The 21 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Gardening

If you’re new to gardening, then you might want to listen up. Or rather, you might want to keep reading. This article is a collection of things that I wish I had known in my first days of gardening. It’s a bunch of facts, tidbits, and advice that would have been good to know back when I started my gardening and growing adventures.

This article is a collection of the 21 most valuable pieces of knowledge that I wish I’d known from the beginning. Here we go, I’m just going to dive right in.

21 Things I Wish I Had Known Before I Started Gardening

  1. The Weather Is Out Of My Control. Okay, this may seem like it’s obvious, but let me explain. When I first started growing my food, I mean the first year I started seeds indoors and getting them up and going before spring, I didn’t always think things could change. I planted my vegetables on the appropriate day, and a few days later, some frost hit and wiped them all out. I took it personally that it was my fault for putting them out early. Although it wasn’t early, it was just a fluke.  

As a gardener, you can’t take it personally when acts of God spoil your plans. All you can do is prepare for the worst as best you can and hope for the best. A tornado could rip through, or lightning could hit your garden. Any number of crazy and possible situations could occur. The best thing to do as a gardener is to take it in stride and learn from it. How can you try to prevent or mitigate the damage next time?

  1. Not All Plants Like Water All The Time.  It was a big lesson for me when I tried to grow tomatoes and cucumbers both on a hydroponic system. I got the balance just right for the tomatoes to happen (and they were delicious, I might add), but the cucumbers just withered away and died.  

I learned this same lesson again when growing some baby tomatoes and treating my baby marijuana the same way. The marijuana started having leaves turn yellow and dry like they were scorched in the sun. I couldn’t figure it out for the life of me, as the tomatoes in the same undertray were doing great. It wasn’t until I moved the marijuana to a different tray and cut it’s water cycle in half that things improved for those plants. I learned that plants like tomatoes love lots of water at certain stages and that some other plants do not. The lesson here is that every plant is different, and you can’t just lump them together and assume all will work out well.

  1. Although Adorable, Rabbits Are Not Necessarily A Gardeners Friend.  I finally now understand where Elmer Fudd was coming from. Take a look at my video here about attacking rabbits and the destruction they wreak. [YOUTUBE]. The point of this segment was that I learned that there are many things that are good for a garden, like worms and some bugs, and there are things that I thought were good, like a cute little bunny, which are not valid for my plant’s survival. At least, not the tasty bean plants, anyway. 
  2. Get The Fish With The Heads On. I remember thinking how gross the head of a fish was when I saw whole fish for sale at the grocery for the first time. I think I was around seven years old at the time if memory serves. Anyway, even as an adult, I didn’t understand the concept. Sure, waste not, and all that, right? But, I don’t know many people that eat the head or guts of a fish for that matter. But as a gardener, I want all the fish heads I can get my hands on, but not to eat.

I bury a fish head under where I plant a tomato, zucchini, or other fruit or vegetable and it works better than any fertilizer I’ve ever tried, I can tell you that from experience. I wish I’d known that in the beginning, when I was trying to figure out proper ground chemistry with chemical fertilizers. I’m glad I went organic. You can taste the difference. And that leads me to the next thought.

  1. Go Organic. I’m not saying that non-organic is ‘bad.’ My point to this is that a lot of simple, natural, and organic solutions are usually present over chemical or other human-made and potentially harmful solutions. There are friendly bugs to counter bad bugs, useful plants to support, and bad mixes of plants to put together. Usually, armed with a little research, and you can avoid any potential detrimental outcomes.
  2. You Can Stop Weeds With Newspapers.  I don’t recommend this one in a garden where you grow your food due to the leaching inks. But in a flower bed, before you lay the top layer of soil, lay a layer of newspaper, then put the top layer on top of that. The newspaper helps to wick water and keep the soil moisture levels consistent. It also helps to choke out and kill weeds, which is useful. And it eventually degrades so there won’t be any issues there either.
  3. It’s A Long Game.  When I first started gardening, I was disconcerted by the lack of instant gratification. I mean, I was happy when I saw how my garden looked after a bunch of work planting new flowers and so on. But, I never really appreciated those first days because I was buying plants that were grown and just transplanting them into my yard and calling it gardening.

I found that it wasn’t satisfactory for me. I had to do something more. That’s when I started to change my perspective from instant gratification to the long-game gratification. You almost always make more if you can wait and be patient. And with gardening, this couldn’t be more true. It’s the long game that gives gratification to a gardener. Someone who has started their plants from seed and even have multiple generations of plants they have grown. That’s gratification right there for you.

