Creating a garden

Interested in creating a garden? While it can seem overwhelming, the truth is that anyone can cultivate a flourishing garden. The process provides numerous benefits, from fresh produce to mental well-being. Let’s get started on your new garden!

To create your garden, decide what you’d most like to grow and why. Look for a sunny spot if possible, but some plants can tolerate shade if you don’t have direct sunlight. Decide whether you’d like to grow your garden in the ground, in a raised garden bed, or in smaller container pots. Start small, read seed packets and planting instructions, visit your garden often, and ask questions as they arise.

Let’s work on creating your new garden!

Zucchini plant in raised bed - black beauty'

Creating a garden

The first step in creating a garden is dreaming about what you want to grow. Are you most interested in vegetables? Flowers? Herbs? Not every plant suits every space, but it can be fun to dream up a wish list. Consider your reasons for the new garden. Are you beautifying your space, growing your own food, creating a place for relaxation?

The next step is to choose a location. Most vegetables and flowers need about 6-8 hours of full sun daily, so try to find a sunny spot if possible. If you’re growing in the ground, check to see that the area has good drainage. If water tends to puddle for a long time after rain, you may be better off starting in containers or a raised bed rather than digging in heavy clay soil. It also makes sense to select a location close to a water source.

Once you have a space in mind, think about how big you’d like this new garden to be. It’s almost always better to succeed with a small garden than to be overwhelmed by a large one.
Consider starting with a small plot of perhaps 4×4 feet or 4×8 feet. You can also just start with a few pots on the patio!

Soil quality is vital. If you’re growing in pots, choose a high-quality potting mix. If you’re growing straight in the ground, it makes sense to investigate what kind of soil you have. Get a laboratory soil test done, and you’ll be ahead of 9 of every 10 more experienced gardeners in your area. These tests can inform you about the pH level and any nutrients your soil might lack, as well as recommendations to amend your soil to improve its texture and nutrient content.

Choose at least a few easy-to-grow plants for your first garden. Ask at local nurseries about plants that tend to do well in your region and the upcoming season. For vegetable gardens, think about what you like to eat. Tomatoes, lettuce, and peas are all relatively easy for beginners. Other plants like sunflowers, nasturtiums, rosemary, and oregano are also quite easy to grow.

Now its time to plan your layout. Research how much space each plant requires. Use garden stakes and twine to mark out your patch and even rows if you like. This is also a good time to invest in a few good tools, such as a little trowel, a handheld cultivator, and a set of pruning shears.

Read seed packets or plant tags for guidance on planting depth and spacing. For transplants (young plants), dig a hole larger than the root ball, set the plant in, and fill around it with soil.
Water immediately after planting.

Thai silk poppy flowers in flower garden

Garden plans

Start with a plan. It can be so tempting to go to the garden center and buy whichever seeds and seedlings look interesting. That said, the garden tends to be much more successful if you’ve prepared your garden beds and given some thought to which crops you’d like to grow in your garden.

You can make your own plan, but for beginners, I recommend using a garden planner or buying a done-for-you garden plan. There are a ton of free garden planners on the internet that will guide you through the basic steps of spring garden planning.

In general, garden planning includes preparing your soil, choosing crops and varieties to grow, calculating how many plants you can grow in your space, scheduling out when to plant your crops, and estimating when each crop will likely be ready for harvest. 

Preparing your garden soil

If you already have a garden space, take some time in early spring to prepare the soil. These steps are very similar whether you’re growing in containers on the balcony, in raised beds at a community garden or in the backyard, or in a traditional in-ground vegetable garden.

Start by removing dead plant debris, including last year’s veggie plants and autumn leaves. Rake the surface flat and check the level of the soil. Usually, you’ll have to add a bit more soil in the spring. I also like to add a 1”-thick layer of compost onto the top of the soil. Homemade compost is wonderful, but you can also purchase organic compost.

For the highest-quality bagged compost, I look for options labeled “OMRI-Listed”, which means the product has been approved for organic gardening by the Organic Materials Review Institute. Always check the ingredients in any compost product you’re buying to make sure you know what you’re getting!

