How to Start a Home Garden

Ilona Erwin

Gardening 101

Gardener’s Recipe: One part soil, two parts water, and three parts wishful thinking

my garden pondIf you have a yard, or a piece of ground anywhere, you can create a garden, but what kinds of things do you need to know? If you have the information you need you will be an ever better gardener, improving your results and enjoyment as you go along.

The questions to ask:

Within the answers to these questions is a treasure trove of information to begin making your dream garden into your own real garden.

Climate Zones

The ‘Climate Zone’ is simply a way of understanding what plants will grow well for you and which will not, or may even die due to climate conditions. You simply have to know where you live and look up a climate zone map. For the USA, you may want this climate zone map or using zip codes the National Gardening Association’s Zone Finder. If you live in the United Kingdom, or Europe, this map may be useful. You will have a general idea of the temperature ranges of your area, and with climate zone information in hand you can navigate quickly through the plant descriptions which often list the zones your chosen plant will thrive in.

Question to ask: How hardy is this plant? Once you know your climate zone, the hardiness information for a plant will be useful in telling you whether you can expect it to survive the conditions of your garden.

Your Soil

soil with good tilth

Now we are narrowing down the information to just what you have to work with in your own garden. There are three main categories of soil: clay, loam, and sand. There are combinations of two also possible, and named variations within, but generally if you know which of the three categories describe your soil you have an idea of how to improve it for optimum growth conditions. What kind of soil do you have? An example of how you can use this information is contained in a tip sheet for Clay Soil. If you live in the USA, there are extension agents who can supply information on your garden’s soil and generally recommended plants.

Question to ask: Does this plant need acid, neutral or alkaline conditions to thrive?? While there are methods of changing the soil’s pH reading temporarily, a garden has soil that will either support a plant or not, given its needs. If a color change is desired for a mophead hydrangea, it is simple to add acid fertilizer for a blue flower, but if your soil conditions are basically alkaline, then growing a tree or shrub which requires strongly acid conditions will simply not thrive.

Frost Dates

These are simply the dates you can expect killing frosts to start and end in your area. They are not exact – as any weather measurement is conditional, but they give a ball-park figure of when you can set out tomato plants and when to get the last harvest in. It saves much grief for new gardeners (and older, complacent ones!) to understand when you are risking a loss of those tender plants.

Question to ask: Is it time to put in tender annuals and perennials, yet? If you follow the recommendations for frost date planting in your area you will minimize the disappointment of ruined and lost flowers that were caught in a late frost. This information is based on years of records for such frosts.

What’s My Style

This is the fun part of creating a garden: choosing the style and planning the “feel” of your landscape. Sometimes the use of areas will determine the style, and architecture of the house is a consideration, but mostly it is whatever appeals to the owner of the garden.

When I write on “English Garden Style” or “Cottage Gardening“, these are just two of the myriad choices.

Question to ask: What do I like? There really is no other matter to consider when it comes right down to it. If you have homeowner associations, of course, those restrictions will apply. Your sense of what style is best for your garden is a very personal consideration. All the rules on this are simply guidelines to help you achieve what you like.

To build a garden follows the basics of any new endeavor:

  • Begin with good materials (improved soil and healthy plants)
  • Learn a bit about design styles, choose the one for you
  • List what features you want and need in your yard
  • Build the “hardscape”: paths, fences, arbors, lighting, etc
  • Set a planned schedule for installation of your features, and plants

Time and Other Limitations

Time, age, interest, health, are all considerations when doing the physical work of a garden. Be honest with yourself and you will be a happier gardener. Some styles of gardening are time intensive, requiring much more upkeep. Cottage gardening and English perennial flower gardens are examples of gardens that look best when given regular attention to weeding, cultivating, and plant maintenance such as dividing plants. There are styles such as “New American” or some traditional types that require less attention.

The size of the garden makes a difference, obviously, so if you are growing older in years with the view of reducing the workload, the garden should be proportionate to your capabilities of investment of energy. It can be difficult to edit things out, but a garden is supposed to add pleasure to your life. Which it will, if you tailor it to your expected output of time, money, and energy. I am taking my own advice on this and moving to a smaller place in Georgia.

Time Saver Garden Method

Look into methods of growing plants such as Lasagna gardening if you like to grow vegetables, Or investigate mulching ideas for controlling weeds or conserving water.


Nuts and Bolts of Gardening

A good place to start learning the basics is to choose an article from The Start Page.

Once you’ve decided to build a garden, have the plan and information in hand, what is next?

Garden tools can be a simple set of hand tools or a whole array of specialized ones, including some power tools. Choose the tool for the job, get the best you can afford and try to take care of them. This is the best advice I can give you, and for a breakdown of my opinions on what tools, check out my garden tools page.

You are now ready to shop in the nursery centers and order from catalogs for the well-chosen plantings to furnish your garden space. Preparation is three quarters of success in gardening, although there is always beginners luck and the fact that nature is very forgiving of our impatience. And although many gardeners make beautiful gardens with their own set of methods and order of implementation, the suggestions here will work.

For Much More On Creating Your Garden

If you love perennial borders, explore pages on the perennial plants. In new garden there are temporary spaces until the more permanent plantings fill out, think about filling in with annuals for that first year.
Some words on style, or adding garden ornaments to your plan might interest you.
Consider making your garden a butterfly haven or bird-friendly yards.

Don’t forget the bliss of aromatic and fragrant flowers, a delightful part of what makes the garden such a pleasure.

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.