  1. Cheap Garden Tools Are Cheap. Not all garden tools are created equal. I’ve found that it’s better to spend the money on a quality item that is going to last rather than one that will save you a dollar now and make you buy the whole thing all over again in a few years. Although our gardens may recycle themselves each year, our products shouldn’t.

Take the time to find some decent gloves, a good work cart, and a wheelbarrow. A decent gardening set is vital, as well. Get some things you’ll like, some tools you’re going to be proud of, and take care of them. It will benefit you and save you money in the long run to just get the decent tools that are going to last for years to come. I’m not saying go out and buy every tool. Just the ones you need, but get them in quality form, not cheap. Cheap has its place, and your tools are not it.

  1. Don’t Forget The Dirt.  This is a big one. In my first years of gardening, I focused on the sorts of things a person would expect. What does the plant look like, and is it getting enough water and light? I just assumed the dirt was the dirt, you know?  

But dirt is an entire little microscopic ecosystem going on. There are bacteria, fungi, microbes, bugs, nematodes, and all manner of tiny, slimy, creepy-crawlies. And that’s fine; they have their place. They work together to create a healthy world where plant roots can thrive. Remember that plants and dirt have evolved together on this Earth for hundreds of millions of years. The Earth and Nature know quite a bit better how to balance things out than we do. Keeping that natural balance in the soil is essential. Learn everything you can about the dirt you use to grow your food in. And never take the ground for granted.

  1. No Matter What You Think You Know, Someone Knows Better. It is a two-fold thought. First, you should always be humble and remember that someone out there might have and likely has a better idea or method than you do. Always be ready to learn from others. I have a great analogy, a bit off-topic story, that I’d like to share about this.

Back several years ago, I was a breeder of African Cichlid Fish and also had a pet store in downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Anyway, I went to this sort of convention for fish hobbyists and was chatting with one of the fish importers who sold fish wholesale to the pet stores as I bred fish and sold them to him to distribute. Anyway, I was an avid hobbyist in my twenties at the time, and I just soaked in everything the older and seemingly wiser people in my industry would share.  

An older gentleman walks over and starts bragging about how he gets a 40% success rate with his egg clutches of African Cichlids. I just kept my mouth shut and let him speak, as it seemed that he might not let anyone else get a word in any way. So, this fish distributor that I was initially talking to pipes up and mentions how I’ve invented a fish egg incubator for mouthbrooding fish and that I have a 98% success rate. I, this young kid in his twenties and this veteran of the fish breeding industry, put in his place by the distributor. I mean, okay, it doesn’t relate to gardening (unless we’re talking about using fish tanks to make fertilizer). But it reveals a good point. That point is that there may be someone young with no experience who just happens to have a great idea. Or, there could be a veteran of the industry with a vast amount of knowledge to share. The point is, there is wisdom around every corner, and you should never assume you know it all about something or that you don’t have something to learn from someone else.

  1. There Are No Mistakes, Only Opportunities To Learn. A friend of mine shared a post on LinkedIn that said this. And it stuck in my head. This is really true when it comes to gardening. You can’t look at your gardening mistakes as mistakes. They are learning experiences. We do our best, and we keep doing our best. If it isn’t good enough, learn how to improve. That’s all any of us can do. The weather is going to change; things are not going to go according to plan. Roll with the punches and learn from every opportunity. Every opportunity is a beautiful lesson from a greater power. Pay attention, my friends; the gardening gods may smile upon your plants if you do.
  2. Organization Is Key. Whether you’re talking about a hack like using a skid as an upright tool holder or drawing out a plan of your gardens for the season, staying organized is the key to successful crop management. I find that when it comes to seed storage, this couldn’t be more true. Especially when you start collecting your seeds from your plants, between drying processes and other gardening chores, you can easily forget to label a container of seeds and then forget what plant variety they were. It is essential in the beginning to set yourself up with good practices in terms of your garden organizing. When you start getting a lot of plants and seeds, things can spiral out of order and into chaos seemingly overnight. You’d be surprised how fast our slow friends’ plants can be when one day blurs into the next.
  3. Homemade Helps The Budget.  Growing your organic food is good for your wallet. Even with money for the initial setup, seeds, and tools, I think I paid for all of my garden tools and everything with the money I saved in the first year alone. My grocery bill was significantly less for many, many months. I grew blueberries, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber, squash, chives, herbs, and more, and I don’t think I bought vegetables for at least five months of the year. It was fantastic. My wife made fresh pasta sauce that was to die for, too. I was quite spoiled (I’ve got twice as many tomatoes this year; don’t tell Christine. She probably won’t read this, lol). Anyway, the amount of food saved by buying it and organic food is expensive, you know that.  
  4. Make Your Own Bug Repellants And Pesticides Yourself. I spent a bunch of money in my first year gardening in a futile attempt to control weeds and pests with ‘technology’ and chemicals. It was stupid, to be quite honest. I can admit I was very wrong in my approach. Now I’m a converted Organic. If there even is such a thing. I’ve found a variety of recipes for homemade things that work like a charm. Like homemade citronella candles to repel bugs when you’re out gardening. Or sticky flypaper to catch flies in your greenhouse.
  5. Grow Everything, Everywhere You Can. When I first started growing my own food, I made a lot of mistakes. In doing so, I lost this plant or that plant and wound up having a weak yield for my first year of growing. Now, I try to grow everything I can, and I try to do it creatively to maximize space. I put plants in pots, and they line the exterior wall of my garage. I put herbs in hanging baskets, and I don’t always abide by the rules when it comes to planting spacing. When you can get away with it, do it. Try to grow as much as you can, so if you lose stuff, you’ll still come out with a half-decent yield.
  6. Don’t Be Afraid Of New Plants. I always used to think that I should learn a few plants and then just stick with those. That was folly. The more I learn, the more I want to learn. Now, when I see or hear about a plant growth that I haven’t tried before, I want it even more. This is especially true when it comes to the selection of food-providing plants.

