Four experts tell you everything you need to know to get growing—even if you don’t have a green thumb.
Know Your Region
It may sound obvious, but not everything grows everywhere, so what you plant is determined by where you live. “Take a look at the characteristics of your garden area—from the climate to sun exposure,” says Brian Sullivan, Vice President for Gardens, Landscape, and Outdoor Collections at The New York Botanical Garden. “It’s the most important thing to start with because you’ll want to understand the limits and the possibilities.” Talk to someone who works at your local garden center about the best native plants for your region, says Chris Lambton, professional landscaper and host of DIY Network’s Yard Crashers. “These will perform the best with less maintenance.”
Test Your Soil
To get a thorough reading of your soil’s pH and nutrient levels, send a sample to your local nursery or cooperative extension, suggests garden expert Christy Dailey of christy gardens. (There are also at-home testing kits available at Lowes, Home Depot, or any gardening store.) The results will tell you how acidic or alkaline your soil is, which affects how plants absorb nutrients. Since different plants thrive best in different pH levels, this test will help you decide what to plant or indicate how you should treat the soil.
Examine soil texture, too. “It should be easily shoveled and crumble in your hands,” says Annette Gutierrez, owner of Potted in Los Angeles. “If your soil is super hard or clay-like, it will be difficult for most plants to grow roots. Add fresh soil, mulch, and compost, being careful to aerate as much and as deep an area as you can before planting.”
Start With “Easy” Plants
“Growing vegetables is a fun introduction to gardening,” says Sullivan. They don’t take as long to grow, so if you make a mistake you won’t have wasted months and months of your time. Sunflowers are also a good option, since they grow quickly and tall, or try easy-to-grow ferns—both of these can be grown all across the United States. “Early success is inspiring,” he says. “It might make you want to move on to more complicated plants.”
Create a Plan
To avoid crowding, Sullivan suggests researching your plants first so you know exactly how big they will get and how to space them out accordingly. “Typically perennials, plants that live for more than two years, should be spaced approximately 18 inches apart,” says Dailey. “This allows enough room for new growth and will usually make the garden look filled right away.”
It’s also important to know how high your plants will grow, he says. “Shorter and creeping ones should be planted toward the front and edges of the garden bed, with the taller plants in the back.” This is where knowing about sun exposure comes in handy—be mindful of taller plants that would block smaller ones, or the varieties that prefer a lot of sun or shade.
Keep a Notebook
“A journal is really about the big picture, so jot down your dreams for the garden or inspiration,” says Sullivan. “It’s a great way to keep track of garden activity. You can also use it to keep notes about the interesting plants you come across elsewhere, so you can make a reminder to include them in your garden next year.”
Set a Calendar…
…or have a general idea of your big gardening tasks each season. “In the spring, I start fertilizing all plants and do that every six-to-eight weeks throughout the growing season, which usually ends in the fall,” says Gutierrez. “It’s usually too hot to plant in the summer. In the fall, after the heavy heat has passed, I prune trees and large shrubs. If I want to add bulbs or any new plants for the next year, I add them at this time, but you can also plant in early spring. And winter is when I cut back woody plants and roses, usually before the first frost.”
“Give a consistent and ample amount of water,” says Sullivan. “'Consistent’ means you’re doing it on a regular basis and ‘ample’ means enough, which varies from plant to plant. Make sure the water penetrates the soil as opposed to just putting a little bit on the surface.” Newer plants will need to be watered more frequently because their root systems aren’t completely developed. As for the best time of day, Lambton suggests early morning before it gets too warm so the plant can really soak up the water. If you water in the evening, your plants might be more prone to fungus and other diseases.
Keep Up the Good Work!
You might not have to do a lot of work everyday, but “proper maintenance is the greatest thing you can give your garden and the most rewarding,” says Dailey. “Taking time to deadhead, weed, prune, and tidy up will get you in tune with what the plants need to thrive. You will inevitably see how each plant reacts to weather changes and how to correct issues like infestations before they become too problematic.” If you notice stunted growth, check what’s going on with the roots of the plant by carefully examining and digging around the underlying soil, Sullivan says—sometimes they will need to be gently opened or teased so that they can spread out in the soil.
Try to Be Patient
“Gardening is a process,” says Sullivan. “It doesn’t just happen in one day—it takes time.” Sometimes impatience will cause you to overwater or fuss too much with the plants in the hopes that they will grow faster. Monitor them regularly, but unless something looks wrong, let them be.