So, You’re Ready to Start a Garden. Let’s Do This!
We’re all familiar with the famous quote from Benjamin Franklin, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!”
When starting a garden for the first time, or ANY time, it’s the same. There are SIX ESSENTIALS that everyone should begin with. 1, 2 and 3 have to do with your local climate. 4 is all about knowing the plant families and which ones your family prefers to eat. 5&6 are about planning and designing that beautiful garden. Let’s just dive right in!
1. KNOW YOUR LAST FROST DATE
A good definition of a last frost date is the average date of the last light freeze in spring. Knowing the last frost date is helpful because some plants can take the frost and others can’t. I want to find the earliest date I can plant without losing anything.
So let’s just quickly define what we’re talking about with a “light freeze” and why it matters before we get too far.
A light freeze is one that sits between 29° to 32°F (1.7° to 0°C) and your tender plants will die.
A moderate freeze is anywhere from 25° to 28°F (3.9° to -2.2°C) and it will kill most of the things in your garden.
A severe freeze is 24°F (-4.4°C) and your garden is done for the season.
To find your last frost date, go to:
and type in your zip code. This will give you both the first and last frosts, but we go with the last light freeze of spring because after that date, it is relatively safe to plant the most tender plants in our garden. This date is important to know because it’s a shame (and expensive) to plant something in your garden only to watch it freeze and die. We all know how fickle spring can be!
As you know, not all plants are created equal. Some are very hearty and can last through several frosts. In fact, kale will actually thrive and get better and sweeter in the colder weather. Some plants are so tender that even mentioning a frost has them falling over and giving up. I’m looking at you peppers…beans…tomatoes. Did you know tomatoes will have fruit, but it won’t ripen if they even catch wind of cooler weather.
2. KNOW YOUR PLANTING ZONE
Knowing your planting zone is going to save you a lot of time and money when it comes to choosing your perennials. Perennials are all those plants in your garden that you expect to see come again, year after year. These plants need to be able to survive the winter so it’s vital to know that their “comfort zone” is compatible with your planting zone.
To find your zone, simply go to:
and type in your zip code. It will give you a map with a color code and a key at the side will give your number.
For example, I love figs. I would LOVE to have a fig tree. Fig trees are typically found in zones 8-10. I live in zone 5b-6a. We are not a match. If I go to a nursery and find a beautiful fig tree that is labeled ZONE 8 and I plant it in my yard hoping to get figs in the next few years, I’m going to be really disappointed because that tree will freeze and die the first winter it’s in my garden. That gets super spendy every year I try it and I’m still not getting any fruit. It’s dangerous even if you had a greenhouse on a warm south facing wall of a huge brick house. Not even then.
(That being said, I’ve been researching at least three “cold hardy figs” that are being grown in colder zones, and I may just try it out.)
Be aware that the nursery will sell you something that isn’t in your planting zone. Especially the big box stores. They are going to sell what they get sent from their corporate warehouse. I see some things in there that just shouldn’t be. I think it’s really sad because I know there is an unsuspecting new gardener walking into that nursery so excited. They buy all these wonderful plants that have been grown indoors and don’t match their zone. They go home, plant them and they die the first year. Our new gardener thinks it’s their fault and it isn’t!! Now their confidence is down and they don’t try again next year. It’s terrible!
So, when you are out at the nurseries or farmer’s markets looking for your starts, make sure you take a peek at the plant tag and know what zone that plant grows well in. It’s in your best interest to match your planting zone with your chosen perennial.
As a side note, there are such things as micro-climates that can sometimes happen in urban areas and even in your own backyard. How a valley sits, or where a body of water might be can change the hardiness zone number up or down by a full number. For example, if you have a house with a south facing wall and a wood fence on the other side, it could create a microclimate where you could grow plants within that space that are technically outside of your typical planting zone.
3. KNOW YOUR GROWING SEASONS
A growing season refers to those months of the year when plants can grow successfully. It varies by region, but for now we’ll look at
Cold, Cool, Warm and Hot so that we get everyone.
Cold is anything below 34 degrees.
Cool is from 35 – 65 degrees.
Warm is from 66 – 85 degrees.
Hot is anywhere above 85 degrees.
To figure out your seasons go to:
Type your zip code in the box and it will give you the average high and low temps for your area as well as the average precipitation. Now look at the average temps for each month and assign them one of the four growing seasons. I currently live in Cache Valley, Utah. I know my planting zone is a 5b to 6a. My planting seasons are cold, cool, warm and SO HOT. Therefore, the months that coincide with those seasons go like this:
Cold – December, January, February
Cool – March, April, October, November
Warm – May, June, September
Hot – July & August
4. KNOW YOUR FAMILIES
Your Human Family
The first family we really want to focus on is our human family. It is so important to know what you and your family will actually eat out of your garden. I have seen so many beautiful and thriving rhubarb plants. When I ask about how they use it, the answer I hear most often is, we don’t. It just grows. So…it may be a good idea to use that space for something you and your family are really going to enjoy.
Consider a zucchini there instead. It uses roughly the same space, but you’ll more than likely use zucchini much more often. We use it in stirfry, zucchini bread, zucchini cakes, salads, raw spears dipped in hummus, “apple” pie, and when one sneaks up on us and gets HUGE without your noticing (this WILL happen), I cut it in half, scoop out the middle and float zucchini boats down the stream or in the duck pond. (I have kids.)
