Need a little help planning your garden? This handy primer has you covered.
Meet Your Match
Ready to get your hands dirty? Set yourself (and your plants) up for success by selecting the type of garden most suited to your wants and needs.
Hello, eye candy! Beautiful blooms are a visual treat that will add instant color to a space—whether you have a big yard or just a few pots. Plus, even a few simple annuals (think sunflowers and zinnias) will yield enough blossoms for homemade bouquets all summer.
The workload varies depending on what you plant, but most flowers require a fair amount of maintenance, especially in the heat. (Water, water, water!) Higher pollen counts may also give allergy sufferers something to sniff at.
Veggies & Herbs
Growing produce has tangible rewards! Whether you’re whipping up a weeknight dinner or throwing together a hearty salad for a weekend barbecue, a kitchen garden makes it easy to incorporate more fresh veggies and flavors in your meals.
Veg gardens need a good deal of upkeep (think watering, weeding, harvesting and more). Also: Because big-ticket crops like tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers require lots of sun to thrive, they’re best for growing in spaces that get plenty of light.
Wildflowers & Native Plants
Going in this direction is good for the planet and great for pollinators, and it provides a habitat for wildlife. Plus, because they’re naturally well suited to the local climate and soil, they’re usually lower-maintenance than veggies and annuals.
Because wildflowers are often sold in generic seed mixes, selecting the right one for your area will require plenty of research. Planting the wrong ones could inadvertently introduce non-native or invasive species.
Perennials & Shrubs
Once they’re in, they don’t require too much work. Consider classics like roses, hydrangeas, and peonies—all of which are great for long-term gardening and adding layers of color and structure to a yard.
Practice patience. Many can take up to a year to bloom and even longer to reach maturity. They all take up more space than annuals and will need feeding and care to keep free of disease.
Succulents & Low-water Plants
Go the eco-friendly route. These are especially great in drought-prone areas. Unique and stylish-looking, they can also help maintain fragile soil.
These plants can be pricey to buy and install. Low-water gardens require planning and design to do right—which means hiring an expert.
The Dirt on Dirt
A healthy garden starts from the ground up—literally. Soil is a dynamic living system that needs care and feeding to thrive, much like your plants do. So before you get started, do a soil test to see what you’re working with. This will tell you if there are any contaminants you need to deal with (particularly in urban or industrial areas), what sorts of nutrients your soil contains, and what may need to be added. In general, the three big nutritional needs for plants are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
Texture is also key. Plants absorb nutrients and water through their roots, so you want your soil to be loose enough for roots to push through, but not so loose that water and fertilizers wash right through it. Dense and loose soils can both be fixed by mixing in bags of compost, shredded leaves, manure, wood chips, or other organic matter.
Assess Your Space
If you’re just getting your feet wet, seasoned pros recommend starting small. But depending on how much ground you have to cover, that could mean a few different things. Translation: You’ll want to pick “how” you garden based on the area you plan to transform.
Do you have acres of land, a fire escape to putter around on, or a small corner of your backyard that you want to turn into a garden? Your space will help to dictate which method of growing is right for you. But your budget will also play a role. If you’re not sure where to begin, consulting with a landscape architect can help. They can assess your space and ask you questions about how much time you have for upkeep and what your skill level is—and make recommendations based on all those things. Consider this a cheat sheet of different options.
Highly portable, affordable, and available in all shapes and sizes, pots and planters are ideal for small spaces like a fire escape, porch, or patio. Just know that because they don’t contain much soil, pots needs frequent watering and fertilizing. Size constraints also mean you’ll need to skip plants with complex or large root systems.
If you have the room, these old-fashioned garden beds give you the most flexibility. You can put them anywhere the ground is soft and lay them out in any shape you like. But unless you’re extremely lucky, chances are the dirt in your yard isn’t perfect—so you’ll need to test it for heavy metals and other contaminants and regularly add a combo of compost, fertilizer, and other nutrients to the mix so that your plants stay healthy.
Flowers, herbs, veggies—a raised bed gives you plenty of room for any of these. And because you add the soil from scratch, it’s easier to get a fine-tuned, nutrient-rich blend. You’ll need a good deal of space and a decent budget; remember to factor in the price of the beds themselves as well as the soil you’ll need to fill them with.
No yard? No problem! Hydroponic and many other indoor garden systems use water (not soil) as a growing medium, so they’re a great option for apartment dwellers or anyone who’s tight on outdoor space. Bonus: No dirt means fewer pests and no weeding! These systems don’t come cheep, and you’re somewhat limited as to what you can grow (root veggies are a no-go).
Look to the Light
Different plants require different amounts of sun to thrive. That’s why, before you pick up a shovel, Daryl Beyers, author of The New Gardener’s Handbook and an instructor at the New York Botanical Garden, recommends carefully assessing your site for light. There are a number of ways to do this. When designer Shavonda Gardner planned her cottage garden in Sacramento, she kept a journal for two years in order to pinpoint what areas received the most light.
