Starting a garden is not only fun and a good way to get exercise… it can quickly start supplying a sizeable chunk of your family’s diet, saving you money and giving you healthier, better-tasting food.
Jump straight to our growing guides...
While you may not have given it a second thought, the title of this section is somewhat of a misnomer. Most of us consider “conventional” gardening – that is, gardening that uses manmade pesticides and fertilizers – to be the standard, the benchmark to which other methods are compared.
The “instant gratification” that chemical gardening provides is undoubtedly the primary reason that it’s caught on. Chemical gardens look great, they taste just fine and they’re relatively easy to maintain in terms of weeds and pests. More importantly, chemical farming allows increasingly massive amounts of land to be tended by only one farmer, leading to abundant and cheap food. So what’s not to love?
Consider this: In just 10 grams of organically gardened soil (which amounts to a small handful), there’s almost 10 million species of bacteria. Humans are nowhere close to having the technological capability of packing that number of (let alone variety of) intricate “machines” into the soil that can replace the bacterium’s intricate, vital and irreplaceable role in the natural cycle. After all, it’s no short order to turn dead plants, animals and natural byproducts into full-spectrum, nutrient-rich soil that living plants (and therefore the animals that eat the plants along with the animals that eat the animals that eat the plants) can get the nutrients they need to grow (see Composting Basics for more details).
To the chemical scientists’ credit, they’re not even trying. Chemical fertilizers deliver the selective “macro” nutrients (i.e. nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous) and some “micro” nutrients more or less directly into plants without allowing the soil’s microbes to do their thing. This both kills the microbes (and therefore the soil) and deprives plants of the trace minerals and other intricacies that the microbes provide.
If the plants we grow were built to thrive in soil that is an integral part in such a complex interrelationship with the natural cycle, how can expect our crops or soil to do as well in anything less?
For the vast majority of human history organic gardening was the convention. Gardeners and farmers understood that growing more effectively meant creating an environment that helped remove the natural cycle’s road blocks. And the lessons that our ancestors – grandparents, even – understood and took for granted inherently favored organic gardening over chemical gardening in a number of ways:
The biggest downside of organic gardening is that it is more difficult in the first couple of years. Yields will be lower and garden adversaries will be more difficult to defeat. But after you’ve established your mini-ecosystem, problems will subside and you will be granted the healthy, natural, delicious and rewarding fruits that are only available to you - the organic gardener.
Let’s get started…
The best garden spots share a number of characteristics that will give your crops the ideal environment in which to thrive, including:
Garden plants need sun and lots of it. Choose a location that gets a solid six hours of sunlight per day. If you have to choose between morning sun and afternoon sun, choose morning sun. It will dry leaves quickly after the morning dew which will help stifle disease.
Plants need good air circulation to help maintain consistent temperatures and humidity levels and ward off disease. Choose a spot that has good air flow but is not overly exposed to high winds that could flatten your plants (taller plants can be staked or supported in times of higher winds).
You also don’t want a spot that is at the bottom of a hill or up against a barrier such as dense vegetation or a structure of any sort. Wind blocked by air barriers or trapped in lower elevations can lead to more plant-damaging frost early and late in the growing season.
Many non-gardeners put little thought into the rising and setting of the sun other than a back-of-mind recognition that it rises in the east and sets in the west. The organic gardener appreciates sunlight and its angles much more than this.
Assuming you live in the Northern Hemisphere, the days are shorter in the winter because the Southern Hemisphere is getting more love from the sun. This means that the sun’s light is coming into your garden from the south, and the shorter your days, the more southerly the sun becomes from your perspective. This is where your garden’s slope comes into play.
If you live in cooler locations, you can give your garden’s sun time a boost by placing it on a south-facing slope. Conversely, if your climate is warmer, you can help keep temperatures down in the peak of summer by using a north-facing slope. When in doubt, choose a south-facing slope for longer growing seasons.
Either way, the slope should not be too steep in order to avoid erosion (if you only have overly steep slopes, consider building terraces).
A good garden spot needs good drainage. If your garden soil can’t get rid of water after a heavy rain, the excess water could damage and ultimately kill your crop.
To determine whether the spot has poor drainage, compare it to nearby soil. You’ll know the spot is too wet if it takes a lot longer to dry out after a heavy rain, if the soil becomes cracked when it does dry out or if any puddles that formed after a heavy rain don’t drain away within a few hours (assuming the weather has warmed and the ground has thawed).
