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The Garden Variety spring green thumb guide

text that says: The Garden Variety green thumb guide, spring
Madeleine Charis King

Starting a garden can be — intimidating. But don't worry, the team at Garden Variety has put together a complete guide that covers everything you need to know to get started. To stay up to date on everything garden, sign up for the Garden Vareity newsletter to bring to the garden community right to your inbox!

What you’ll want to get started

  • A weed-free planting bed or containers with potting soil
  • Plants (based on location)
  • Hand-held trowel (useful for digging small holes for planting, breaking up clumps of soil and, as the season progresses, digging up weeds)
  • Hose or watering can
  • Gloves (always an excellent idea)
  • Fertilizer

What to plant

Think about the kind of garden you want. Primarily flowers? Herbs? Vegetables? Fruit? Plants that attract butterflies or other pollinators? Consider what will grow best where you are. Plants that thrive in California or Vermont may not have the same luck in Iowa. The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map indicates what plants grow best in different areas based on the 30-year average of the lowest winter temperatures.

  • Note that many perennial plants (which regrow every spring) aren’t necessarily native. You can find information about plants native to your area from the National Wildlife Federation.

Then, pick plants you'll be able to manage. In the vegetable garden, beginners tend to have more success with tomatoes, zucchini and other types of squash.

  • Pro tip: Mint is easy to grow, but don’t plant it in the ground. It has a tendency to spread and take over — and might even follow gardeners to new locations.

When to plant

Find the first and last frost dates for your area. This is a general guide of your outdoor growing season. Plants that were started indoors need to acclimate to outdoor conditions. Begin by placing these plants (still in their containers) in shady, protected spaces during the day.

  • Then, begin gradually exposing plants to longer periods of direct sun while watering and caring for them as usual. Move the seedlings indoors if strong winds, a storm or overnight frost is forecasted. After seven — ten days, the flower and vegetable plants will be acclimated and ready to plant.

Where to plant

Look for a mostly flat area that gets several (five — eight) hours of sunlight per day and has some wind protection. Observe your garden area over a period of several days or weeks to determine the number of hours of sunlight a space may get.

  • Send in a soil sample for a quality test, which will tell you the soil pH and nutrient levels. This will help you determine what kind of fertilizer or compost you need.
  • Weed the area, and be sure to get the roots of weeds so they don’t re-sprout.
  • Spread a two — three inch layer of organic material such as compost, decayed leaves, dry grass clippings or shredded bark over the area (if you can do this in the fall prior to planting — even better!)

Other options: Consider raised beds and no-till or no-dig gardening, which reduces soil erosion. Or, consider a container garden. Choose containers that drain well.

Pro tip: When you’re planting, think about how you will access your plants. Make sure you don’t have to be a gymnast to water your tomatoes or pick your pumpkins. Tools like GrowVeg or good old graph paper can help you plan your garden layout. And, label everything (no, you won’t remember). Take a picture of the labels or garden map with your phone, and it will always be available when you need it!

Getting seedlings started

As a general rule, plant seeds two to three times as deep as the diameter of the seed. Most seed packets and transplant containers come with basic planting instructions, which will also include spacing recommendations.

  • If you’re transplanting seedlings, remove the plant from its container by pushing up from the bottom. If the roots have clumped together, use your fingers to untangle some outer roots before setting it into the hole.
  • Water seedlings daily and taper off as plants get larger. Morning is the best time to water — it allows foliage to dry during the day, which reduces issues with disease.
  • Here’s how to pick the right seeds for your garden.

Aaron Steil and Madeleine King contributed to this guide

Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio