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Gardening Tips For Beginners: Things I Learned the Hard Way

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Gardening tips for beginners. Don’t learn these tips the hard way. You’ll save money and time doing it right from the start.

I did some light gardening as a child and, in the past ten years, have expanded my knowledge by LEAPS and BOUNDS. I still don’t know everything there is to know… and I still learn plenty of lessons the hard way… but each year I add a little more knowledge into my “toolbox.” I wanted to take a few minutes to share some gardening tips for beginners so that you lose less money (and time) making mistakes.


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Mulch and Weed Barriers Don’t Prevent Weeds

Yeah I said it. Neither does stone. These additions to your garden don’t prevent weeds, but they can HELP with controlling weeds. I have areas with thick layers of stone that have weeds happily growing through them. You’ve probably seen dandelions growing in the craziest places.

REMEMBER that weeds often spread ABOVE ground… when you blow on a fluffy dandelion, you’re blowing seeds all over your lawn. The wind does the same job, and MANY plants spread their seeds this way. Weed barriers won’t prevent this. Mulch is theoretically harder for them to seed in, but… I see stuff seed itself in mulch all the time.

I don’t like using traditional weed barriers because the roots of weeds can grow into the fabric… this makes them difficult to pick. Weed barriers are great when you’re first starting a garden. You lay them down to kill or cover the grass. Then you hope it doesn’t grow through. Ideally, you want to kill the grass in advance. Laying a black tarp down over the area for a few weeks can do the trick to kill the grass for your garden.

I usually use cardboard for a weed barrier, put good garden soil and compost on top, then add wood chip or mulch to the top. Read more about weed barrier options here.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use mulch though! Mulch is IMPORTANT for helping hold moisture in your soil. Traditional wood chip mulch works great (preferably the treated kind if it’s going up against your house), but you can also use pine straw for mulch. I like spreading pine straw as it’s lighter weight so it doesn’t hurt my back as much.

Chemicals Aren’t the Best Option– Use Wisely

Chemicals CAN be useful, but personally I try to avoid them as they have a few major drawbacks.

The major drawback is, in my opinion, they don’t save me time. It doesn’t matter if you use an ‘ecofriendly’ vinegar solution or Roundup. Those chemicals only kill the weeds. They do not remove them. So you have to follow up by pulling the dead weeds up. I find it’s easier to pull up a live plant than it is to pull up chemical-soaked half dead plants.

Drawback #2: Products like Roundup are also a concern for your health, the health of your family and pets, and the health of your garden.

Drawback #3: If you accidentally kill good bugs and other pollinators in the process of spraying, you’re damaging your garden.

There’s probably a number of other reasons not to use chemicals, but there are times when chemicals are a good option. We’ve been strategically using harsh chemicals to take down the invasive Tree of Heaven on our property. Unfortunately… and again, my beef with chemicals… it’s been a pain in the butt to safely store the chemicals away from kids, to wear the proper protective gear when applying it, and the trees are somehow STILL ALIVE. We need to be more consistent about applying the product, but we try to apply it during periods where the pollinators won’t be impacted as much. We also spray it directly on the tree into cuts in the bark vs. spraying it in a way where the air might disperse the chemical to other areas.

This is also a good option for large poison ivy plants. But… and I’m going to be the bearer of bad news again… it seems like the best possible way to remove poison ivy from your property is to pull it up by hand. You need to get geared up (gloves, long pants, etc), get a helper who is geared up, then carefully place hand pulled poison ivy into strong garbage bags. Close up the bags, remove gear, place clothes directly into the washing machine, and immediately shower. Large vines that can’t be pulled up at the roots can be cut and a chemical applied to the cut spots. ALL tools need to be carefully washed as well or they can carry the oils from the poison ivy for a veryyyyy long time. We have over 8 acres of land and so much poison ivy to attack, but we haven’t quite been ready to tackle this big project. A local mom told me that having a company remove poison ivy runs about $700 for a 1/2 acre.

There’s Good Bugs and Bad Bugs

Bugs are often your best friend when you have a garden. I love finding worms in my soil and a variety of pollinators in my garden. There are, however, a number of bugs who can destroy your garden. Generally, they prefer a certain type of plant.

Some gardeners spread out their crops, rather than keeping them all in one zone, so that if a predator bug destroys one tomato plant, there will be tomato plants growing on the other side of the garden without interference. Bugs move though so I’m not sure how easy that is to control.

Often the best way to deal with bad bugs is to pick them off. Get a container of soapy water and flick bugs into it. This is a good job for kids.

This is some damage that I caught too late on brocolli.

You can also try planting companion plants that the bugs dislike around the plants, but this really messes up the organized square foot gardening plan. Some people release good bugs to eat the bad bugs; I’ve released lady bugs and also praying mantis. Just be careful to release bugs native to your area.

Tomato Cages

Simple tip: Put the cages on ASAP if you’re going to do tomato cages. It’s hard to put them into the cage once they’ve grown without breaking the plants. 

I find that it’s worth spending a little more money on a sturdy tomato cage. The cone shaped wire ones that you can buy cheap at the local store tend to break and are frustrating to work with. These tomato cages might work a bit better, but I think that setting up a sturdy wood trellis with wire to support the plants might be best. I have been eyeballing this raspberry trellis on Amazon for my raspberry bushes- it might work for a row of tomatoes too.

Crop Timing

You need to plant your seedlings or seeds at the correct time. Some plants grow better in the cooler weather and can be planter in early Spring or late Summer (for a Fall crop). Some plants NEED hot temperatures to grow. Some things simply won’t grow in some climates… apple trees, for example, do best with cooler weather.

This is a picture of lettuce that started to bolt. I planted too many seeds at once… and then couldn’t eat it fast enough. If your lettuce goes to seed- aka grows flowers- you can save the seeds for your next crop. Super hot weather makes lettuce plants ‘bolt’ so planting lettuce in a shady spot in the middle of the summer is a good solution if you want to attempt to get a mid summer crop.

If you time your planting right, you can keep crops up for a good part of the year instead of only having one Summer garden. I like the Week-By-Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook for keeping track of when to plant what. You can look up your last frost date and create your planting calendar around that.

Watering

Watering your plants regularly is vital to their survival— but you can kill them if they get too wet. Proper soil choice is important to prevent over or under watering. Generally with an in ground garden, you don’t need to worry about over watering though unless your garden floods. Standing water will absolutely kill your garden. I once planted potatoes in the back part of the property at my old house, not realizing it would be super wet. I had rotten potatoes and no harvest.

You can find some self watering options if you’re planning a summer vacation or weekend trip. It’s really hard to find someone to do this task when house sitting, and these options are fairly affordable when you consider the cost of losing your whole crop. I have this small waterer for my indoor plants. You can setup a full drip irrigation system in a large garden though, or setup sprinklers on a timer like this.

I purchased these watering bags to go around all of my fruit trees. There’s an odd strip of land that we own and it’s about 1/8 mile from our home; dragging a hose is not an option. I wanted to plant trees up there though because I have no better use for that portion of the property. These bags fill up with rain water whenever it rains, then deflate as water is absorbed by the trees roots. They likely would need refilling in areas with little rainfall, but we usually get rain at least every two or three weeks, even during the dry seasons. Here’s a video of these watering bags in action and you can buy them on Amazon here. I’m a bit worried about running them over with the mower so I may need to add some type of boundary around them. These should be covered by mulch… the mulch helps keep the sun from absorbing the water too quickly. Don’t put the mulch or the bags too close to your tree trunk.

Sun vs. Shade

Read your labels. Some plants do well in the sun and some do well in the shade/partial shade. Plant them in the wrong area and your plants will die. There are some plants and trees that may need partial shade when they’re young, but won’t later on. People sometimes will setup sun shades for them.

There are some plants that do well in the sun in the colder weather, but will struggle once it gets hot. For example, lettuce loves cool weather (not cold, cool). Most people plant them early in their growing season

Soil Choice

I’ve made some stupid mistakes and thinking all soils were the same is one of them. There’s multiple TYPES of soil… I won’t get into brand choice as I don’t have strong opinions on that. You can buy compost or compost mixes, potting soil, and garden soil. Potting soil is developed to retain more water while garden soil is intended to provide good drainage. Potting soil is probably fine to throw in the garden, but don’t use garden soil in your pots, particularly indoor pots.

Occasionally for large planters, such as my horse trough planter or my DIY privacy planters, I want some type of fill dirt at the bottom. I’ll often use junk soil that I dug up from the ground in the bottom. I also toss in rocks. Just make sure the top portion of the planter has good quality potting soil… for plants like carrots, you want to make sure the potting soil is deep enough for the carrot to grow to the right size (the junk soil I dig up usually is too compacted for it to grow through well).

I HIGHLY recommend composting. Adding compost to my garden has been a HUGE help and it’s great for the environment too. It’s probably the #1 thing I’ve done to improve my success. You can buy compost too, but it’s nice to have control of what you add to your garden.

I have several blog posts about composting:

Weeds and Weeding

A weed is any plant you don’t want growing in your garden. My least favorite weed is grass. It’s not a weed when it’s in my lawn, but it sure is a weed when it’s invading my garden. Regardless, there are a lot of great weeds to let grow in your garden. I love dandelions. They have a lot of uses and my rabbit loves them. I usually pick the dandelions for her.

@doityourselfdanielle

Just feeding May dandelions. ❤️ ##rabbits ##homestead ##homesteadbunnie ##homesteader ##dandelion ##bunny

♬ _Cute – Gabe Lost

Some weeds are extremely difficult to dig up. If you have a particular weed that’s causing problems, check out how they spread seeds. I have a terrible issue with thistle in my garden which seems to spread by underground tap roots + spreads by seed. If they get too tall and I can’t keep up with weeding them, I weed whack them.

Gardening Calendar/Handbook

Personally, I struggle to stay on schedule and organized with my garden. This year I bought the Week-By-Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook though and it is AMAZING. I want to start following it this winter so I can stay on top of early Spring tasks like planting lettuce and other cold weather crops. I ALWAYS plant them too late. The book just really helps organize the process and throws small tasks at you (and information)… rather than giving you a huge overwhelming list.

Other Gardening Posts

Please share and pin this post! If you make this project, share it in our Stuff Mama Makes Facebook Group. We have regular giveaways for gift cards to craft stores. You can also tag me on Instagram @doityourselfdanielle; I love seeing everything you make!

Gardening tips for beginners: Photo of a garden and yellow rain boots.

Originally published June 17, 2013. Updated June 14, 2021.

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