Here are some beginner gardening tips I live by. I show you how I garden in clay soil, using organic methods, in Zone 6a here in the Midwest. By giving a basic foundation of knowledge in gardening, you’ll learn the art (and science) of transforming a suburban backyard into an outdoor haven.
It’s early May, and I have officially planted my garden (as in: just yesterday).
I am feeling proud and can’t wait to start seeing some seedlings sprout up through the soil. We spent the entire weekend tilling, adding compost, transplanting perennials and annuals, planting seeds, watering everything, and getting rid of weeds.
We had already refreshed the patio space for spring, but it was time to get the garden planted. Other than sowing some onions and marigolds, I really didn’t do much indoor seed starting this year. It just wasn’t necessary this year.
Last year, I ran into some clay soil gardening issues (and learned so much from my mistakes). However, this did not deter me. I still harvested lots of tomatoes and a few other things–so I still had some successes. This year I am taking a different approach, though.
This year I am aiming to work smarter, not harder.
Gardening can be a lot of work, especially in the beginning, but it is so worth it. Come July, we’ll begin to have some fruits and veggies ripening and ready for harvest.
What I do want to share with you today are a few beginner gardening tips and tricks I have learned in my pursuit of organic, clay soil gardening. Even though I still consider myself a beginner, I think it’s important to share what I’ve learned with others. Especially if it can make your work more efficient.
I think a few of you will appreciate my simplistic perspective and laid back philosophy.
Beginner Gardening Tips for Organic Gardening
Get the right tools
Once upon a time, I thought I didn’t need a tiller. I tried no-dig gardening, which may work great for some, but it was not for me. I used lots of straw since we didn’t have compost ready yet. Such a mess. Maybe I was underprepared for this type of gardening (most likely). But I think I prefer, as of right now, using a tiller like this one here.
If you have a smaller garden, you could even use a more affordable option like this one here. I used it last year in a small garden bed and it worked well. Just be prepared to put in some hard work, especially if you have clay soil in your yard like I do.
Be prepared to invest a little money in getting your hands on the proper equipment to create your garden. That doesn’t mean the fanciest or most expensive, you just need the basics to create your garden.
Here are a few other beginner tool recommendations:
- Gardening gloves – These are great for keeping hands clean and safe from getting cuts and scratches.
- Rake, shovel, and hoe – These are important for digging, breaking up any clumps in the soil, and then raking out your beds, so the soil is somewhat even.
- Small hand shovel – I like to use this for smaller gardening projects in containers or around the patio. Sometimes a standard shovel is just too big.
- Watering can and/or heavy duty hose – Most people already have a garden hose, but if you don’t you’ll definitely need one now. Make sure you have an adjustable nozzle that will make watering so much easier. A watering can comes in handy, too, when watering plants located far from the hose. I use mine for watering some plants in the front since we only have a garden hose in the backyard. It is a pain to carry this hose all over.
- Wheelbarrow – This one is optional. I think most gardeners need one eventually, but depending on your garden you may not need one immediately. If you aren’t buying topsoil or hauling compost, you may be able to get away without one at first. Most gardeners want to grow their garden after the first year and incorporate more ideas in, in which case you may start needing one…
Have a plan in place for preventing pests
I am one to be proactive. I try to use the most natural methods of gardening, and I prefer to prevent pests rather than get rid of them later on.
Here are a few ideas for pest prevention:
- Try interplanting – Mixing some plants with others in the same area helps boost pest prevention when selecting flowers/herbs that have strong scents. Plant marigolds, chives, garlic, or nasturtiums to deter pests away from infesting your garden beds.
- Crop rotation – Use this to keep certain pests away. For example, squash bugs are notorious for taking over areas where squash and pumpkins are grown. I always move my pumpkin garden bed each year because of this.
- Plant sunflowers in one corner of your yard to attract pests and act as a distractor. Rather than your vegetables and other edibles, they’ll gravitate to these. They’ll end up eating these instead.
Know your yard well
Another essential on my list of beginner gardening tips: Know where the sunshine hits your yard.
The first year I gardened in my yard, it was a bit tricky. We don’t have many trees in our yard, but our neighbors sure do. As the summer season approached, the trees became thicker, creating more shade in our yard.
Additionally, since the position of the sun changes each season, the sunshine shifts from spring to summer and then to fall. The shifting sunlight is important to know.
Take notes of sunlight in your yard the first year you garden. Pay attention to roughly how many hours sections of the yard get each day, season to season. Record this in a notebook for the next year.
