Garden Basics

How To Start A Garden For Beginners

When you are a beginner, starting a garden can be daunting but very exciting. A little planning goes a long way. Get an idea of what you want for a section of your home garden and then break it down to individual parts.

You don't need to start the entire garden at once, but you do need an idea of what you want the finished product to look like.

But nothing is cast in stone - excuse the pun. 

Gardening is an ongoing process, and your garden will change with every season.

Don't take on too big a challenge to start with.  Follow our tips for beginner gardeners and happy gardening.

Garden Design


Half the fun of gardening is designing it.  The same principles of your interior design apply to the design of your garden.

Start small.  Rome wasn't built in a day.

The first and most important rule to garden design is to do what you like.

Most gardens are a mix of plants such as trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses and annuals.

If you are starting a new garden from scratch, determine your style. Decide on the basic design, such as formal, informal, and your color scheme.

Outline the structure of your garden, such as the beds and hardscape, paths and paved or gravel areas. Include parts of your landscape that will remain, such as existing trees. You can get a good idea of the shape of your garden by looking at google maps.

Add the largest items to your plan first, such as the patio or deck, large trees and any existing paving.

Consider your short term goals as well as your long term goals for the space.

Examples Of Design Goals

  • Deck for entertaining
  • Grass for the children and pets to play
  • Patio area
  • Water feature
  • Pathways
  • Plants
  • Privacy planting
  • Lighting
  • Your design will also be influenced by the sunny and shady areas and of course, your climate. Determine how much sun, full sun, partly sunny depending on the time of day, shade, dappled shade, or full shade. This will determine which plants will thrive in these areas and plant accordingly.

    How big will your plant get when it is fully grown? Always leave enough space for the fully developed plant. While the plant is still small, there will be a lot of open space around it. Plant annuals, perennials or ground cover in the vacant space.

    Get ideas by looking at gardening magazines and books. Pinterest and Houzz have great ideas, and you can get loads of inspiration. Study the pictures, and you will get a good idea of what you like. Learn from the pros.

    Irrigation System


    If you are going to have an irrigation system, this should be incorporated into your design.   

    There are various irrigation methods:

    • Pop-up sprinklers
    • MicroJet and sprays
    • Drip Irrigation
    • Soaker hose
    • Mini sprinkler systems
    • Garden hose

    Time and budget will determine which system you choose.  The garden hose and sprinkler are time-consuming but perfect for a tight budget.

    Improve Your Soil

    Give your plants a head start with good soil. The majority of soils will need some improvement, and this is the most essential part of gardening.

    Poor garden soil will give you poor results in your garden, but soil can always be improved.

    The nutrients from the soil are what feed your plants and keeps them healthy. Healthy plants can handle all sorts of problems, such as insects and diseases. Some plants love acidic soil, and others do well in alkaline soil.

    Adding organic matter to your soil encourages beneficial microbial activity. It feeds the microorganisms and insects, including earthworms which make up the balanced ecosystem of the land. It also helps water retention in sandy soil and loosens clay soil so air and water can penetrate.

    Organic matter can be compost, manure, leaf mold, or mulch.  This will be broken down over a few months.

    Another method of adding compost is the no-dig (or no-till) method, but it does take a while for the compost to break down. This method also helps with weeds because when you lay the compost on top of the soil, any weed seeds will not be able to germinate.

    Testing Your Garden Soil


    One of the most important aspects of having a thriving garden with few problems is to test your soil.

    A soil test will determine the pH of your soil and whether any nutrients are lacking. You also need to know which nutrients you do not need to add.

    Some plants like acidic soil and some prefer alkaline soil - it's best you know beforehand. 

    Benefits Of Soil Testing

    • Determine pH imbalances
    • Identify nutrient deficiencies
    • Takes the guesswork out of gardening

     An annual or bi-annual application of compost or very well-rotted manure will release nitrogen and other nutrients into your soil. It will also help to retain moisture and is the basis for feeding plants in your garden.

    Choosing The Right Plants

    Choosing Your Plants

    You've established the kind of soil you have and started to improve it, decided on the design, now the exciting part begins - choosing your plants.

    Always have a look at the gardens in your area and see what is growing well.

    Your local garden center will be able to advise you and are always very knowledgeable.

    Always remember to find out the size the plant will eventually grow to once it is fully mature and provide ample room for this growth. The labels should give you a guide.

    It may seem at first as if the garden looks empty, so use this extra space to plant your annuals until such time as the garden matures.