Garden bed with mulch

Starting a new garden space

If you don’t yet have a garden, take this opportunity to get yourself set up for success. My absolute favorite way to grow vegetables is in a raised garden bed. If you have a yard, you can order raised bed kits online or talk to a local carpenter. If you don’t have outdoor space, check out local community gardens, rooftop gardens, or urban farms that may rent space.

Growing vegetables in containers on a porch or patio is also a great way to go. I prefer to grow most veggies in planter pots rather than directly in the ground because the soil warms up much more quickly in spring, and I have control over what kind of potting mix I put in the containers. I tend to use large terracotta planters as they are more breathable than plastic and look great year after year. Always look for planters that have a drainage hole at the bottom. If you’re growing on a balcony, buy the matching saucer for under the planter to capture the water that drains out.

Choosing high-quality soil for your new garden

Growing vegetables in containers is easiest with a high-quality potting mix. My favorite potting mixes are lightweight blends of plant-based products mixed with naturally-mined minerals and nutrient-rich compost, and natural plant foods. 

Most good potting mixes are made mainly of coco coir and/or peat, plus some perlite, compost, and organic fertilizer. The coco coir/peat accounts for the bulk of the potting mix. The perlite is a mineral product that holds tiny air pockets in the soil to help plant roots thrive. Compost adds tilth and nutrients. Natural fertilizers like worm castings and seaweed enrich the potting mix with macro and micro plant nutrients.

When shopping for potting mix, I always look for options labeled “OMRI-Listed”, which means the product has been approved for organic gardening by the Organic Materials Review Institute. I also double-check the ingredient list to make sure I know what I’m getting. Some discount potting mixes contain ingredients like sewage sludge which are not generally considered as approved for organic gardening.

For raised beds, you can either purchase a pre-blended raised bed soil mix, or your can blend your own. Most soil mixes for raised beds include only 3 or 4 ingredients.

Most soil for raised garden beds include a bulk filler material, some mineral material for soil aeration and drainage, and some nutrient-rich compost for nutrients and tilth. A basic soil recipe is to blend equal parts:

  • Compost
  • Coco coir, peat moss, and/or mined topsoil
  • Perlite, vermiculite, and/or sand

Once the beds are filled, mix in some slow-release organic fertilizer into the top ~6” of soil prior to planting.

Container garden on patio

Choosing vegetable crops for your new garden 

The best produce for beginners to grow are crops that the gardener likes to eat and that grow well in current local temperatures. You’ll also want to specifically choose reliable varieties to grow, as different varieties of the same type of vegetable can have very different results.

Certain vegetables grow better in different temperature ranges. Spring “cool-season” vegetables are typically planted when daily air temperatures range between about 35°-65° F (2°-18° C). This includes crops like lettuce, kale, spinach, peas, carrots, radish, parsley, and cilantro. Once nighttime temperature lows are above about 50°F (10°C), you can plant “warm-season” vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, melons, zucchini, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins.

The best beginner spring crops include lettuce, kale, green onions, peas, carrots, and cilantro. These crops can all be grown easily by planting seeds directly in the soil outdoors. They can typically be planted as soon as soil has thawed, but they do germinate more quickly once soil has warmed up to 50°-60° F (10°-15° C) or warmer. A soil thermometer is a great inexpensive investment for both beginner and experienced gardeners.

Wait until temperatures are high enough to plant warm-season crops (above about 50°F (10°C)). Then head to the garden center and buy seedling plants for tomatoes, peppers, and melons. These crops are easiest to grow by buying seedling baby plants rather than planting seeds directly in the soil. At this point, you can also pick up some seeds for pumpkins, zucchini, and sunflowers.

Here are some recommended varieties:

  • Lettuce: Buttercrunch lettuce, Butterking lettuce
  • Kale: Lacinato kale, Blue Ridge kale
  • Green Onion: White Lisbon scallion onion, Warrior bunching onion
  • Peas: Sugar snap pea, Oregon Sugar Pod snow pea
  • Carrot: Bolero carrot, Nantes carrot
  • Cilantro: Santo cilantro, Calypso cilantro
  • Tomato: Sun Gold cherry tomato, Better Boy tomato
  • Pumpkin: Jill-Be-Little pumpkin, Cinderella pumpkin
  • Sunflower: Teddy Bear sunflower, Lemon Queen sunflower

How to take care of your new garden

Taking care of a garden is easiest if you commit to tending to it a few times each week. Start by pulling out any weeds growing around where your crops were planted (even if the weeds are tiny). Then take a look at the leaves of the plants to check for holes or other damage from garden pests. Apply organic fertilizer at the frequency recommended on the product you choose. If the top inch of soil is dry, give the garden a thorough watering.