I used bamboo sticks to mark certain spots in our yard, late last year. I noted where the sun hits the yard for 6+ hours each day for all my sun-loving plants. Most of my summer crops need full sun, so this was very important to me.
This spring I was able to know exactly where to plant my garden beds.
Water almost always daily
Last summer, for most of my crops, I had to water them a little each day. I usually chose to do so in the evenings, right before the sun set. (This is because it gives the plants a chance to actually soak up the water, instead of it evaporating within the hour from the hot sun.)
Obviously, clay soil tends to hold more water since it’s more dense, so always check the soil first. I check the surface and also about an inch below the surface using a hand shovel. If it’s still pretty wet, you can hold off a day or two. But most days here in the Midwest, the sun dries out the soil pretty well.
In the hot summer months, you will really learn to appreciate random rain showers. One less task to do in the garden that day!
Most days I am eager to get outside and check to see what’s new in the garden. But on those sweltering hot days when I’m already beat, not having to get the hose out and spend 30 minutes watering everything in my yard is a nice treat.
Don’t go buy expensive materials and supplies
Besides the basic tools, seeds, and perhaps some additional topsoil, you don’t need to spend an arm and a leg on fancy stuff for the garden. Wait to make sure you can handle all the hard work during that first year. Then, if you’re addicted, start investing a little more each year into gardening supplies. You can even DIY trellises, containers, and other more decorative garden elements.
This year I spent about $5 on quite a few garden label stakes for all my vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Although this is cheap, last year I did not spend a dime on any type of labeling system. I had received a gardening logbook as a gift during the holidays, so when gardening season came around I just drew the layout and labeled items in that. A simple notebook will also do. No need to go overboard for simple tasks.
You can even invest in cheap bamboo stakes for tying certain crops to (like tomatoes) instead of buying expensive cages or trellis systems. They aren’t quite as sturdy, but they do work and they are very affordable.
Want fancy edging around your garden? Your garden doesn’t need to look perfect or even pretty your first year. This year, I may use some bricks we already have to create a border, but if I didn’t have those it would be highly unlikely I’d add anything at all.
I always recommend waiting until you know for sure you’ll need it for the garden and have explored all other options first. Stick to the basics. Know the difference between needs and wants.
Experiment to learn
I feel pretty comfortable experimenting in the garden because I already dabble in this when it comes to the kitchen. You could say I like to shake things up a bit when it comes to cooking. I get bored easily, so sometimes it’s just my nature to try something new.
I also know that since this is more of a hobby for me, and my family isn’t dependent on this garden to eat and live off of, I have room to make mistakes. This is totally coming from a place of privilege, so I understand if you can’t take that kind of risk. But if you can, try out some new methods.
I was almost too afraid to garden in clay soil at all. Everything you read online says it’s hard to grow in, branding it with a poor reputation. But I’ve been growing high quality food in it. It’s very fertile and not that hard to work with once you’re used to it. I never would have learned this had I not been brave enough to begin experimenting with gardening in it. I’m so glad I did. Mainly because wood raised beds are expensive to buy/make right now and not very space efficient.
Use organic pesticides if you need
I am the type of gardener who invests my time more in prevention than in remediating issues once they arise. I also want to use natural methods as much as possible. This has been important to me from the beginning. However, sometimes life happens.
I actually once thought that organic gardening meant there were no pesticides used, period. Not true at all.
Organic gardening and farming methods do include pesticides, except they’re derived from natural sources. You are not a failure if you get pests or a few plants become diseased and you feel you need to use a pesticide.
I try not to use them, myself, as I still find them a little expensive. But sometimes it’s worth it instead of spending hours researching and trying a million other methods.
Do what works for you, even if you have to use pesticides. (This is why all veggies, fruits, herbs, etc. should be rinsed properly before consuming. Just because it’s organic, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have pesticides. Just because it’s an organic pesticide, doesn’t mean it can’t be toxic at certain levels. “Natural” doesn’t always mean safer.)
Don’t give up when you make mistakes
Like everything in life, mistakes will happen. Don’t give up, though. That’s when lessons are learned.
I’m so stubborn you could tell me something 100 times, but until I’ve tried it myself and seen it with my own eyes, I won’t believe it. Not one of my most enduring qualities, I know.
The point is, a few mistakes don’t make you a failure. They will help you grow, though… Grow your knowledge, grow your experience, and, well, grow your garden.
If all else fails…
If you still absolutely hate gardening after you’ve tried for a season, try a different (and easier) method next year. Grow a tomato plant in a large container on a patio and call it good. You’ll have tomatoes for your summer salads at least.