9 Things I wish I knew BEFORE I Started Gardening

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Growing up, the summer garden was always a key feature of our yard. Running over and grabbing a cucumber or handful of beans while playing, or a tomato for a warm BLT for lunch, was just a normal part of my childhood; and once I became a mother I wanted nothing more for my children to grow up with those same memories.

But having grown up so close did not mean I knew everything that I needed to know to have a perfect garden that first summer. Quite the opposite happened. I jumped in with probably too much confidence and ended up with 40 tomato plants that hardly produced anything, pepper plants that were blown out of the ground during a windstorm, and lost entire crops of brassicas to the pesky cabbage worms. And even with all the challenges, I never gave up and learned a lot along the way.

So to save new gardeners from as bad of a first garden as I had, here are 9 things have learned over the last 8 years that have brought my gardens from lack lustre to lush!

1. Know Your Zone

When the snow starts to melt and the air starts to lose that winter chill it’s easy to get excited and think it’s time to start planting… Especially if you live in Canada and see all those gardeners south of the border already harvesting while you still have a foot of snow on the ground. But I digress.

When it comes to deciding when it’s time to start seeds inside, direct sow and plant those long lasting perenials there are two very important things for gardeners to know. Their grow zone and last/first frost dates.

What is a grow zone?

In Canada and the US there are 13 grow zones. Your zone is determined by the average lowest temp in the area over the previous 10 years. This is important to know when you are planting perennials, trees, and bushes because if the plant is not hardy to your zone, that means it is unlikely to survive through the winter.

A lot of emphasis is put on grow zones but for the average beginner gardener, planting tomatoes and other annuals in their gardens this is not something you will need to consider too closely.

You can find your grow zone here.

Frost Dates

When it comes to beginner gardening your focus really needs to be on the first and last frost dates. These are important because you will need to count backward from your last start date to know when you can either start your seeds inside, direct sow or transplant your seedlings. Your seed packets will typically say when you can plant your seeds in relation to the frost date so not knowing this date you could end up planting your seeds too early or too late putting unnecessary stress on the plants which will ultimately lead to lower production.

The first frost helps one to know if the variety of plants you are choosing will produce fruit before the first frost. Peppers are notorious for taking forever to grow and produce. If you start your seeds too late in the season you may not end up with anything before the season ends.

Determining your first and last frost dates can be very specific. I have found the best resource for determining it is the Farmer’s Almanac, as it has a tool where you can enter your specific zip/postal code and get your last first date.

2. Soil Prep

I am going to be honest here, my first big mistake the first year I was gardening was not believing that there was a difference between soil and dirt. But soil condition it so important! It will determine how much water the soil will hold onto, whether or not there is life in the soil (microbes, worms etc) and what nutrients is found in the soil. All these factors will impact the production and lifespan of the plants.

Sometimes, the health of the soil quality can be determined simply by looking at it. If you pull back the sod and everything is brown and dry… you have some very unhappy dirt. But when it is less obvious, soil testing can be a great tool to help you determine how to amend the soil.

In order to improve the soil quality you are going to want to be putting nutrients back into the soil, some of the easiest and fastest ways to do that is with fertilizers and compost. Animals are another option if the land you are using is large enough to support chickens, pigs, goats or even cows. I have also found that growing nitrogen fixers as well as root vegetables help break up and aerate the soil allowing for more life to appear and eventually healthier soil.

3. Seeds Don’t Spoil

When buying seeds you might have noticed that there is an expiration date on the package, and I am going to tell you that that date means nothing. It is only there as an end date for seed companies to guarantee a germination rate, so if you plant the packet and nothing comes up before that date, you could probably her a refund. But planting after that expiration date doesn’t mean nothing will come up., or even that not many will come up.

The reality is that seeds want to live and grow, that is their life’s purpose, and it takes more than a little bit of time for them to give that up. I have planted seeds that were 7 years old and ended up with excellent germination.

So when buying your seeds don’t feel like you have to plant all 50 tomato seeds that first year because you don’t want them to go to waste. Plant exactly how many you want, plus a few more and save the rest for the following year. This will help you from getting overwhelmed with too many plants to care for well and wasting money buying new seeds every year.

4. Start Small and Manageable

It is tempting when flipping through the seed catalogue or walking down the aisles of the nursery to buy all the things. New life is so inspiring and jumping into the deep end without knowing it can happen quickly. So before you head to the garden centre ask yourself two questions:

What does my family actually eat/use?
What do I have time to take care of?

It’s important to ask yourself what you will actually use and eat because as beautiful and relaxing as gardening is, it can be a lot of work. You don’t want to put in all that effort to only throw away the majority of what you grow. So peruse your grocery list, and grow those things first. If you are buying flowers on a regular basis, are they flowers that you can grow yourself? Make the effort worth while.

Once you know what you actually use, decide how much of that list you have time to take care of. When I was busy doing a summer semester at university with only a patio to plant on I knew that all I could handle was a potted tomato plant, and some jalapeños in a window box. I did not have time to go down to the community garden and weed every day between classes and work. Knowing your limitations will set you up for success. If you bite off more than you can chew there is a chance you will end up overwhelmed and leaving the garden to the weeds before the season is over.

Once you have a clear vision of what it takes to care for a garden slowly add, and experiment with new plants and practices. For that first season keep it as simple as your budget and schedule will allow.

5. Know Your Plot

Something that can be easily overlooked when planning a garden for the first time, is taking some time to know the space you are planting. Where do the light and shadows fall? Where is North? Are there any structures that are creating a lot of shade? Where is my water source? These are all important things to consider before barking ground, even if you are only planting a small patio garden.

So take some time and just watch the light and how it moves around the space where you plan to put your garden plot, because the last thing you will want to do is break ground in an area that has the wrong light for the plants you want to grow. This can turn into a very costly mistake if you have to move it the next year.

6. Know your plants

It’s important to take some time to research the plants you want to grow to know their likes and dislikes. Some pants are cool weather plants, some don’t want their roots disturbed and others just don’t get along with other plants. Taking the time to know this can make even a small garden fruitful.

Things to consider when researching your plants:

  • Which plants make good companions and which do not
  • Which prefer to be sewn directly and which can handle being started early
  • How long does it take for the plant to mature and produce fruit?
  • What pests should you worry about?
  • Is this plant perenial to your zone?

7. Companions are really your best friends

When I first got into gardening I had an image of neat rows planted with similar plants. Tomatoes with tomatoes, beans with beans, flowers with flowers. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with planting that way if that is what you prefer, BUT did you know that some plants help deter pests from others? That others will attract pollinators increasing your harvest? The some work in perfect harmony together to support each other?

The world of companion planting is huge and can be daunting when you first step into it. You can literally feel like if you plant the wrong things together nothing will grow. But that isn’t true… for the most part. When starting out I always say start with adding some flowers to your vegetable beds, they will help attract pollinators and and some even deter pests. Once you are comfortable with that branch out and maybe look into indigenous practices like the Three Sisters, the idea of planting corn, pole beans and squash together.

Here are some of my favourite flowers to add to the garden:

  • Zinnia
  • Calendula
  • Marigold
  • Nasturtium
  • Sunflowers

8. Patience is a Virtue:

It’s so hard to wait for mother nature to do her work, but be patient! Some plants can take upward of a month (some 6 months) before you even see anything happening in the little pods you planted. So do as I tell my children and Practice your Patience. Don’t get discouraged if it takes time to see a difference, trust me, in no time you will be seeing changes from morning to evening. But in the begining we need to just let nature do it’s work.

9. Embrace Failure

In the same vein of patience, you must embrace failure. There will be times plants don’t sprout, flowers don’t bloom and plants bolt and go bitter before you can really enjoy them. It happens to all of us. But what is important is that you learn from it. Plant earlier, sow more seeds, give them some friends. There are lots of things that can go wrong, trust me, a seasoned gardener has killed more plants than you can imagine.

Enjoy the ride

Ultimately gardening is a chance for you to learn and grow in so many ways, and no matter how long you have been putting your hands in the dirt you will learn new things, and be challenged in different ways every season. The most important thing is to soak it all up and enjoy the ride. Take morning coffee and evening wine walks through the garden, smell the blooms and taste the fruits of your labour. It’s all worth it.

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