These days, more and more people are discovering the joys of playing in the dirt—though grown-ups might prefer the term “gardening.” Food gardening is especially hot, with nearly 20 percent more households hopping on the food-growing train during the past five years. Renewed interest in gardening may be due in part to the local food movement. Locavores are interested in having greater access to healthy, high-quality food, knowing where their food comes from, and supporting the environment and the local economy. Gardening (especially organic gardening) certainly fits the bill!
Gardening has also been shown to have significant health benefits. For starters, it encourages people to engage in other behaviors and activities that promote wellness Connecting food environments and health through the relational nature of aesthetics: gaining insight through the community gardening experience. Hale J., Knapp C., Bardwell L., et al. Social Science and Medicine, 2011; 72(11):1853-63.. For example, gardeners consume more fruits and vegetables than non-gardeners The influence of social involvement, neighborhood aesthetics, and community garden participation on fruit and vegetable consumption. Litt J., Soobader M., Turbin M., et al. Am J Public Health. 2011;101(8):1466-73.. When gardeners choose to grow food organically, they’re reducing their exposure to pesticides and potentially eating produce with a higher nutrient content Organic foods contain higher levels of certain nutrients, lower levels of pesticides, and may provide health benefits for the consumer. Crinnion WJ. Altern Med Rev. 2010;15(1):4-12. Organic food conclusions don't tell the whole story. Holzman D. Environ Health Perspect., 2012;120(12):A458.. Gardening also reduces stress and improves mental health. And it counts as moderate-intensity exercise, which can help people live longer lives Physical activity of moderate intensity in leisure time and the risk of all cause mortality. Bucksch J. Br J Sports Med, 2005;39(9):632-8..
With all those good reasons to garden, what are you waiting for? Whether you have your own plot of land or will need to pursue an alternative approach to gardening, get started with this handy-dandy guide to the gardening basics. Gardening is often a process of trial and error, so remember to relax and have fun with it. We promise: It’s not as intimidating as it might seem!
What a Plant Needs
Plants are kind of like people—each type of plant has a unique “personality” and likes different things (water, sunlight, soil type, etc.). Some plants like it hot and sunny, while others like it cooler or moister (or both). It’s fun but can take some experimentation (and internet research) to learn what works best for a particular type of plant. That being said, virtually all plants require a few basic ingredients:
Sun: Plants are pretty magical, as they harness energy from the sun and, through photosynthesis, convert that energy into their tissues. Because plants need the sun to grow, many plants, including most fruits and veggies, need a good amount of direct sun during the day. Have a shadier plot? Research which plants prefer shady conditions if you have less light available.
Water: Plants also need water, and it’s often the amount of water that’s available that will keep plants from wilting up in the summer sun and heat. In many places, it may be necessary to water your garden regularly in order to keep plants happy. Consider your water sources; if they’re not close to the area where you’ll be gardening, it will be important to figure out a system for transporting water to your garden.
Nutrients: Just like people, plants need nutrients in order to grow healthy and strong (and those nutrients are passed on to us when we eat plants for food). In particular, plants need nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). These nutrients can either be derived from the soil (more on that below!) or will need to be manually added.
Soil: Plants need something to grow in, and soil holds all the water and nutrients needed for growth (although hydroponics—in which plants are grown in water without soil—is also a viable means of growing some plants). Garden soils can be tested to find out whether it has a good pH and nutrients to support plant growth. If the soil isn’t ideal for growing plants, you may need to supplement it with fertilizers. You can also test soil for metals like lead if you’re concerned that the garden location could contain contaminants. If you're gardening in containers, you’ll need to purchase potting mixes that are appropriate for whatever plants you choose to grow.
Getting in the Zone
Plants perform best when they have optimum temperatures for growth—like Goldilocks, the conditions need to be juuuust right. Understanding your climate will help you decide which plants to grow. This information is generally provided for seeds and plants online and when you purchase them to help you decide what will work best.
To better understand your climate, get familiar with the plant hardiness zones. They’re based on the coldest winter temperatures, which help determine which plants are likely to do best in a particular location. This information is especially useful for planting perennial plants—that is, plants like trees, shrubs, and many flowers that live for several years—because often it’s the coldest winter temperatures that determine where these plants can thrive.
Growing season length is another handy piece of information. It’s the average amount of time per year where the temperature stays above freezing during both day and night. Growing season length is particularly useful for planting annual plants—including most garden vegetables and many flowers—which live for only a single year. If you want to plant melons, for example, you’ll want to make sure that you can find a variety of melons that can grow fully within the length of your growing season. And you’ll want to make sure that you plant it early enough that there are plenty of days left in the season for it to grow and mature.
Location, Location, Location
Gardens come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s just a matter of figuring out what will work for you. In fact, gardening doesn’t even have to occur outside—plants grown indoors provide some of the same stress-reducing benefits as gardening, while also improving indoor air quality Beneficial effects of plant-associated microbes on indoor microbiomes and human health? Berg G., Mahnert A., Moissl-Eichinger C. Front Microbiol, 2014;5:15.. Community gardens provide another great alternative if your gardening space is limited or if you’re looking for a more social gardening scene.
