How to Begin a Garden


New gardeners can learn how to begin a garden.

Many first time gardeners are intimidated by their lack of gardening knowledge and skill, and may be too embarrassed to ask an experienced gardener for advice on how to begin a garden. Here’s a bit of encouragement and helpful advice for the green thumb wannabe.

Plants Do it Best—They Grow!

Did you ever notice that beside the failed garden there are healthy plants: trees, dandelions, wild onions, grass? I know, some of these are weeds with enduring tenacity! But every plant once grew wild.  There’s more to the story though. Both experienced and new gardeners may be overlooking something vital. Why do the trees and dandelions grow better without fertilizer than the failing yet fertilized garden?

Below the grass is a teeming mass of life. Thinking of soil as simply minerals and dirt is like comparing mother’s milk to cooked and processed soy milk; or blood to red paint. When we till and walk through our gardens, we disturb the web of life and slice through more than just earthworms. There are tiny little helpers, microscopic fungi and bacteria just waiting to help your garden plants grow. (More on these next week.) We can add not only compost, peat moss and manure to our gardens, but we can also introduce these helpers. The little red wiggler worms you may have added with the compost don’t work alone. They are just one small part of the big picture.

Some Simple Gardening Methods for the Beginning Gardener

Ruth Stout’s Method

Ruth Stout developed a method of beginning a garden by simply laying down mulch and vegetable matter. Rather than having a compost pile, her entire garden became the compost. She would use hay or straw for the major part of the mulch, and she’d pile on her kitchen scraps throughout the year. She had a bad back and couldn’t dig, and had the patience to allow the earthworms and microorganisms to do their work over a few seasons. If you want to accelerate the process, go ahead and introduce some soil inoculants and earthworms. One warning though; if you use Ruth Stout’s method, don’t use hay. Use straw without seeds. Hay is full of weed seeds. She seemed to have success growing her garden without weeds, but my first attempt created a wildflower and thistle extravaganza.

* Please see warnings below concerning the use of hay or straw from fields treated with certain herbicides.

Square Foot Gardening

If you want a more scripted step by step method, you might want to try square foot gardening. I like the square foot gardening concept, but I don’t like creating new soil each year. I like to combine the Stout method of creating healthy garden soil inside the square foot garden structure. Mel Bartholomew’s most updated book Square Foot Gardening has all the information you need to get started, including a chart showing how many of each plant should be planted inside a square. You can also find a lot of information on his website.

Look Around

Even though you might be too intimidated to ask for gardening advice, it might be fun to ask friends to give you a tour of their gardens. Just let them talk. They’ll never know you’re fishing for information. Go window shopping in nurseries, and leaf through gardening books at the library.

Container or Bag Gardening

Consider planting garden vegetables in pots on your patio—or even in bags of soil. Cut a rectangle out of the top of the bag. Add soil amendments. Consider using powerful and inexpensive soil inoculants because soil bags have been sterilized. Soilnoc products include active live beneficial michorrizae and fungi to put life into the soil. Add seeds or plants.

The Extension Service

Contact your local extension service to ask for specific advice about growing in your locale. For more information, see The Agricultural Extension Service Answers Your Questions.

Plant Something and Make Compost

Just be brave. Choose a method and plant some seeds or plants. Even if you make major mistakes, most likely at least half of what you put in the ground will grow. Make sure your plants have little helpers underground too–be sure your soil is alive! Create a compost pile by dropping kitchen scraps in a barrel, bin or between bales of straw. Cover with soil or straw each time you add something, and keep moist. To help your trash become compost faster, add red wiggler worms and compost activator. Compost activator significantly decreases the amount of time needed to create compost. See Seven Things to Remember When Making Compost. (This article has the prettiest picture of decomposing fruit I’ve ever seen.)

Other Creative Gardening Ideas

Not enough sun in your yard? Chase the Sun

Your neighbors might be willing to give up this treasure that will keep your garden free of rodents and slugs.

Want an overview of organic gardening?

Need inspiration?

Tell  us Your Thoughts

Tell us your adventures as a beginning gardener. Share your surprises and failures. What did you learn your first year gardening and what would you like to learn now?

*Hay & Straw Warning

When purchasing straw or hay to use in a garden, be sure to ask what herbicides were used. Certain herbicides will prevent normal growth of garden vegetables for many years. Manure from animals who have grazed in fields treated with these herbicides should also not be used in your garden for the same reason.

Herbicide Information:


Image by Southern Foodways Alliance

About Christiane Marshall

Christiane Marshall is a freelance writer/copywriter and special education teacher living on 173 acres in Southeast Ohio. She is a minister's wife, mother of five grown children and a grandmother of one new baby girl. Christiane specializes in copywriting but also enjoys writing articles on many subjects including organic gardening, education, special education and advocacy, faith, travel, and animal rescue.
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