Grow Guide

The best gardening tools and plants for beginners, from a horticulturalist

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With more time at home and spring weather arriving, this may be an ideal time to start growing your own garden. There are a few essentials, whether you’re starting a mini-farm or just want to put in a few window boxes.

Starting a first-time garden may seem like a lot of work, but horticulturists have recommendations on how to get started. It's time to get your hands dirty.

The best home garden tools

The specific tools you need to start your garden will depend on how ambitious you want to get, as well as how much space you have.

Watering supplies — Regardless of where you live, you’ll need to water your garden frequently. The exact amount will vary based on three factors: the type of plants, the amount of sunlight, and whether plants are in the ground or in pots.

If you’re only growing a few plants in pots outside — like on an apartment balcony — you can probably get away with a decent sized watering can. This one holds two gallons of water:

If you’re planting a backyard garden, lugging around a watering can be tedious. Make sure you have a good hose with an adjustable nozzle so you can vary the amount of water.

How to choose the right planting soil

The soil you use — and whether or not you need to treat it with chemicals for better growing — may vary based on where you live. pH is an important factor because it affects the nutrients your plants can soak up. Whether you need to raise or lower the pH of the soil may depend on your location.

George Boyhan, a horticulture professor at the University of Georgia, tells Inverse that land east of the Mississippi River is on the acidic side, so growers might need to add Lyme.

On the West coast, though, soils tend to be more alkaline — so lowering the pH is often the goal. Treatments might involve adding sphagnum peat moss or certain micronutrients.

Since this is very location-specific, it’s a good idea to find out what your soil needs, and maybe even get a soil test. You can contact your local Extension office — there’s a tool online to find the contact in your area.

How to choose the right potting soil

On the other hand, if you’re growing plants in containers, you’ll probably be working with potting soil. Most of those options are pretty consistent, Boyhan says, and have some fertilizer built-in already:

Still, you may need to add some fertilizer at some point. Plants in pots can take up all the nutrients, and since they’re probably not getting additional organic matter from other nearby plants, you may need to help them out.

For conventional fertilizers, Boyhan says a popular blend is a “10-10-10,” that is, one made with 10 percent each of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

If you want to keep things organic, you can use an all-natural fertilizer, sometimes called a “soil conditioner.” Those fertilizers are made of natural matter including dead plants and manure from animals.

The best home garden digging tools

When it comes to digging tools, especially at a small scale, your most basic tool is a hand trowel. You can buy one individually, but they also come in sets with other useful tools — like a transplant trowel (with a sharper edge and a ruler to see how far you’re digging), and a hand rake.

If you need to dig into the ground, your tools may depend on what was already there. If you’re revitalizing a pre-existing garden, a garden fork may come in handy to turn over the soil:

If you’re starting fresh on a patch of land that needs more attention, it might require some tilling.

And of course — if just for fun — feel free to grab a pair of gardening gloves:

Choose the right container size for potted plans

If you’re planting in pots, you have the opportunity to get creative with your containers. Varying sizes and shapes that complement each other will maximize even the smallest outdoor space with a collection of potted greenery.

Use the biggest container you can, so roots can expand as much as possible, and make sure it has drainage holes, Brooke Edmunds, a horticulture professor at Oregon State University, tells Inverse.

You can also have fun with recycling old containers and turning them into planters. Edmunds says “this can be as simple as recycling a large yogurt tub to grow a single basil plant or a five-gallon bucket from the hardware store to hold a tomato plant.”

Beginners should buy starter plants instead of seeds

You can either start plants from seed or buy a small plant that’s already been started for you. While it’s definitely satisfying to watch a tiny seed grow, both Boyhan and Edmunds say beginners should consider transplanting young plants when first starting out. The downside? That method is more expensive than buying a pack of seeds.

Start with a leafy plant

Edmunds recommends starting with leafy greens (lettuce, kale, chard), radishes, and herbs (basil, parsley, cilantro).

Mint is easy to grow, but it spreads a ton, so keep it in a container, Edmunds says. If you have the space, she also suggests pole beans, bush beans, and zucchini.

Once you’re ready to get a little ambitious, “try fruiting plants like tomatoes, eggplant, or peppers,” Edmunds says. “Carrots and beets can be a little more temperamental. Try perennial herbs like rosemary, thyme, oregano, etc.”

Plants like tomatoes and pole beans will also need a trellis or cage to keep them standing upright, Edmunds notes.

For Boyhan, a particular favorite to grow is kohlrabi — and he thinks it’s underrated.

“That’s one misundestood vegetable — that’s one people really should be growing,” he says. “You can roast it, you can rice it, have it instead of mashed potatoes.”

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