Things you need to know before starting gardening
Starting your own garden, whether indoors or outdoors, can be very intimidating at first. There’s a lot of stuff that you need to learn, from sowing up to harvesting. However, despite the struggles you may encounter, you’ll be fulfilled and rewarded when your gardening efforts bear fruit (pun intended)!
indoor vegetable garden | indoor herb garden | outdoor flowerbed
Image sources: A Piece of Rainbow
First, it’s important to familiarize yourself with some terms so you won’t get lost in the sea of gardening rules and information. Even reading a seed packet’s instructions can make you confused if you’re a total newbie. So, in this article, we’ll provide you with some basic gardening facts, along with some tips, to help you transition into the life of a gardener smoothly.
What is ‘frost date’? | What does ‘last frost date’ mean?
Timing is everything when it comes to gardening, especially if you want to grow crops and do it outdoors because the climate greatly affects a plant’s survival. Knowing about the first and last frost dates is essential to the success of your gardening efforts if you live in a country within the temperate region (i.e., experiences winter or has four seasons).
Basically, a frost date is the average date of the last frost/light freeze or first frost/light freeze that happens in spring or fall. These dates are important to take note of because plants differ in the temperature they can handle. Some plants can handle frost and thrive in cooler temperatures, such as broccoli and lettuce, while some cannot handle frost and thrive in warmer temperatures, such as tomato and pepper.
So, if you sowed your warm-loving seeds way before the last frost date, your seedlings will get caught up in the cold temperatures of frosty spring nighttime, and your plant will be damaged, or worse, killed. Fortunately, almost all seed packets come with instructions on when to start the seeds or plant your seedlings. These instructions might vary from the cryptic “sow seeds after danger of frost” to a more straightforward “start seeds 30 days before last frost date.”
see #2 “Planting Instructions” for the use of frost date in seed packets
Image source: Houseful of Nicholes
Plants that cannot handle the cold, such as tomato and lettuce, must be germinated indoors to avoid the chilly weather of winter. Tomato seeds, which are to be sown 6-8 weeks before the final frost, are better off indoors when germinating. By the time the young tomato plants are ready to be transplanted outdoors, the frost will be truly over and the soil will be able to accommodate the plant’s growth.
To know the schedule of the last and first frost dates, you can easily look for it by typing “frost dates by ZIP” in your search engine, or you can simply check this compilation of First and Last Frost Dates by Old Farmer’s Almanac (for USA and Canada).
What is ‘hardiness zone’? | What does ‘hardy to zone x’ mean?
Also called a “gardening zone” or “planting zone,” hardiness zone is a geographical zone where certain plants can thrive in the specific climate of that area. Developed and updated last 2012 by the USDA, the Plant Hardiness Zone Map divides USA, Hawaii, Alaska, and Puerto Rico into zones based on the location’s annual minimum winter temperature. Meaning, the map is a standard that gardeners can use to determine which plants are most likely to survive in a specific zone/location. So, if a certain plant is described as “hardy to zone 9,” this means that this plant can withstand a minimum temperature of –6.7°C (20°F) to –1.1°C (30°F).
However, if your country isn’t on the USDA map, you can check out the worldwide hardiness zone map we included below or this list of hardiness zone maps by The Spruce, which includes Russia, Japan, Southeast Asia, and more.
What is a ‘microclimate’? and How do you make one?
Microclimate, by definition, is a climate of a very small or restricted area that differs from the climate of the surrounding area. In gardening, microclimates are utilized to offer optimal growing conditions or environment to a plant.
Sometimes, your location’s hardiness zone does not support the optimal growth of the plant that you want to nurture. Other times, due to climate change, your area’s temperature does not conform to the temperatures indicated in the hardiness zone of your country.
This is where creating a microclimate comes in—an environment where your plant can thrive. It is wise for beginners to choose a plant based on the standard hardiness zones, but if you truly want to grow something that your location isn’t suitable for, then you can create a microclimate for your plant.
Exploiting microclimate can be done in numerous ways, such as creating a warmer or colder area in a room or out in your yard. For example, you can use grow lights as a source of heat and light indoors, use greenhouse covers or humidifiers to increase moisture and humidity, or you can create a strategically placed structure around your garden bed.
Some examples of strategically placed structures around a garden are masonry walls, sheds, or fences. These can retain the heat it accumulated during the day, which then can warm up the garden beds through the evening. An additional benefit of these structures is that it can give extra protection to your plants against pests.
