Fresh produce, dazzling flowers, fragrant herbs—gardens are mini-slices of heaven that can take a home from lackluster to spectacular.
Heaps of research also shows that gardening is one of the best activities you can do for your brain and body. According to the minds at the University of Michigan, discovering your green thumb can bolster everything from heart health to mental clarity. What’s more, growing vegetables and herbs can help save on groceries while the physical act of gardening can keep you in tiptop shape.
The idea of starting one, however, might give you pause. You might argue that you can’t stand yard work, or hardly have the space. And who in the world has time to weed and water and—what else is on the list?
Our response? Nonsense. With a little love, nourishment and strategy, you can have a garden that’ll garner admiration from others, brighten your home, and be a boon for your health. Here’s how to get started.
1. Select your garden site and type
Plants typically grow best in locations that receive 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight per day. For some, that may be right outside their kitchen window; for others, it may be a stretch of empty space on their deck. (Don’t despair if you live in a place that doesn’t receive ample sunshine: Kale and lettuce are just two of many plants that thrive in the shade.)
Once you’ve determined where to place your garden, you’ll then need to settle on the type of garden that’ll suit you and your home best. This, too, is based on your living quarters (and preferences). Happen to have a space in your yard that won’t compete with other trees and shrubs for soil, water and nutrients? You’re in an optimal position to plant an in-ground garden. Do you live in an arid place in which the soil looks tough to the eye—let alone to the roots of a plant? Consider a raised bed; given that they’re above ground, they allow you to manage the soil and its components (think: compost, vermiculite and gardening soil).
If you don’t have much room for a garden, head for the pots and containers aisle. Versatile—you can move them to the best place for light—and a cinch to care for, containers can look gorgeous and effectively grow your masterpieces.
Grow tip: Be sure that the pots you choose have drainage holes. As The Old Farmer’s Almanac reminds us, “Proper drainage will ensure that water neither collects on top nor drains away too quickly.”
2. Hone your vision
You may want a garden that rivals the Royal Botanic Garden of London but sharpening your idea—and realistically at that—is the key to getting started.
Now that you have the area plotted out in your mind, you’ll have a better idea of what you want to plant. At the same time, take stock of what you’re truly after. Do you find red dahlias and sunflowers the prettiest things in the world? By all means, shoot for a flower garden that’ll jazz up your home (and, likely, your mood). Do you love cooking and think few things sound more romantic than strolling outside to pluck a ripe tomato or eggplant from your yard? Is it herbs you’re after? Or perhaps you’d like a touch of each?
Once you’ve established these answers, take it a step further. Do you want the vibrant colors of annuals, even if you’ll have to replant them each year? Or would you prefer perennials, which have a briefer bloom time but return year after year? You get the point: You have some decisions to make.
Grow tip: Start small—you can always expand the following year. Better to be delighted by a tiny garden than exasperated by a huge one.
3. Get dirty
If you’re planning an in-ground garden, your next step will be to clear the ground where you’ll be setting up shop. If you want to start your garden now—if not yesterday—you can dig it out. A simpler, though slower solution is to use newspapers. Five layers of newsprint ought to be enough to get you started, but if you’re planting on certain grasses—Bermuda, for example—you’ll need double. Cover the newspapers with compost; wait four months for it to decompose and you can get started. If you’re using containers, fill the vessel you’ve chosen with two to four inches of compost and start planting.
Grow tip: Invest in a good shovel. A quality, full-sized shovel is imperative to successful, in-ground gardening, while a hand trowel is essential for gardening in containers (and for smaller tasks). And don’t forget gloves to protect your hands: You might want a green thumb, but you don’t necessarily have to show this to the world.
4. Plant happy
Onto the real fun: Getting your foliage in the ground. Unless they’re plants that can tolerate cold—such as pansies—you’ll want to wait until Spring to get started (or up until your first frost, should you live in a cold climate). Dig a hole in the soil and place the plant in the opening to its suitable depth, which you can find on the plant tag. Fill the soil around the plant and gently pat it into place. If you’re planting seeds, be sure to follow the instructions on the seed packet.
Grow tip: Before moving on to the next plant—and if you’re not using containers—space your crops appropriately. Each plant you select will have different requirements for space and nutrients, so stick to the suggestions on the plant tags and seed packets.
5. Nurture your buds
It ought to arrive as no surprise that the recipe to a successful garden is water. But watering knowledgeably—neither too little nor too much—is also fundamental. The constituents of your soil, as well as the weather, will largely mold how and when you water. Sandy soil, for example, dries out more quickly than clay soil, while plants growing in windy or sunny conditions will require more frequent watering. (Seedlings, which should never dry out, need to be watered daily, while young plants can typically be watered every other day.) While this will be partly intuitive, you can also test the soil three to four inches down from the ground or container. If it feels dehydrated, satisfy its thirst.
Grow tip: Bark chips, cocoa hulls, straw, pine—mulch of all kinds will help keep the water in and the weeds out. And if you want to ensure that your soil is as high quality as possible, grab a simple, DIY soil testing kit from your local gardening center.
6. Sustain the momentum
Your vegetables are looking robust, your flowers are blossoming, your herbs are perfuming the air—in a word, congratulations! But gardening isn’t a one-shot deal; like your health, it requires consistent management and care. In addition to watering your babies, be sure to pull weeds when they come up (do so regularly, before they get big), and fertilize about halfway through the season.
Grow tip: Look for a slow-release, low-nitrogen fertilizer, such as Milorganite, which can boost nutrients for your plants. Then pat yourself on the back—and reap the rewards of your hard work.