Ah, the first garden. It’s a milestone that all homesteaders look forward to. However, for most people, the first garden isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be – it’s an experience that’s often riddled with mistakes and disappointments.
I learned hundreds of lessons when I started my first garden – a dozen of which I’ll share here with you today. However, it’s important to remember that gardening is never a linear experience but instead one that’s filled with lessons to be learned and mistakes to be made.
You’ll have all kinds of ups and downs – but here are some of the most important lessons I learned when I started my first garden.
1. Planning is Important!
I am so excited! I have begun to plan for my very first garden. After asking my homesteading friends a bunch of questions, and doing lots of reading online and in my books, I am ready to jump into the game and see how I do.
I still haven’t exactly planned out my garden layout. I’m a procrastinator like that. I guess I’ll plan it all out, and draw a layout of where everything will go before I do my planting.
I did, however, decide on the sunniest spot in our yard for the plot. I’m very fortunate to have a wonderful gardening mother-in-law who has lots of gardening tools, including a tiller that my husband was able to borrow and use to till up my garden area.
I highly recommend planning out your vegetable garden ahead of time. The best time to do this is in the late winter, when you’re excited by the prospect of planting a new garden when you’re inundated with snowstorms and cold temperatures.
The best way to start planning out your garden beds is to sketch a diagram with a list of plants. Think about what crops you are going to grow and plot where they will need to be planted. Include the largest crops first, like tomatoes and corn.
Then, move on to those that will need some sort of trellis supports. These will be the most labor-intensive to plan and to plant. Then, you can sprinkle in short seasoned crops to fill out the gaps.
Consider how much space each plant needs and include that in your diagram. Make a sketch of your garden showing the dimension of your beds. Referring to your seed list, arrange the crops in your garden. Use the recommended spacing on the back of your seed package to figure out how many plants you can grow.
You might want to make a sun map of your property before you plant, too. This will help you figure out which areas get the most (or least) sunlight so you can plant sun-loving and shade-loving crops accordingly.
Don’t forget to test your soil before you plant, too!
2. Figure Out the Right Size Ahead of Time
When I started my garden, I ambitiously decided to start all my seeds indoors – as you can see by the size of my seed starting station, I definitely bit off more than I could chew!
The area is about 30’x50′. I have no idea if that will be big enough, or if it will be too big for me as a beginner. We’ll see!
With me being due in July, it might be hard to tend the garden during harvesting season, and deal with a newborn.
But I’m going to try to do all that I can. I am so ready to start living more self-sufficiently, and this is step one on my list.
When it comes to your garden, do your best to start small. I know, it’s hard! But I found that I bit off more than I could chew in the first year – while I managed, it would have been less stressful to focus on a few plants that I know I could grow really well and then move one to one or two new crops each year. You don’t want to make your garden so large you can’t manage it, after all!
3. Not All Seeds Are Alike
Something else that I learned while growing my first garden is that not all seeds are the same. You’ll have plenty of seed catalogs to scour and seed types to choose from – but don’t just settle on the first option that comes your way.
As I’ve mentioned before, I ordered my seeds from Heirloom Acres Seeds. I chose them over other Heirloom seed dealers because they are a small Christian family owned business, and I really want to support their mission.
Friends, I do not recommend Heirloom Acres Seeds. This company has had multiple complaints filed against it, and is rated an “F” by the BBB.
I still have not received all of my seeds, nor a requested refund 12 months after ordering from them. I will never order from them again, nor would I recommend doing business with them. I am extremely disappointed.
When you’re trying to find seeds or seedlings for your garden, choose dealers who are reputable and have good reviews. Some of the most popular include Burpees and Gurney’s, but there are plenty of other options to choose from, too. Don’t discount your local farm and garden store, either!
Next, when you’re planting seeds, you need to consider what varieties you are going to grow.I’m afraid I may have bitten off more than I can chew, but I over zealously ordered every vegetable that I could think of that my family consumes! Try to limit yourself the first year you plant your garden – otherwise, you’re definitely going to get overwhelmed.
I scoured the internet for the “best” choices for each variety; the ones that people said were the best tasting of each. Here is what I ordered:
- Carrots: Scarlet Nantes and Tendersweet
- Cantaloupe: Hales Best Jumbo
- Cabbage: Early Jersey Wakefield
- Corn: Golden Bantam Yellow Sweet
- Cucumber: Ashley (though they substituted with Marketmore) and Homemade Pickles
- Lettuce: Paris White Cos Romaine
- Onion: Walla Walla (though they ended up being out of stock)
- Pumpkin: Small Sugar
- Watermelon: Moon and Stars
- Broccoli: Green Sprouting
- Green Beans: Kentucky Blue Pole
- Bell Pepper: California Wonder
- Potatoes: Yukon Gold (plant to be shipped Spring)
- Strawberries: Sparkle (plant to be shipped Spring)
- Tomatoes: Amish Paste, Yellow Marble, Black of Tula, Cherokee Purple, Delicious, Brandywine Pink
4. Let Mother Nature Help
If you can, let Mother Nature do some of the work in caring for your garden. One lesson I learned is that it’s just as easy to overwater a garden as it is to underwater it. In many places, you’ll get all the water you need for your garden through natural rainfall alone.
Save yourself some time and stress, and try to avoid overmanaging your garden. Water when it’s dry and pull weeds only when they’re disturbing the plants. You can leave everything else as is.
5. Plan Ahead to Rotate Your Crops
Another lesson I learned when starting my first garden is that it’s essential to rotate your crops. This can help prevent pests and diseases and also make sure you’re getting the most of the nutrients in the soil without depleting it.
There are basically five vegetable families you should focus on in your garden:
- Solanaceae: tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant
- Cucurbit: cucumbers, squash, pumpkin, melons, gourds
- Legume: beans and peas
- Allium: garlic, chives, onions, shallots, and leaks
- Brassica: cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collards, kohlrabi, radish, spinach, turnip, rutabaga, mustard
6. Come Up With a Weed Strategy
Remember how I wrote earlier that you can let Mother Nature do a lot of the work when it comes to caring for your garden? That’s true for weddings, but be sure to come up with some sort of wedding strategy so that you have a plan for tackling these pesky invaders.
For example, you might choose to go through the garden once a month and cut down the weeds with a hedge trimmer. This will get rid of tall, invasive weeds and prevent the likelihood of ticks. You can use black plastic, as displayed in the picture, to keep weeds out around your plants too:
When it comes to the weeds that pop up among your rows and between your carefully cultivated plants, consider mulching. This will help reduce a lot of the weeding necessary to maintain a garden. Did you know some large gardens require more than 20 hours of work each week? That’s crazy! Cut down on your labor by preventing weeds before they become a problem.
7. Invest in the Right Tools
I had my husband do a lot of the tilling in my first garden – and he did it by hand. Fortunately, this really isn’t necessary if you invest in the right tools. If you have the money to spend on tools or you can share some with your neighbors, there are lots of ways to cut down on the labor you expand in your garden.
Some of the basics that I recommend include a good hoe and shovel, some gardening gloves, and a pitchfork. Don’t forget a good hose and hose nozzle too! If you can swing it, a tractor is also a worthwhile investment. Again, not cheap – but a tractor can perform so many vital duties when it comes to the garden.
From tilling it to helping you pull up stubborn vines at the end of the season, it’s a lifesaver. I even used my tractor this year to weed the garden! I pulled up weeds and tossed them in the bucket of the tractor before feeding the weeds to my pigs. It was much faster than carting them out in a wheelbarrow!
8. Ask and Ye Shall Receive
…advice, that is! Don’t spend all kinds of money on expensive gardening books – you probably won’t read them. In my first year of gardening, I found that it was most helpful to turn to the people I knew for advice.
Check in with your local gardening store or talk to friends or neighbors that have gardens. They’ll have plenty of advice for you – and it will be tailored to your climate and unique growing needs, too.
And if you absolutely can’t find any practical advice near you, don’t worry – there’s always the Internet. You can turn to Facebook, Google, or other online treasure troves to get the information you need. Just ask!
9. Build a Good Fence
One thing I learned when growing my first garden is that deer and rabbits stop for nobody! Build a good fence during your first year of gardening – trust me, this is an investment that will pay off in dividends.
We’ve had issues with not only rabbits and deer but also with raccoons, squirrels, and other pests that want nothing more than to nibble on my hard-earned produce.
10. Come Up With a Watering Strategy
Again, Mother Nature may be able to provide for you all the water you need – but if she doesn’t come through (I’m looking at you, dry spells!) you will want to have a watering plan worked out.
It might be as simple as throwing on your muck boots each morning and trekking out to the garden to water your transplants. Or you might want to install some sprinklers or drip irrigation systems. The latter is definitely recommended, in my opinion!
I learned the hard way that overhead sprinklers can seriously tax your plants, particularly if you run them in the evening. The Plants don’t have time for their foliage to dry off before night falls, which can lead to some fungal issues.
11. Let the Plants Work With Each Other
There are some plants that grow really well next to each other. For example, I recommend innerspring herbs among your vegetables and growing flowers like marigolds to help keep pests away from your vegetable plants.
There are other companion plants you can use, too. For example, pairings like squash, corn, and beans (the Three Sisters) are often used to make the most of soil fertility and space. Cucumbers and zucchini, though, shouldn’t be grown near each other – they attract the same pests!
I learned some of these lessons the hard way my first year gardening. Do some research on which plants grow well together and which do not, and you can save yourself some time and effort when caring for your garden.
12. If You Grow, You’ve Got to Preserve
I found so many blessings in my first garden – one of them being that we had way more produce than we knew what to do with! If that’s true for you, you’re going to want to find creative ways to store your surplus.
Canning is one of the best ways, but you might also consider freezing, dehydrating, or even freeze-drying or fermenting some of your extras.
Of course, you can always give some of that bounty away to your local community, too!
15. Your Yields Might Be Low
There are all kinds of reasons why your yields might be lower than you expected during your first year of gardening. You might not have planted enough seeds. You may have had a lot of seeds fail to germinate because you mistimed the planting. You could even have poor yields because your soil fertility is low.