    Even grow some veggies in the space, ornamental cabbage and bright lights spinach look stunning in your garden beds. Who said vegetables have to be allocated to the veggie patch?


    Your watering system is in place, the soil has been tested, compost has been added, plants are ready - now is the time for the planting.

    If your garden bed is empty, always start at the back. Lie a plank of wood onto your soil as walking on your new garden bed will compress the soil.

    Young plants need extra special care as they are delicate and can easily be damaged. Never pull a plant out of its container by its leaves or the stem.

    • Dig the hole twice the depth and width of your new plant.
    • Mix the soil with compost and a few handfuls of bonemeal and replace this mixture back into the hole with enough room for your plant.
    • Place your hand over the soil with your fingers on either side of the plant.
    • Turn the plant upside down and tap the container with your other hand.  
    • Tease out the roots with your hand or a small garden fork.
    • Place the plant into the hole but not too deep and water before backfilling.
    • Backfill with your soil and compost mix.
    • Mulch and water again.
    • Water once or twice a week.  Don't let your new plant dry out but also never overwater.

    Don't be afraid to experiment and try different areas for your plantings.  If your plant is not happy, it will let you know soon enough.  Long lanky growth and fewer flowers are telltale signs.

    Our gardens are living things, and change is inevitable. Trees grow big and shade out some of your sun-loving plants, or maybe you would like a change, so you move your plants around.



    Mulch has fantastic benefits and is an absolute must-have.  

    There are two types of mulch, organic and inorganic.

    Organic Mulch

    These mulches include compost, wood chips, straw, paper or cardboard, dried leaves, grass clippings, sawdust.

    Inorganic Mulch

    Some inorganic mulch can include weed guard, black plastic, crushed stones, dump rock.

    Benefits of Mulch

    • Helps retain moisture
    • Keeps the roots cool in summer
    • Protects roots from cold
    • Reduces evaporation
    • Reduces weeds
    • Aids with compacted soil
    • Reduces disease of the plants by blocking spores 
    • Protects soil surface from erosion
    • Enriches the soil
    • Encourages beneficial soil organisms
    • Looks great - like the icing on the cake

    Remove all weeds before mulching and apply a layer of approximately 3-4 inches (7-10cm) thick. Apply evenly keep away from the stems as this may cause rotting.

    Caring For Your Garden


    Plant easy to grow plants that can withstand most conditions in the beginning, and you won't be disappointed. 

    A small selection of these plants is lavender, daylilies, geraniums, ornamental grasses and African Iris, sunflowers, nasturtiums, California poppy, marigold, fuchsia, pansy.

    • Plant in the correct location
    • Water wisely
    • Keep a watch out for insects and pests
    • Control diseases
    • Keeping weeds at bay
    • Mulch
    • Compost regularly
    • Test and amend your soil 
    • Never us harsh chemical fertilizers or pesticides
    • Watch for overcrowding
    • Deadheading and pruning
    • Dividing perennials
    • Propagate cuttings
    • Cut back overgrown plants
    • Spring clean your garden in spring and fall
    • Plant cover crops in open soil
    • Disinfect, clean and sharpen garden tools
    • Protect plants from animals
    • Protect plants in winter
    • Pest control and prevention
    • Stake your plants especially in windy areas

    Plants need correct hydration and care. During summer water during the early morning.

    Summer season is the growing season for your plants, and some will become dormant during the winter months.

    Garden Tools


    Buying the best tools to fit your budget and maintaining them correctly, and they will last for years and even a lifetime. Invest in the highest quality version that you can.

    Hand Pruner

    Sometimes called secateurs.  Hand pruners are probably the tool you will use most days. They need to be sharpened and cleaned regularly. Used to prune small branches.

    Hand Weeder

    Used for tough deep weeds. A must in every garden.

    Hand Spade

    Planting annuals and digging small holes.


    Loppers are similar to secateurs but with a long handle to get to hard to reach areas and cut thicker branches.

    Garden Fork

    Looses very dense or compacted soil or to divide certain perennials that have formed a clump.

    Garden Spade

    Digging, edging, moving soil from one area to another. A good spade will last for years.


    Clean up fallen leaves or rake over a new bed. They come in a big variety of styles from plastic to metal.

    Gloves and Hat

    Wearing gloves when dealing with a thorny plant is a must. There are many types of gloves made from a variety of materials.


    Heavy lifting and moving of soil and compost or mulch projects.

