tips for beginning gardeners, vegetable gardening, homesteading

The feel of dirt between your toes, the taste of a fresh garden tomato, the sound of busy buzzing bees…. sounds heavenly, right?

Gardening is a time honored endeavor to grow your own food and gain some self sufficiency.  Generations ago, it was a necessity.  Now?  It’s a way to get back to the land and reconnect with life.

But, what if you didn’t grow up in a family of gardeners?  Where do you start with growing your garden?

After 15 years of gardening on my own, I’ve got 5 tips to help you start your best garden.

1  KISS- Keep it small and simple!

Seriously, the first year I started my own garden as a young mom and married woman, I was overly ambitious.  I had Jeff till up a HUGE plot of land!  You know what I grew a bunch of???  Weeds!!  The next year, same deal.  This mistake went on for YEARS!  I would get so fired up in the spring, till a large plot for a garden, then struggle to take care of it all!  Finally, 4 years ago (after I had been gardening for 11 years!), I took a step back, prepared a small plot, and vowed not to expand until I could keep that plot weed free and producing.  I finally ended up with a successful garden- a good amount of produce and no weeds!

tips for begging gardeners, vegetable gardening
This is my garden from 2015 when I only grew 9 tomatoes and a handful of a few other things!

So, the next year I made it a little bigger and the next year a little bigger.  I haven’t expanded now in two years because I feel like I don’t *quite* have a handle on it the way I would like.  Yes, that means I can’t grow everything I want to (and boy is it hard to hold back after a cold winter of being cooped up!), but I only allow myself to fill up my current garden and that’s it.

2  Only pick 3-4 things to grow the first year. 

Get really comfortable with those, then add more produce to your garden rotation.  Again, this was a mistake I made for YEARS!  (Learn from me here, people, lol!).  I would look at those pretty seed catalogs and I would get so excited and I would order 10 or 12 or more varieties of seeds and plants and before I knew it, I had a huge garden planted with a large variety and only a little knowledge about the best way to grow each thing in my growing zone and so NOTHING did well! Ha!  (Yes, that was a heck of a run on sentence, but it emphasizes my gardening philosophy for all of those years– urgency and run away planting!!)

Pick your top veggies and/or fruits.  When I reigned in my garden size, I also had to hold back on the number of things I could plant.  So, I decided that I wanted to grow tomatoes, peppers, green beans, and strawberries as my main crops.  Now, I admit, I like to experiment every single year with something new, but I only plant a little of it (a couple hills of watermelon, a small plot of herbs, a couple short rows of popcorn, etc.).

I don’t go gangbusters with my experiments.  My newfound philosophy worked and I now know exactly the best way to grow tomatoes and peppers for my planting zone!  Green beans still elude me (another story for another time) and my strawberries have had bad luck (but one of my goals for this year!), but I don’t feel overwhelmed anymore.

tips for beginning gardener, vegetable gardening, homesteading, vegetable gardening
This is from last summer! I know it’s from a different angle, but you can see how much I have expanded! But it was bit by bit, year after year, not all at once! Notice the zinnias up front?  Check out this post for why I have flowers in my veggie garden and why you should too!

3 Prepare your garden in the fall and DON’T TILL IT!!

OK, I canNOT over emphasize this enough.  Traditionally, gardens are always tilled, right?  And they look so pretty, right?  Yes, yes, I agree.  That dark brown earth is beautiful!  And you know what else it is??  A breeding ground for weed seed!!  Yup, when you till all you are doing is replanting weed seeds.  And I don’t care how clean you think you had your garden the year before, the weeds will come back.  Weeds are just part of the gardening curse.

Remember 4 years ago when I scaled down my garden plot?  Well, I took the time to set up my garden right. Don’t despair if it’s the beginning of April before you read this post!  You can still use my weed free gardening method to start your garden!  The first year I didn’t build it until early spring and it worked wonderfully!   Check out this post right here for the exact details on what I did and still do.

4  Research what works in your planting zone and find other gardeners to talk to and learn from. 

As you know, we have a wide variety of climates in the US, so what works in my garden, may not work in your garden.  It’s easy to figure out your planting zone.  Pay attention to it!  As you get to know your garden, you may find that you have a little micro climate in there that may support a warmer weather variety.  But, until you figure that out, watch the seed catalogs for what planting zones they recommend, and stick to their advice!

Also, find somebody else who gardens and pick their brains.  Go to the farmers market and talk to people.  I have yet to meet a gardener who doesn’t like talking and sharing ideas 😉

5  Don’t plant too early! 

This goes back to your planting zone.  Find out what are your frost free dates for you area.  In southern Kansas where I’m at (zone 6b), our last frost date is April 15. (And the way this April is starting out, I’m thinking it may be well after the 15th before we can plant much!  I haven’t even planted my potatoes yet, because it’s been entirely too cold!) That basically means that it’s not unheard of for us to get a freeze still in mid-April (and all you northern gardeners are thinking, “Lucky!”).

Well, one April it warmed way up at the very beginning.  The stores all started carrying tomatoes and peppers and I was ITCHING to get out in the garden.  So, I planted all of my plants.  And guess what.  Yeah, we had a late freeze.  So, guess what happened to all of my lovely tiny tomatoes and peppers.  Yeah, they died.  Lesson learned.  Those frost dates are actually important, lol!

Update:  It froze in mid-April this year and froze HARD!!  I was glad I had taken my own advice and not planted anything yet!!

Some years, yeah, you can cheat the weather and you may luck out.  But after wasting money (being a gardener usually means you’re a frugal person- ha!), I decided not to try that again!  Another example- the prevailing knowledge around here is that you plant potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day.  So, my first year planting potatoes, that’s what I did!  We had a warm snap and it felt like winter was over.  Well, it turned into a cold, rainy April and guess what happened to ALL of my potatoes?  Yeah, they rotted in the ground.  So, now I plant my potatoes after it’s warmed up some!  Anyway, the moral of the story is to be patient and your garden will be better in the long run.

Learn from my mistakes and have a fabulous first year garden!  #garden #beginninggardener #homestead #vegetables

So, get out there and get to work on your garden- just remember not to go overboard, lol!

What are your favorite gardening tips for the beginner?  What questions do some of you beginners have??

Melinda Donley
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  1. Great tips, Melinda! I wish I would have read this before I started gardening! My first year gardening was nothing short of a plentiful disaster lol. I planted so many things, which actually turned out great…except for the fact that I planted too many cukes and pumpkins and they pretty much overtook my whole garden! Everything else came in fine, but walking to get them was another story lol!

    I’ve been gardening for 4 years now, I’ve heard things here & there about no-till gardening, but I never really paid much attention to it…stirring up weed seeds? I had NO clue! I’m definitely going to adopt this next year (since I already tilled my garden this year). I use the black weed fabric between my rows though and it saves me SO much time in the garden…at least 1/3rd compared to previous years! Thanks again for the tips! 🙂

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