Everything You Need to Know to Actually See Your Garden Grow

These days, more and more people are discovering the joys of playing in the dirt—though grown-ups might prefer the term “gardening.” Food gardening is especially hot, with nearly 20 percent more households hopping on the food-growing train during the past five years. Renewed interest in gardening may be due in part to the local food movement. Locavores are interested in having greater access to healthy,high-quality food, knowing where their food comes from, and supporting the environment and the local economy. Gardening (especially organic gardening) certainly fits the bill!

Gardening has also been shown to have significant health benefits. For starters, it encourages people to engage in other behaviors and activities that promote wellness. For example, gardeners consume more fruits and vegetables than non-gardeners. When gardeners choose to grow food organically, they’re reducing their exposure to pesticides and potentially eating produce with a higher nutrient content. Gardening also reduces stress and improves mental health. And it counts as moderate-intensity exercise, which can help people live longer lives.

With all those good reasons to garden, what are you waiting for? Whether you have your own plot of land or will need to pursue an alternative approach to gardening, get started with this handy-dandy guide to the gardening basics. Gardening is often a process of trial and error, so remember to relax and have fun with it. We promise: It’s not as intimidating as it might seem!

What a Plant Needs

Plants are kind of like people—each type of plant has a unique “personality” and likes different things (water, sunlight, soil type, etc.). Some plants like it hot and sunny, while others like it cooler or moister (or both). It’s fun but can take some experimentation (and internet research) to learn what works best for a particular type of plant. That being said, virtually all plants require a few basic ingredients:

Sun: Plants are pretty magical, as they harness energy from the sun and, through photosynthesis, convert that energy into their tissues. Because plants need the sun to grow, many plants, including most fruits and veggies, need a good amount of direct sun during the day. Have a shadier plot? Research which plants prefer shady conditions if you have less light available. 

Water: Plants also need water, and it’s often the amount of water that’s available that will keep plants from wilting up in the summer sun and heat. In many places, it may be necessary to water your garden regularly in order to keep plants happy. Consider your water sources; if they’re not close to the area where you’ll be gardening, it will be important to figure out a system for transporting water to your garden.Nutrients: Just like people,plants need nutrients in order to grow healthy and strong (and those nutrients are passed on to us when we eat plants for food). In particular, plants need nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). These nutrients can either be derived from the soil (more on that below!) or will need to be manually added. 

Soil: Plants need something to grow in, and soil holds all the water and nutrients needed for growth (although hydroponics —in which plants are grown in water without soil—is also a viable means of growing some plants). Garden soils can be tested to find out whether it has a good pH and nutrients to support plant growth. If the soil isn’t ideal for growing plants, you may need to supplement it with fertilizers. You can also test soil for metals like lead if you’re concerned that the garden location could contain contaminants. If you're gardening in containers, you’ll need to purchase potting mixes that are appropriate for whatever plants you choose to grow.

Getting in the Zone

Plants perform best when they have optimum temperatures for growth—like Goldilocks, the conditions need to be just right. Understanding your climate will help you decide which plants to grow. This information is generally provided for seeds and plants online and when you purchase them to help you decide what will work best.

To better understand your climate, get familiar with the plant hardiness zones. They’re based on the coldest winter temperatures, which help determine which plants are likely to do best in a particular location. This information is especially useful for planting perennial plants—that is, plants like trees, shrubs, and many flowers that live for several years—because often it’s the coldest winter temperatures that determine where these plants can thrive.

Growing season length is another handy piece of information. It’s the average amount of time per year where the temperature stays above freezing during both day and night. Growing season length is particularly useful for planting annual plants—including most garden vegetables and many flowers—which live for only a single year. If you want to plant melons, for example, you’ll want to make sure that you can find a variety of melons that can grow fully within the length of your growing season. And you’ll want to make sure that you plant it early enough that there are plenty of days left in the season for it to grow and mature.