I’ve handed out a lot of gardening advice in the 4+ years I’ve been writing here, but some tips are just so timeless I find myself coming back to them over and over.
Here are 20 tips I think every gardener should know.
Top 20 Tips Every Gardener Should Know
1. Go organic
You’re a big boy or a big girl. You can make up your own mind about chemical pesticide, herbicides and fertilizers. You can, if you so choose, walk into Home Depot and buy a bag of Casoron and so thoroughly poison your immediate environment that seeds won’t germinate for a year or more.
But before you do – before you spend the money and the time and get all that stinky dust all over your clothes and subject your local groundwater to the inevitable runoff – consider if perhaps a more gentle approach might work. Perhaps the tools of industrial monocrop agriculture – the hard core weed killers and pesticides – just aren’t appropriate to the scale of your backyard. Try organic approaches first. I’m willing to bet you’ll like the results.
2. Grow what you will eat and eat what you can grow
If you are a family of dedicated veg haters, so be it. Grow strawberries and raspberries. Look to your own larder for inspiration. If you buy a ton of pizza sauce, maybe a few nice Roma-type tomatoes and a big pot of basil would suit you best. It’s all ok!
Conversely, there is something that grows with almost no work or fuss where you live. In my area, it’s kale and most potatoes. In the south, I think it’s sweet potatoes. In the midwest, maybe squash? Whatever your local Sure Thing is, learn to love it and your gardening will always be more satisfying.
3. Seeds are where it’s at
Store-bought starts are expensive and limiting. And with most varieties of vegetables, starts are totally unnecessary. You’ll get more variety options, healthier crops and you will pay far less if you buy seeds. Peas, beans, corn, beets, carrots, greens, lettuce, kale, summer squash, winter squash, cucumber, melon and more can all be direct sown very successfully.
4. No crappy seedlings
If you do buy starts, make sure they’re good! Truth time: There are a lot of crappy seedlings offered for sale at this time of year. I’ve seen it all: the nutrient stressed, the root-bound, the already bolting. Before you plunk down your cash, know what seedlings are beyond help so you can pass them up.
Learn more: How To Spot And Avoid A Crappy Seedling.
5. Sow in blocks
Consider square-foot style block planting for maximum yields. I personally consider the square foot gardening spacing guides to be too tight to allow for best plant growth, but planting in blocks, with plants spaced in triangles is a great way to maximize the number of plants you can grow.
6. Garden all year round
Another way to maximize the harvest is to lengthen how long your garden is “on.” Use season extension techniques like cloching, soil solarization and thermal mass to start your growing season earlier in spring and extend it later into fall. Even very cold climate gardeners can harvest year-round with the right plant choices and crop protection.
Learn More: The Keep It Simple Guide To Cloches and Understand Thermal Mass To Be A Climate Zone Hacker!
7. Succession sow for a continual harvest
Plant salad greens at least monthly, and ideally every 2 weeks to get a nice, long window for harvesting fresh greens. Plant 2 or 3 waves of broccoli, bush peas, corn and bush beans throughout the growing season, each staggered by a few weeks.
Learn more: How To Make Year-Round Gardening Really Work.
8. Embrace self-seeding plants
Ever wish your garden would just plant itself? Well, part of it can, and will! The self-seeding crops are a busy gardener’s secret weapon for early, easy harvests. I have a whole little patch of cilantro that’s up in my garden right now I never planted, and I couldn’t be happier! Arugula, mache, lambs quarters, calendula, nasturtium and kale have all naturalized happily in my yard and just pop up wherever they want. Because there is always a bounty, it’s easy to yank (and eat!) plants that are out of place.
9. Know when to harvest
One of the greatest stumbling blocks new gardeners face is what to do when confronted with the actual harvest! Don’t let the prize slip through your fingers – learn to recognize the signs that your crops are ready for your table.
Learn more: When and How To Harvest Broccoli and Cauliflower.
10. Pee on your compost pile.
Urine is a great fertilizer, and it’s free! Don’t let your own liquid gold go to waste – pee-cycle it! Add your pee to the compost pile to help warm everything up or dilute and use it to fertigate crops directly. When you capture your pee as a valuable nutrient source you also cut way down on toilet water use, which is good for your pocketbook and the environment.
Learn more: How To Use Pee In Your Garden
11. Practice root-to-leaf, whole plant eating
Many garden crops happily deliver a “second harvest” beyond what the grocery store will give you. Broccoli leaves are like collards, beet greens are very similar to chard (a close relative). Kale makes delicious broccoli-like florets in the early spring, and the pods from shelling peas can make a delightfully pea broth to be used in a springtime risotto.
