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In an unstable, disorienting, and often infuriating world, it can be the purest tonic to see your hydrangea reliably spring to life and throw color around your garden.
These days, more and more people are discovering the joys of playing in the dirt — or, as grown-ups prefer to call it, “gardening.”
However, it’s not as easy as chucking soil around and calling it a day. Knowing what makes plants go is the difference between The Garden Of Eden and “The Garden of Eatin’ at Arby’s Again Because My Gosh-Dang Tomatoes Won’t Behave Like Gosh-Dang Tomatoes.”
We put together some tips not only to help you know your potatoes, but also so you can watch them grow. (Imagine the day you finally wave goodbye as they drive to Potato College. So. Proud.)
Food gardening is in like yoga pants at the moment. Research from the National Gardening Association shows that home-grown food production has increased this much in the following groups:
- General population: 17 percent
- Low-income households: 38 percent
- Millennials: 63 percent
Good for the world
Whether it’s the cost-effectiveness, the environmental sustainability, or the sheer damn nutritiousness of it all, food gardening is becoming the frozen aisle of the future.Garden to table: A five year look at food gardening in the US. (2014) https://garden.org/special/pdf/2014-NGA-Garden-to-Table.pdf
Plus, given the recent COVID-related concerns around food supply, even more people have jumped on the trowel train this year.
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.
Organic gardening certainly ticks all the boxes.
Good for your body and brain
Gardening doesn’t only boost the health of your geraniums. The simple act of pruning a hedge can also provide significant health benefits.
- Growing a garden encourages people to engage in other behaviors and activities that promote wellness. For example, gardeners consume more fruits and vegetables than non-gardeners.Hale J et al. (2011). Connecting food environments and health through the relational nature of aesthetics: Gaining insight through the community gardening experience. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21596466/
- Home gardeners who choose to grow food organically reduce their exposure to pesticides.Crinnion W et al. (2010). Organic foods contain higher levels of certain nutrients, lower levels of pesticides, and may provide health benefits for the consumer. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20359265/
- People end up potentially eating produce with a higher nutrient content.Holzman DC et al. (2012). Organic food conclusions don’t tell the whole story. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3546364/
- Gardening also reduces stress and improves mental health.
- A study showed that gardening also counted as moderate-intensity exercise and can help women live longer.Bucksch J et al. Physical activity of moderate intensity in leisure time and the risk of all cause mortality. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16118301/
Well, what are you waiting for? Start getting those fingers green! Whether you have your own plot of land or need to pursue an alternative approach to gardening, this handy-dandy guide will have you elbow deep in compost in no time at all.
Rule numero uno: Relax and have fun. Gardening is often a process of trial and error, and we promise that it’s not as intimidating as it might seem!
Plants are like people, but better. Each type of plant has a unique “personality” and likes different things (water, sunlight, soil type, different hats, etc.). Some plants like it hot and sunny, while others like it cooler or moister (or both).
In short, some are Hufflepuffs, and some are not. (Also, ten points to your house of choice if you read the title of this section without hearing Christina Aguilera’s voice.)
It’s fun, but meeting the needs of your seedlings can take a bit of 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:
Plants are pretty magical, as they harness energy from the sun and, through photosynthesis, convert that energy into their tissues.
(Try eating sunlight. We bet you can’t. Also we bet you look foolish trying to eat sunlight. Plants win this round, okay?)
Because plants need the sun to grow, many of them, including most fruits and veggies, need a good amount of direct sun during the day. Mmmm. Tasty, tasty sunbeams.
Have a shadier plot? Research which plants prefer shady conditions if you have less light available. (Also, stop hatching shady plots. You are not the supervillain you think.)
Plants also need water. Just as a fresh beverage keeps you from wilting in the sun, plants rely on there being a good amount of water available nearby to stay proud and healthy. 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 your garden plot, it will be important to figure out a system for transporting water to your garden.
Water conundrum! Don’t forget, while you’re out tilling the soil this summer, you need water too. Stay up to date on staying hydrated.
Nutrients and soil
You need to eat as healthy as possible to stay at peak health, right? On a similar level, plants need nutrients, and lots of them.
In larger farming operations, different nutrients cycle through the soil as different plants grow. This is what they mean by “fertile” soil — nutrient-rich bounties of growth for new plants.Bierman PM, et al. (2005). Nutrient management for fruit and vegetable crop production: Nutrient cycling and maintaining soil fertility. https://conservancy.umn.edu/handle/11299/197962
You might need to add nutrients manually if your garden isn’t already part of an annual crop rotation cycle (and if you’re reading an article about gardening basics, that’s not altogether likely — although if accomplished farmers are also tuned in, welcome!)
However, there’s a huge range of plant nutrients available to buy online.
Unless you have experience (or special abilities we don’t know about), you won’t be able to tell if soil is fertile just by looking at it. Luckily, there are loads of DIY testing kits out there to show you how acidic or alkaline the soil is.
Even once you have the testing kits, how do you know what to look for? Well, acidity for most plants should be between a pH of 6.1 and 7.0.
Almost like 60s throwbacks, some plants, like rhododendrons and heathers, like a bit of acid. A pH of 5.1 to 6.0 is great for these leafy friends. For those that don’t, you might need to add a bit of lime (the stone, not the fruit.) Any pH lower than this could use some lime too, as this means it’s highly acidic.
Highly acidic soil means that all those yummy nutrients dissolve and flow away from the soil. Bacteria also cannot break down organic matter (aka manure) below 4.7, so the plants get even less food.
Imagine watching a pancake wash away in the rain, only to lose all your pancake-making implements at the same time. That pain is what plants go through in acidic soil.
Too alkaline, however, and plants have less access to vital minerals like phosphorus, manganese, and iron. Acidifying agents like sulfur and iron sulfate can brings this up to your plants’ high standards.
If you live in an urban environment, you might also want to test the soil for lead, especially if you have little ones that play in the garden and roll in the mud.
This is less important in terms of growing veg, although doesn’t help, according to research.Nas FS et al. (2018). The effect of lead on plants in terms of growing and biochemical parameters: A review. http://medcraveonline.com/MOJES/MOJES-03-00098.pdf
Really, though, this is a basic safety concern. Urban living can expose people to more lead traces in the soil. Luckily, you can also buy lead-testing kits online.
Whatever type of testing kit you buy, make sure you check the instructions to get the most accurate results. This seems like a lot of testing, but in reality, it’s a couple kits, the right nutrients, and you’re pretty much good to start growing.
Plants perform best when they have optimum temperatures for growth.Hatfield JL. (2015). Temperature extremes: Effect on plant growth and development. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212094715300116
Like Goldilocks, the conditions need to be juuuust right. Understanding your climate will help you decide which plants to grow.
This information is generally available for seeds and plants that you buy online 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 will help you determine which plants are likely to do best in a particular location.
The USDA offers this helpful map that shows which plants are most likely to grow in which parts of the U.S.
This information is especially useful for growing perennial plants — that is, plants like trees, shrubs, and many flowers that can live for several years — because often it’s the coldest winter temperatures that determine where these plants can thrive.
If you’re looking to grow herbs, we’ve got a guide for the best ones.
The length of a plant’s growing season 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.
Knowing about the growing season 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.
If you’ve got questions about how you grow physically, we also talked about how humans get taller.
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Gardens come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s just a matter of figuring out what will work for you and what’s within.
In fact, gardening doesn’t even have to be an outside thing — growing plants indoors can provide many of the same stress-reducing benefits as gardening outside, while also improving indoor air quality.Berg G et al. (2014). Beneficial effects of plant-associated microbes on indoor microbiomes and human health? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3905206/
Indoor plant cultivation is easier than you’d think.
Community gardens provide another great alternative for people with limited space to get their hands dirty — or for those who’d rather not get their hands dirty alone.
If you’re growing plants outdoors, try to choose a spot that optimizes all those things that plants need — light, water, nutrients, and good soil.
You can choose to grow plants directly in the soil (which is an easy and affordable option), to build raised beds, or to grow plants in containers. Raised beds (which are basically large wooden boxes filled with soil) are often 6 to 24 inches off the ground.
They can be very productive, but it will cost extra money for the materials to build the beds. For smaller spaces or starter gardens, containers are a fantastic way to go because they provide so much flexibility. Watering is especially critical for containers because they dry out faster than garden beds.
Luckily, these gardens are often pretty small, so watering only takes a few minutes. If you’re feeling cooped up in a tiny apartment, here are some other ways to make your world feel more open.
Yes, we know. All the pots and soil and nutrients seem pretty overwhelming and there’s loads of pointy objects. It’s all a lot. But get past that initial impression, and gardening is as wholesome as it gets.
The wonderful thing about gardening is that, with so many potential plants and vegetables to grow, you can paint your green patch pretty much any color you see fit.
If you’re to get the most from your garden, have answers to the following before kicking things off:
- What types of plants are you most excited to grow? Many people want to see their salad sprout from the ground. Others may be more interested in giving their yards a makeover. Know your motive, and it’ll guide the rest.
- If you’re food gardening, what do you most like to cook and eat? There’s no reason to grow a 5-pound zucchini if you don’t love the stuff. Grow things that are yummy to you. (And stop trying to grow Sour Patch Kids. That’s not how they work.)
- How much space and light do you have available for gardening (whether at your place or at a community garden)? Take into account whether you’re gardening in the ground or in containers, how much light the area receives each day, and whether the area offers any shade. You can pretty much garden anywhere, though.
- How much time are you looking to spend gardening? Plants require regular care, so be realistic about how much time you’ll be willing to spend weeding, watering, and so on. It’s generally a good idea to start small and learn the ropes before taking on a huge commitment. If you love it, you can scale up from there.
