Some form of gardening has been around since the first days of human existence. It’s an activity that not only helps sustain life but brings joy and satisfaction. However, as the saying goes, getting started is the hardest part. It can be intimidating to understand the verbiage around gardening and figure out what plants will grow well where you live. When you boil it down, gardening is a very basic act and, contrary to what you’ll see in gardening catalogs and online supply stores, it doesn’t require a lot of supplies or money to get started. It does, however, take some planning and knowledge. Luckily, even if you’re a beginner, you can get started on a successful garden with these tips.

Garden terminology

When shopping, you will notice that plants are labeled by their lifecycle. Annuals will grow for a single season, rarely to be seen again. Biennials will be around for two years. Perennials return for multiple growing seasons.

Related: Companion plants to consider for your spring garden

You’ll also want to decipher the phrasing around the types of plants you’re buying. While most people know what seeds are, you can also buy plants in bare root form, which have been removed from the ground while dormant and preserved for planting later on. You can also collect seedlings, which are plants that have just transformed out of their seed. Bulbs go into the ground during the off season and bloom a season or two later.

Both the local garden center and online sources will list a description of plants that can take a bit of understanding too. A deciduous tree will lose its leaves each fall or winter, while evergreen shrubs will keep their leaves throughout the seasons. A groundcover is a low-growing, spreading plant that will never be taller than about a foot. Ornamental plants are grown primarily for visual appeal but are not for consumption or other use. Plants listed as a hybrid have been crossbred to encourage specific traits such as low water requirements or a sweeter taste.

garden tools on soil

Know your soil

Perhaps the single most important thing you can do for gardening success is to understand the composition of your soil (it’s more than dirt; it’s an ecosystem!). Don’t worry, you don’t need to take classes. Simply grab a soil sample kit from the gardening center or take a sample to your regional extension center.

Once you know if you’re dealing with clay (thick and slow draining), loamy (rich and balanced with sand, silt and clay), sandy (lacking soil due to high sand content) or silty (somewhere between sand and clay), you’ll be able to plan ways to balance your soil.

Different plants require different soil composition, which simply means how acidic or alkaline it is. Testing pH levels will give you a number, typically between 0-14. A pH of seven is neutral, above seven is alkaline and below seven is acidic. Most plants prefer soil that is slightly acidic with a pH of six to six-and-a-half. With this information, you can mix in materials that raise or lower that number.

If your soil isn’t hospitable, you can buy or build raised beds that hold added soil aboveground for a healthy, plant-loving environment

Native, non-native, heirloom and invasive plants

Planning is a crucial step in gardening, although much of it will ultimately be learned through trial and error. When selecting plants, it’s important to know that native plants will naturally thrive in your yard because these are plants equipped for the climate and soil conditions and have grown in the area for hundreds of years. Non-native plants, on the other hand, have been introduced to the area. They may do well. They may not. The term heirloom means it has continuously been pollinated from the same host plants that have not changed in 50 years or more. This is often seen in food gardens, such as ‘heirloom tomatoes’.

Finally, invasive plants are easy to stumble on both in your yard and through accidental planting. They can be pretty. They can thrive. But they will take over without precautions to restrain them. Invasive species can also cause ecosystem disruptions.

leafy greens growing in a garden

Hardiness zones

Another bit of critical information that will support your success in the garden is knowing your hardiness zone. USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map makes it easy to identify your planting zone. From there, you can select plants that are most likely to thrive in your area. A lot of the information you’ll find in books and online will mention your hardiness zone — and for good reason. Everything from carrots to grass grows differently throughout the geographic regions. This will help you plan when to plant cool-weather versus warm-weather crops within your zone.

Plan the light

Spend some time in your yard before figuring out where to place your garden. The majority of vegetable plants grown during the primary gardening season require full sun. This means at least six hours of direct sunlight each day. Some plants require partial sun and can tolerate more time in the shade. Watch the sun throughout a season to really understand where the light hits. In addition to the amount of sunlight a space receives, consider whether you can easily access a watering source and whether you’ll need fencing to ward off deer and other wildlife.

person standing in garden and writing in a notebook

Keep a journal

An important tool for gardening success is a log of your activities. This can be as simple as a small notebook or as comprehensive as a computer spreadsheet. The goal is simply to keep track of what you’ve planted, when you planted it, where it’s planted, if it suffered from disease or pest issues and how long it took to reach maturity (when you can harvest). 

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