New Gardeners Should Dig Into These Plant-Saving Tips

Aspiring gardeners may struggle to grasp all the rules. From knowing the perfect time to plant seeds to figuring out your lawn’s soil type, gardening has so many rules that can make or break your experience. Where do you start?

New gardeners can breathe a sigh of relief because the pros have shared their top tips. Learn when not to clean your garden, and know how to choose the perfect fertilizer for your plants before wasting your money on one. Before diving into the soil, dig into these tips for beginner gardeners.

Keep It Close, Keep It Sunny

The sun shines through plum blooms.
Stefan Jaitner/picture alliance via Getty Images
Stefan Jaitner/picture alliance via Getty Images

If you want your plants to grow tall, you’ll want the best location. Sun-loving vegetables like tomatoes need at least six hours of light per day, while other vegetables only like partial light. For the best garden spot, you’ll want to choose a place with both full light and partial light.

You’ll also want to keep your garden close to home. Plus, ensure that your garden has easy access to water. You won’t want to lug water buckets to your plants every day. If you don’t have a quality hose or drainage system, consider investing in one.

Follow ‘NPK’ When Shopping For Fertilizer

A shelf is lined with fertilizer products.
Geography Photos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Geography Photos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

When considering fertilizer, aim for the foolproof nutrients that gardeners call “the Big Three.” NPK stands for nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). These minerals appear in most commercial fertilizers because they’re essential for plant growth.

Nitrogen is the most important nutrient because it forms proteins that make plants healthy and nutritious. Phosphorus helps plants store energy through photosynthesis, and potassium resists disease. Calcium, iron, magnesium, and sulfur are secondary nutrients compared to the Big Three that your plants need. Make sure your fertilizers include these vitamins.

Choose The Right Compost

A man spreads comfort over a community garden.
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Quality soil is the key to a fertile garden. For six months before you plant, try to freshen your soil by adding manure, says the USDA. Beware of fresh manure, as it is too high in nitrogen and may contain parasites. Never use dog, cat, or pig manure because it contains parasites that can infect humans.

Instead, buy manure that says “pathogen-free” on the bag. Chicken, horse, and cow manure work the best for your garden. If you want to grow root vegetables, you must fertilize your soil for six months beforehand.

Study Your USDA Hardiness Zone

A map of the plant zones around Boise, Idaho is seen.
Garden Answer/YouTube
Garden Answer/YouTube

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has created maps of the country’s climate zones. These Hardiness Zone maps let you know which plants will survive in your area. For your area, determine which zone you’re in, between Zone 3 and Zone 11.

You don’t want to grow plants outside that won’t survive in your climate. To prevent this, download a Hardiness Zone map of your state and decide which plants you can grow. Planning ahead will save you time, money, and dead plants.

Dig Up Weeds

A gardener weeds their vegetable plots.
Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images
Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images

Plucking a weed won’t remove it from your garden. Instead, dig up the entire weed, roots included. For less soil disruption, slice through the roots with a narrow knife. That will kill the plants and prevent them from taking over your garden.

If you can’t dig up weeds–if they’re too close to your favorite plants–deadhead them. With pruning loppers, chop off the stems before the seeds can spread. Remember to weed your garden before watering it; you don’t want to cultivate unwanted plants.

Unravel Root-Bound Plants

In this black and white photo, a gardener loosens roots of a potted plant.
Peter Weller/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Peter Weller/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Although buying potted plants saves time, it comes with a downside. Many potted plants have “bound roots,” which means that the roots are tightly clumped together. When the roots are tangled, they can’t absorb water or nutrients well, and the plants will wilt.

Before repotting the plant, gently massage the roots to untangle them. If they’re stubborn, cut the root ball vertically with a knife. Whenever the pot becomes too small, you’ll have to unravel the roots again. If your potted plant seems dehydrated, it may have outgrown its home.

Don’t Clean Your Garden During Fall

Colorful autumn leaves litter the grass.
Karol Serewis/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Karol Serewis/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In the past, gardeners cleaned up their gardens for winter. But today, they no longer do. By not cutting some perennials (such as garden mums), you’ll prepare them to survive the winter. Plus, fallen leaves and grass serve as compost to fertilize the soil.

Not cleaning your garden also attracts helpful critters. Bees, butterflies, and birds need shelter and food during the colder months. The more of these animals you invite, the fewer parasites and harmful bugs will chew up your garden.

Know Your Soil

Two boys plant flowers in a community garden.
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Certain plants won’t grow in specific types of soil. Pinpoint your lawn’s soil type before planting anything there. Clay soil has little drainage, while sandy soil drains quickly. Silty and peaty soils are damp and hold moisture, and chalky soil has many stones inside. Loamy soil is a combination of clay, sand, and silt.

If you don’t know what kind of soil your lawn has, you can buy a soil test that measures the pH balance, moisture, nutrients, and other factors. You can also perform some at-home tests to determine how thick or moist the soil is.

Lighten Your Large Pots

A diagram shows packing peanuts laying the bottom of a potted plant.
Family Handyman/Pinterest
Family Handyman/Pinterest

If you’re pot planting and want to save money on soil, fill the bottom of a pot with light-weight packaging. Place empty cans, soda containers, or packing peanuts on the pot’s floor. You can also buy products that are designed to lighten the soil, such as Ups A Daisy, Packing Pearls, or Better than Rocks.

Before you add the soil, separate the inorganic layer from the dirt. Cut a plastic screen to fit your pot, and place it on top of the filler. Then, you can add soil without the fear of your pot getting too heavy to move.

Watch Out For Plants That Harm Pets

A dog holds a toy and plays with its owner in a yard.
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

If you own pets, take care to plant a nontoxic garden. Some plants aren’t poisonous to humans but can harm animals. African violets, snapdragons, marigolds, sage, and spider ivy are all harmless. But chrysanthemums, irises, carnations, gardenias, hydrangeas, aloe vera, mint, parsley, English ivy, and tomato plants can be bad for some animals.

If you want to include some of these plants in your garden, keep them away from your pets. Raise them in tall planters that your dog or cat can’t reach. Know the symptoms of pets eating these plants so you can be prepared.

Confine Aggressive Plants

Tree seedlings are separated to not take over the garden.
Getty Images
Getty Images

Aggressive plants–also called invasive plants–will quickly consume your entire garden if you don’t contain them. Although they aren’t treated as weeds, they grow like weeds. Spearmint, yucca, yarrow, bee balm, English ivy, and many other plants should receive their own containers.

To confine aggressive plants, keep them in an individual pot. Prune and deadhead them regularly. Otherwise, the plant’s seeds will spread beyond the pot and invade your garden. You can bury the pot slightly if you want the plant to look like it’s on the same level as the garden.

Your Potting Soil Doesn’t Always Need Fertilizer

A man holds natural fertilizer.
REMY GABALDA/AFP via Getty Images
REMY GABALDA/AFP via Getty Images

Some potting soils come with fertilizer. However, this isn’t the best option for all plants. In potted plants, you’ll want to use a slow-release fertilizer. Lawn plants benefit from dry fertilizer. If you aren’t sure, buy a potting soil without fertilizer and add one yourself later.

If you don’t want to worry about over-fertilizing, use organic ingredients. Blood meal, bone meal, wood ash, and kelp meal will slowly release nutrients that feed plants over time. While using synthetic fertilizers, follow the instructions so you don’t “burn” your plants.

The Benefits Of Deadheading

A woman prunes her rose bushes.
Sergei Chuzavkov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Sergei Chuzavkov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Deadheading doesn’t only make your plants look neater. It also encourages new flowers to grow, and in some plants, it prevents self-sowing. You don’t want your entire garden to be taken over by one flower. During the growing season, you’ll want to regularly deadhead perennial and annual flowers.

You can deadhead some flowers by pinching them off. Cut thicker stems with prunes or shears. If the entire stalk has finished blooming, cut the stalk at the base where fresh leaves remain. If it’s just the flower, remove the bud.

