Gardening 101

Is gardening your new hobby!? Start by learning why many gardeners choose organic gardening. Then move on to planning and planting a veggie garden and some culinary herbs. Then learn about potager gardens and permaculture, perennials, and fruit trees!

Gardening basics

There are a few gardening basics to keep in mind before you even learn how to garden. Starting a garden with these basic gardening tips is a great way to ensure you’ll have some fun as you learn.

Gardening for beginners

Gardening for beginners is all about getting the gardening basics down. This site is full of details about learning how to garden and grow organic food, but these gardening basics are the foundation of it all:

Gardening basics for beginners

  • Anyone can develop a “green thumb”.
  • A good garden plan will take a while to create but will save so much time and effort later in the season.
  • There are plenty of affordable and effective tools available on the market. Just make sure to do your research.
  • Gardening starts with observation. Checking your garden daily for adequate moisture, sun, and pest control will therefore do a great deal.
  • Deal with problems when they arise. It is far easier to pull a small weed now than a giant one later on!
  • Going organic may take more work than conventional gardening at first, but soon, it will be easier and more productive than using synthetic chemicals. There are some pretty amazing organic fertilizers available.
  • Some plants love the sun, and others love the shade. Some plants require frequent watering, while others really like their roots to dry out occasionally. It’s worth reading the plant tag or doing a bit of research! Your new plant will thank you.

Learn to garden

In addition to learning how to garden online or from gardening books, it’s great to connect with other gardeners. Every gardener has their own valuable experience and gardening tips to learn from. Find a local garden mentor or chat with other gardeners online on Facebook. It’s great to know other gardeners who can help you with your own specific questions!

Home garden

A home garden can transform a plain house into a welcoming home. Whether you love landscaping for beauty or prefer to grow a food garden, it’s all worth it.

Garden care

Garden care involves observing your garden regularly and addressing issues as they arise. There is no magic “green thumb” that you develop. You will avoid most problems by checking your plants regularly for the basics like roots having enough air/water and leaves getting enough sun. Your plants will likely need some specialized pest control or organic fertilizer at some point, but these garden care details can be addressed quickly with an internet search or by asking another gardener.

Things plants need

Plants are just like us in that they need water, air, food, and shelter from harsh elements. They also need nutrients from the soil and pollination from insects or wind. With these basic garden care elements in place, your garden is off to a great start.

Most plants get their water from the soil. Certain types of soil hold water more easily than others. Organic soil and fine-grained mineral soil (clay) store water and essential nutrients much better than in soil like sand which has large particles and large void spaces. Plants need water to fill cells in their leaves, stems, and roots, helping the plant stand upright.

Plants also use water in photosynthesis, which is how they make their food. They use water from the soil, carbon dioxide from the air, and energy from the sun to create their own sugars to use as food. They also produce oxygen during photosynthesis, which is handy for us humans. The plant’s roots require access to oxygen to keep the plant healthy.

Garden problems to watch for

Overwatering can deprive the plant’s roots of air, drowning the plant. Overwatering seems to be responsible for a plant’s demise more often than underwatering. This is especially true of houseplants like succulents! If the soil feels moist to the touch and the planter isn’t lighter than usual, the plant likely has enough water.

Growing gardens also involves protecting plants from harsh temperatures and environmental hazards. In the wilderness, plants adapt over the long term to survive in very specific ecosystems. In our gardens, however, we try to grow all sorts of plants that perhaps aren’t a perfect match to our local conditions. This is why we often start seeds indoors, surround our plants with organic mulch, or water our gardens more often during hot weather.

Permaculture garden

Many gardeners create a permaculture garden after they get comfortable with organic gardening and begin to look for ways to create a more efficient system. Permaculture design goes beyond gardening and is essentially the science of designing productive natural systems based on the productive systems which already exist in nature. These systems are designed to emulate nature so the components collaborate and regenerate.

Beyond organic gardening

Also referred to as “beyond organic” gardens, permaculture gardens use supplies and techniques from nature to enrich the health of the garden ecosystem. Designs are meant to be adaptable, productive, and open to new inputs. Natural landscaping techniques imitate nature while also incorporating the best edible gardening practices to provide food.

Permaculture is much more than just gardening tips. While it does offer some excellent gardening tips, it can be used to design entire systems with the garden as just one supporting part of a thriving ecosystem. All sustainable permaculture systems are based on the foundational ethics of permaculture that underlie the method.

There are three key ethics in permaculture: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. The Earth Care ethic is focused on nurturing the environment, the People Care ethic is focused on meeting the needs of humans, and the Fair Share ethic is focused on sharing abundance with others.

Sustainable gardening

Although sustainable gardening like permaculture gardens or even organic gardening may sound like more work at first, it can actually translate to less work overall. Healthy plants have managed to thrive in the wilderness for millennia without anyone fertilizing them with manufactured chemicals. Emulating balanced natural ecosystems in your permaculture garden will help you to work with nature rather than against it (and be much more fruitful in the long run!).

You’re already working towards a sustainable garden by growing organic plants in healthy garden soil. Visiting local nature conservancies, bio gardens, eco gardens, and permaculture gardens can help give you gardening tips and inspiration for creating your own sustainable garden in your climate.

Organic gardening

Organic gardening is different than conventional gardening because it does not rely on synthetically manufactured chemicals. Gardeners who grow organic gardens use natural supplies and techniques to enrich the garden ecosystem’s health rather than factory-produced chemicals.

Organic garden

Ready to start planning your own organic garden? Here’s a little bit of info about organic gardening, including what makes a garden organic, the importance of healthy garden soil, and how to find fertilizers and pesticides that are safe for organic gardening.

What is organic gardening?

Organic gardening is a method of gardening that uses naturally occurring materials to support the complex relationships between living organisms and plants. This is in stark contrast to conventional gardening where plants are often grown in sterile mediums with the help of industrial chemicals. Organic gardening is based on enriching the existing soil rather than depleting it in the name of production.

The soil in an organic garden houses a thriving ecosystem. The plants that grow in the soil provide food and habitat for beneficial insects, birds, and other creatures. These creatures contribute to the garden by aerating the soil, pollinating crops, or chasing away pests. The different parts of the organic garden work together to create a balanced, productive ecosystem.

Organic gardening clubs

Garden clubs are a great way to connect with other gardeners. Local clubs often hold wonderful plant sales and garden tours each year. You can also learn to garden online in an online gardening club.

Organic garden soil

Healthy organic garden soil is key to a thriving organic garden. Rich, organic soil provides a foundation and nutrient source for plant roots. Garden soil also provides the habitat for soil organisms like earthworms and beneficial fungi.

Natural garden soil is made up of mineral grains (tiny rocks) like sand, silt, and clay, as well as organic matter like humus or peat (decayed plants and animals). Most gardeners love a nice mix of different-sized mineral grains. This type of soil with a nice mix of mineral particle sizes is referred to as loam. A great garden loam will also contain an abundance of organic matter, which helps the soil matrix retain nutrients and moisture.

Organic compost is a great way to enrich outdoor garden soil. Organic compost can be made in bulk from fallen leaves and coffee grounds. This rich organic compost can be worked into garden soil to increase the organic matter in the soil.

Organic soil for container gardening

The garden soil for container gardens is generally a little more controlled than natural outdoor soils. A container potting mix is a type of organic soil that often contains peat moss and/or coconut coir for bulk volume, perlite to add air and drainage space, and an organic source of nutrients such as compost. It is common for container gardening soil mixes not to contain any small mineral soil grains (sand, silt, clay).

Some organic potting mixes also contain organic fertilizer or beneficial fungi to help boost plant health. This is particularly true of high-quality, specialty potting mixes. It really is worth investing in your garden soil. Soil is the foundation for your whole garden! Your organic plants deserve great soil. You can also try making your own DIY potting soil.

Organic plant food and pest control

Organic plant food is naturally sourced and has been approved for use in organic gardening. These materials are applied to plants or soil to provide essential nutrients to organic plants. Fertilizer packaging lists a ratio of three essential plant nutrients. This is referred to as the N-P-K ratio (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium).

To know which NPK ratio you’re looking for in an organic fertilizer, it’s nice to know the NPK ratio of your garden soil by doing a soil test. Note that organic fertilizers generally show lower numbers in their NPK ratios when compared to synthetic chemical fertilizers. This is not a bad thing! You’re not necessarily getting less plant growth for your money with organic fertilizer, but you are getting a safer product. The excess nutrients in chemical fertilizers can actually burn plants. It then quickly drains away, polluting groundwater. Stick to organic fertilizer!

List of organic fertilizers

Here is a brief summary of some common natural fertilizers that you can DIY yourself or find at the local garden center. If purchasing a fertilizer, check for the OMRI-listed logo or look the product up in the OMRI database (from the Organic Materials Review Institute).

DIY organic plant food options

  • Organic Compost – make your own plant food from shredded leaves
  • Grass Clippings – feed your lawn with nitrogen from its mulched clippings
  • Worm Farm Castings – a great way to turn kitchen scraps into plant food
  • Seaweed – full of micronutrients; you’re lucky if it’s available in your area
  • Well-Composted Herbivore Manure – if you’re lucky enough to have it!
  • Eggshells – a plant food that’s full of calcium for your tomatoes

Generic organic plant food

  • Earthworm Castings  1-0-0
  • Rock Dust  0-0-0.2
  • Liquid Seaweed  0-0-1
  • Kelp Meal  1-0-2
  • Fish Fertilizer  2-4-1
  • Composted Cow Manure 0.5-0.5-0.5
  • Composted Chicken Manure 2-2-2

General purpose ready-mixed organic fertilizers

  • Espoma Garden Tone Organic Fertilizer  3-4-4  (USA)
  • Dr. Earth Throw & Go Organic Fertilizer  5-5-5  (USA)
  • Neptune Liquid Fish & Seaweed Fertilizer  2-3-1  (USA)
  • Pro-Mix Granular Multi-Purpose Organic Fertilizer  7-3-3  (Canada)
  • Gaia Green Organic All-Purpose Fertilizer  4-4-4  (Canada)

Read more about organic fertilizers here.

Organic herbicides, pesticides, & fungicides

  • Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth – deters some crawling pest insects without synthetic chemicals
  • Horticultural Corn Meal (Corn Gluten Meal) – fights fungal disease in soil/roots
  • Spinosad – general pest insect deterrent produced by bacterial fermentation
  • Neem Oil – general insecticide and fungicide
  • Crushed Eggshells – deter ground-dwelling pests

Garden planning

Proper garden planning is an important part of organic gardening for both new and experienced gardeners. If you’re planning your first garden this year, and have never really gardened before, you probably have a few questions! That’s what this section is for.

Planning a garden can seem like a huge process when you consider all the decisions to be made. To simplify the process, I’ve separated the garden planning process into eight basic steps, with a Free Garden Planner downloadable PDF to guide you.

How to plan a garden

Go through each of these eight steps in order. Chances of success are far higher with a thoughtful plan than if you simply throw a few seeds in the ground and hope for the best!

Here are the eight steps to planning a successful garden. Check out each step to learn more:

  1. Set Your Garden Goals
  2. Find Your Garden Mentor
  3. Discover Your Growing Zone
  4. Pick Your Type of Garden
  5. Choose Crops You’ll Love
  6. Determine the Right Number of Plants
  7. Draw Your Garden Map
  8. Create Your Planting Calendar

The garden planner is completely free and will guide you through the basic steps of planning out an annual garden. It’s the perfect companion to help you plan out your vegetable, herb, or flower garden.

Gardening 101: Gardening zones

Unfortunately, not all plants can be grown everywhere. Plants are classified by hardiness zones, which dictate the coldest temperature that a given plant can withstand. Plants have a range of zones in which they will survive. This range is generally printed on the seed packet or plant label. If no zone is printed, look it up online prior to buying.

Pick plants you love, and just go with it. Maybe wait a few years for things that say “expert level” on the seed packet. But otherwise, you’ll be fine. It might take a few tries, but you’ve got this.

Gardening 101: Garden site

Picking the right spot for your garden can be tricky. In temperate Canada or the USA, the south side of your yard is probably a good place to start looking. You’ll want lots of sun for most plants. Full sun generally means at least 6 hours of direct sunlight each day.

Observe your yard for a few days and check out the sunny areas. Try to see where the sun hits your yard at various times of the year. 

You’ll also want to look for good organic garden soil. If you’re not sure what type of soil is in your garden, check this article. If you’d rather not garden in the soil that’s already there, choose a high-quality organic garden soil or potting mix that is free of contaminants.

Gardening 101: Types of gardens

There are several different types of outdoor garden structures. In addition to just finding a bare patch of soil in your yard, or removing existing grass, consider the following options before you start construction.

Container gardening

The easiest way to start a garden is to start a small container garden. There are a few crops that are quite easy to grow in a container garden. You can grow them on your apartment patio.

Containers have the benefit of being portable. This is really nice if you’re new to gardening because you can move them around your space to experiment with different light and precipitation amounts. You can also bring your container gardens inside in the winter if you live in a cold climate. They’re incredibly versatile too…you’d be surprised what you can grow in a container! (Blueberries anyone?)

Raised bed gardening

Raised bed gardens are like giant container gardens. Beds are generally 4′ wide and usually about 8′ long. They’re often made of wood planks that hold in the garden soil. Most gardeners prefer gardening in raised beds to gardening directly in the ground.

