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Tips for novice gardeners: Start small, follow a plan, keep a journal, don’t get discouraged

A helpful first step is to develop a plan. Decide what you want to grow. Choose the best place for growing it. Determine how much you can safely harvest and store. Finally, lay it out.
A helpful first step is to develop a plan. Decide what you want to grow. Choose the best place for growing it. Determine how much you can safely harvest and store. Finally, lay it out. AP Photo/Dean Fosdick

The arrival of a new year is always a good time for fresh starts, and there are few things as enjoyable to start – or that provide fresher returns – than gardening.

But how should a novice begin?

A helpful first step is to develop a plan. Decide what you want to grow. Choose the best place for growing it. Determine how much you can safely harvest and store. Finally, lay it out.

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“Novice gardeners often start too big, and soon realize they don’t have the time or energy to fully develop or maintain their original garden plan,” said Gail Langellotto, a horticulturist with Oregon State University Extension Service.

“Another common mistake is gardening without first getting to know your soil,” Langellotto said. “Different soil types present different gardening opportunities and challenges.”

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What that means is getting a soil test done if you prefer an in-ground garden. You also can do your planting in raised beds or containers. That way you can introduce commercially blended soils, many of which include slow-release fertilizers and water retention capsules to give seeds or seedlings a quick boost.

Want guidance?

“Many people search for advice on the Internet,” Langellotto said. “But a fantastic and underused resource is your local Extension office. We provide gardening advice that is reliable, fact-based and relevant to your particular gardening situation.”

Easy-to-grow plants include annual flowers. But perennials generally take care of themselves once you get them established in the right location, Langellotto said.

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“For vegetables, I have a list of ‘the easy eight’ that beginning gardeners might want to start with: radishes, peas, leaf lettuce, carrots, spinach, bush beans, summer squash and hybrid tomatoes,” she said. “Most of these crops are very forgiving and easy to grow if you understand their basic needs.”

Set some first-year goals, said Larry Campbell, the Harrison County, West Virginia, agriculture extension agent.

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“Those should include garden site development through tillage, construction of raised or square-foot beds if desired, and soil amendment for pH and nutrients,” he said. “Also, deciding in advance whether you want to grow enough vegetables to supply fresh produce for daily use or for post-season preservation is necessary before starting the garden each year.”

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Some general tips from Campbell:

– Gardens should get six to eight hours of sunlight per day.

– Soils should be well drained and slightly acid to neutral, or in the 6.5 to 7 pH range.

– Choose plants suitable to their region or USDA plant hardiness zone.

– Keep a record of the weather each gardening year. That can help you predict patterns for the following season. “Also, keeping records of the performance of the various varieties grown each year can aid the gardener with plant selection,” Campbell said.

“I think the best rules of thumb are, have fun, don’t be afraid to experiment in the garden and don’t be afraid of failure,” Langellotto said. “Realize that no one is born with a green thumb or a brown thumb. Gardening can be learned.”