Already-growing plants or grasses are a good indication of healthy soil. You can also dig up some soil and evaluate it directly. Healthy soil is dark brown in color and crumbly when worked between your fingers (individual sand or dirt grains shouldn’t be too prevalent, nor should there be too many rocks).
If you’ve found the perfect location in terms of sun, air, slope and drainage, don’t worry too much about the existing soil. We’ll show you how to turn it into perfect garden soil further down the page. If you have multiple choices, choose the spot with the healthiest soil.
If you’re having a tough time finding a good location, be creative.
If you just can’t make it happen on your property, you still have options. Container gardening and indoor gardening will allow you to grow smaller amounts.
You can also look outside of your personal property. Many cities and communities have public gardening spaces, and if yours doesn’t, why not start one?
When you’re just starting a garden, write down and draw out your plan and don’t bite off more than you can chew.
For flower gardens, consider the points on our How to Grow Flowers page before making a decision.
For vegetable gardens, pick no more than a few of your favorite easy-to-grow vegetables (see sidebar) that grow well together (see our companion planting charts) and are known to grow well in your area (see our plant-specific growing instructions referenced in the Start Growing section below).
We highly recommend using a raised plant bed when starting a garden (especially vegetable gardens), so be sure to factor that into your plans.
When starting a garden, keep two things in mind when considering how many beds you’ll need:
Make your beds at least 20 inches (51 cm) deep to give plants with deeper roots enough room to spread out. The deeper you can go, the better.
In order to accomplish this without compacting the soil too much, we highly recommend organic gardening in raised beds. You have two options for doing this...
If you decide to place your raised bed inside supports, there are two ways to go about it…
Flattening your plants’ soil is horrible for them because compacted soil restricts air and water flow and makes it more difficult for your plants’ fragile root hairs to extend and gather nutrients and moisture.
This is really up to you, as plants are more concerned with the soil depth, quality and “looseness”.
The width of your beds should allow you to easily reach the center of the raised soil (where the plants are growing) WITHOUT stepping or leaning on it. To determine how wide your rows should be, kneel down and reach out (without your hands touching the ground) as if you were pulling weeds and measure the distance from your downed knee to the end of your reach.
Keep in mind that the rows can be twice as wide as you can comfortably reach since you can set them up to be accessed from two sides.
Again, this is up to you and mainly depends on how much space you have.
Don’t forget to make your garden bed walkways wide enough. Assuming your bed has multiple rows (which obviously depends on how much space you have), you should be able to comfortably kneel without touching the raised bed behind you.
Watering by hand works just fine, but setting up a drip irrigation system when starting a garden works even better (drip irrigation systems for container plants are available as well). It puts the water right at the base of the plant, giving the roots easier access. It also keeps your plants’ leaves dry which greatly helps to keep away disease.
If you want to take your drip irrigation system to the next level, consider a Garden Watering Blanket Kit. It combines the best of all mulching and irrigation into one package... it lasts much longer than black plastic mulch, it's as air- and water-permeable as light organic mulch and it has built-in drip irrigation for water conseration and direct-water-delivery.
The entire kit includes:
For added warmth, just place your favorite organic mulch over the top of it. In the open air, it should last you at least 5 years. If covered by organic mulch, it can last up to 20 years or more.
If you do decide to water by hand, a good gardening hose (that's long enough to reach from the spigot to the garden without dragging across your crops) and water can are essential.
And speaking of not dragging your hose across your crops, if the positioning of your garden and spigot make this a problem, just pick up and position several garden hose guides around the corners of your beds.
A watering can is just a watering can, right?
While it's true that all watering cans serve the purpose of delivering water where it's needed, there's a BIG difference between the cheap and the good...
For a state of the art model that will last a lifetime, we use this green metal watering can.
For a good "cheaper" version, click here.
For more about watering, see our Watering Guidelines section below.
For some ideas about how to set up your vegetable garden, see our Vegetable Garden Layout page. Most layouts are intended for larger gardens, but they will give you a general idea about how to start planning your layout.
Don't worry... we're here to help! We've reviewed several of the top compost bins and share the best of the best on our Best Compost Bin Designs page, including...
Even the deadest dirt can be turned into premium growing soil, and properly made compost, aeration and irrigation will get it there.
In warmer climates, churn in about 3 inches of compost to get your bed started; in cooler climates, one inch may be enough. Then add compost periodically. Get the details in our Composting Basics section.