Now you can stop digging for answers and start digging for real.
*SIPSIPSIP* Sluuuuuuuuuurp. Plants have an enthusiasm for H2O that rivals Bobby Boucher.
The ideal amount of water they need varies and depends on a few factors. Hotter and drier air will pull moisture from plants and soils more quickly, so more watering will be necessary as the temperatures climb.
The type of soil you have in your garden will also affect how much water is available to plants. A good rule of (green) thumb is that plants should guzzle up enough water to cover the ground with an inch of water each week.
It’s also better for plants to get all the water one or two times per week rather than a little bit each day. Think of it as intermittent fasting for plants.
An easy test to see if plants have enough water available is to stick a finger in the soil and make sure it feels moist 2 to 3 inches below the surface. (You can be rude about it if you want, we’re going to rise above the obvious joke here.)
When watering, it’s best to use a watering can or sprinkler, as dumping a lot of water on the plants all at once can damage them. If your area gets a lot of rain, however, this won’t become that regular a chore. Oh hooray!
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A bad worker blames their tools. A terrible gardener has none whatsoever. You don’t need a full arsenal that would make Groundskeeper Willie weep, but gardeners do need a few vital tools to get going.
(There is, however, no end to the madness of gardening equipment if you acquire a taste for it. Look at these absolutely wild contraptions.)
The larger the scale of your gardening, the more tools you’re likely to need. One of the major reasons people are interested in gardening is its impact on bringing down food costs. Adding unnecessary equipment costs to that may feel counterproductive.Algert SJ et al. (2014). Vegetable output and cost savings of community gardens in San Jose, California. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24751664/
If you’re in this camp, start with the minimum and add things as you go.
Container gardens are super simple to get going. For these, you’ll need the following:
- potting soil
- watering can
- small trowel (or even a sturdy kitchen spoon)
For raised beds or beds in the ground, it’s helpful to have:
- watering can
- digging fork
You might need heftier equipment for a larger garden, such as a rototiller for preparing the soil, but this is by no means necessary if you’d prefer gardening to be more of a workout.
Want to build a gym while you’re hand-crafting a healthy environment? Try these DIY fitness life hacks.
Finally, it’s time to put some plants in the ground.
When purchasing plants, you’ll have the option to purchase seeds or small, starter plants that you can transplant into your garden. Many vegetables and flowers are easy to grow from seed, making this the simpler (and more affordable) choice in many situations.
Buying plants, rather than seeds, is especially useful when:
- a plant is difficult to grow from seed
- the growing season is particularly short
- a larger plant is going to make that garden look even more Instagrammable
To combine the best of both worlds, lots of seeds can be started inside in pots and later transplanted outdoors.
The directions for planting will depend on what’s being planted. The packaging of the seeds will usually tell you everything you need to know. And the internet is always there, no matter how at one with nature you feel.
You can plant seeds in rows or geometric patterns that use space more effectively. Just put seeds in the soil (how deep depends on the plant) before covering them back up with dirt and water.
If you’re using starter plants, dig a hole big enough to fit whatever you’re transplanting so that the roots have lots of growing room.
Gently pack soil around the roots so that the plant stays the same level above the ground as it did in the container. After planting seeds or starters, be sure to give the soil a hearty watering.
Ta-da! Your plants are off to big school!
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Once your plants are flourishing, one of the biggest challenges is keeping weeds, pests, and diseases out of the garden. They’re your new kids now — and Mama and Papa Bear must protect!
(Apologies to Goldilocks from the previous metaphor — we know it’s a touchy subject.)
To a certain extent, weeds are inevitable, and that’s okay — so long as they don’t start choking out your plants. The best course of action is to weed every week and keep them from getting out of control.
In general, it’s easier to pull weeds out of the ground when soils are wetter. Hoes are more effective for dry soil. Covering the soil with mulch or straw can help reduce weeds while keeping the moisture in.
Garden pests (including bugs and meddlesome critters) and diseases challenge even the most experienced of gardeners. But you can fix many of these issues with a little planning.
Many bugs and diseases that cause damage to plants are more likely to occur when plants are stressed, so a good supply of sun, water, and nutrients will reduce other gardening difficulties.
There are many organic options for preventing and controlling garden pests and diseases, so you needn’t go down the pesticide route. Animal critters running amok in the garden can be hard to handle, but often fencing or creative deterrents (think: scarecrows) can solve the problem.
And if something seems amiss, asking local professionals or doing some online research sooner rather than later can help — wait for it — nip problems in the bud! (We’re so good.)
And there you have it! Everything you need to get going.
Remember, it’s a slow start with a little research, but the joy a garden is about to bring you fully justifies it.
Get building your own little paradise/grocery store on your own turf. It can add a lot to your life to see little lives grow.