I mean honestly, the possibilities are endless! It’s a good thing too, because those plants can really produce!
So, take a few minutes. Write down a list of what produce your family eats on a regular basis. OR just copy down the produce section of your weekly grocery list and see which ones you could actually just grow in your yard! Spinach for example. We go through SO. MUCH. SPINACH. And it is easy to grow, so why not?! Plus, it just tastes amazing when you grow it yourself and my kids think it’s so cool to eat leaves.
Your Plant Families
Now that you’ve made a list of what your people want to eat out of the garden, it’s time to do a little research. There are loads of plant books out there or you can just google your list and look up the information you’ll need before you start planting.
Yep! This is the part where we get a little sciency. Remember back in Junior High when we were all learning about plant and animal classifications and you thought we were literally NEVER going to use this information and just rolled your eyes? I do.
Well, we’re going to use it now, so buckle up and repeat after me. KINGDOM – PHYLUM – CLASS – ORDER – FAMILY – GENUS – SPECIES
Now, just focus on the FAMILY and GENUS part. As you know, families have a tendency to have some common characteristics. Not all the time, but MOST of the time. Same is true for plants. When we start to learn more about some of these family characteristics, we can treat them in ways that they will thrive.
For example, the Brassicaceae or Mustard family. These guys, for the most part, prefer the cooler weather. Especially if you go down to the genus brassica. (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, turnip, rapeseed, mustard, radish, horseradish, etc)
You can plant a whole bunch of them from this group in the early spring and they just do not care about the frost. They love it. They grow better and taste better without the hot sun beating down on them. So, if you begin your garden with this family, your growing season can start much earlier than those that are only planting tomatoes and peppers.
On the flip side of that coin there is the sun loving Solanaceae or the Nightshade family that tends to be super tender when it comes to cooler weather. Tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, bell and chili peppers will not take even a light frost well. So, when planning your garden, you’ll want to wait to plant these guys until after your last frost date, otherwise, they will die and you will be replanting what you lost.
5. THE PLANNING STAGE
The planning stage is where things start to really take shape. Once we know more about the common plant families and when to plant them, we are now free to start creating!!!
There are 4 parts to this. Space, Time, Season & Method
Part 1 – SPACE
It’s time to measure your garden space. It may be all in one area, or you could use different parts of your landscape to plant your veggies. Either way, it’s important to have a really good idea of the real estate you’re working with. Measure it out.
Now, think about how much space each plant will take up when it is fully grown. If you plant a zucchini a foot away from your row of carrots and you’re not aware of how big that thing is going to get…you’ll shade out those carrots and be really disappointed when they never really get the size you’d like.
I like to keep it simple and assign each plant a small, medium or large allotment of space.
Part 2 – TIME
Consider how much time each plant is going to take to grow to maturity and when you can start harvesting. On the short end are radishes that can be as little as 22 days. Longer harvest days are tomatoes, carrots and beets that can be 120+ depending.
Part 3 – SEASON
Now that you know a little more about your plant families and what kind of weather they like to grow in, you can also assign them either cold, cool, warm or hot loving plants. Brassicas tend to be cool season plants, while tomatoes and peppers like the warm to hot season.
Part 4 – METHOD
When planting your garden you’ll use either seeds directly in the ground or starts that you’ve grown inside or from a nursery. Some you’ll want to start from seed because they do NOT transplant well. Carrots, beets, radishes, lettuce, spinach, etc should all be started from seed. It is just too hard on the little plant babies to try to take root after a transplant and talk about tedious! It can be done. I’ve seen it and I tried it with buttercrunch lettuce once. It was just ok. So, I recommend following the seed package on how to plant.
Other plants (tomatoes, peppers, kale, cabbage, broccoli, etc.) do well with a transplant and starting them from seed indoors can really extend your season. I start some of mine from seed at home, I also trust a local nursery to do a lot of that work for me.
6. DESIGN YOUR SPACE
You’ve measured how much space you have. You know how big your plants will get. You know when and how to plant and now it’s time for your creativity to take over!
There are so many ways to design your space and you can do it however you want. Some people like to plant in neat rows with everything in its own place. Others like companion planting to get the maximum growth or flavor out of their plants and produce. Still others prefer to intercrop to keep the weeds down and the pests confused. It’s your garden and it’s up to you to find what works best.
That being said, even the best laid plans sometimes get a revision. This year I had wonderfully straight rows of lettuce, spinach and arugula. Then, my kids turned on the faucet while I was doing something else and they flooded the entire area. Seed spread everywhere and now I have what I call a Greens Patch. I just had to laugh and let them be kids. Hey, it still works! I really just have to let perfection go, especially with littles.
You’re ready to get in the soil and create something beautiful and delicious!
*Pro Tip – Keep a GARDEN JOURNAL from the very beginning of your journey. Write about what you’ve done each year, so you can have a record of what worked and what didn’t. Gardening is an adventure and an experiment and even garden gurus have at least one surprise from Mother Nature every year. She likes to keep us on our toes and guessing. Don’t worry, you’ve got this!