How do you know when your soil is in prime shape for gardening? Consult the worms...
In addition to being dark brown and crumbly to the touch, good soil should be loose enough to allow air and water to flow through it and to allow plant roots to spread easily. To achieve nutrient rich, aerated soil, till in homemade or store-bought natural compost as instructed above.
Good soil also has the right combination of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and lime along with the right pH level, the proper amounts of which depend on the plants you’re growing.
Garden soil pH is a measure of soil acidity or alkalinity on a scale of 1 to 14. A soil pH of 7 is neutral; above 7 is more alkaline; below 7 is more acidic. Preferred soil pH by plant is referred to on our plant-specific growing instructions pages (referred to below), and if your soil's pH is too far off, your plants either won't grow as well or won't grow at all.
Beyond the look and feel test, you have two options to test your soil:
As long as you’ve tilled in a good amount of organics (compost) into deep beds in a relatively suitable location and pay attention to watering and weeding, your garden will most likely be successful. But spending a few bucks and taking a few minutes to test your soil pH just to be sure is well worth it.
If you find that your soil's pH is too high or too low, there are several ways to achieve proper soil pH adjustment.
Garden pests range from microscopic bacteria to large deer and everywhere in between. Fortunately there are several effective natural and organic ways to deal with all of them.
See our Organic Garden Pest Control page for the details.
Select your chosen plants from the following pages, then follow our plant-specific instructions linked from those pages for planting, growing, fertilizing, harvesting and storing, as applicable:
After you know which plants you want to grow, individual organic seeds can be selected and purchased here (once on that page, select a category in the left margin). If you don't find what you're looking for on that site, this site and this site are good resources as well.
For a general overview of the planting times for each vegetable, see our Best Time Plant Vegetable Garden - Planting Times for Garden Vegetables page.
Not sure which veggies and herbs to grow first?
Organic seed collections are a good way to go. They combine commonly grown seeds into one discounted package. We recommend the following...
Mulch serves a number of important roles such as maintaining or increasing soil temperature and moisture, preventing weeds and adding additional nutrients to the soil. The following pages will help you decide which mulch type is right for you and will teach you how it should be applied...
Shallow (12-18 in./30-46 cm)
Medium-depth (18-24 in./46-61 cm)
Deep (More than 24 inches/61 cm)
The plant-specific growing pages provide more specific watering requirements when applicable, but generally speaking you should consider the plant’s root system when watering.
Plants with more compact root systems that remain close to the soil – such as broccoli, celery and onions – require more frequent watering, while plants with deeper and more wide-spread root systems - such as asparagus, rhubarb and tomatoes - prefer to be watered less often.
For plants with shallower roots, try to keep the ground continually moist but not soggy. For those with medium to deep root systems, allow the ground to dry out a bit but water deeply (an inch or more) when you do.
Younger plants are a different story. All plants require consistent moisture from the time their seeds are planted until they are past the seedling stage, which for some plants and climates may mean more than one watering per day.
If you want to be even more exact, use a moisture meter (pictured right). It will let you know if the soil is too dry, too wet or just right at various depths. The meter should indicate appropriate moisture at a depth of at least 6 inches (15 cm).
The lower-tech route is to dig up some soil and squeeze it, although this makes it tougher to test for moisture at various depths. If any water drips out, it’s too wet. If the soil doesn’t clump at all, it’s too dry.
Weeds are unwanted plants that steal nutrients, water and sunlight from your garden plants, and there are several strategies for getting rid of them and for reducing their negative impact.
As we’ve already discussed, mulching your beds will help. Starting vulnerable or delicate plants indoors and transplanting them when they’ve passed the seedling stage is another way to win the battle.
For more information, see...
After your well-tended and well-composted organic garden has been in place for several years, fertilizing will be a thing of the past for many of your crops (see our plant-specific pages for fertilizing details by crop).
See Organic Garden Fertilizers for application instructions and which types to consider for your garden.
Now that you know the basics about how to grow a garden, you’ll need to outfit yourself with a few tools. As you become more garden-savvy and learn your preferences, you can graduate to more specialized tools. In the meantime, start with the basics.
When making buying decisions, remember… you get what you pay for. In addition to being less effective in the garden, cheaply made tools cause more blisters, break more easily and rust more easily. Better-made tools also last longer, meaning that they may actually cost less in the long-run.
These sections will get you started (click the following links based on your needs)…
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