Because these beds are raised up off the ground, the soil warms up earlier in the spring, allowing you to start growing veggies earlier in the season. It also allows you to garden if you have less-than-perfect natural soil in your yard such as heavy clay or potentially contaminated soil. Fill your raised beds with lovely organic garden soil and enjoy gardening without dealing with heavy clay!

Community gardens

Community gardens are neighborhood organizations that rent out individual garden plots to individuals or families. Most community gardens have raised garden beds with pathways between them to access your plants. Some even have built-in irrigation such as drip lines or wicking features.

You can rent out a raised bed for a season and try your hand at gardening. Joining a community garden is a nice way to learn about gardening in the company of other, more experienced gardeners. If you’re considering a community garden, check out this post on joining a community garden.

Organic gardening books

There are so many wonderful organic gardening books! My favorites are included here on this list of the best gardening books.

Here are a couple of my favorites:

  • The Zero-Mile Diet, by Carolyn Harriot. This book is great for beginner gardeners learning to grow vegetables. The book provides a nice overview of general gardening skills, as well as reference sections on individual vegetables.
  • Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway. This book is the perfect introduction to turning your yard into an edible oasis. This book is the perfect introduction to home-scale sustainability, including edible landscape design, rainwater harvesting, forest gardening, and the creation of wildlife habitats.
  • Landscaping with Fruit, by Lee Reich. This book is the perfect introduction to growing fruit in an urban lot setting. Lee Reich is an expert fruit grower and horticulturalists. This book is split into two sections: a section on garden design, and a reference section dedicated to individual plants. This book was a great read and remains a great reference for individual plants.

Gardening 101: Garden design

Garden design is all about finding the right inspiration to create your own dream outdoor oasis. Before you start the garden design process, collect some inspirational images. I love saving images to my Garden Design Pinterest Board. Check the board out and start saving to your own garden design board!

Once you have an idea of the style of garden you’d like, it’s a lot easier to start putting together a design. Fitting individual elements into an overall design can be challenging but so rewarding.

How to start a garden

Here are the basics of how to start a garden. For even more details, check out this detailed post about starting your first garden.

Starting a garden

There are four basic phases to how to start a garden:

  1. Planning the Garden
  2. Planting Seeds and Seedlings
  3. Care and Maintenance
  4. Garden Harvest

Phase 1, Planning the Garden, involves completing the eight garden planner steps listed in the previous section. Creating a solid plan for your garden before you start planting is key to success.

Phase 2, Planting Seeds and Seedlings, is to plant the garden. Either start seeds indoors, plant seeds directly in the garden, plant cold-hardy plants with winter sowing, and/or plant seedlings directly outdoors.

Phase 3, Care and Maintenance, involves observing and tending to your new garden. Daily observation is wonderful but not always realistic. Just do what you can to keep weeds down and ensure the plants are receiving enough sunlight and water.

Phase 4, Harvest, is when you finally get to enjoy all the plants your garden has produced! My favorite part of the garden harvest is enjoying fresh heirloom tomatoes on toast.

Tips for starting your first garden

  • Start slow/start small!
    • pick only a few select crops
    • create a small, manageable area in which to work
  • Build raised beds
    • Start with only one or two beds
    • build structures before the gardening season begins
    • place a barrier of cardboard in the beds to keep weeds down.
    • Fill with high-quality compost, pro-mix, or other light mediums
    • install drip irrigation
  • Know your region
    • pick plants that grow well where you live
  • Mulch
    • mulch with shredded leaves or homemade leaf compost
    • choose organic garden soil and mulches (read the ingredients!)
  • Seedlings 
    • buy starter seedlings for tropical plants like tomatoes and peppers.
    • direct sow other crops like leafy greens and root veggies straight into the garden by pulling back mulch and placing seeds directly in the soil
  • Have fun! Stop and smell the roses :)

Watering your organic plants

Getting irrigation right can minimize the water used by your organic plants. Rainwater harvesting can minimize the use of potable water. Xeriscape gardening techniques can minimize the amount of water your garden requires to thrive.

My favorite way to water the garden is with permanent drip irrigation. Drip irrigation is very efficient and is considered one of the most water-wise methods of watering your garden. Only small areas are irrigated, and those areas are irrigated very slowly to allow the soil to properly absorb the water.

Drip irrigation can be expensive if you hire a landscaping company to install it for you. Fortunately, it is completely reasonable to install drip irrigation yourself, even if you have no experience with it. The materials are available at the hardware store or a specialty landscaping store. It’s exactly the same gear the pros would use. Check out this tutorial on installing your own DIY drip irrigation and get started watering your organic plants automatically!


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 *