10 Steps to Gardening from Scratch

March 18, 2010 at 7:39 am 26 comments

A Post from the Archives:  Spring has sprung once again, with crocus, winter aconite, hellebores, and leucojum in full bloom.  With this advent of warm weather, I am super busy trying to get all my seeds sown and garden beds prepped for my business.  So it seemed like a timely opportunity to pull this post from the archives that I wrote last March.  There will be a new food post shortly, one with a delicious preparation of parsnips, sweet potatoes, and leeks.  In the meantime, how about you tell me what you’re planting in your garden or what you can’t wait to get at the farmers market now that fresh food (for those of us in the northern hemisphere at least) is coming back into season?   

Four shots of seedlings

One last gardening post and then I swear we’ll be back to food full time, at least for a few months until my garden starts doing very cool things that I’d be remiss in not sharing them with you.   I have been hearing from friends and readers (who really are friends too) alike that they are thinking of starting a garden for the first time this year due to either the economy or a desire to be more involved with their food or both.   Since I’m a horticulturist by trade, I wanted to take the piecemeal advice I give them and compile it into a post so anyone interested in starting a garden for the first time could have a look.   These 10 steps are best applied to a garden being created from scratch.  However, a few of them are good to repeat with an established garden once in awhile.  

It’s only fair to add a bit of a disclaimer here too:  these steps are a tad idealistic and presume you all have plenty of time and resources on your hands.   Reality may not allow you to take all of these steps.  Don’t let that discourage you.  These steps are just what I’d do if I were starting over from scratch.  Use the ones that make sense for you and learn what you can from the others. 

My garden at its start

#1 ~ Get a soil test.
Before starting any growing project, it’s advisable to get information about the pH of the soil, the mineral levels, and something called CEC which has to do with how much your soil leaches out the fertilizers you’ll be applying.  Usually soil testing is done through a local extension office, which is part of a state university.  Information on how to contact these offices can be found in a phone book or online by googling your state + “extension office”.  You can get detailed instruction from that office on how to collect a soil sample.  The nuts and bolts are as follows:  go around your proposed growing space with a trowel when the soil is dry and dig about 5-10 samples at least six inches deep, scoop a bit from the bottom of each hole you dig and put it in one bag.  When you have all your sample, shake that bag up well to combine all the soil.  Using the bag you’ll get from the extension office and the form they usually include, submit one collective sample (about a cup’s worth) for your garden.  Test’s are either free or very reasonably priced.  When you get the results back, it will tell you if you need to change the pH (by adding either lime or sulfur) and add any amendments (i.e., lots of compost versus just some or minerals like nitrogen and potassium).    Click here to see a scan of the test results I got back for a test I did on my garden last year.
#2 ~  Start a compost bin or pile ASAP.
If you’re reading this article with any real interest, you’re probably already well aware of the benefits of composting for environmental reasons.  Composting your kitchen waste, newspaper, grass clippings and leaves keeps tons of garbage out of our landfills and provides a natural fertilizer for your garden.  What you might not realize and what I personally can attest to is the tremendous impact adding compost to your garden has on soil structure.  Even if you have no intentions of growing an organic garden, you’ll want a boat load of compost the first few years to fluff up the soil to make planting and cultivating easier and to improve drainage.  If you have sandy soil, the compost will add much needed humus (carbon-rich)matter and water retention.   If you have clay soil like I do, the compost will do worlds of good for loosening up those clods so water can percolate through it.    Improving your soil structure is a long and slow process so it’s best to get a pile of compost going right away so you can start adding it as soon as you turn the soil in your garden for the first time.    Having your own compost source is best as it will get costly to go to the garden center and buy the quantities you’ll need to add in the first couple years in your garden.  Plus you have more control over the quality of the final product.  Quick rule of thumb for compost:  it’s ready to use when you can no longer identify singular objects in it like a leaf or a twig.

Spreadsheet from last year

#3 ~ Apply sheet mulching.
This application is best done under certain circumstances, but I’m including it because it’s a great way to prep a new garden space if you’re turning a patch of lawn into new beds and you have the luxury of time on your side.  It’s also another reason for why you should start your composting efforts as soon as possible.  Sheet mulching simply involves layering first manure, and then cardboard and newspaper over the area you intend to cultivate, soaking it, and then piling on unfinished compost, leaves, straw, etc. Let the whole thing sit for several months, during which time the existing grass and weeds will be killed for lack of light while the cardboard and compost breakdown further and provide you with a wonderful layer of super rich soil by the time you do put in your first plants.  I’ve also heard that sheet mulching can be used on concrete to create a layer of soil for growing, but I think that would take several applications and years to accomplish.  Still, if you plan on sticking around your current site for a long time, sheet mulching is a handy way to turn just about any ground into a suitable plot for gardening.  That being said, it’s not very handy if you want to plant right now this spring.   To learn more about sheet mulching, click here.

#4 ~   Plan in advance.
The first three steps are ideally done at least six months before you actually plant anything.  Believe me, I know how hard it is to put off getting your first vegetables and herbs into the ground.  As I look back now at my first year with my own garden, which I started on a balmy April day with no substantial forethought, I wish I had taken the time to really think out a few things.  For starters, it’s important to really consider the layout and your purposes in the garden.  Once you start digging your beds and establishing your paths, you won’t want to start over when you realize it would have been better if you’d just…   Long straight raised beds about three feet wide are preferable for vegetable production and you’ll want your paths at least two feet wide so you can use a wheelbarrow or bucket or even just drag the hose around without wreaking havoc.  Draw a basic overhead view and pencil in where you think things might go (like this).  If it’s the end of summer or early fall, it’s a great time to buy some of your basic equipment on sale as stores clear out their inventory for the winter holidays.  Items like hoses, rakes, shovels, landscape fabric, trowels, gardening gloves, pots, pre-made trellising, tomato cages, and so forth are good for stocking up.   Get online and start browsing some seed sites such as Johnny’s, Renee’s or Burpee’s.  Don’t buy anything yet!  What you’re looking to do is educate yourself the stuff you’d like to grow:  how many days to harvest (longer means it’ll take up space in your garden all summer), is it best to sow the seed straight into the ground or grow it in a pot inside first to be transplanted to the garden later,  and how big do these plants get generally (to help you eyeball how much space to give them on your plan). 

Seed packets

#5 ~  Talk to a seasoned gardener and visit a farmers market.
If you’ve never had your own garden before, chances are you will be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of variety in the plant world.  If you’re buying transplants from a local garden center, which might be the best strategy the first year if you’re a bit timid, there won’t be too many choices.  However, if you go to buy, say, tomato seeds, you’ll find yourself swimming in options: red, yellow, orange, green, heirloom, hybrid, determinate, indeterminate, cherry, grape, plum, big beef…  See?  The best thing you can do for yourself is find a seasoned grower, be it a gardening friend or a local farmer.  Ask them what they grow and what they’d recommend for just starting out.  If you have a specific vegetable in mind, ask questions about what bugs it gets, is it easy to grow, what variety is tastiest.  Try to discover if a plant you want in your garden has special requirements that may affect where you put it.  For example, eggplant likes it very hot and very sunny.  You might think your whole garden is in the sun, but there might be spots that get more or less sun.  Make a note to put the eggplant in the sunniest spot of all if you want a good harvest.   And to go back to our tomato dilemma example, buy several types of tomatoes and have an at-home taste test to see which you’d like to have in large quantities.  Try to get that plant next year.  If you know you want to grow heirloom varieties of vegetables but don’t like the idea of starting your own seeds just yet, it’s worth mentioning to your local farmer(s) that you would like to buy transplants next spring as they very well may agree to bring some with them to market for you.

#6 ~  Determine your plant list.
in conjunction with talking to other growers, it’s wise to start jotting down what you think you’ll be growing and answer a few questions.  What vegetables do you eat the most?  What herbs to you most often throw into the pot?  Are you interested in canning or freezing?  Will your neighbors be happy to get bags of surplus squash from you? Would you enjoy having some bouquets of fresh garden flowers in the house?  Do you adore pesto?  If not, don’t be tempted to put in more than one basil plant.  Are you going to make your own spaghetti sauce?  If not, you’ll really not need more than one or two tomato plants per person in your household.  Would you like space to try things you’ve never heard of, like ground cherries and logion berries?  Like packing for a trip, make a list of everything you want to have and then slash that list in half.  You’ll thank yourself later.  After the first few years in your garden, you’ll start to get a feel for what works in the space and how much you really use of what, but this first season it’s going to be far easier to limit yourself from the outset so you can enjoy gardening instead of feeling guilty about the literal bushels of tomatoes you’re throwing into the compost bin each week (not that I’ve ever done that…). 

