ASK MARTHA: My Beginner's Guide to Gardening - Seven Lessons I’ve Learned

Martha shares key starter lessons from her lifetime of gardening

Question: I want to start gardening but I'm overwhelmed - help me Martha! Where should I start?

Martha: The hours I have spent cultivating the soil, weeding, and planting, and just looking at what has come to be, have given me boundless pleasure. I no longer say, as I once did, "I have to work in the garden today." I say, with deep contentment, ''I'm gardening today." I have truly reaped the bounty of the garden. 

Every garden begins with a decision. “What kind of garden suits me?” 

As with clothing, achieving a good fit and the right style in the garden involves careful shopping. But before running down to the nursery and before pushing a spade into the soil, you should consider what style of garden makes you comfortable. 

Shortly after I started gardening in earnest on my own, I realized the great value of visiting other gardeners’ gardens. These visits were important educational forays into botanical landscapes created by dedicated gardeners. There are many ways to be informed about gardens you can visit across the United States. The Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program is one of my favorite resources. Open Days is a nationwide community of gardeners and garden enthusiasts teaching and inspiring each other and the public. From expert to novice, there is no better way to improve as a gardener than by experiencing a diverse range of gardens, and gardening traditions firsthand.

As you imagine your garden, you’ll ask yourself several questions, such as: Do I want to grow vegetables or flowers? Plant trees or shrubs? Be sure to ask local friends and gardeners whose places you admire about the amount of time and care they give to their landscapes. Keep in mind that a small but well-kept garden is usually much more attractive and productive than an expansive but neglected one. 

Here are some key factors to consider before you start – helpful lessons I have learned in my years of gardening: 

1. Start small:

If an in-ground garden is an overwhelming thought, begin with a raised bed or window box (below) or containers. You can plant most anything in containers (below left) and can learn a lot by moving them around to determine the best location for what you have planted. And there's no need to struggle with what nature gave you; raised beds (below right) allow you to create the ideal growing conditions, located with better sunlight and soil that warms up more quickly than in-ground beds. Note that because these boxes are self-contained, you will need to water them more frequently.

Window Box Herb Garden

Container Gardening with Flowers

Raised Bed Vegetable Garden

2. Know your zone:

The USDA has just updated their very useful hardiness zone guide. This map will help you determine what plants will grow well in your location. Selecting plants that prefer your climate is the best single guarantee of a trouble-free garden. Plant descriptions in nursery catalogs and on plant labels typically refer to these hardiness zones. Once you have identified the zone in which your garden is located, purchase only plants recommended as being hardy there.

3. Study your conditions:

Let sun, soil, and water be your guide in selecting the right plants for the right location. These are essential factors that determine the types of plants that will flourish on your site.

  • SunIn general, plants described as requiring "full sun" need at least six hours of exposure to direct sunlight daily. "Part sun" or "semi-shade" plants flourish where periods of direct sunlight alternate with periods of shade, or where the sunlight is filtered by an intermittent canopy of branches or a trellis over­head. "Full shade" describes a spot where direct sunlight never penetrates, due to shadows cast by dense ever­greens or solid man-made structures, such as a high wall or a porch roof.
  • Soil: Soil is a blend of mineral (or rock) particles in different sizes – ranging from coarse sands to finer silts and clays - combined with organic matter. The soil in each garden is unique, and it determines how moisture is absorbed and retained, how easily roots can grow in the earth and the supply of vital nutrients present. A soil test will pinpoint any deficiencies and indicate which nutrients will turn the soil into a good growing medium (called fertile). It will also tell you your soil’s pH. You can perform a test yourself using an inexpensive kit or contact your local cooperative extension service for assistance. I recommend amending your soil with a high-quality product that will help aerate roots and provide nutrients to your plants like Miracle-Gro Garden Soil
  • Water: Whether it’s a vegetable, a flower, a shrub, or a tree – and whether it grows in a container or in the ground – every plant needs water. But water with care – you can overwater. Poor soil drainage will result in plants standing in water and will rot and eventually kill your plants. Keep containers and gardens close to a spigot or sprinkler system, so you won't have to drag out a hose. 

4. Plan before you buy: 

Planting without a plan is risky. Use graph paper to sketch your designs, bearing in mind each plant's potential size and customary habit. Be sure to place larger plants to the northern side of your garden where they won't overshadow shorter ones and choose compact varieties if you have limited space. You can always dig more beds or enlarge pre-existing ones in subsequent years.

5. Right plant, right place:

It's easy to fall in love with a plant. But before you rush to install that shrub or tree, flower, or ground cover in your garden, take a minute to consider what sort of tenant it is going to make. If the plant won't thrive in your garden, or if it is likely to thrive too well and become a weed, or if it just can't get along with its neighbors, then admire the plant by all means, but in someone else's garden. 

6. Mistakes happen:

Underestimating the full size of a plant, pairing incompatible plants, and catering to garden pests are some of the most common mistakes. Correcting these are opportunities to learn more about your garden as you move forward and grow. 

7. Don’t forget to share: 

Whether it’s seeds, cuttings, or seasonal learnings, share your knowledge and experiences with other gardeners and friends. They are all great resources!

Article by Martha Stewart, as part of the Growing with Martha Stewart partnership.