If you plan to try this out, make sure to use materials that will not easily rot nor get infested with molds. One example of a great material to build sheds or fences with is this marine grade plywood that doesn’t easily allow fungus growth, is held together by waterproof glue, can withstand high temperatures and moist environments, and is made up of high-quality wood. Pair this with a wide belt sander to help you polish your woodwork and provide the best material for your garden beds or sheds.
And if you’re a big-time gardener who’s looking to expand your gardening business, surely, you’ll need better materials and tools for your endeavors. You might need this plasma cutter that can easily cut through stainless steel, steel, aluminum, brass, copper, and even conductive materials with high precision. The business expansion would, of course, entail a higher volume of production and construction. A MIG welder, which can produce high-quality welds in a much timely manner, will be a perfect addition to your tools. And, if your new business location would require you to travel, you’ll surely need a portable engine-driven welder that you can take anywhere and a water reservoir for your new nursery or plantation. Fuel transfer tanks would be convenient to have, which can serve as a reservoir for water, fertilizer, and gasoline.
What are the differences between sowing, planting, and seed starting?
The terms ‘sow,’ ‘plant,’ and ‘seed start’ are used interchangeably and basically have the same meaning, with only a few differences depending on its use in a sentence.
- plant – This is the most widely used term and can be applied to any form of planting. By definition, it means to place a seed, seedling, bulb, cuttings, or plant in a place (soil or any growing medium) so it can grow. This term, however, is most commonly used when describing transplanting or replanting a seedling/plant/transplant grown to another place (pot, ground, garden bed, etc.).
- sow – This term is only associated with the use of seeds, unlike ‘plant’ that can be associated with the planting of a mature plant. Usually, ‘sow’ is used in formal settings like in seed packets instructions, manuals, and brochures, and is most commonly used interchangeably with the terms ‘start,’ ‘germinate,’ or ‘seed start.’ By definition, it means to plant a seed by scattering on or in soil, done in a controlled manner, to initiate sprouting or germinating of seeds.
- seed, start, or seed-start – These terms are only associated with seeds, just like ‘sow.’ It basically entails the process of starting the seed germination process.
What is a ‘direct sow’ seed? | What does ‘direct sowing’ or ‘direct seeding’ mean?
Some seeds are better to be directly sown in the soil instead of being transplanted. Usually, this information will be in the seed packet’s instruction, as shown below. Basically, direct seeding/sowing is when you seed-start or germinate the seeds directly into the soil, outdoors or wherever you plan to let the plant grow—in an indoor vegetable garden, in your lawn, or inside your greenhouse. This means that you will not be using a separate seed-starting kit or container. Thus, you have to be sure where to plant your seeds; it must be somewhere it can thrive in and will not get damaged nor neglected because you must not move the plant anywhere after seed-starting.
Seeds that require direct sowing are usually plants that have a delicate root system or plants that are fast growers. A disturbance to the roots of plants with sensitive roots, such as tap-rooted vegetables, can cause damage or wilt. On the other hand, it would be impractical to germinate fast growers in a seed-starting kit because it would just outgrow the container and would require immediate transplanting to a bigger container or garden bed. However, there are some plants that can be transplanted but thrive better when directly sown, which is why their seed packets indicate direct sowing instead of seed-starting indoors.
Examples of plants that need (or prefer) direct sowing are zinnias, sweet pea, morning glory, poppies, beans, peas, carrots, beets, corn, squash, pumpkin, melon, cucumber, and spinach, among many others. If your seed packet does not include an instruction for this, then utilize your search engine to look it up so you can be sure.
the direct sowing requirement is shown in this seed packet of zinnia
Image source: Gardener’s path
What is ‘bottom watering’? | What does ‘bottom watering’ mean?
Bottom watering is a technique where, instead of watering your plants from above or on the soil (a.k.a. top watering), you let the water travel from the bottom instead, where it reaches the roots first. Of course, this method can only be done to plants or seedlings grown in a small- or medium-sized pot or container that has drainage holes at the bottom. If your plants are potted, but they’re too heavy for you to maneuver, then bottom watering is not something you can do.
Most gardeners prefer this method since it avoids root rot, which is more likely to happen when you water plants from above since the stem nearest the soil gets wet (a perfect place for molds to grow). Also, some plants that like to be root bound (or overcrowded in a pot) will resist watering from the top, and the water will just run down the sides of your pot or accumulate for a while at the bottom (which may encourage molding).
How to water plants from the bottom
- Make sure it fits – First, choose a water container that is large and sturdy enough to fit your pot or planter. Fill it up with water up to the point where your pot will only be halfway submerged—remember, the water should enter through the drainage holes, not from above.
- Make sure your plant needs water – Overwatering is just as bad as underwatering. Make sure that you know by heart the watering schedule of your plants, or check the soil if it needs watering. One way to check is to dip a finger in the soil at the edge of the pot up to the second knuckle; if the soil feels dry, then it’s time to water your plant. Alternatively, you can use moisture meters or hygrometers to keep your hands from getting dirty.
a soil moisture sensor meter or hygrometer
Image source: Gobetter on Amazon
- Let it soak – Place your potted plant on the water reservoir and leave it there for a couple of minutes until you see the top portion of the soil getting damp or moist. Depending on the plant and the type of soil in your pot, soaking can take 10 minutes up to an hour.
- Remove excess water – It’s important to situate your pot at an elevated place where the excess water can be drained. Do not vigorously shake your pot—it can damage your plant. Just hang your potted plant somewhere to drain by itself for a few minutes until you no longer see any water dripping out of the drainage holes.
What are the stages of plant growth?
A plant’s needs change as it grows, just like how a human’s needs change. This is why it’s important to know the different stages of plant growth; each stage of plant growth requires a different amount or type of light, water, moisture, temperature, nutrients, and soil. Below, we’ll list the basic stages of plant growth of a typical flowering plant (e.g., tomato, marigold, sunflower, etc.).
Image source: Safer Brand
Seed germination – the first stage of plant growth
Each seed contains nutrients that it needs to germinate. However, seed germination will not start unless the proper environmental conditions are present. The key factors that affect seed germination are temperature, water, oxygen, and light.
Temperature and water – A dormant seed will start to germinate/sprout if it’s exposed to the right temperature and provided with water.
- Seeds have different optimal temperature ranges for germination to occur; once this temperature requirement is achieved and water is present, germination will start.
- Imbibition takes place, the seed “drinking up” the water, and the seed expands as the nutrients in it become hydrated. The seed becomes activated, and its metabolic activities start up to produce energy, using the stored nutrients in it.
- Then, the seed coat is shed, and the root (a.k.a. radical) emerges from the seed. This denotes that the seed is viable for growth.
- Lastly, the remaining nutrients in the seed will be used up for the growth of the shoot, the first pair of leaves sprouting from the seed.
- At this stage, the seed is already spent, giving rise to the seedling (young plant grown from seed).
seed germinating into a seedling
Image source: St. Mary’s Nursery & Garden Centre
Oxygen – A seed is respiring as it germinates; thus, it needs oxygen just like us.
- The soil that the seed is sowed or planted in must allow proper aeration so that the gas exchange between the environment and the seed can happen seamlessly.
- If the carbon dioxide being produced by the seed is trapped in the soil, and they cannot get enough oxygen from its surroundings, the seed will get damaged and will not continue its germination process.
Light – Unlike temperature and water, some seeds do not require light in order to germinate and will sprout regardless of light exposure. However, there are some seeds that strictly require light or strictly require darkness (inhibited by light) in order to germinate.
- The soil that the seed is sowed or planted in must allow proper aeration so that the gas ex
Vegetative growth – the second stage of plant growth
Nitrogen – The plant will focus on carrying out photosynthesis at this stage to develop its shoot (stems and leaves) system, which is why nitrogen is important. It is a key component for chlorophyll production, the green pigment that enables the plant to utilize the sun’s rays of light to manufacture food.
- The plant will require a huge amount of nitrogen to produce chlorophyll at this stage to continuously produce food for shoot development.
- The first pair of leaves of the seedling will manufacture food, enabling the shoot and root systems of the plant to develop further. The leaves produced at this stage are now called “true leaves,” and the plant is no longer considered a seedling.
- Vegetative growth will continue unless an environmental factor is changed, such as the amount of water, nutrients, temperature, air, or light.
Reproduction – the third stage of plant growth
Phosphorus and potassium – After prioritizing the vegetative growth (root and shoot system development), the plant will now focus on reproduction and will produce flowers, fruits, and seeds.
- At this stage, phosphorus and potassium are now the nutrients that make up the bulk of the plant’s nutritional requirement.
- This stage of plant growth might be governed by the change of length of daylight, which is called photoperiodism. Some plants require longer hours of straight sunlight exposure to trigger their flower and fruit production.
- Phosphorus is an “energy unit” of plants, while potassium is involved in producing and transporting the “food” of the plant to various parts or cells, which is why these nutrients are important in flower and fruit production.