Learn more: How to Harvest and Cook Kale Florets
12. Just grow up!
Harvest more more crops in the same space by embracing trellising. I like to use concrete reinforcing panels and rebar or T-Posts to make a long lasting, strong and durable trellises. My inexpensive but attractive DIY garden arches are super strong, and were made with just concrete mesh, rebar and zipties.
Learn more: DIY Concrete Mesh and Rebar Trellis
13. Perfect is over-rated. Practice weed triage
Get realistic about what a garden “should” look like and you’ll save yourself zillions of hours and lots of gardener-insecurity. Embrace weed triage by mulching, smothering, chopping and dropping or simply ignoring the harmless weeds. This will give you more time to carefully dig out the truly pernicious and noxious ones before they become a big problem.
Learn more: 5 Ways To Save Time In The Garden
14. Landscape fabric is the Devil’s cloth
I’m not saying there’s never an appropriate place for weedblocking landscape fabric. But 99% of the time, landscape fabric is not the right answer. I will use it under permanent hardscape features like stone patios or gravel paths. Never, ever, ever use weedblock fabric in a border, or around shrubs or trees or anything that’s growing. I speak from experience, here: you will only harm your garden in the long run if you invite this devil cloth into your growing areas. Just say no.
15. Mulch is an Angel’s soft blanket
Mulch everything, everywhere, always. No exception – if the dirt is exposed, cover it with something or nature will cover it for you, typically with weeds. Organic mulches that break down over time will feed your soil the way nature does – from the top-down, without tilling.
I have never had anything work like mulching with arborists woodchips to draw in soil microbes, aerate, and develop gorgeous soil tilth in my garden. The magic of arborists woodchips is they act like miniature sponges, buffering the soil moisture in the ground, while encouraging tons of earthworm and fungal hyphae activity. If, like me, you live in an area where arborists woodchips are plentiful and available free, I believe they make an ideal garden mulch. If some other else is more abundant and plentiful in your area, use that.
16. When in doubt, add herbs.
Herbs are the best bang for your gardening buck. They are literally the most cost-effective crop you can grow. They transform simple food into delicious food. They smell great and are delightful to look at. Plant herbs with abandon and never feel guilty if you don’t harvest them all – when those herbs flower they bring in beneficial insects by the score.
Learn More: The 1 Edible You Must Grow and 3 Simple Steps To Bring Beneficial Insects To Your Garden
17. Compost happens
I am a terrible composter. I really am. I’ve never had the patience to get all scientific with my greens and browns. But you know what? It doesn’t matter! You can compost any way that works for you – hot composting or cold composting, trench composting, vermicomposting, chicken-composting, in a casual pile or in a badass compost tumbler. Compost will, eventually, happen.
The most important part of composting is that it turns waste into a valuable soil amendment! Your compost does not have to (and probably won’t or shouldn’t) look like the stuff from the bag at the garden center. That’s ok! Even if you think you are a terrible composter, compost anyway.
18. Think beyond the plate and into the glass
You don’t have to garden just for the food value. The drink value can be pretty awesome, too. Consider the possibilities: herbal teas, infused booze and farm-fresh libations are all made better when your own fruits, herbs and vegetables add to the flavor.
19. You’ll screw up. (Spoiler alert: We all do.)
No matter how long you do this, you’ll screw up. No matter how many blogs or books or magazines you read – things will go sideways. Crops will die. Pests will become unbalanced. The sun won’t shine. Some years you will grow better weeds than crops. This happens, and it’s ok. Just get out there and learn from your garden.
Learn more: Garden Anxiety
20. Learn To Think Like A Plant
Closely related to #19 – when you are a really great gardener you still screw up, but you do so less because you think like a plant. Oh, sure, my lettuce isn’t doing trigonometry, but it does have a world view. Certain things make it happy and certain things make it unhappy.
When you learn to think like a plant, you can feel the arch of the sun on your face and intuit how it will strike the leaves of your veg. You can thrust your fingers into the ground and imagine how difficult it will be for the roots of a plant to find a path through the particles of soil. You can appreciate the amazing possibilities that exist in a single seed.
Learning to think like plant is the goal, the beginning and the end of gardening.9
Hi Erica! Thank you so much for this post, and for NWEdible in general. This post puts me in the mind frame of rejuvenation, and excitement for all things growing. Just the mindset I need to tackle the huge poison ivy patch my new backyard has become–organically, if possible! All the best!
You finally, last year, convinced me to start some herbs. Cilantro and dill made the cut. Apparently, they are the gateway herbs everyone is warned about.
Elizabeth F says
Very nice summary.
