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How to Plan a Garden for Beginners

Learn how to plan a garden for beginners in a few easy steps. With just a handful of pointers and a little encouragement, you’ll be turning your backyard into a garden oasis in no time…

Two white pumpkins grow alongside one another in a summer garden.

Although we still have two months left of winter, there are lots of reasons to be thinking of gardening right now. Before we know it, spring will be here and you’ll be ready to throw some seeds into the ground for a bountiful garden full of fresh herbs, flowers, and vegetables.

Not so fast…

As much as I would love to just drop a few seeds in the ground and let them do their thing, this is not typically how things unravel when gardening. Gardening is science, and there surely is an art to gardening, too.

There are some methods you have to follow before you can just throw some seeds into the soil. With a bit of preparation, a little information about gardening, and the right tools, you should be able to start growing some decorative and edible plants this year. 

Gardening begins with deciding on a layout, deciding on the methods you want to use, and ordering seeds. Then, you’ll be able to start them indoors and harden them off before transplanting or direct sow your seeds. Finally, you’ll be staying hard at work maintaining it throughout the season.

So today, I want to discuss some necessary components if you want to learn how to plan a garden for beginners. 

Green onions have been planted near a blueberry bush to deter some pests.

How to Plan a Garden for Beginners 

Decide on a layout | How to Plan a Garden for Beginners 

Deciding on a layout for your garden will depend on several factors. 

  • Which parts of your yard get sun? 
  • Are you growing only full sun varieties or part shade, too? 
  • Do you have pets and children?
  • Are there parts of your yard that are too steep/uneven to realistically plant a garden in? 
  • Do you want a cute or intricate layout, or do you prefer something simple and standard? 
  • Are you growing just summer crops, or will you be growing spring and fall crops too? 
  • Planning on succession planting? Companion planting? 

I know this seems like a lot, but gardening takes a lot of planning. Well, unless you’ve gardened for years and are only sticking to 1-2 crops, that is. But for beginners who need to get established and plan on growing multiple things, it gets a bit more complicated.

Let me give you some examples as to how those questions I posed can affect your garden:

Children and pets need space for playing and dogs need room for doing their business. You don’t want them doing either of those things in your garden. You’ll need to consider this as you plan.

If you’re growing some crops that require full sun and others that require part shade, part of your garden will need shade most of the day. It helps to take note of how much of your yard gets sun throughout the season, though this can be difficult as sunlight shifts and changes over the course of a year.

If you want a particularly beautiful garden, you also might have to do a bit more planning. If you want it color coordinated or your raised beds to create a certain shape, along with a pebble pathway… It’s gonna take more work. More materials, more time and energy, and more money to make it happen.

Additionally, if you’re growing cool weather crops (spring and fall) along with summer crops, you’ll start the gardening season earlier and end later than those sticking to just summer crops. Be sure to follow guidelines for those specific crops you choose to grow.

Succession planting will require more seed planting sessions (whether it’s transplanting or direct sowing) since you’ll be spacing planting them out. This ensures you’ll have crops throughout the season instead of a boat load within a short timeframe. 

Companion planting will require you to do some research into which plants work well with one another and which ones to space far apart. Companion plants will benefit the soil for one another and may even repel pests. 

Lots to consider!

Vegetable seeds lay across a table.

Add raised beds or test soil | How to Plan a Garden for Beginners 

You’ll need to test your soil first if you plan on using in-ground garden beds, which means you’ll grow directly from the ground. Testing the soil first will allow you to amend it if needed. You may need to till, add compost, or add fertilizer to fix the nitrogen levels. This will create healthy soil and more abundant harvests. (And the tilling will work the ground enough to plant in it.) You can find test kits at a nursery or an online gardening store.

If you’re growing directly in the ground, you may need to think about some sort of landscape edging to outline your garden. Some gardeners even prefer to build a fence around it to keep deer or other large animals out.

Most gardeners I know prefer raised beds, but they can be expensive. My husband and I built our own raised beds last fall (you can read about that HERE) in preparation for this year’s garden. It is much cheaper to build your own, but that does require an afternoon (at least) of work, certain tools, and basic DIY knowledge. 

The great thing about raised beds is that they provide a clear edge for where your garden ends and begins. They also typically get less weeds since you’ll lay down cardboard to kill weeds and grass first before filling with compost and soil. I just think they look nicer, too. You can even place them parallel to one another and then install a hoop connecting the two overhead, above a pathway, to grow vining plants vertically. This is a great way to make efficient use of a small space. 

An inexpensive raised garden bed is filled with dirt and sitting near two other raised beds.

Order seeds and other supplies

Depending on the zone you live in, you’ll probably need to start ordering seeds in January. This will give you plenty of time to research different sources, decide on which crops you want to grow, and allow enough time for them to arrive. Most seeds will have basic planting and care instructions, but I always recommend researching online or reading a gardening book before diving in. Especially if you’re growing multiple types of crops. 

One thing I cannot stress enough in this step: Only order seeds for things you will actually eat/use.

There really is no point in growing tons and tons of squash, in hopes your family will fall in love with eating it, only to find out everyone thinks it’s disgusting. You’ll have spent all summer maintaining a garden and now it’ll go to waste. 

If you love tomatoes, grow tomatoes. Fresh green beans are your favorite? Grow green beans, not turnips and radishes. 

If you are like me and  super picky about salad green quality, grow your own lettuce and other greens. I get so fed up with paying expensive prices for bags of lettuce that are starting to brown from grocery stores. Homegrown greens are so much better, believe me. 

Finally, if you know you live in a zone where certain pests are prevalent, search for seed varieties that are resistant to that pest. The same goes for certain diseases, too. For example, squash bugs are terrible in my zone (6a) here in Missouri. I mean, terrible. Like you would have nightmares if you’d seen the amount of squash bugs on my pumpkins last year. Although I’m taking a 2-year break from planting these, when I plant any type of squash again in the future, I’ll search for varieties resistant to squash bugs and powdery mildew (a common disease in vining plants).

A seed box lays next to a bundle of lavender on a side table.

Start seeds indoors, if necessary | How to Plan a Garden for Beginners 

Check planting schedules for your zone ahead of time to determine when to plant indoors/outdoors. I love using Almanac.com for checking this. 

I find direct sowing works best with larger seeds (such as melons and squashes), but it also works well for greens and carrots in the cooler seasons. Some things just don’t transplant very well. 

If you want/need to start seeds indoors first to get a head start, you’ll need a grow light (or more depending on how much you’re planting), seed starting containers, and a watering can and/ or spray bottle to begin. You’ll also want to purchase seed starting soil that is enriched with the proper nutrients for a good start. Some people even invest in soil blocks because they can be reused over and over. 

Marigold seedlings begin to sprout from their container pots.

Harden off seedlings before transplanting or direct sow seeds | How to Plan a Garden for Beginners

If you started your seeds indoors first, your seeds will have sprouted and grown indoors quite a bit in those first few weeks. It’s time to transplant them! But first, they’ll need to get used to the outdoors a bit first. You see, indoor plants are used to a very mild environment. No risk of dropping temperatures at night, no strong winds, and no heavy rainfall. They’ve had it pretty easy. These delicate seedlings must be “hardened off” first, gradually introduced to the outdoors, to survive. If you just put them straight in the ground they will almost always die. Seedlings need to be on at least a weeklong schedule that allows you to gradually take them outside for increasingly more time outdoors each day. Do this until they are completely ready to be outside 24/7. It takes a little time and patience, but it is so worth it. 

However, if you’re direct sowing your seeds you can skip that step. You’ll be starting your seeds later than indoor seedlings, thus getting a later start in the growing season (while still following the schedule for your zone). That’s okay. Some plants prefer this anyway. 

Be sure to follow instructions according to the seed packages or research online how far apart to space your seeds, song with the depth they need to be planted. Remember to leave room for other plant varieties in between if you’re companion planting, which is always recommended by seasoned gardeners. Cover them with soil, water, and be on your way. 

A seedling sprouts from the earth.

Maintain your garden daily | How to Plan a Garden for Beginners 

This is where the real work comes in. Planting is not the final step, unfortunately! You have to maintain your garden on a daily basis to reap the benefits of it. Start by visiting your garden at the same time each day (morning is usually best). 

Checking it consistently is key. It’s easy to let one day away from it turn into multiple days, and before you know it you have crops drying up or weeds popping up everywhere. This can be hard to recover from. This is why I recommend staying on top of it in the first place. That means watering and weeding it when needed, or at least checking your plants daily. 

Most crops do not need daily water, at least not after they’ve been established. Many benefit from watering deeply, less often. Some, once established, thrive on little water and rely mostly on rainfall. Regardless, you will need to pay attention to the weather for this reason and document when they last received watering.

Another thing worth mentioning is that weeding it will be necessary, even if you have raised garden beds. You can prep them as best as you can, but there will still be weeds floating around your lawn that will spread seed to your garden. Accept this fact and try to take joy in the quiet minutes you’ll spend outdoors tending your garden.

You’ll also need to check your crops frequently for disease and pests. These things can be a nuisance, but they can almost always be troubleshooted. Once you find a way to remedy the issue at hand, you should be able to recover some if not most of your crops. But it is important to catch these issues early on.

Seedlings have been transplanted after learning how to layer a raised garden bed.

Tips for success | How to Start a Garden for Beginners

Don’t compare your garden to others’ gardens.

Karen down the street might secretly be a millionaire and able to hire help or buy expensive tools and layouts. That guy on Instagram might have 10 years of gardening under his belt. And that person that works at the nursery might live on a farm with plenty of acreage to grow 50 different crops. Do not compare. It sucks the joy out of gardening. Inspiration is okay, but do not start comparing yourself. Eyes on your own garden.

Work with what you have.

If someone gives you tools they no longer need, accept them graciously. It will save you money (and time spent procuring them). If it’s your second year gardening and you have leftover seeds from last year, use those first before buying more. If you have patio space and large containers to plant in, utilize these before filling the entire yard. It’s easy to get carried away with gardening, so take it easy the first year or two while you’re building on your skills and knowledge. 

Invest in a gardening logbook.

I love using a logbook to document failures and successes each year. I also write down which varieties I planted, where I grew them, and the weather conditions of the season. Taking notes will help you notice trends and troubleshoot in the future. It is never a bad thing to take notes.

Have fun!

This is the most important step. Most people initially start gardening as a hobby. A few may have intentions of growing lots of their own food to regularly consume eventually, but most start with it being a hobby. So don’t take it too seriously. Don’t go in the first year with intentions to feed your entire family straight from the garden for every single meal. You’ll be lucky to get a little your first year. Even very experienced gardeners who grow a ton of fruits and vegetables aren’t able to grow everything all the time. My point? Don’t put too much pressure on yourself and have fun with it. Things will die. Some things may live. You’ll learn, you’ll live, no one will starve, life goes on. You will continue to grow your gardening experience in the meantime. It will be hard work, but it is so worth it.

Cantaloupe grows in a summer garden, perfect to show how to plan a garden for beginners.

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