Compost and bone meal

#7 ~  Amend your soil as determined by the soil test.
By this point you’ll have your soil test results.  From it you should be able to tell if you need to raise or lower your pH.  Generally, the ideal range for vegetable production is 6.5-7.0, but certain plants like it higher or lower (information you can get from the seed supplier or tag in the transplant).   If your pH is lower than 6.5, you might consider adding some lime to it to raise it up a bit.  If the pH is over 7.0, you’ll likely want to add some sulfur to tip it back down.  In most soils, pH will naturally lower over time so it’s more likely you’ll need to add lime than sulfur.  When adding either, be extremely careful not to add too much as this can be toxic to plants.    The soil test should also tell you if you are lacking in any macro or micronutrients, the “food” of plants.   If these are lower than the recommended levels, visit your local garden center or ag supply store and ask for help of finding the right fertilizer to address these deficiencies.  There are organic amendments you can apply too, such as fish emulsion, bone meal, pot ash, and, of course, compost.   If your nutrient levels are only slightly lower than desired, just adding compost from your bin is likely to correct the problem.   In all cases, it’s wise to add at least a 2 inch thick layer of compost to your garden plot when you turn it over each spring to bulk up the organic matter and improve drainage. 

#8 ~  Measure out and dig your beds.
Don’t just go into your garden with a shovel and start hacking out beds willy-nilly.  Start by consulting your plan overview and use a tape measure to mark out the beds accurately.  Then use a piece of string attached to two stakes and stretched along the to-be-dug beds and paths to guide you as you dig.  This careful approach ensure you’ll have nice straight lines in your garden that not only help make it look tidy, but also assists with easier weeding with a hoe, covering the rows with fabric, or using soaker hoses or other irrigation.    If you take the time to layout your garden right the first year, you’ll have a lot less work to do in subsequent seasons. 

Vegetable beds covered in compost

#9 ~  Mulch now and later.
At this point you’ll want to think about what mulch(es) you’ll want to use in your garden.  First off, let’s establish that you will want mulch of some kind as it greatly enhances moisture retention and weed suppression in your garden, making your life a heck of a lot easier.  There are several options in the way of mulch: plastic sheeting (black, white, etc.), straw, landscape fabric, leaf mold (decayed leaves), wood chips, and even compost, to name some of the more common ones.   Black plastic warms up the soil fast in the spring and let’s you plant earlier than might otherwise be advisable.  It also does a great job with weed suppression and retaining moisture.  However, it’s not very good for the environment since it can’t generally be recycled and it can stress your plants out in really hot summers by absorbing too much of the sun’s heat.  The mulches consisting of plant material (straw, leaves, etc) are great for the environment and break down in time to add to the organic matter in your soil.  However, they aren’t always so successful at weed suppression since sunlight does get through it.    I personally favor black landscape fabric because the kind I use is biodegradable (though I remove it from my garden each fall to avoid retaining any pests seeking shelter under it) and it does a comparable job in weed suppression and moisture retention as black plastic does.  Plus it’s a heck of a lot easier to handle than the plastic.  Since I add so much compost to my garden anyway, I don’t really need to additional organic matter that a plant-based mulch would supply.  I do use wood chips in my paths though to keep the weeds and mud at bay.  I lay soaker hoses down first on the beds I’m covering in fabric as I like to water plants at their roots, rather than overhead.  When you have your beds established, apply your chosen mulch to the beds in which you’ll be planting transplants.  If you are sowing seeds in a bed, you may wish to leave it bare for the time being to give the seeds a start and then mulch later when they have a few inches of growth on them.   I’ve had moderate success with sowing seeds through wide slits in my fabric mulch.   

#10 ~  Start Planting!
Finally you can start growing things in your garden!  It’s been a bit of a process to get to this point, but now that you’re here you should have a fantastic garden space in which you’ll harvest the right amounts of the stuff you’ll really use and enjoy.   After a year or two, you’ll be an old pro and hopefully you can pass along your knowledge to another new gardener.

Rhubarb transplant


Entry filed under: In The Garden. Tags: .

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26 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Louise  |  March 17, 2009 at 9:31 am

    What a wonderful tip list for new gardeners. I must pass this on to my daughter. Perhaps, she will listen to your advice!

    Thank you so much for the refresher course. I’m inspired!!!!

  • 2. Ulla  |  March 17, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Yay! Spring is here! Now the work begins!

  • 3. Easy Steps To Composting  |  March 18, 2009 at 1:48 am

    […] 10 Steps to Gardening from Scratch « Straight from the Farm Composting your kitchen waste, newspaper, grass clippings and leaves keeps tons of garbage out of our landfills and provides a natural fertilizer for your garden. […]

  • 4. Lo!  |  March 18, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    What a fantastic resource!
    I can’t underscore the importance of planning enough, in my experience. Most of my biggest gardening blunders had to do with a lack of planning on my part.

    Also can’t say enough for having fresh compost on hand! And what better way is there to assist the environment while making your own Black Gold!!

  • 5. Grilling Recipes  |  March 18, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    I was inspired (or shamed 🙂 ) by your post to start composting. Is there a guide you recommend for:
    1. How to maintain a pile/bin.
    2. How to incorporate compost in an existing garden.

    My 4 year old son and I started with herbs and peppers last year and we have really gotten a lot of enjoyment out of cooking with what we grow. Looking to expand this year, so this was a great and timely post.


  • 6. Jennie  |  March 18, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    Glad this article is proving so helpful for everyone! To answer Grilling Recipes questions and to further your exploration of composting and garden starting, here are a few helpful links:

    Q&A on composting:

    A composting how-to:

    Also, google your state + “cooperative extension office” and you should get a link to your state’s best resource for local gardening information, including lots of workshops on topics like composting and growing seeds and so forth.

    If you are in the Philadelphia area, you’ll want to sign up for the composting workshop at Wyck Garden on April 18th. Email wyck@wyck.org for more info.

    If you live near a botanic garden, such as Longwood Gardens, Mt. Cuba Center, or Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, they often have great workshops on a regular basis that will help get you started as well.

  • […] take a lame gardening pun whenever I can.) Here’s a great list from a horticulturalist on 10 steps to gardening from scratch. Get a soil test and quit making excuses for not starting the compost bin […]

  • 8. The Welker Family  |  March 19, 2009 at 7:13 am

    10 Steps to Gardening, some good advice…

    Ran across an article on Straight From the Farm this morning. 10 Steps to Gardening from Scratch. Hmmm. They add a disclaimer: “these steps are a tad idealistic”.

    • 9. A. Woz  |  March 21, 2009 at 10:34 am

      gosh, there is just nothing out there like your site. Thanks for putting all this together- and the amazing pics with it. Has anyone told you how multi-talented you are???

      • 10. Jennie  |  March 21, 2009 at 11:25 am

        Annita – You’re too generous with your compliments! Thank you! 🙂 I’m just so glad you find the information useful. Enjoy your weekend! Perhaps there’s some gardening with the kids on the agenda? : )

  • 11. Barbara  |  March 28, 2009 at 10:49 pm

    What wonderful advice here and your garden looks amazing!. I’m looking forward to following along during the growing season.

    For myself, I’m limited to container gardening and am trying my hand at growing vegetables in them this year instead of all the pretty flowers 🙂 So along the way if you’ve got any tips for that…it would be much appreciated if you could share!

    • 12. Jennie  |  March 29, 2009 at 7:56 am

      Barbara – So glad you enjoyed the article! You’re in luck! I have a huge deck off the house that I jam full of containers loaded with veggies. You’ll definitely get plenty of advice on that topic too. I’ve already started harvesting sorrel from one of the containers that overwintered and came up again this spring. I’ll make sure to post on my entire plan for the deck/containers in the near future so you can get an idea of what varities seem to work best in containers and how to care for them. Stay tuned! 🙂

  • 13. Keiy  |  August 7, 2009 at 2:59 am

    Actually, I don’t like much gardening, but reading your tips makes me intrigue to start gardening activity. I have small yard that hasn’t planted yet. I can start from that small yard. Thanks Jennie

  • 14. Richard Sharpe  |  September 14, 2009 at 5:50 am

    I am staggered by the cost required here,as you said much is very idelaistic.

    • 15. Jennie  |  September 14, 2009 at 1:16 pm

      Richard – I’m not sure I understand your comment. The costs are actually very minimal and a thrifty gardener can get away with paying practically nothing if you get creative. Don’t let a fear of costs stop you from starting a garden!

  • 16. Cordless Phones  |  September 14, 2009 at 5:52 am

    Im intrigued by idea of a mulch layer over concrete. Where can I find more details about his ?

    • 17. Jennie  |  September 14, 2009 at 1:18 pm

      There’s a link above in the text in the paragraph about sheet mulching that explains it in more detail.