What is ‘thinning’? | What does ‘thin the plant’ mean?
A crowded seeding tray or garden bed will lead to poor seedling development. This is because the crowded seedlings will compete for the nutrients, moisture, light, etc., that are only available in limited quantities. Furthermore, their roots can also get damaged due to crowding. This issue can be solved by thinning. By removing other seedlings (weaker ones are singled out to be thinned if there are any), you’ll give the remaining ones plenty of room to grow, ensuring a healthy seedling development.
Some prefer to transplant the seedlings to another container, but this may cause damage to their root system. Also, transplanting is a more tedious process than thinning.
How to thin plants/seedlings
Remember to never pluck seedlings out of the soil or scoop them out! You have to snip them using a cutting instrument like garden snips or scissors. Using your fingers or a dull blade may cause damage to the nearby seedlings.
- Choose wisely – Be sure to single out weak seedlings to thin out. However, if all seedlings seem healthy, then just pick the smallest ones or the ones that aren’t properly lined or placed in the garden bed or starting tray. Avoid snipping off the healthiest seedlings.
Image source: raiseyourgarden.com
- Get as close as possible – Cut the seedling’s stem as close as possible to the soil but don’t dig in the soil, either. Leaving a few sets of leaves will not stop the seedling from growing.
Image source: Gardener’s Supply Company
- Examine your work – Make sure that you’ve thinned your plants properly. Check for a slightly overcrowded spot and thin again. If you seeded in a seeding tray or pot, it will be best to leave only one seedling per cell or pellet. If you sowed your seeds directly outdoors, then check the seed packet to see the required or recommended spacing in between seedlings.
properly spaced seedlings in a seeding tray
Image source: SUNSET
What is a ‘transplant’? | What does ‘transplant’ mean?
By definition, transplant, as a verb, is the act of replanting/repotting a plant to another place/pot. The plant to be replanted can also be referred to as the “transplant.” Thus, as a noun, transplant can also be defined as the plant that has been or will be transplanted/replanted/repotted. Transplants can be seedlings or mature plants, depending on what stage the plant is at when it will be replanted.
Before you can transplant, it is important to harden off your plant first. If your plant is not yet acclimatized to the new environmental conditions that you’ll be exposing it to, then it will not survive. To learn about how to harden off your plants, visit How to Plant Seeds and Grow Them into Plants.
Gardening tips for beginners
- Start with an easy plant
- If you’re not used to taking care of plants, you should start with something that is easy to grow. For example, you can start with Sansevieria or snake plants, which do not need frequent watering nor fertilizing, and can survive indoors even with only moderate to low light. If you want a hardy plant that can survive on its own outdoors, you can opt for dwarf shrubs like hydrangea instead.
Image sources: Succulent City
- Start with good soil (or none at all)
- Use pasteurized/sterilized soil or seed-starting/potting mix for your seeds. Soil can contain pathogens, weed seeds, and other harmful organisms that can stop your seeds from germinating successfully. Sterilizing or pasteurizing soil will remove any soil-borne threat to your seedlings. Thus, using a pasteurized soil or growing medium will result to more seedlings.
- Soilless potting mix is also a great choice to grow your plants in, especially if you’re growing them indoors. As mentioned, soil can be a vehicle for harmful organisms, which is why a lot of people are reluctant in bringing soil into their homes. A soilless growing medium or potting mix is a mixture of organic matter and inorganic materials like peat moss, sand, vermiculite, perlite, bark, and coconut coir.
Image source: Miracle Gro
- Invest in gardening tools
- High-quality tools may be more expensive, but these are more trustworthy and will last longer. Make sure to buy hardy tools, especially for cutting and digging tools. Surely, you’ve heard of some nasty and unfortunate gardening accidents where someone almost lost a limb (or two) due to some tool malfunctions.
- Also, try to invest in some smart or advanced tools such as all-in-one soil meters that can monitor the sunlight, moisture, and pH. This will save you a lot of time and will make gardening easier. It’s a great investment since a plant’s growth will literally depend on how suitable the soil or growing medium is for them.
Image source: fomei on Amazon
- Fertilize (using the right kind) at the right time
- As mentioned earlier, there are different stages of plant growth, and their nutritional requirements change as they mature. Learning which nutrient your plant needs the most at a certain stage of development will save you effort and money. Some plants require only once a week or once a month of fertilization, so make sure to research their needs. Over (or wrong) fertilization can stunt your plant’s growth instead of boosting it and may eventually lead to the death of your plant.