1. Start Small
I know, you want to feed your family all summer long. Or you want to preserve food for the winter. Or you want to try every single seed from the catalogs. Trust me, if you start out with a huge garden you will get overwhelmed.
If this is your first year gardening, take it slow. Plant a few tomatoes and peppers. A small herb garden. Some beans and lettuce. Maybe some onions. Get used to how certain plants grow and their needs. Try out something like Square Foot Gardening to grow a lot of food in a smaller space.
Keep your small plot weeded, watered and pest-free. If all goes well this first year, you can expand just a bit more the following year.
2. Plant what you eat [mostly]
Do you love fresh tomatoes and tomato sauce? Is salsa your thing? Then tomatoes should definitely be on your to-grow list. Are potatoes detested by the entire family? You might want to skip them. If you only use peppers in salsa and the occasional stir-fry or soup, 1 or 2 plants is probably enough.
That being said, homegrown food is always better. Have you tasted a pea straight from the garden? There is no comparison to the bland store-bought varieties. Especially in the case of picky kids, growing your own, and letting them help, will help them expand their palate and introduce new foods. Gardening is also an excuse to build up your own tastes.
Your menu might never include kale, cabbage or chard- unless it’s right outside your door begging to be used. Once you have your gardening legs under you don’t be afraid to try a few new things!
3. Plant to your climate
Knowing your zone is one of the most important parts of gardening. It will determine what you can plant and when. If you live in a colder northern climate you will have to pick more cold-weather crops and short-season varieties of all the others.
If you live in an area that stays warm much of the year you will plant your warm season veggies much earlier than much of the country. When choosing your seeds, pay attention to how many days it will take to mature as well as what growing zone it is best suited for.
4. Pay attention to Plant Spacing
I know many home gardeners- myself included- that try to squish as many plants in an area as possible in the name of conserving space and making room for more plants. This is not the best practice as it tends to invite more pests and disease into your garden as well as having plants that are not as strong and healthy since they will be competing for light and space.
You can usually get by with somewhat smaller spacing than seed packets tell you, but make sure that each plant has ample nutrients and sun. You can also use vertical gardening techniques to conserve space.
5. Use Mulch
I don’t know any true statistics, but I would think that weeds are the #1 gardener frustration. They grow fast and can choke out your plants in a matter of days. Weeding should be done daily, but if you don’t want to spend hours and hours on your knees pulling weeds, mulch can be your best friend!
Mulching your plants will help to choke out the weeds as well as protect from soil loss and retain moisture. You have a lot of choices when it comes to mulch- from wood chips or grass clipping to straw or plastic. You can use one or all sorts of different mulches, but get that soil covered!
6. Write it down!
Don’t rely on your memory when it comes to the garden. Keep a journal- sketch out your garden so that you can rotate crops next year, keep a list of pests you fought, of what did well and what didn’t, and any other thoughts that might help you.
Also make sure to label you plants in your garden. Some seeds are slow to germinate and you might forget that a plot was already planted. It is also helpful to label different varieties so you can begin to keep tract of which do best in your garden- there is no sense in wasting money on seeds that never produce well!
7. Learn your plants. And your Weeds.
There is nothing quite like tending a tiny little corn seedling for weeks until it blossoms into a lovely shoot of grass! It is helpful to become familiar with what certain plants look like as seedlings- so that you can pull the weeds and not the plants.
It is equally as helpful to know your weeds as small shoots and seedlings so that you are cultivating plants not weeds.
8. Amend your soil.
Healthy soil makes healthy plants. Your soil is the most important part of your garden- poor soil will not produce much more than unhealthy plants. Before starting your garden each year make sure you amend the soil with well-rotted manure or compost.
Feed your soil and plants throughout the year with manure, compost tea or Epsom salts. At the end of the season top your beds with chopped leaves or sow a cover crop that will provide some green manure for the following year. Your plants can tell you a lot of about the condition of your soil- check out my article on Soil Nutrient Deficiencies and How to Fix Them for some tips on diagnosing common nutrient deficiencies.