    Hose and Sprinklers

    Even if you have an irrigation system you will always need the hose and sprinklers.

    Water Correctly

    The main concern with watering is overwatering - killing them with kindness. Young plants need more water than established plants.

    There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to watering your garden.  It depends on many variables such as weather, the type of plant, the soil, etc.

    Group your plants together according to their water needs.

    Mulching will go a long way in saving you water as the soil does not dry out as fast.

    When To Water

    Water in the morning especially if you are wetting the leaves.  The sunlight is at its weakest, and the ground is still cool.  This gives them time to dry out because wet leaves can become diseased leaves.

    How Long To Water

    Water deeply and ensure the water reaches the roots.

    • lawns and annuals have their roots in the top 6 inches (15cm) of the soil
    • perennials, trees and shrubs have their roots in the top 12 inches (30cm)
    • drought tolerant water-wise plants will need much less water

    Outdoor plants in containers dry out much quicker than plants in the garden, especially in full sun and will need more watering.  

    Check your soil in containers by sticking your finger into the soil to about 1.5 inches (4cm).  If it feels dry then your plant needs water.  

    Container Garden

    You can grow almost any plant in a container, and they have an immediate impact on your home garden.

    There are a variety of containers to choose from, and you can even make your own out of old crates, car tires, jam tins, wicker baskets, hanging baskets - the list is endless.

    You can dig plants up from your garden and put them into containers. Roses, as well as most vegetables, do very well in containers.

    What is the secret to container gardening?

    Potting Soil For Containers

    Always use the best quality potting soil you can purchase with good drainage and aeration. Most have bark and peat mix added. A well balanced healthy soil will make all the difference in how your plants will grow and flourish.

    General potting mix will provide good drainage, while moisture-holding potting mixes will have a higher percentage of peat. There are also succulent soil mixes as well as mixes, especially for veggies.

    Feeding Container Plants

    Your plants in containers rely on us for food as they are confined and cannot send out their roots to "look" for food.  

    A good potting mix with control released organic fertilizers added will reduce the amount of feeding you will need to do in the first month or two. 

    The amount of feeding depends on their size and speed of growth.

    As a general rule, start feeding once every two weeks beginning in spring. Choose the right feed for the right plants.

    A water-soluble organic feed can be used frequently, and cannot burn your plants. Liquid organic fertilizers are immediately available to the plant.

    Watering Container Plants

    Different plants have different watering needs. Some plants like to be dry, and others will let you know that they need more water.

    As a rule of thumb, annuals do not like to be too dry while succulents like it on the dry side.

    Always check to see if your plant really needs to be watered.

    Water until you see the water draining through the holes, so you give a proper deep watering. Frequent shallow watering will encourage the roots to grow towards the top of the pot instead of where they should be growing, to the bottom.

    Water in the mornings and not in the midday sun. Water droplets can act like magnifying glasses and burn the plants.

    Small pots will require more water than huge pots and containers. Hanging baskets with coir will dry out on a windy day and may need watering more than once a day. Terra cotta pots also dry out very quickly.

    Best Planting Time

    Spring and Fall/Autumn will be the two ideal times to plant but will also depend on your local climate. Try and avoid planting during the hot summer months as the water requirements will increase.

    For seasonal color during spring and fall, take a visit to your local garden center and choose the annuals for those seasons.

    Fall Planting

    Planting in fall when the ground is still warm and the roots will have time to establish and grow. Pests and disease are also at a minimum during fall.

    Spring-blooming bulbs need the cold to bloom. Always add a thick layer of mulch around them to help them survive better if the ground freezes.

    Spring Planting

    If you are sowing seeds, start them indoors about 6-8 weeks before your last frost date.

    Garden Zones

    Get to know your garden zones and always check the plant tags for the hardiness status, before you purchase or check with your local garden center.


    USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, 2012. Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Accessed from

    The zones are based on the last frost date of the season for a particular area, and plants are classified by their hardiness, which is the coldest temperature they can handle.

    Take into account that there will be microclimates in your own garden. Shrubs and trees can form a wind barrier, for instance. Your potted plants on your sheltered patio will be warmer than some other parts of your garden.

    How to start a garden


    Enjoy your garden no matter how big or small it is. Don't always see what's wrong with your garden, but begin to appreciate the beauty of how it looks right now. Enjoy all you've accomplished each day.

    Starting your garden is not as scary as most people assume. Even if you are a complete beginner, the secret is just to start.

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