Garden Design 101 to Help You Get Started

Have you been thinking about starting a garden, but you’re a complete novice and have NO idea where to start? Don’t worry—we’re here to help! Whether you’re aiming to grow enough food to feed your family, or would just like a few potted herbs on your patio, we’ll give you the basics you need to get started.

First of All: What Do You Want to Grow, and Why?

Seedling
Photo via Foter

These are the first questions to ask yourself when it comes to starting a garden. There’s really no point in putting in a ton of time and effort to grow acres of kale if your entire family hates it. We only have so many hours to dedicate to garden projects, so make them count!

  • For example, do you love tomatoes, and you’d like to learn how to grow different varieties to eat/cook with?
  • Or is your goal to grow enough food that you can preserve crops to eat throughout the winter months?
  • Are you just growing for yourself? For a group? For your pets?
  • Will your children be gardening with you?

Once you determine your desired purpose, you can work on the finer details.

If you have a large family that you’d like to feed, have everyone write down a list of vegetables and herbs they really like, as well as those they’ll tolerate, and the ones they absolutely refuse to put in their mouths.

Then create some fun Venn diagrams to see where the overlaps happen.

Place the highest-rated plants at the top of your growing list, both in terms of priority, and abundance. The mid-rated ones are “filler”, and the ones that only one or two people can stand can be container plants.

Work with What You Have

Garden Design 101 Venn diagram

Draw upon the Venn diagram endeavour mentioned above.

  • Once you have a solid list of the varieties you enjoy eating and would like to grow this year, take stock of what thrives in your zone. You might be incredibly fond of passionfruit, but if you live in zone 4 instead of 7 and up, you won’t be able to grow it unless you have a greenhouse.
  • Take note of your growing hardiness zone, as well as how much light is available. Sunny yards will allow you to grow more fruit-bearing plants that need several hours of directly light a day. In contrast, yards and balconies that are mostly shaded are better for leafy greens like kale, spinach, and lettuces.
  • Test your soil to determine its composition: whether it’s heavier in clay or sand, whether it’s more alkaline or acidic, etc.

Related post: Work With Your Land, Not Against It

Quick Soil Test:

Grab a handful of soil and rub it back and forth in your hands. Feel the texture, and try to roll it into a ball.

  • If it feels fairly gritty and crumbles when you try to roll it, then it has a high percentage of sand in it.
  • Does it form a sticky mess when you roll it up? Then you know it has a lot of clay in it.
  • If it doesn’t get sticky and cloggy, and instead creates a shiny, silky smooth ball, then it’s silt-based.

Next, do some research to determine which types of soil your preferred species need.

For example, pumpkins and squashes need a ton of light, and need moist, alkaline soil. A pH of 6 to 7.5 is ideal, with a TON of rich compost, since they’re heavy, heavy feeders. As far as N-P-K (Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium) ratios go, they like a 5-10-5 ratio fertilizer.

In contrast, tomatoes need acidic, well-draining soil (pH between 5.5 and 6.2), and a balanced 8-8-8 N-P-K fertilizer. If your garden soil is compacted and nutrient-depleted, you’ll need to work in peat moss and well-rotted manure, as well as perlite for drainage.

If your soil is truly crap-tastic, don’t fret: just create some raised garden beds and fill those up with high-quality soil.

Garden Bed Orientation

Raised garden beds
Photo via Foter

If you’re in the northern hemisphere, garden professionals suggest that you orient your garden beds north/south. You’d place the tall plants at the north side and the shorter ones at the south. The sun travels east to west, thus providing maximum, even light coverage the whole way across.

This is kind of irrelevant if you’re growing in square beds, however. If you’re doing square foot gardening with tall trellises for beans, cucumbers, etc., then place the trellis at the northernmost side.

Ultimately, though? If you have limited space, time, and resources, just put the beds in whenever and wherever you can.

Grow in buckets if you need to. Or hanging soda bottle planters. Or old aluminium cans with drainage holes poked into them.

We improvise and do the best we can with what we have available. Sure, we can fuss and fret over exact light movement measurement and nitrogen levels, but at the end of the day, if food is growing and our loved ones are eating, that can be enough.

Related post: 25 Vegetables for a Medieval Potager Garden

Seeds VS Seedlings

This comes down to personal preference, as well as time, and availability.

If you’re in an isolated, rural area that doesn’t have a garden centre, then ordering seeds is probably the most viable option for you. Just make sure to follow the directions on the seed packets for maximum germination success.

Got a nursery or garden centre nearby? Then you can consider buying some seedlings instead. Alternatively, grow what you can from seed, and just buy seedlings for species that are difficult to germinate from seeds. Herbs like rosemary fall into that latter category, for example.

Seedlings are also a better options if you don’t have a lot of time to coddle your seeds into healthy, viable plants. They do need a lot of care and attention, so if you have a busy schedule (or small children, or over-eager house pets), you may find your efforts undermined.

*Essential Tip: Use Plant Markers!

Plant Marker

Seriously, we can’t stress this enough.

There are few things as frustrating to a novice gardener as looking out over beds full of juvenile plants and having little to no memory about what’s been planted there.

Once you have several years of gardening experience under your belt, you’ll have an easier time of it. You’ll be able to identify pepper and tomato leaves at a glance, and identify fennel, carrots, and beets by eyeing their greens.

Until then, however, write down what you’ve planted on seed markers, and cram those into the earth along with your plants. You’ll thank us for this later.
If you enjoyed this article, you might like these as well!

+ How to Create a “3 Sisters” Garden

+ 10 Multi-Purpose Plants for Your Edible Garden

+ 7 Ways to Score Free Seeds for Your Garden

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