23 Tips from the Experts for Making Your Garden Grow

March 31, 2016

The decision to begin a garden feels a bit what I imagine the decision to skydive or bungee jump feels like: You're excited! You have a vision! You make arrangements for the day you'll do the skydiving/bungee-jumping/gardening deed and then it comes, and you approach the edge of the plane door/cliff/plot and suddenly your heart is pumping and all you can think is What. Have. I. Done.

Tighten your harness. Take a deep breath. You've got a team of trained professionals right behind you: author and small-space gardening expert Marie Viljoen; Ceci de Corral, the Design and Installations Manager at the rooftop farm and educational center Brooklyn Grange; and the author and gardener Alex Mitchell.

Here are 23 of their best tips for starting your first garden:

On getting started:

  1. Just start. "Really, just start. Buy a pot. Buy potting soil," says Marie. You'll already be halfway to a garden by the time you decide what to plant in it.
  2. Read up. "Educate yourself on the veggies you are choosing and their needs," Ceci says. She learned the hard way that the tomato plants on the Brooklyn Grange, which get full sun, were extremely happy, while the tomatoes in her shady backyard refused to bear fruit. And that said...
  3. Take notes, and look back on them every season. This is one of Ceci's biggest tips: Learn from your mistakes and successes; get yourself a journal and take careful note of what does and doesn't work. You'll not only have a record of what you grew every year, but you'll also be able to track your progress (and only plant winners).
  4. Seek out help from resources. "Ask questions at your nursery or reach out to companies like Brooklyn Grange!" says Ceci. Others have recommended local extension services or master gardeners. A brick-and-mortar nursery (and the people who staff it) is one of Marie's favorite resources.
  5. And use your neighbors as resources. Alex advises looking at the gardens around your neighborhood: "Chances are, that’s what will grow well in your garden too."
  6. Know your conditions, but don't be intimidated by them. At first, Ceci was nervous that growing would be harder or harsher or less successful or more taxing in an urban environment. "But as it turns out, the basics are still the same: Plant a seed, make sure it's getting adequate light and water, let nature do the rest," she says.
  7. That includes your soil. This is especially important if you live in a city, says Marie, who tends an impressively productive garden in her Brooklyn backyard. Get your soil tested! This will help guide you towards what to plant (or not). In addition to the mineral and chemical composition, learn whether it's wet or dry, sandy or clay-rich.

On what to grow:

  1. Learn your aspect. That's the direction—north, south, east, or west—your garden faces, says Marie. And that will affect the kind of light your garden will get, and what will grow well there.
  2. Embrace the power of threes. "Over the years I’ve discovered that planting one of everything looks messy," says Alex—even if you're aiming for a relaxed-looking garden. "You get a lot more impact if you select a handful of great plants and repeat them throughout the garden in groups of three." (Bonus: Choosing only a handful of plants means fewer disparate plant needs to juggle.)
  3. Let the labels lead you. "The labels [on seed packets and seedlings] are there for a reason," says Alex. "If it says a plant 'requires full sun’ and you only have a shady patch under a fire escape, choose something else. If it isn’t ‘frost hardy,’ don’t expect it to sail through a snowstorm."
  4. But don't be discouraged by shade. "I learned you can grow runner beans with just four hours of sun," Marie says. Many herbs will do well, too. Just because tomatoes won't grow in shade doesn't mean lots of other things won't.
  5. California poppies have been deeply rewarding for Alex. Sown once, never forgotten," she says. "They come back year after year popping up in unexpected places and are such a gorgeous saturated orange." (NB: Make sure you have the right climate for them!)
  6. Daily pick-your-own salad can be yours. Greens are one of Marie's favorite things to grow—and they grow quickly, which means near-instant gratification. "Last year, I was gathering daily arugula and mustard," she says.
  7. Strawberries do very well—even in pots, even in the shade, says Marie. If you have sun, look for everbearing strawberries, which produce fruit all summer. If you have more shade, look for Alpine strawberries like fraises des bois, which are tiny shade-adapted strawberries.

On keeping it alive:

  1. There's a reason—and a solution—for every problem. "And it's usually much easier to fix than you think," says Ceci. "Don't be intimidated! Look at your struggling basil plant as an opportunity to learn that basil likes light and humidity, or your yellowing greens to research the importance of nitrogen in soil."
  2. Make the roots feel at home. As soon as you transplant something—that is, move it from a pot to a plot of soil or vise versa, water it, says Marie.
  3. Do nothing. Well, not nothing, but a hands-off approach, one in which nature takes the reins, is a good one, advises Alex. Watch carefully: You'll learn what's growing well in the spot where you're hoping to plant your garden, and then you can make plans from there. And you may be surprised: "That boring bunch of twigs in December may turn into a beautiful flowering shrub in the spring. Don’t chop things down before you’re absolutely sure they’re not going to do something lovely at some point in the year."
  4. Drainage, drainage, drainage! "Don’t forget to make drainage holes in pots," pleads Alex. Most plants in pots need a place for extra water to go; this will prevent against drowning them. Choose pots that already have drainage holes, or poke them out yourself.
  5. Err on the side of under-watering. "If you're under watering, the plant tells you immediately, 'Hey, I'm droopy, give me water'," says Marie. "Other way around, you don't realize until it's almost too late."

