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9 valuable lessons learned after first year of gardening

I had the realization today that we just officially surpassed our first year of gardening at the bungalow! To be clear, I am still very much a newbie gardener. But I have learned so much in my first year of gardening, so I wanted to share them with you.

I have received a few questions on Instagram about how I got my start with gardening and to be honest, we just went for it. I really credit any experience or knowledge I’ve acquired at this point to following gardeners on Instagram, YouTube, books, tv shows, and of course, trial and error.

Although I do believe gardening is like 90% trial and error, I have gained so much valuable knowledge from others who share their tips and tricks. It’s propelled me into gardening. So I thought it would be good for me to share some of my lessons learned too.

My advice for anyone looking to start or improve their garden

Upon getting the first two garden beds put in last fall, we dove right in and started a garden. We grabbed a little bit o’ this, a little bit o’ that, and eventually had a little harvest of some broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and even a few artichokes.

Summer of 2021 arrived and the first edition of our garden started to die off (and honestly I neglected it). In one corner of the garden, I naively planted cantaloupe and watermelon seedlings. Gardening friends let me know that they really needed much more room to sprawl out than I provided the plants. This little whoopsie led me to discover the glory of vertical gardening. This leads me to my first lesson learned.

1. Vertical gardening

I may have accidentally figured this out, but vertical gardening is a complete game-changer. A few people have told me that they don’t have a lot of room for a garden in their yard, to which I reply, “you’d be surprised how much you can grow in a small space.” The best part? The sky’s the limit! (literally). Check out this article from homebnc.com on 50 vertical garden ideas for some inspiration!

2. Pay attention to your yard’s microclimate

This is a tip I heard at the beginning of my gardening journey but didn’t quite understand. Aside from linking you to a better definition of what a microclimate is, the best way I can explain is this — there’s the area’s general climate, and then there’s your yard’s microclimate. Your yard might have uniquely shady, windy or sunny spots, receive below or above average water. The location and proximity of your yard’s vegetation contribute to the microclimate. Man-made elements like brick, concrete and asphalt can also modify a yard’s microclimate.

So quite literally, studying, feeling and observing any area where you might plant something is the foundation of understanding your plant’s needs as they develop. Once you have picked your spot, it’s time to figure out the layout of your beds.

3. Placement of garden beds

Generally, your garden needs at least 6 hours of sunlight a day. Of course, some plants can grow in shade but you really need to seek out what plants those are. Before choosing a spot for your new garden beds, really study the movement of the sunlight throughout the day and watch for any shadows of nearby walls or trees. I really had to do this for our new cut flower garden beds.

Another example, we just put a new raised garden bed in that starts receiving shade at about noon on half of it in the wintertime. The sun moves behind the house and casts a long shadow. But the bed receives about 4 hours of sunlight and I know that in a month or two the position of the earth will shift so that the garden bed will get pretty good late (indirect) afternoon sunlight.

Bonus tip: Place the beds in a spot that you frequently walk by. If your garden is out of sight, it may be out of mind.

4. Orientation of garden beds

If you take away one tip, let it be this one. To receive even sunlight, your garden beds should be in a north-south orientation. Now, perhaps that doesn’t work for your yard specifically, or you’re like me and didn’t get that memo before you had 4 permanent beds installed in an east-west orientation.

Don’t panic. Gardening is still very doable, but it does add an extra layer to be mindful of when planning out where you will plant things. See my next tip to know what I mean.

5. Plan your garden layout carefully

When I put together digital garden plans for our fall garden, I was all too pleased with myself. I had taken two things into consideration — companion planting and grouping together plants with similar watering requirements. I proceeded to plant seedlings and sow seeds directly according to my nifty little plan. As things proceeded to grow, I learned a valuable lesson that I will apply to our future garden layout.

If you have east-west garden beds, don’t plant tall plants on the east side of the garden. This will result in the westwardly plants growing in the shade of said plant and steal some of that valuable sunlight time. In a future garden iteration, I plan to keep the taller crops to the rear of the bed so that it doesn’t shade out any other plants.

6. Healthy soil = healthy plants

I once heard that gardening is not about feeding the plants as much as it is about feeding the soil. This really struck me and I made an effort to amend our soil for our fall garden. Our garden beds are filled with organic soil and amended with compost, Tony’s Magic Mix, worm castings and topped with mulch. I have seen a vast improvement in the health of our plants since caring for the soil. As Tony’s Magic Mix’s site says, “happy roots make happy shoots.” That thought was cute — and true.

7. Give your plants enough space to flourish

Plant with proper spacing seems like common sense and it’s a tough lesson I’m learning as I write this. Just about every seed packet and seedling come with instructions that advise spacing guidelines. In our current garden set up, I wanted to try all the things despite knowing I wouldn’t have a lot of room. (Since then we have two new beds to use!) Combine the poor placement of my tall plants with overcrowding, and i now I have a lot of plants crammed in and not exactly flourishing. They are growing ok, but not necessarily thriving.

8. Thin seedlings at the right time

Another contributor to overcrowding in our garden is the fact that I neglected to thin my seedlings at the proper time. Especially when starting from seed, it’s common to plant a couple of seeds in the same spot to increase the chances of a successful sprout. Once the seedlings develop their first set of real leaves, you’re supposed to snip the less viable-looking sprouts, leaving their root system in the dirt. (So that you don’t disturb the roots of the remaining plant) I have been awful at this practice up until now, but will be better at it in the future.

9. Keep growing!

My final piece of advice is an important one — you have to keep growing! I truly believe that gardening is a lifestyle choice. I’ve appreciated the metaphorical life lessons gardening has revealed to me about the nature of nurturing, trusting your instincts, responding to the needs of others, dedication and hard work. Am I growing a garden or is the garden growing me?

In conclusion: My first year of gardening

Gardening is a practice that has become well integrated into my life and I love learning something new every day. There’s always something to research and always a creative problem to solve. Even when I’ve failed and flopped, it motivates me to try again. I’ve decided that I must love the act of gardening to appreciate the beauty and abundance it brings. However your gardening practice takes shape, I hope it brings you the same amount of joy it has brought me. It’s truly been life-changing.

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