Create A Non-Stick Shovel

A gardener digs a trench to drain his garden.
BDamian Gillie/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images
BDamian Gillie/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

Does soil cling to your shovel every time you use it? You can create a non-stick shovel with an easy hack. Before using, spray a vegetable oil or cooking spray onto a shovel. Cover the front and back thoroughly, and let it sit for a bit. This will prevent soil from clinging to your shovel.

You can also use a lubricant like petroleum jelly or WD-40 to de-stick your tools. For a cheaper option, apply paraffin wax. Reapply your lubricant of choice whenever you need to shovel.

Plant Seeds At The Right Time

A child holds sprouted seedlings.
Myriams-Fotos/Pixabay
Myriams-Fotos/Pixabay

Depending on when you plant your vegetables, they could grow or they could die. Do your research before planting seeds. For instance, cool-season vegetables such as broccoli and potatoes are best planted before the late spring. Warm-season vegetables, like tomatoes and peppers, should enter the ground in early summer.

Flowers also thrive during certain seasons. Dahlias and lilies can be planted in spring, while daffodils and tulips go underground in autumn. Before dropping your seeds in the ground, research when is the best season to plant them.

Divide And Transplant Your Perennials

A gardener divides perennials.
backyardfarmer/YouTube
JPS Landscape Design/YouTube

Perennials wilt and grow back every year. Around late summer or early autumn, many gardeners divide and transplant their perennials. According to the University of Minnesota, dividing plants helps them grow, controls size, and gives you new plants.

To divide your plants, dig them up with a spade or garden fork. Separate the roots into smaller plants, using a knife if you need to. Every division requires five shoots and a healthy number of roots. Only divide your plants when they aren’t blooming.

Protect Your Bulbs From Squirrels

A squirrel eats daffodil bulbs in a garden.
Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images
Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images

Bulbs of spring flowers, such as tulips, are the perfect food for squirrels and chipmunks. Some experienced squirrels will even watch gardeners plant bulbs to dig them up later. To protect your plant, cover them with sheets of chicken wire or hardware cloth.

Cut the wire and lay it over your garden section. Keep it down with stakes, bricks, or heavy rocks. Finally, cover the wire with mulch or shredded leaves. You’ll still be able to water your plants while keeping the bulbs safe from squirrels.

Save Autumn Leaves

A wheelbarrow is filled with autumn leaves in a community garde.
Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Because autumn leaves release a lot of carbon, they make convenient mulch, fertilizer, and compost. Put them on the soil over potatoes, roses, pumpkins, and squash to feed the soil and protect it from frost. You can also turn leaves into free mulch by shredding them with a lawnmower or trimmers.

Or, you could keep your autumn leaves until spring. You can pile leaves onto a new garden spot to fertilize it over months. To store the leaves until spring, tie them in a black garbage bag.

Check Your Lawn’s Drainage

A man wades through his flooded lawn.
David Jennings/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images
David Jennings/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images

Many lawns contain clay soil, which gathers rainwater and lets it sit for a while. Because clay has less drainage than sandy or loamy soil, it could kill many outdoor plants. If your lawn is gathering water, you may need to build a DIY drainage system to save your garden.

Creating a pond, rain garden, or berm can redirect the water away from the garden. Be wary of where you send the water, since it may cause drainage issues elsewhere. You can also attach a rain barrel to downspouts.

Rotate Your Crops Every Year

A person plants herbs, vegetables, and flowers in a box on the balcony.
Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Jumping Rocks/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Never plant the same vegetable in the same spot every year. If you keep vegetables in the same spot, it may deplete the soil’s nutrients and spread disease more easily. Instead, adopt a crop rotation system. Divide your garden into distinct areas and move them every year.

For the best results, divide your plants into four categories: root vegetables, leafy greens, fruits, and legumes. Every year, move each section one spot to the right or left. Don’t plant root vegetables in rich, fertile soil, as that can damage the plant.