If you’re growing plants outdoors, try to choose a spot that optimizes all those things that plants need—light, water, nutrients, and good soils. You can choose to grow plants directly in the soil (which is an easy and affordable option), to build raised beds, or to grow plants in containers. Raised beds (which are basically large wooden boxes filled with soil) are often six to 24 inches off the ground; they can be very productive, but it will cost extra money for the materials to build the beds. For smaller spaces or starter gardens, containers are a fantastic way to go because they provide so much flexibility. Watering is especially critical for containers because they dry out faster than garden beds. Luckily, these gardens are often pretty small so watering only takes a few minutes.
So Many Questions
The wonderful thing about gardening is that there are so many potential plants out there to grow. Here are some things to think about as you plan your garden:
- What types of plants are you most excited to grow? Many people are interested in growing their own food, but others may be interested in simply beautifying their decks or yards.
- If you’re growing plants for food, what do you most like to cook and eat? There’s no reason to grow a five-pound zucchini (trust us—it happens!) if you don’t love the stuff. Grow things that are so yummy to you, they may not even make it into the house!
- What amount of space and light do you have available for gardening (whether at your place or at a community garden)? Take into account whether you're gardening in the ground or in containers on a deck or patio, how much light the area receives each day, and whether the area offers any shade. While these variables will partly determine what you’re able to grow, the good news is you can pretty much garden anywhere.
- How much time are you looking to spend gardening? Plants require regular care, so be realistic about how much time you’ll be willing to spend weeding, watering, and so on. It’s generally a good idea to start small and learn the ropes before taking on a huge commitment. If you love it, you can scale up from there.
How much you need to water plants will depend on a few things. Hotter and drier air will pull moisture from plants and soils more quickly, so more watering will be necessary as the temperatures go up. The type of soil you have in your garden will also affect how much water is available to plants. A good rule of thumb is that plants should receive enough water to cover the ground with an inch of water each week, and it’s better for plants to get all the water one or two times per week rather than a little bit each day. An easy test to see if plants have enough water available is to put a finger in the soil and make sure it feels moist two to three inches below the surface. When watering, it’s best to use a watering can or sprinkler (dumping a lot of water on the plants all at once can damage them). Of course, if your area gets a lot of rain, you won’t need to perform this chore often!
Beginner gardening requires a few tools (but there’s no end to the amount of gardening equipment that one can use). The larger the scale of your gardening, the more tools you’re likely to need. One of the major reasons people are interested in gardening is to reduce food costs; if you’re in this camp, start with the minimum and add things as you need them Vegetable output and cost savings of community gardens in San Jose, California. Algert, SJ, Baameur, A., Renvall, MJ. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2014 Jul;114(7):1072-6.
Container gardens are super-simple to get going. For these, containers, potting soil, a watering can, and a small trowel (or even a sturdy kitchen spoon!) are the basic equipment that’s needed. For raised beds or beds in the ground, it’s helpful to have a trowel, watering can, shovel, hoe, and digging fork. Larger gardens might benefit from the use of bigger equipment, such as a rototiller, for preparing the soil—but this is by no means necessary if you’d prefer to flex those muscles in the garden.
Preparing for Planting
You’ve planned where your garden will be, what plants to plant, how you’ll care for them, and stocked up on essential equipment. Finally, it’s time to put some plants in the ground!
When purchasing plants, you'll have the option to purchase seeds or small, starter plants that you can transplant into your garden. Many vegetables and flowers are easy to grow from seed, making that the simpler (and more affordable) choice in many situations. Buying plants, rather than seeds, is especially useful when a plant is difficult to grow from seed, if the growing season is particularly short, or if a larger plant is going to make that garden look great. To combine the best of both worlds, lots of seeds can be started inside in pots and later transplanted outdoors.
The directions for planting will depend on what’s being planted; typically this information is provided on the seed packet or tag that comes with a given plant. (If this information doesn’t come with a plant, the internet is an amazing resource.) Seeds can be planted in rows or geometric patterns that use space more effectively. Just put seeds in the soil (depth varies by plant), cover them back up with dirt, and water. If you’re using starter plants, dig a hole that is bigger than what you are transplanting so that the roots have lots of room to grow. Soil should be gently packed around the roots so that the plant stays at the same level above the ground that it was in the container. After planting seeds and/or starters, be sure to water the soil thoroughly. Ta-da! Your plants are ready to grow!
Invaders Be Gone
Once plants are in the garden, one of the biggest challenges is keeping weeds, pests, and diseases out of the garden. To a certain extent, weeds are inevitable, and that’s okay—so long as they don’t start choking out your plants. The best course of action is to weed every week or so to keep them from getting out of control. In general, it’s easier to pull weeds out of the ground when soils are wetter; when soils are dry, it can be more effective to hoe. Covering the soil with mulch or straw can help reduce weeds while also maintaining the soil's moisture.
Garden pests (including bugs and meddlesome critters) and diseases challenge even the most experienced of gardeners. But in the spirit of “preparation is the key to success,” many of these issues can be resolved in advance. Many bugs and diseases that cause damage to plants are more likely to occur when plants are stressed, so ensuring that plants receive a good amount of sun, water, and nutrients will reduce other gardening problems. There are many organic options for preventing and controlling garden pests and diseases. Animal critters running amok in the garden can be hard to handle, but often fencing or creative deterrents (think: scarecrows) can solve the problem. And if something seems amiss, asking local professionals or doing some online research sooner rather than later can help—wait for it—nip problems in the bud!