Erica, here is a reader question for you. How do I reconcile your advice to mulch with your advice to sow seeds and succession sow? For example, if I sow lettuce seeds in my garden box, do I then put mulch on top? Seems like that would add too much depth and keep the little guys from germinating, and then if I mulch how best to sow the next round of seeds?
Oh, that’s easy. If you have existing mulch, just push the mulch away where you sow your seeds, and wait until the seedlings are up with a good true leaf or two to smooth the mulch back toward the plant. With many plants, like lettuce, the growing seedling will sort of self-mulch as it grows by shading out weeds, etc. So the point is that SOMETHING has to cover the soil. That something can be your plants. You can think of groundcovers as a living mulch this way.
Just curious about #14 – why the landscape fabric hatred? Been reading your posts for a few years, and don’t recall seeing an explanation of that one.
I had this genius idea when we first moved onto our current property. We had an area that became an ornamental garden bed (shady spot) where the swath of horsetails started coming up and did not stop. They were a mass, 15 feet deep and 5 feet tall. Rather than spray the whole thing with RoundUp as my landscaper recommended, I carefully pulled all the horsetails, then rolled down landacape fabric and topped the landscape fabric with about 6 inches of compost.
The horsetails, were, in fact slowed down, but not any more than they would have been with a thick layer of cardboard and mulch. They would poke through the landscape fabric, and any place there was a seam there would be a line of horsetails like a farmer had planted a row of them. (I overlapped the landscape fabric by 6-12 inches and pinned it with landscape staples. It didn’t matter.)
Meanwhile, the trees and shrubs matured. I noticed many seemed less verdant than I would expect. Several trees died. Eventually I went to the source of the problem and discovered how the landscape fabric had divided the soil. The landscape fabric stopped the compost from being naturally broken down effectively, and the roots of the perennials grew literally into the landscape fabric. The landscape fabric slowed moisture penetration sown into the subsoil enough that there was a distinct moist mulch/dry sub soil layer (and yes, I installed the landscape fabric the right way up).
When I saw how the landscape fabric was hindering my soil’s health, I painstakingly carved the fabric out of the tangle of roots so that had grown into and around it. This took me weeks.
Under the landscape fabric? A pale, but otherwise thriving and extensive network of horsetails.
I hate the stuff.
OK! If it’s still lurking out there, I agree, horsetail is a bastard. It’s also natural accumulator of deep subsoil micronutrients, and makes a fab natural fungicide. I make a strong tea out of the stuff (pails full of horsetail covered with water and let to steep in the sun for a day or two) and spray it on struggling garden plants.
I live in South Seattle area and wondering where one would get free arborists wood chips? Im using a lot of pine mulch on my newest installments of blueberry bushes and camellia sinensis (real Tea plants), but looking for more pH neutral mulch for everyone else.
Any tips on preventing birds from digging up your seeds or pulling up tiny plants? A quick search of the archives didn’t turn up anything obvious. Does anyone else have this problem? 🙂
I’ve had a terrible time this year with birds (at least I think they are birds–I’ve seen them pull my cilantro before). I’ve been putting chicken wire cages around recently-sown crops and leaving them there for about a month, but I’m running out of cages at this point–pretty much everything I don’t protect ends up getting dug up 🙁
We do a few things:
1) I cover the soil with a light layer of straw mulch. It helps retain more even soil moisture while the seeds are sprouting, plus it kind of hides the seeds from the birds.
2) We cover the beds with a light row cover on hoops until the plants are up and established.
3) I pretty much always over-seed. Seeds are generally good for several years, so I try and buy larger format seed packages anyway. It’s cheaper in the long run, even if I don’t always use them all. This way I can overseed which gives me some loss tolerance and if they do all come up I’d rather thin than not have a full crop.
Mariah k says
I bought a cheap roll of wire fencing kind of like chicken wire but stronger and made mine cage most are 4feet long and 1 wide and place over new seedlings.
Awesome list. The one thing I would add to this is to use homemade complete organic fertilizer a la Steve Solomon. I used it in my first garden with great success…was lazy my first two summers here and couldn’t figure out why things just weren’t quite right. I did a soil analysis this spring…HELLO. Within days of starting to remineralize my soil, everything started springing to life and turned at least one shade of green darker.
Sam Hill says
I’ve been an avid reader of your blog for the last couple years. I’m also currently doing my masters in horticulture science and organic agriculture. I have a serious problem in my little urban garden in downtown Birmingham, AL. It is being taken over by multiple invasive viney species. Morning glories, virginia creeper, honeysuckles, and some vine with stickers on it to name a few. It’s almost like I have a viney network of chaos going in and around my yard. My education doesn’t/hasn’t covered how to control a serious vine problem. Other than me battling them every week by pulling out their shoots and roots, do you have any suggestions or wisdom for organic control for a problem like this? They’re making me crazy. If I don’t get ALL of the root system, they just pop right back up!
