Garden Starter Guide

Garden Starter Guide


In the past two years, there has been a lot of new interest in gardening. I struggled to find a simple resource to which I could refer friends just starting out, so I created this guide to help folks through their first year gardening. The more people who grow things, the better!

I) Building your garden beds

    1. Pick a spot that gets full sun (direct sunlight for at least 6 hours a day)
    2. A shovel, turning fork, and edger will be helpful in preparing the beds, but you can get the whole job done with a shovel
    3.  If you’re just getting started, I recommend two 3x10ft beds with a 2-3ft pathway. Use a measuring tape and put a stake or stick at each corner of each bed. I like to tie string around each bed to use as an edging guide.
    4. Using your edger or shovel and following the string as a guide, dig out around the edge of the beds. Shake the dirt out of the clumps of grass. Try to get all the dirt back into the garden bed. 
    5. Dig out the rest of the bed, and shake out all the grass. This will take forever and is the hardest part.
    6. Your garden bed should have 4-8” inches of loose dirt. If you don’t have 4” after shaking out the dirt, dig deeper with the shovel and break up the clumps of hard earth. A little deeper is ideal.
    7. If you are concerned about lead or other chemicals in your soil, you can build a raised bed. Most annuals won’t need more than 8” of soil, so if your raised bed is 8” deep, the roots of plants won’t be able to access contaminated soil. You can use rocks, bricks, scrap wood (avoid pressure treated wood), logs, cinderblocks, or purchase one. You’ll need to buy soil to fill the bed. Bagged soil from the store is a pain to lug around, but probably safer than soil you can get delivered (sometimes topsoil is scraped off of other house lots and can contain lead.) I much prefer in-ground beds, but raised beds are a great alternative if you aren’t able to create an in-ground bed.


II) Soil amendment

    1. Perfect soil looks like chocolate cake. The more worms in your chocolate cake, the better! Your soil may be too sandy (fine, may look sandy, and doesn’t retain water well) or clay-heavy (clumps that are hard to break up, stays too wet.
    2. An all-purpose organic fertilizer might be a good option. The bag will tell you how much to add per square foot. It’s easy to overdo on fertilizer.
    3. Regardless of the condition, a couple bags of compost per bed will benefit your soil. 2-3” on top is perfect. It’s hard to overdo on compost.
    4. Add the organic fertilizer and compost to the bed. You can mix the top dressing into the first few inches of soil with gloved hands or a hand weeder. Your bed is ready!


III) Planting

      1. Starting plants from seed has the advantage of hardy seedlings and lots of variety. Each seed packet will have instructions on it. Follow those instructions!
        1. Some easy to grow and high yield plants are:
          1. Radishes
          2. Snap peas
          3. Lettuce
          4. Zucchini 
          5. Zinnias
          6. Sunflowers
      2. Started plants from a nursery are a great place to start for beginning growers! 
        1. Dig a 2-3” hole in your soil. Fill it with water and let the water soak in. Fill it with water a second time and let the water soak in again. This will give the seedling access to water, but also encourage its roots to reach down deeper into the ground so it will be hardier and more drought resistant.
        2. Place the seedling plug in the hole so the base of the stem will sit at the soil’s surface. If the stem is too deep in the dirt, it can rot. 
        3. Fill in the hole around the soil plug and press down with enough pressure to squish a ripe banana; not super hard, but hard enough to hold the plant firmly in place. Plants need soil to be loose enough so their roots can grow through the dirt, but not so loose that they can topple over or the roots hit big air pockets where they can’t access nutrients or water.


IV) Continuing care

    1. Pull out weeds when they’re small
    2. You might wish to mulch your plants with grass clippings or more compost to feed plants, help with water retention, and prevent weeds.


V) Other advice

    1. Timing
      1. In Dover, NH, our last average frost date is May 14. It’s quite safe to plant stuff after that date, but you can wait until Memorial Day to be completely safe -if you can stand to wait! You can plant many things as late as the end of June for a fall harvest.
    2. Skip most watering
      1. I basically never water my garden unless we are in a drought or near drought. You want your plants to learn to reach their roots down deeper into the soil to access water. Plants like 1” of rain per week, but most of them do fine with less. In the middle of summer when we’ve had a couple weeks with no rain, I’ll give them a deep soak early in the morning to mimic a heavy rain. Watering a little bit every day is a recipe for weak plants.
    3. Keep expectations low and keep trying! 
      1. My first year with my own garden, I expected everything I planted to grow and that I’d be carrying in bag after bag of lettuce, green beans, cucumbers and tomatoes. It wasn’t like that. A woodchuck leveled literally everything in my garden the first weekend I had planted my seedlings out, a few things grew well, a few things died, and a few things never started. It was really disappointing! I’m getting better at this each year, but when I put in so much work into my garden and expect nothing in return, I’m stunned by the magic. Over time you’ll learn more about what grows well in your soil, what methods work and which ones don’t, how to navigate pests. There are a lot of lessons in plants not growing, too. 
      2. I recommend Dover Agway for seeds, seedlings, compost, fertilizer, tools, and soil. You can call to order and they’ve leave it out for contact-free pick up and they deliver!