Don’t worry – you’ll figure all this out later. You can continue to build soil in subsequent seasons so that it becomes more fertile and you’ll gradually figure out the best times to plant.
Which leads me to the next point…
14. You Might Start Too Late (Or Too Soon)
One of the trickiest parts about growing a garden, as a newbie, is knowing exactly when you should plant. You can find calculators that estimate the best planting time via the Farmer’s Almanac and similar resources, but often, these only give you information for your entire growing zone and don’t take into consideration the unique microclimate of your property.
Believe it or not, there can be a lot of variation!
Knowing when to plant is, unfortunately, one of those skills (I think it’s really more of an art) that comes with time and with practice. The best way to know when to plant is to use the calculators as an estimate, and then watch the weather conditions in your area.
Also, don’t waste time by failing to do all of your prep work before the planting season hits. Build your raised beds in the late winter or very early spring – before you can start planting.
Ideally, you’ll want to remove sod (or cover it up) in the fall. This will allow plenty of time for it to die back before you put raised beds over the top of it.
15. Your Plants Might Die… Seemingly For No Reason
This is one of the biggest frustrations and disappointments faced by new gardeners. It seems like your plants die all the time, no matter how diligent you are about caring for them.
So what are you to do?
For starters, you need to educate yourself as much as possible on the best ways to care for the plants you have decided to grow. If you can, take a few classes. Consider doing some research into the most common diseases and pests that affect plants in your area. Learn, learn, learn – and then learn some more.
You’ll thank yourself later, but remember – it takes a while to fully figure out what exactly you’re doing.
How to Avoid Disappointment When Growing Your First Garden
The absolute best thing you can do to avoid disappointing yourself – and wasting your time and efforts in all the labor – is to start with a small garden.
I know, spring is here, and you want to stretch your legs and get to planting that garden plot as soon as possible! However, you need to not get overzealous with that seed catalog and plant every variety of lettuce you can find.
Start with the basics. Is your garden located in the right spot, where it will get plenty of sunlight, water, and nutrients? Has your soil been fertilized? Okay. Good. Now you can pick a few plants to grow.
I recommend planting in raised beds whenever possible building a raised bed that’s just 5’x10’ should be more than enough space to flex your green thumb. Focus on just a few plants, perfect those plants, and then try a few more the right year.
And while you’re at it…
Choose the Right Plants
One mistake that beginning gardeners often make is choosing plants that simply aren’t compatible with their soil type. Understanding your climate and your plants will make all the difference between a flourishing garden – and disappointment. Conduct a soil test so you know what your soil looks like and consider growing plants that are more compatible with our conditions.
Don’t Start From Seed
Most gardening catalogs and websites will tell you the opposite – that it’s a good idea to start from seed.
And really, it is. Just not in your first year. During your first year of gardening, you have way too many other factors to figure out. Instead, you’re going to want to direct sow any seeds that must be planted outside (like green beans and lettuce) outside. Any other plants you should buy as started transplants. That way, you’ll remove a lot of the room for error!
This is the most important tip. You need to be patient! Keep gardening, even when everything seems to be failing. Try to constantly be improving.
Whether that means you’re just going to do a better job of weeding every week or you are going to make a conscious effort to learn more about various soil diseases, being willing to learn at all times is essential to growing a healthy, thriving garden.
I wasn’t patient – and I think that’s what did me in!
I think maybe I harvested the potatoes too soon. I wasn’t sure if they were ready yet. I read that when the plants die back you can dig up the potatoes. But then I read that they aren’t ready to be harvested until Fall. I thought I’d just dig up some plants that were already all shriveled up and almost all the way gone.
I dug up three potato plants… and got one potato each! I’m sure I dug deep enough. I think the problem is that I probably didn’t mound them enough. They probably didn’t have enough loose soil to grow in, so they didn’t do well.
The kids and I ate the three potatoes at lunch yesterday. They were yummy! Maybe the other plants will do better. I’ll wait until Fall to dig them up, I guess.
We haven’t tried the cucumbers yet. I hope they are sweet and not bitter! I’ll let you know how they came out after we’ve munched them for lunch today 🙂
*We did eat a cucumber at lunch, and it was really good. I don’t know why some are bitter sometimes, but I’m glad mine was sweet!
So Many Lessons Learned – and Surely More to Come!
Sooo, hopefully I can handle all of this. I am so ready to be able to walk out into the garden, and pick food for our table! These are some of the lessons I’ve learned while planning for and planting my first garden – hopefully you can learn from my experiences (and from my mistakes!).
Anyways, I’ll be journaling my newest endeavor, for all of you newbies like me. Hopefully I can give some encouragement and insight to some of you, and learn some great tips from others more experienced! What sorts of lessons did you learn while working on your first garden – or in later years?
updated 02/19/2021 by Rebekah Pierce
A city girl learning to homestead on an acre of land in the country. Wife and homeschooling mother of four. Enjoying life, and everything that has to do with self sufficient living.