produce ripened and harvested right from your garden. Growing your food gives a whole new meaning to the word fresh!
  • Gardening itself is a healthy activity, and you and your family will eat healthier when you grow your food.
  • Growing your food saves money. Even a small garden can save you thousands of dollars every year.

Fruit and Pollination

Fruit is the way a plant distributes its seeds and, in most cases, it's also the part of a plant we eat. For a plant to produce fruit, it must first produce flowers, and the flowers need pollination. Pollination happens when the pollen, or the male part of a flower, transfers to the female part of the flower.

Pollination may occur by the wind or insect pollinators, like bees and butterflies. Some plants are self-pollinating and need only one plant to produce fruit, such as raspberries. Some plants require cross-pollination and produce fruit only with another compatible variety nearby. Some plants are female and need a male plant to provide the pollen. You can plan your garden to optimize pollination by growing flowers that attract pollinators.

Chill Hours

Some fruiting plants require "chill hours" to produce fruit. Chill hours refer to the number of cold hours between 34-45 degrees F that a fruit variety requires annually to produce fruit. Many hardy fruit plants won't produce fruit in areas without a cold period. Always check the zones recommended for your type.

How to Harvest Produce

Harvesting is when you finally get to reap the reward of all your hard work in the garden! Keep track of when you started seeds so you can know when to expect your harvest to be ready. When fruit and vegetables are ready for picking, it's generally best to harvest in the morning or cooler hours for the best flavor and to avoid stress on the plant. Remove fruits and vegetables gently to avoid damaging the rest of the plant.

The timing and harvesting of every plant are different. Check out Burpee's guide to harvesting vegetables for more details.

Growing Your Plants

Many annual flowers and vegetables are easy to grow from seed because the seed germinates quickly and is easy to cultivate. Some varieties take a long time or are challenging to grow from seed. Many perennial and fruit plants are only available in plant form.

Starting From Seed

Some seeds grow best when sown indoors early to give them enough time to grow and mature during the gardening season, while others grow best when sown directly in the garden. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, petunias, begonias and impatiens are examples of seeds that do best started indoors. Plants like carrots, radishes, cucumbers, beans, peas and sunflowers do best with direct sowing.

  • Some seeds may benefit from a special treatment before you sow them to aid germination. Examples of preparation include chilling the seed in the refrigerator for a week or two, soaking it in water overnight or nicking the seed coat with a nail file. Burpee provides recommendations on the seed packet for seeds that benefit from such treatments.
  • Sowing times are recommended for each seed based on average first and last frost dates.
  • Each seed packet gives specific sowing instructions.

Check out Burpee's guides to seed starting for more information.

Gardening in Containers 101

Gardening in containers expands the range of what you can grow in your garden and where you can grow it.

  • Container gardening allows gardeners with small properties to have a garden.
  • Container gardening can help you overcome poor soil conditions and eliminate the need to rotate crops in the garden.
  • Gardening in containers allows you to garden on your porch, patio, deck or other hard surfaces. Hanging baskets and window boxes lift the garden into the air, allowing you to garden in otherwise unused spaces. You can even garden vertically on a wall by attaching containers to it.

No matter how much space you have, there's always a place for containers in your landscape!

What to Grow in Containers

Just about any plant can be grown in containers, including vegetables, fruits, herbs, flowers and shrubs.

Always make sure the container is large enough for the variety you choose. Larger plants in too-small containers may not bloom or produce fruit well because they can't get the water and nutrients they need.

Special Care for Container Plants

  • Containers are more confined spaces for plants and require more frequent feeding and watering than plants grown directly in the ground.
  • Containers require more winter protection if you're growing hardy plants.
  • You should only use a potting mix designed for growing in containers, not garden soil. Change the soil every year if growing annuals to avoid disease problems.

Learn more about planting in containers with Burpee's guides to container gardening.

If you're new to gardening, start small, learn what works for you and try something new every year. It takes time to grow a thriving garden, but it's well worth the effort, and you'll continually learn and develop your skills along the way.

To learn more about how to start a garden, check out Burpee's gardening 101 guides.

Written by Shahrzad Warkentin

Shahrzad Warkentin is a writer and seasoned gardener, with over 12 years of experience.  Besides her own home garden, she helps manage her kids' school garden.

May 19, 2021
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