Sam Hill, Birmingham, AL
Love this list! I started growing from seed this year & have thoroughly enjoyed it. The thing that finally convinced me to make the change was realizing that, if I failed, I could always go to the garden store and buy some starts! I ended up giving away some cherry tomatoes and jalapeno peppers to friends, and buying starts of a few unique varieties I wanted to try. My starts are MUCH healthier & my friends are enjoying them as much as I do! 🙂
Do you have any suggestions for getting rid of flea beetles on my recently transplanted tomato babies?
Ien in the Kootenays says
Great reminders. I would add one more thing: don’t be afraid to be tough, The garden is no place to nurture runts. It took me YEARS to learn that and I still get seduced. http://kootenaygarden.blogspot.ca/2010/05/garden-lessons-painstakingly-learned.html
Good advice! I do use landscape fabric around my annual veg – I plant lots of cukes which I turn into fantastic hot dill pickles, and as soon as the seedlings emerge I run landscape fabric down each side of the bed – without doing this I would be CONSTANTLY weeding. I do this with my sweet potatoes too. I am in the lower midwest, and have terrible soil, so my solution is to way overplant to deal with disease and bugs. I have a big area so I can do this.
For things that do really well in the lower midwest, sweet potatoes do really well here. you can grow them farther north than most people realize. In fact Joan Gussow, organic gardener, grows them in New York. Tomatoes do pretty well, but I have given up on winter squash. The bugs just won’t let it mature, darn it
Chatted with a man who does professional yard maintenance. He said that 90% of their work was either trying to get selected plants to grow in places that they do not want to grow or trying to get unwanted plants to stop growing places where they do want to grow. So I started becoming friends with plant that want to grow in my yard such as raspberries, strawberries and kale – then stopped trying to grow those plants that do not like our yard – Swiss chard, beets and spinach which all fall to leaf miners. When has limited energy and ti
me for gardening it just works for us.
Sarah Schultz says
I was excited to find your page when I typed in a question about cauliflower and found you on Google. I liked your page on Facebook and I see many of my friends already liked your page. I’m always looking for a great gardening website for tips for avid beginners like me!
I have to be honest though, I was disappointed to see first thing in this post:
“1. GO ORGANIC
You’re a big boy or a big girl. You can make up your own mind about chemical pesticide, herbicides and fertilizers. You can, if you so choose, walk into Home Depot and buy a bag of Casoron and so thoroughly poison your immediate environment that seeds won’t germinate for a year or more.”
…as we are conventional grain farmers and I also use synthetic fertilizer once per year for my tomatoes and for my medium-sized garden. I don’t think any hobby gardener would use pesticides in their garden on a regular basis, at least that’s how we do it in my area. However, if I had the option to buy GMO sweet corn seeds with Bt resistance, I’d rather because I had an awful corn borer worm infestation last year and organic farmers can and do spray the natural form of Bt anyway.
I’m trying really hard to find a gardening page (even if it is organic-based, I choose not to grow organic seeds, garden 100% organically or purchase organic foods) that isn’t “pro-organic and anti-conventional” methods 🙁 I guess I’ll keep looking. Just some food for thought, but I do respect your choice. Your page—your choice.
I finally scored a huge pile of arborist woodchips! After I move them into my backyard, though, I’m not quite sure where to put them….I have a lot of shade in the backyard so don’t really have anything growing in terms of veggies (so I can’t put them between the rows). How quickly do they break down? Do I have to excavate the soil first if I want to build some paths or can I just lay the chips on top of the ground? Our soil is terrible here in Maryland (well, where I am it’s basically clay) – so I’m wondering if I could also put a layer on some really clay-heavy areas and help break the clay up. I welcome any thoughts you might have!
Can I ask what is the problem with landscape fabric. I’m just starting my garden and am just wondering
I have started seedlings for the very first time and my Pickling Cucumber seedlings are about 5 weeks old and are starting to have yellow blotches on the leaves, is this from over watering or another cause? I am using florescent lights, seedling plugs and using good seeds from Seattle Seed Co.
Mariah k says
Very good, I have been gardening all my life. You were right on. Also I have to second the fabric being nasty. Moved into my house 13 yrs ago and I still occasionally come across it in my yard and remove. It seems the previous owners like it. Talk about a pain in the rear….