Hartley Magazine

All the latest news, hints, tips and advice from our experts

First steps for a new garden (or gardener)

As a new gardener, you have a lot to learn about your property. Take a year to get to know the place before you expect to start on a lavish garden.

When you move into your first house, you also move into your first garden. And for many people, that’s the scary part.

If you’ve had so much as a bedroom of your own, you probably know how to shop for furniture (at least at Ikea) and how to paint a wall. But if you’ve never had a patch of ground, you may know nothing at all about growing things.

It doesn’t help that Instagram makes people think they have to have a gorgeous garden right away. Those lush garden vistas and dreamy closeups of elegant blooms, perfect tomatoes and curated garden art rarely have captions explaining that the gardeners involved have years of experience.

Here’s my advice to a first-time gardener: Forget Instagram. Take a breath. And take a year to settle in.

I’m not suggesting that you should do nothing this year. If the house came with any lawn, you’ll need to locate the lawnmower (or buy one) and keep the grass under control. And I heartily support planting a container or two to brighten the place and make it feel like it’s yours.

But it’s not a good idea to make major changes in your landscape right away. First, get to know it.

A year of paying attention will give you a huge boost toward success. Here’s what you’ll be looking for:

What plants are already there? From grass to trees, there are probably lots of plants around your house already. And since different kinds of plants grow in different ways and need different things, it’s important to know what kinds of plants they are. If the house has been around for a while, the previous gardener probably left you some surprises that you’ll notice through the year as they bloom or sprout leaves.

Take lots of pictures—not just of flowers, but of leaves, branches, and entire plants or shrubs. Then locate someone who can help you identify the plants from your photos. Around Chicago, there are several sources of free help, including the Plant Information Service of the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Plant Clinic of The Morton Arboretum, and the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners. Most states have Master Gardener programs and many public gardens offer advice. A good independent garden center may also be able to help.

If you can identify the plants you see thriving, and you learn what those plant species naturally need, it tells you a lot about the conditions in your yard that would be available to other plants. You also can learn what to expect from the plants you have, so you can decide whether to keep them or get rid of them next year. For example, a shrub may have been pruned to 3 feet when the house was put on the market, but you may learn it naturally grows to 10 feet tall and wide. You may discover that the skinny little stick of a tree the builder planted has the genes to grow 80 feet tall and shade the entire front yard.

You’ll also begin to learn which of your plants are weeds.

Where does the sun fall? Sunlight is the single biggest factor that determines which plants you can grow where, so this is critical information. Most kinds of plants, including nearly all vegetables, need at least eight hours of full, direct sunlight a day. Watch all parts of your property to see which areas are in full sun and which are in shade. You’ll notice how trees and even roof overhangs create shade. You’ll probably realize that it’s much sunnier on one side of your house than another. You may see that part of the yard is sunny in the morning and a different part is sunny in the afternoon.

Keep paying attention all through the spring, summer and fall, because the angle of the sun shifts. A spot that’s sunny in spring may be much more shady in summer, or vice versa.

What is the soil like? Most new gardeners don’t realize that soil varies, and that the quality of the soil makes a huge difference to plants. For example, here in the Chicago area, soils tend to be dense, sticky clay with an alkaline pH. Out on the East Coast, soils are often more acid. All those factors affect what plants you can grow.

If your house is new, chances are you have poor soil, since topsoil is usually lost during construction.

It’s a good idea, in your first year, to have your soil tested, so you know its pH, its texture, and whether it has lead or other heavy metals that could be a hazard for growing vegetables. So, where do you get a soil test? Try your local independent garden center.

Where’s the garden center? A good garden center can be a great help to a new gardener. A big-box home center isn’t likely to be much help, but a well-run, locally owned garden center lives by its customer service. Its staff should be able to sell you a soil test kit and explain how to use it. They also should be able to recommend appropriate plants for your conditions and your skill level. The plants will cost a bit more than random flowers from the place where you buy drywall and light bulbs, but they will come with good advice that’s worth the price.

Which neighbor is the best gardener? Walk around your new neighborhood and look for a front yard you like. Knock on the door, introduce yourself, ask for the gardener, and compliment him or her on the garden. At a minimum, that gardener may be able to recommend a garden center. She or he may also be a good source of information on soil, the local weather, and the local garden club. You’ll have introduced yourself to a neighbor and you might make a friend.

How do you use the yard? Where do the kids and the dog naturally play? Where do you find yourself sitting in the evening? What route do you take walking from the car? Figure out what space you need to reserve for the people who live in the house. More than once, I’ve seen beginners rush into building raised beds for vegetables or planting big hedges, only to realize they’ve created major obstructions for themselves.

Now, about those containers: I always recommend that new gardeners start by growing a few flowers or simple edibles in containers. It’s the best, easiest way to grow your skills and confidence over the course of your first season.

Containers are a great place for a new gardener to start. Some plants need sun and some, like these caladiums and begonias, prefer shade. You can move a pot around as you discover how the sun and shade fall on your new yard.

In a container, it’s easy to control the soil (you just buy good potting mix), the fertilizer (which may come in the potting mix) and the water (just remember to water). As you discover where your sunlight falls, you can move a container to the sun or shade it needs.

That good garden center can sell you a container pre-planted with flowers, or the plants and supplies to plant one.

Want to grow something you can eat? The easiest beginner crop is baby salad greens. Find a wide, relatively shallow container with a drainage hole, fill it with good potting mix, moisten the mix, and sow seeds right on the soil. Lettuce, spinach and most other greens are fairly cold-tolerant, so you can do this in early spring. Within a few weeks, you’ll have little edible leaves you can snip for salads.

A little more ambitious? Want to grow more food? Don’t get carried away and start building raised beds   your first year. You don’t know enough yet about where your sun is, or how you’ll use your yard space, or how much you really like gardening.

Instead, try a bunch of containers, or maybe one of these large grow bags. They’re easy and cheap, and can be moved if you realize you put them in the wrong place.

What’s not a good idea: Tomatoes. Yes, they’re everybody’s favorite and the first vegetable everyone wants to grow, but tomatoes are actually pretty tricky, so wait on tomatoes until you have the basics down. For the first year, stick with leaves (lettuce, spinach, herbs) and roots (radishes, carrots). With simpler crops, you’re more likely to succeed and be happily launched as a gardener.