A Beginner's Guide for Beginners
You’re inspired! Now what? This is a starter guide with helpful tips for the novice grower.
1. Keep a houseplant alive.
I’m completely serious. If you’ve never grown anything, and have a history of vegetal demise, get a sturdy house plant and keep it alive for a few months. (If your home/apartment is a happy mini jungle, please skip ahead to #3.) Houseplants are a great way to get used to handling plants, a watering schedule, identifying signs of distress and learning about ideal growing conditions.
Here’s a list of 20 houseplants recommended for beginners. Take note of the size and growing conditions before you head to your local garden center.
2. If you really don’t want to start with a houseplant...
Start with indoor herbs. Technically, herbs are plants that can be grown indoors; but they are an edible step ahead of the ornamental house plant. Level up complete!
If you have a warm, sunny windowsill (think mostly southern exposure), basil, rosemary, and thyme are aromatic, light-loving plants that will do well indoors. If your prime growing locations get predominant east/west exposure, cilantro, parsley and mint will tolerate a little shade, and are refreshing garnishes for drinks or plates.
IMO, cilantro is the most forgiving when starting from seed indoors. For the others, select some well-established starters from your local nursery or garden center. Also, don’t over harvest your new herbs. The plants need at least ⅔ of their leaves to continue growing.
3. Start small.
Yes. I’m basically saying this 3 different ways; because it’s that important, and it's the best general advice that I got. Whether it’s a trainer houseplant, a windowsill herb garden, patio pots, or a modest raised bed, start relatively small. For food-bearing plants, check a local planting guide to determine what to plant and when. Select no more than 5 things to grow, and if you’re planting outdoors, make one of them a "pollinator-friendly", or a naturally pest repellant flower like marigolds.
Look for varieties that are well suited to your growing conditions, (shade or drought tolerant, hardiness/ heat tolerance, dwarf/container varieties etc.) Lastly, if you want to start directly from seed, choose 1-2 plants (like bush beans, radishes or herbs) that do best when sown directly into their pot/plot. So for 5 plants, that’s 1 flower, 1-2 from seed and 2-3 good transplants.
4. Choose healthy transplants.
Le Sigh. Sometimes all we have access to is a big box nursery. And while that’s not an automatic downside, it can mean that nursery plants are not always tended by people who specialize in plant care. It might be Jerry from tool rental. He’s a nice guy. Anyway, it’s up to us as shoppers to spot the healthiest plants to bring home.
Beware the soggy tray/composting pot. Soaked plants can mean that your seedling is headed for root rot or fungal infections before you even get it home. Not cool. Grab the starter plants with damp soil (maybe even a little dry on the surface as long as they aren’t wilting).
If you’re looking in a section where many of the plants look frail, overwatered or like they’ve already been munched, move on to another aisle. Closely packed plants often share pests or ailments.
If the row is looking fresh and happy, get a closer look to determine plant health. Choose short, full plants vs. taller plants with thinner foliage. A bright, flourishing set of leaves will ensure that your plants can take in all of the light and oxygen they’ll need. For flowering fruits & veg, resist the urge to buy plants that already have buds. You want those babies to have well established root systems before they start producing fruit. And flowers = fruit.
Lastly, check out the roots. They should be light in color and plentiful; but not choking-out the bottom of the pot/flat. What looks like a nest of roots growing out of the bottom of the pot means the plant is root bound. Depending on the plant, you might be able to loosen things up once it’s taken out of the nursery pot. But it might get an attitude about having its roots ruffled and struggle after transplanting.
5. Get good soil (and soil helpers).
Soil/earth/loam is so much more than a mass for holding plants. It’s a massive ecosystem of living organisms, nutrients, minerals, water, and air. It affects the flavor of what grows from it —which is why so many conventionally grown vegetables are ...meh. Healthy soil is key. If you don’t have a ready supply of compost and topsoil, go with a local or well-regarded brand of organic soil/ compost and amendments. I’ve been happy with Jobe’s Organics and Dr. Earth (both are listed by the Organic Materials Review Institute - OMRI). I also made a mini-compost bin that I could keep on our patio for the real deal. I actually have to keep random carrot or potato scraps from sprouting new plants in a (mostly)sunless compost bin. Compost is basically magic, and will get its own post.
6. Use some not-so-obvious tools.
Of course you’ll need a spade, gloves, and a way to water your garden. However, it can also be helpful to use the compass app on your smartphone (or an actual compass, or scouting skills) to determine how much exposure to sunlight your garden spot will get.
Southern Exposure is prime. Eastern will offer direct sun in the morning —the cooler part of the day. Western exposure will be direct sun during the hottest part of the day. And Northern exposure… is more shade than exposure. That doesn’t mean you can’t plant in a north-facing area. You’ve just got to select varieties of flowers, herbs and vegetation that thrive in that environment.
The next recommended tool is a soil moisture meter. If you’re feeling especially nerdy, go for a test kit and the meter. I only got the meter my first time around. And lemme tell ya, I wish I’d purchased both before planting anything. It’s so much easier to balance and prepare soil before the plants are there. The test kit will tell you what nutrients may be out of balance (which can help you find the best organic fertilizer or amendment for your intended crop). The meter is most helpful for determining moisture at the root level, and soil pH.
Both are inexpensive, easy ways to make sure you’re providing /maintaining a healthy environment for your plants. It might even mean that you can avoid some first-timer trials of deficient or imbalanced soil pH.
7. Find community.
When we’re apart of a community (IRL or online), we're inspired by #gardengoals, we witness veterans troubleshooting losses, replanting and battling elements. We learn through observation, and we see other beginners like us, working it out. Community offers helpful perspective and necessary wisdom.
Most of all, it reminds us that gardening isn’t something we do because we’re naturally good at it. We do it for the love… the love of good health and good food, to show love for our communities, and families. So find some other growers and build a learning network. We are each other's most valuable resources.