On enjoying it:

  1. Concentrate on completing one manageable task rather than trying to tackle the whole garden at once, says Alex. "It’s easy to go out into the garden and feel overwhelmed, then drift around doing lots of things not very well—weeding a bit here, pruning a bit there." Instead, tackle one smaller thing fully and well. Alex recommends planting a container or sowing a row of lettuces.
  2. Remember that learning the hard way can be the best way to learn, says Ceci. You're going to kill some plants. It's okay. Next year, you'll killer fewer plants, and the next year, fewer: You're not likely to put tomatoes in full shade again once you realize that they're not so successful there.
  3. Let it go. "Remember nature never stands still," says Alex, and therefore, "your garden will never be perfect." Embrace this, but don't focus on it: Instead of focusing on the things that don't work, devote time to and derive joy from the things that do—"and your garden will be a place of pleasure not pain!"
  4. Think of your garden the same way you'd think of a relationship with a person, says Marie. "If you take it for granted, it's going to go south pretty quickly. They need the gardener every day."

What's the best gardening tip someone shared with you when you were starting your first garden? Share them in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Jade Brunet
    Jade Brunet
  • Jhoell
  • Valerie Gutchen Arnade
    Valerie Gutchen Arnade
  • Smaug
  • foofaraw
Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.


Jade B. February 8, 2017
Making the roots feel at home would be helpful in keeping your plants alive and well. I did not realize how important nitrogen was in soil. It would be a good idea to prep an entire yard before planting to increase future growth success.
Jhoell June 4, 2016
I believe this web site has some very fantastic info for everyone. I believe underwatering is the key. If you don't water them regularly, then that's the beginning of the downside. I must say you are very skilled at persuasive writing if you can convince me to share this content.

Valerie G. April 4, 2016
Sad to say, most of these tips are too advanced for me. I recently moved from the city to 9 acres and am clueless. Can people recommend beginning, and I mean beginning, gardening book. Like a How to Boil Water book for someone who doesn't know how to cook. (I know how to cook!) Please.
Bob April 12, 2016
Join a local garden club. Everyone was a beginner once. There are no dumb questions so ask them. Look at other gardens to see what you like and what can be done. Engage with the locals. Most people love to help others who are willing to work at it.
Smaug March 31, 2016
I especially like the first one- just do it, you have nothing to lose. On the subject of drainage- potted plants need good drainage not only to get rid of excess water; it is important to flush the soil regularly to avoid buildup of salts from treated water and fertilizers and other impurities. Underwatering can cause problems too- other than plants wilting. Outer roots can die off, leaving the whole root system subject to rotting. More frequently, an underwatered soil ball can shrink away from the sides of the pot; water has difficulty penetrating really dry soil, and will be inclined to run off down the insides of the pot instead. Good luck with the neighbors; I hope it's better in other places, but I live in a suburban area where everybody has a lot, in one of the great horticultural climates in the world, and virtually everyone under 60 contents themselves with an Installed "landscape" created, presumably, from a computer program, and hires semi skilled laborers with leaf blowers to take care of it. Something garden writers seldom mention is the war with the roots- if you or your neighbors has large trees and shrubbery, there's an excellent chance that the roots will reach your planting beds, or anywhere else you water regularly. Some species are much worse than others for this. A particularly insidious phenomenon- if you leave a potted plant in place on the ground for a while, roots can find it and grow up through the drainage holes, causing untold havoc. But mostly, gardening is good, so yeah, just do it.
foofaraw March 31, 2016
I found that for #1, use good, organic soil, especially for people who just starting. I like Fox Farm, Happy Frog, Black Gold, McEnroe, etc. Good soil will have perfect water retention (not too much/too less), airy and light for plant roots, good organic matter and good-for-plants microbes, no disease or weird chemical, and in overall makes plants happy and healthy. Happy and healthy plants=less plants dying and less maintenance time needed -> less money and energy needed in the long run.
PS: Don't buy MiracleGro=usually it has gnats and too much water retention that can cause root rot.
Samantha W. March 31, 2016
This really makes me want to grow strawberries this summer! Who knew they might be so easy!
Smaug March 31, 2016
Well they grow and fruit quite easily, for the most part. Getting them to develop any sugar can be tricky. Alpine strawberries are quite easy from fresh seed; they germinate easily, but need protection from snails and slugs- they are small and grow pretty slowly for the first two sets of leaves. The regular strawberries are usually bought as small plants or dormant roots; they grow quite fast and most types spread quickly from runners. However (and here, my information is a few years old) there is a virus that effects virtually the entire commercial stock and will cause the gradual decline of the plants, so they should be replaced with new nursery stock on at least every few years.