21 simple gardening tips for beginners

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Not everyone has a green thumb, but that shouldn't stop you from pursuing gardening. Fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers make a yard brighter and can help you to eat healthy on a budget. But if you're a first-time gardener, there are a lot of things you need to know before you grow. Here are 21 simple tips for starting your own backyard garden.

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Know what to grow

Successful gardening starts with knowing which crops are viable where you live. The USDA's plant hardiness zone map indicates the 11 different climate zones in America measured by the average annual extreme minimum temperature. Seed packaging and plant labels will tell you what grows best in your area.

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Know where to grow

Knowing what you want to grow will help you decide where in your yard is the best place for a garden. Some plants like direct sunlight, while others prefer shade. Check your plant package for this information.

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Test your soil

To make sure your soil is healthy enough to foster plants, send a sample to the lab or use an at-home kit to measure the pH level of your land. Different fruits and vegetables can tolerate varying pH levels, but generally speaking anywhere from 6.5 to 7 will do (except for eggplant, melons and potatoes). It's also important to test for these three nutrients: nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. If your test yields bad results, you'll have to take some time to correct the deficiencies.

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Consider raised beds

Being new to gardening, you want to set yourself up for success - and a raised garden bed may be the best way to do that, even though it might take more investment up front. You will have more control over soil in a raised garden bed as well as simpler weed and pest control. "I always advise beginner gardeners to build raised beds," said Desiree Thomson from Gardening Services London. "They are really helpful when it comes to separating plants according to their needs. In raised beds, you can grow different sets of plants, all grouped in separate patches."

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Map it out

Now that you know what your soil is like, what kind of plants you should grow and where you are going to put your new garden, spend some time mapping it out before you break ground. This will help you double-check that you are optimizing your space properly.

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Get some gear

Without the right tools, or any tools at all, you can run into a serious mess quickly. Some essentials include breathable water-resistant gloves, pruners, loppers, a garden fork, a hand trowel, a spade, a rake, a hoe, a hose with an adjustable nozzle, a watering wand or watering can and a wheelbarrow.

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Use seed starter kits

An easy, almost guaranteed way of getting your plant to sprout is by using a seed starter kit. These single- or multiple-use trays provide perfect conditions for your crop to germinate. This allows you to begin the growing process inside when it's too early to plant outside, and then put it in the ground later when it's nice enough.

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Start small

Taking care of your plants requires time and dedication. It's easy to get carried away with the excitement of growing everything under the sun, but it's best to start small so you can care for each individual plant as best you can.

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Label everything in your garden

Even if you've only planted three different types of seeds, it's a good idea to label what it is and where you planted it, because it's easy to forget.

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Utilize companion planting

Companion planting is growing different crops in the same vicinity for a variety of reasons including maximizing use of space, providing nutrients and warding off pests. Some species thrive when they are planted close together, while others can actually stunt each other's growth. For example, tomatoes produce greater yields (and keep away mosquitos and flies) when they coexist with basil. Other tomato allies include asparagus, carrots, celery, onions, lettuce, marigold, parsley and spinach. As far as enemies go, keep tomatoes away from cabbage, beets, corn, fennel, dill, potatoes and rosemary.

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Don't plant things too close together

Like people, plants have personal space bubbles. They need enough room to grow properly, and if other crops are too close they can stunt growth and spread disease - unless they're companion plants.

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Mix it up

You don't have to restrict yourself to just growing vegetables or just growing herbs. Feel free to mix it up when it comes to your plants. Go ahead and plant those herbs in your veggie garden. There are some plants that are natural companions and do not necessarily yield the same crop.

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Use compost

Compost is organic material that can be added to your garden to help your plants grow. This can be anything from eggshells, tea bags and coffee grounds to ashes, lawn trimmings and fur. Adding these things to your soil helps it to retain moisture, fight pests and disease, and stimulate good bacterial growth. Also, finding ways to reuse your waste lowers your carbon footprint.

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Use fertilizer

Even if you decide composting isn't your thing, you still shouldn't skip enhancing the soil. Fertilizing the ground is an important step to add nutrients and minerals.

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Keep watering needs in mind

When you are plotting out your garden, also keep in mind how much each of the plants needs in terms of amount of water and frequency of watering, then make sure to match like to like.

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Get rid of weeds

Planting is only the beginning of the work on your new garden. You need to keep weeds out. Weeds are bad for your garden because they compete with the plants you are trying to grow for the nutrients in the soil as well as valuable garden space.

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Mulch may be your best friend

Depending on what you are growing, you may want to consider mulch. Mulch helps to feed the soil with nutrients and protects against erosion. Mulch will also help your new garden fend off weeds.

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Be patient

Growing plants takes time, so remain calm and be patient while you get your garden up and going.

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Organize your seeds

To make sure seeds stay neat and don't get lost or thrown away, find a way to properly store the packets. One creative option is to drop them in the sleeves of a small photo album. This way, you can turn the pages and see exactly what you've got - and they're protected.

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Store your seeds correctly

Keeping your seeds viable means storing them correctly. According to the USDA, you want to keep seeds at a constant temperature as well as a constant humidity. Ideally a seed should be stored at a temperature below 50 degrees Fahrenheit and at less than 50 percent humidity.

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Practice crop rotation

What you grow has a direct effect on the soil surrounding it. Growing the same plant in the same spot every year will mean you are depleting the same nutrients every year. Crop rotation can help you replenish nutrients in the soil throughout your garden. Crop rotation will also keep common pests on their toes because their food source will change location year after year. Instead of doing a basil plant year after year, consider planting some plants and flowers you didn't know were edible!

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