If, like us, you’ve been spending a lot of time at home over the past few months, you understand the sudden appeal of new hobbies. Maybe you picked up bread baking or got hold of a new bike. Or maybe you’ve decided it’s finally time to learn how to garden. “People are finally realizing that growing food can be as simple as the green part going up and the brown part going down,” says Maureen Murphy, owner of Bayview Farm and Garden on Whidbey Island in Washington. And aside from learning the basics and arming yourself with a few essential gardening tools, beginner gardening really doesn’t need to be any more complicated. Growing fresh lettuce is as simple as taking a pot, adding potting soil, sprinkling lettuce seed and watering, points out Murphy, who says her nursery has been busier than ever. “Home food production is part of community resilience,” she says. “In these difficult times, the victory garden is back in fashion.”
“Tomatoes are the go-to fruit for gardeners,” says Murphy. “Once you grow your first tomato, you come back to grow peppers, eggplant, and zucchini.” And the initial investment you make in seeds and tools will ultimately translate into savings on your grocery bill, she adds.
But before you turn your backyard into the vegetable aisle, there are a few important things to keep in mind. Barbara Damrosch, author of the Garden Primer and co-owner of Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine, says sunlight is the secret to gardening success. “If you don’t know where to plant, choose the sunniest spot,” she says. “You can change the soil, but you can’t change the fact that a building blocks the sun you need for fruit crops like melons, peppers and tomatoes. Leafy plants like spinach and Swiss chard are more tolerant and will tolerate partial shade.” Second, she says, you need good soil. “This is where your plants get their nutrients,” she explains. “Your soil should look like chocolate cake mix. It should be fluffy and contain air. It should store moisture, but also drain away when there is too much moisture.”
And to get the most bang for your buck, invest in plants that will bear fruit over time, like pole beans instead of bush beans, which are one-offs, and cut-and-return lettuces as opposed to lettuce. When in doubt, she says, use your local nursery or garden center as a resource.
With these essential tips and these must-have gardening tools, any beginner can be on the best path to gardening success.
Johnny’s 512 Soil Mix – 20 qt
“People think dirt is dirt, so they just buy what’s cheapest,” says Damrosch. “Then if their plants don’t grow well, they think they have a black thumb. It’s not their fault.” Damrosch says good quality soil will have the ingredients listed on the side of the bag. She is a fan of Johnny’s 512 Mix, a custom blend from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. If you are unsure about the health of your soil or if your garden is declining in health, use a soil test kit to see which nutrient is missing.
Seed Starter Tray
LOVEDAY Seed Starter Tray Plant Kit 2 Pack
Any container with drainage holes can be used to start seeds, but specially designed seed pots and trays provide optimal conditions and allow you to grow lots of seeds in a small space. The Loveday Seed Starter Tray Plant Kit comes with leak-proof trays so you can water without a mess and a dome seals in moisture and moisture during germination. Murphy says a good rule of thumb is that when there are two true leaves, your seedlings are ready to be moved outside to the garden bed.
Razor sharp scissors
Felco F-2 Classic manual hand shears
Buying your first Felco F2 pruner is a transitional right for any gardener, says Ciscoe Morris, a Seattle-based gardening expert and author Oh, La La!: Homemade stories, helpful tips and gardening wisdom. Also known as secateurs, these one-handed secateurs have two curved blades that effortlessly trim shrubs and flowers and cut branches with extreme precision. Large handles, contoured finger grips and shock absorbers that protect against wrist strain make this one of the most user-friendly scissors on the market. And their impressive durability has made them a must-have gardening tool over the decades.
Kink resistant hose
Dramm 17006 ColorStorm Rubber Garden Hose
If you ask your nursery or garden center what type of hose they use, the answer is likely Dramm, says Morris. “A good garden hose is durable and kink-resistant,” he says. The Dramm 17006 ColorStorm Rubber Garden Hose is thicker than any other rubber hose on the market and comes with pinch-resistant connectors, so you never have to worry about accidentally running the car over it. The adjustable spray pattern of the Dramm 12380 Heavy Duty Variable Nozzle makes it a good all-purpose nozzle, while the solid brass Dramm 510 Seedling Nozzle produces an extra fine mist that is ideal for watering fragile plants, delicate seedlings or plant cuttings.
Food52 Essential garden tools
You could fill your entire garden shed with quirky tools. But the Floral Society’s five-piece Essential Garden Tools set covers the must-haves: a three-pronged cultivator to till, a spade-shaped trowel to scoop up soil, a weeder to get at stubborn taproots, a hand fork to aerate the soil, and a narrow one Trowel that can tease weeds out of tight spaces. Hand-forged in Holland from tempered steel and accented with sustainably harvested ash hardwood handles, each piece (which you can also purchase individually) looks like a garden shed heirloom that will give years of hard work.
All purpose hand tool
Diggit Hori Hori Master Gardener Knife Tool
Arguably the most versatile tool in a gardener’s shed, the Japanese hori hori knife can do everything from spacing row crops to removing pesky roots from tiny crevices between pavers. Morris looks at his Diggit Hori Hori Master Gardener Knife Tool indispensable. Constructed of stainless steel, it’s super strong and a serrated edge on one side of the blade doubles as a saw for chopping veggies from veggies or opening compost bags. Plus, its bright yellow handle makes it easy to spot in the compost heap.
AcuRite soil thermometer made of stainless steel
Novice gardeners often blame themselves when their seeds don’t sprout. But in their excitement to start planting, they often forget to check the soil temperature. Even if the air is warm, the soil can still be too cold, preventing the seeds from germinating. A simple, inexpensive soil thermometer, like this stainless steel version from AcuRite, will do. You should measure at least five inches deep, Morris says, and take measurements at night and during the day. Different plants prefer different temperatures (tomatoes at least 50 degrees, lettuce at least 35 degrees). Free seed catalogs, like those from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, have a germination guide that gives optimal soil temperatures for different seeds.
A supportive knee pad
Ohuhu garden kneeler and seat
Crouching among weeds, bending down to pick up plants, and pushing a wheelbarrow full of mulch will make your muscles feel like they’ve had a workout. If you’re prone to back pain or have sensitive knees, it’s worth investing in a kneeler or seat. The foldable Ohuhu Garden kneeler and seat fulfills double tasks. A raised knee pad provides cushioning and keeps your pants free of mud or grass stains. Turn it over and it becomes a sturdy garden chair where you can relax while you trim your long-stemmed plants. Two tool pouches attach to the handles so you can keep pruning shears, scissors and a cool drink close at hand.
Bamboo gardening gloves
There was a time when dirt under your newly manicured nails might have been a cause for concern. But in these simpler times, the real reasons you need good gardening gloves come into focus: sharp tools, thorns, sun damage. Bamboo gardening gloves are more absorbent than cotton or synthetic fabrics, so hands don’t sweat. And unlike other materials, bamboo fiber contains a natural antibacterial agent.
If you’re tired of kneeling down to hoe weeds, try a collinear hoe. The ergonomic design allows the user to stand upright and drag the sharp 6 inch blade across the surface of the floor. “It’s easy on the back and removes weeds before you even see them,” says Damrosch. Designed for tight spaces, it’s particularly effective near low-growing plants like sweet potatoes and lettuce.
Bed preparation rake
Johnny’s Garden Tools bed preparation rake
Once your soil is loosened and tilled, you should smooth and level the bed top before sowing. A bed preparation rake makes the work easier. Curved teeth grab rocks and debris as you pull the rake up, and level and smooth the ground as you push. Damrosch suggests buying row markers, hard plastic tubes that slide onto selected teeth of the rake to mark rows or create a trellis pattern for transplanting. It’s a perfectionist’s dream tool for beautifully spaced plants.