Don’t have that much time? Download the Sun Seeker app (available for iPhone and Android). It uses GPS to track the arc of the sun’s movement over any location in real time. If it turns out that your yard is dim for a good chunk of the day, don’t throw in the trowel; you can adjust your plans accordingly! “In general, big-ticket crops like peppers and eggplant want six to eight hours of sunlight per day,” explains Tiayonna Liska, a North Carolina–based garden coach. “If you don’t have that, there are still plenty of wonderful things you can grow, like leafy greens, radishes, potatoes, arugula, herbs—really anything that produces leaves instead of flowers and fruit.”
Test the Waters
You can’t have a garden without water. But believe it or not, there is a right way and a wrong way to keep your plot hydrated. When plants are first getting established, they need extra attention, so you’ll want to water them daily. In general, early-morning sessions are better than late in the day, when the sun is strong. As for how you should water—well, there are a few options.
Though definitely more labor-intensive, Beyers says that hand watering (with a can or hose) is always the preferred way to give your plants a drink. The reason: It lets you tailor the amount of water to your plants’ specific needs and gives you a chance to check on their progress and catch any potential pests or problems before they get out of hand.
Whether you go for fancy ones that are professionally installed or portable ones that are hooked up to a hose, sprinklers are convenient. They’re especially great when you have plants that need a regular soaking, like seedlings that are just starting out or a lawn that has been newly reseeded. But because they are the least resource-efficient method of watering, they’re not the best choice for long-term garden maintenance.
A drip or irrigation system means that water is delivered directly to the soil through a series of emitters or perforated hoses placed in the bed itself. When designed properly, it can conserve up to 80 percent of the water normally used in other types of irrigation systems, making it an eco-friendly option. It’s also especially suited to edible gardens, where too much overhead watering can damage fragile leafy crops.
Tools of the Trade
Ready to upgrade your garden game? Here’s everything you need to get down and dirty in style!
1. Pretty Tools
Your tools don’t have to be pretty, but it sure helps. No matter your skill level, you’ll want some combo of a trowel, hoe, rake, and cultivator. From left: Garden Tool Set ($35 for a set of three), Japanese Garden Tool Set ($187 for a set of two), 3-Piece Hand-Forged Garden Tool Gift Set ($165 for a set of three).
2. A Sleeker Watering Can
Choose one that’s cute enough to be left on display on your porch or patio when it’s not in use—this one ($71) is the perfect combo of form and function.
Tote your seeds, fertilizer, and trowels around the yard in a sturdy canvas bag ($102). This one has handy pockets for all your most used tools and an easy-to-clean polyethylene interior.
4. Trim Up
Whether you’re cutting flowers or pruning plants, a good pair of scissors is a must-have for any gardener. This pair (starting at $26) has an ambidextrous grip and attractive walnut handle.
5. Shade Maker
SPF and a wide-brimmed hat are essential when you’re in the garden. We love this Monterrey style from Hemlock Hats ($74)—it offers excellent UV protection and looks chic.
6. Comfort First
A kneeling pad can prevent aches and pains when you’re weeding, and this waxed canvas version ($75) is pretty and sustainably made.
These heavyduty work gloves ($38) are made from cotton and leather to keep your hands protected.
8. Happier Hose
Brighten up your yard year-round with this colorful hose ($129) that comes in nine cheery colors.
9. Grow Green
Protect, nourish, and strengthen your precious plants with the Outdoor Kit by Arber ($84). It includes a Bio Protectant, Bio Fungicide (pictured), and Bio Insecticide, plus a spray bottle and 2-ounce measuring cup for ease of use.
10. Mark the Spot
Keep your seedlings ID’d with these reusable herb-garden stakes ($60). They come in a set of nine: basil, dill, lavender, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, and thyme.
Stay in the Zone
Not all plants can grow everywhere. For example, melons may thrive in Mississippi but will be harder to keep alive in Maine. So how do you know what plants are right for your plot? It all begins with knowing your “zone” number, which is a standard devised by the USDA to categorize regions of the country and the plants that will thrive best in them based on the area’s average annual temperatures.
Once you know your zone, you can turn to seed companies (like Burpee, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and Baker Creek) for plants that are best suited to your area; from there, make choices based on your specific plot.
Ready, Set, Start!
Once you’ve assessed your space and selected your plants, you’ll be good to grow! Now, just be sure to bake in enough time— especially if you want to start from seed. Germination times vary, but as a general rule of thumb, look up your region’s average final frost date and start prepping your seeds at least eight weeks before.
Not sure you have that kind of time? Not a problem. “There’s no right or wrong way to start your garden—it just depends on the time and energy you have to spend,” says Liska. Most home-improvement stores and nurseries carry greenhousegrown perennials, annuals, and veggie and herb “starts” (these are young plants ready for planting). They can be transplanted into your garden and take much less time and energy.
By Sarah Karnasiewicz and Hannah Baker | Feature and garden tools photographs by Chelsea Kyle | All other photographs by Getty Images
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Drew + Jonathan Reveal, Drew & Jonathan’s home and lifestyle magazine.