  • 18. Top 10 for 2009 « Straight from the Farm  |  December 31, 2009 at 12:01 am

    […] #2.  10 Steps to Gardening from Scratch […]

  • 19. ClubPenguinCheats  |  March 16, 2010 at 1:26 am

    Sorry I can’t underscore the importance of planning enough, in my experience. Most of my biggest gardening blunders had to do with a lack of planning on my part. Also can’t say enough for having fresh compost on hand! And what better way is there to assist the environment while making your own Black Gold!!

  • 20. Amma Brown  |  March 18, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    Okay, now I feel really underprepared. I work at a summer camp where I’m working to start a garden to teach the kids about food from the ground to their bellies. It won’t be able to feed all of us but just a little bit is a start, I think. Here’s the kicker. I have never started a garden. Any more advice you can give me would be super… Yikes I feel so overwhelmed and yet excited.

    So here’s some background: We have about 70-80 people to serve. The camp director said I could plant on the black hydronic soil, she says its really fertile. The camp is in N. Wisconsin and with a primary harvesting time to be during the summer months. I’m planning on planting lettuce, tomatoes,broccoli (I think kids will eat broccoli if they grow it), spinach, chives, carrots, squash, pepper, eggplant, watermelon and one purple viking potato that’s growing in my kitchen.

    This post was really helpful already, I’m just greedy and wanting more. Thanks. 🙂

    • 21. Jennie  |  March 19, 2010 at 8:00 am

      Amma – I’m thrilled to hear you will be introducing kids to growing their own food! It’s such a valuable lesson, and, as you suspected, will help them try veggies they normally find gross. In my experience, kids that help grow something always want to at least try it. 🙂 I have to admit I’m not at all familiar with growing in Wisconsin so my advice here might not be totally on target…I presume you have a much shorter growing season than I do here in Pennsylvania. This will be important to keep in mind when growing plants that love it hot for a long time (peppers, tomatoes, squash, melons, eggplant). Are you starting your plants from seed or buying them as transplants? Starting from seed is easy (in your case, you might want to collect egg cartons, poke some holes in the bottoms with a pencil tip, and fill with potting mix from a local garden center. Sow the seeds and sit them in sunny window sills, being sure to keep moist. You can take a look around my gardening blog too for more seed starting reports: http://pgjennielove.wordpress.com/category/my-gardens/in-the-greenhouse/). However, if you haven’t started your seeds for those crops that love hot weather yet, it might be better to buy transplants from a local garden center at this point since you need to start these seeds inside about two months before putting them into the garden after you’re sure it won’t frost again.

      Are you familiar with your local extension agency? If not, here’s the link I found for WI: http://www.uwex.edu/ces/cty/ They will be a wonderful resource for all your questions, having lots of pamphlets and advice tailored to your specific area. This is also where you would get a soil test done but it sounds like you might not need one if you’re already confident you have a fertile soil there. Make sure your site gets full sun though or else your plants will grow but not produce much in the way of harvests. And since you have lots of critters around, save yourself the headaches and heartaches and see if you can get your boss to invest in a fence to go around the garden. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should be tall (8′ ideally) and you should wire a roll of chicken wire (local farm store will have this) all around the bottom to keep rabbits and other little critters from squeezing through.

      There’s a lot of info to take in here, I know. The bottom line is that you shouldn’t be overwhelmed, just excited. You’ll learn so much this first season and be all the better next season. And since you’re workign with the kids on this project, it’s probably better not to be a perfectionist because they’re just going to get in there and be kids anyway, which means lots of laughter and running around and stepping on plants and learning just by being there. So, plan, yes. Obsess, no. 🙂

  • 22. Amma Brown  |  March 18, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Oh and I forgot to mention, we are in the middle of the north woods so animals, animals, animals.

  • 23. Amma Brown  |  March 19, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    Wow, thank you so much. Just to clarify, a 8 foot fence?! Wouldn’t that block a lot of sun? I guess it would definetly keep out the deer and raccoons. I’ve been so inspired I made up a garden plan and a schedule. I feel a lot more relaxed. Thanks for your help. 🙂

    • 24. Jennie  |  March 19, 2010 at 10:03 pm

      Hehe, I should have been more specific…a chain or plastic link fence is what I meant, that way it won’t shade out the plants. Eight feet is ideal since deer can jump nearly that high! However, there are electric fences that would be much easier/cheaper to use, but I figure with the kids around, you wouldn’t want to use that. If an electric fence is an option, I can give you more details on that.

      Glad to hear you’re feeling more relaxed. 🙂

  • […] 10 Steps to Gardening from Scratch | Straight from the Farm. […]

  • 26. PROGARDENER  |  November 19, 2014 at 11:18 pm



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