When I’m choosing plants to grow that give me some sort of food, I am a bit selective. But I’m not afraid to try a new type of plant. I am only particular when it comes to the kind of light and climate I can provide, but otherwise, I say go for it and try something new. The worst thing (aside from an allergy or some other unknown) is that the plant dies, and you’ve learned something (hopefully).

  1. Know and Understand Your Climate Zone. This one kind of ties in with my last point about not being afraid of new plants while still being selective. Understanding the limitations of the climate you live in and the requirements of a new plant will help you make the best and most informed decisions about which plants to keep. I like to keep a lot of plants that are naturally indigenous to the area where I live. That way, I know they should be hardy enough to survive the sometimes harsh climate.   
  2. Table Scraps Are Your Friend. There are a bunch of useful things you can do with table scraps, depending on what they are. Items like coffee grinds and eggshells are great for their gardening value. Eggshells add calcium to the soil as well as help balance pH issues. Coffee grinds can be sprinkled around your garden bed to use as a slow-release fertilizer (just don’t put too much, or it could hurt the plants). Composting the rest of the table scraps is a great way to build a long-term fertilizing program, as it takes a few years to make excellent compost.
  3. Plants Like A Good Massage.  It is an odd one, but it’s true when it comes to transplanting a rootbound plant. Gently massage the roots to free them from their crippling rootbound position. Then, as you transplant, gently hold the plant up slightly off the bottom of the new pot and soil. Gently pour in the soil around the plant after you’ve massaged the roots. A good massage will make the roots stick out from the initially potted shape to fill the new pot or hole you have for the plant better.
  4. Don’t Burn With Poop. Sounds weird or gross, right? Well, a lot of people use manure as fertilizer, and I know for a fact that many garden centers sell bags of sheep or cattle waste for fertilizing. But did you know you can’t just put this directly into the dirt where it can contact your plant roots? I like to think of manure as a fine wine. It needs to sit awhile. I keep a compost type of bin at the back where I keep waste in a staging area. I mix it with dirt in a 50/50 ratio and let it sit for the winter (6-7 months). Then, I used it months later. It allows it time to compost some and reduces the chances of nitrogen burn on the plants. Nitrogen burn can harm the roots of your plants, so even though you think you’re helping, you may not be unless you ‘cure the poop’ first. It still makes me laugh. Vintage poop for the garden. haha  
  5. Go Big Or Go Home. It is my transplanting rule. I tend to think that most plants are about as big underground as they are above it. So, if a plant grows two feet tall and two feet wide, its root structure is the same size but underground. Keeping this in mind, whenever I transplant, I like to use a pot that most would consider overkill for the size of the plant. Not only does this give me a lot more time until I need to transplant again (if at all), but it also provides the plant with extra nourishment from the additional amount of soil.

After all, is said and done, these were all valuable lessons to learn and things that I’d wish I’d known in the first place, but I’m glad I learned. I hope you’ve found this to be valuable, and I thought to help add a bit more value to the experience, I’m going to recommend a few things that helped my journey along the way.

Steel Shelving

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Gardening Cart

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Gardening Stool

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Garden Kit

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