There are a few crops that require vertical support. In the spring, add a trellis for your peas. You can buy a little trellis at the garden center or make one with sticks and twine. In the summer, you’ll want stakes or cages for your tomatoes. Cages are more expensive but you generally don’t have to prune your tomatoes. I recommend either purchasing heavy-duty tomato cages or making your own with metal wire fencing.

Growing lettuce indoors in click and grow 25

Tips for gardening indoors

Start by growing a few trays of microgreens like basil, sunflower, or wheatgrass. The nice thing about apartment gardening is that you can see and check the seeds multiple times a day, making for the perfect learning opportunity. Growing microgreens will give you an in-depth look at seed germination that you don’t get when growing outdoors. Plus, basil microgreens are delicious!

Growing a tray of wheatgrass is a great way to get started as you’ll learn a lot about germinating seeds and will have wheatgrass to harvest in less than 2 weeks. Windowsill herb gardens are easy to find but many herb seeds take a week or two to start to sprout, making the process quite a long one. Filling a smart garden with basil is a much quicker (albeit more expensive) method.

Then it’s time to move onto leafy greens, herbs, and cherry tomatoes. The easiest way is to use a smart garden (click and grow, aerogarden) while a more cost-effective way is to use planters or repurposed containers along  with potting mix. Both methods can be successful. Both leafy greens and herbs grow well by a window. This includes small lettuce varieties like Little Gem Lettuce or Tom Thumb Lettuce, as well as shade-tolerant herbs like parsley, cilantro, chervil, and chives.

Smart gardens are nice because you’re not making a mess with potting soil, they offer plant pods that have been pre-seeded with varieties that grow well indoors, and the smart gardens include a plant light (which is usually much more effective than a sunny windowsill). If you’re using pots with potting soil, invest in good quality potting soil (as described above), choose small compact varieties, and add a plant grow light. Some of my favorite short garden crops to grow indoors in planter pots include Tiny Tim Tomatoes, Alpine Strawberries, Suntastic Sunflowers, and Little Gem Lettuce.

More tips for creating your garden

Here are some final tips as you get started:

  • Start with high-quality potting soil. Look for organic potting soil (preferably OMRI-listed) that has the ingredients clearly listed.
  • Choosing a variety is just as important as choosing which crop to grow. Look for varieties that are marked as resistant to disease, reliable producers, or otherwise easy to grow.
  • GMO seeds are typically available only in bulk to farmers. It would be extremely uncommon to find GMO seeds for sale from a garden seed company or in a seed rack at the garden center. 
  • Seeds marked as “hybrid” have been bred using natural centuries-old techniques. Hybrid seeds are generally easy to grow as they’ve been bred to resist disease and to produce reliably. Seeds marked as “heirloom” or “open-pollinated” are naturally-occurring varieties which can be a bit trickier to grow but are often more flavorful and you can save the seeds at the end of the year.
Mary Jane Duford
Mary Jane Duford

Mary Jane Duford is a quintessential Canadian gardener. An engineer by trade, she tends to an ever-expanding collection of plants. In her world, laughter blooms as freely as her flowers, and every plant is raised with a dash of Canadian grit.

Mary Jane is a certified Master Gardener and also holds a Permaculture Design Certificate. She's also a proud mom of three, teaching her little sprouts the crucial difference between a garden friend and foe.

When she's not playing in the dirt, Mary Jane revels in her love for Taylor Swift, Gilmore Girls, ice hockey, and the surprisingly soothing sounds of bluegrass covers of classic hip-hop songs. She invites you to join her garden party, a place where you can share in the joy of growing and where every day is a new opportunity to find the perfect spot for yet another plant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *