Ben Vanheems’ 10 Best Beginner Gardening Tips

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Ben Vanheems with a wheelbarrow full of grass clippings

I broke ground on my first vegetable patch aged 11. It was an incredibly exciting time, but, my goodness, was there a lot to learn!

I made a lot of mistakes – attempting to dig the soil with a hand fork, for example, and neglecting to water properly – and I’d have saved myself a lot of hassle and heartache if I’d known then what I know now.

It got me thinking: if I was starting out today, what advice would I give myself – and to anyone else starting their first garden? Here’s my top tips for a hassle-free garden…

Love Your Soil

Some may say it’s far from sexy, but I reckon rich, healthy soil has most definitely got it going on! Soil is the starting point for everything we grow. It’s the foundation on which to build a beautiful garden, and whether your plants thrive or dive depends on the condition of this stuff.

Look after your soil and it will look after your plants. The best way to do that is to top it up regularly with lovely organic matter. This will also help to feed the life within it. Think of soil a bit like a lovely jar of homemade kimchi: it’s alive with beneficial bacteria, which when consumed will nourish my gut biome, creating a healthy microbial environment in my gut – and a happier me! And it’s exactly the same with our soils.

Organic matter such as well-rotted garden compost, manure, and leafmold will naturally feed your soil and the life within it, while contributing to your soil’s structure and performance. This stuff is like a life-filled rainforest – it’s just that the life is a lot smaller and, of course, it’s underground!

Ben picking up soil
Love your soil - it's the foundation to everything you grow

I like to add organic matter onto my beds at least once a year – usually in the winter – to help build soil health for the coming growing season, but really you can add it at any time of year. Spread it whenever beds are free, or you can work it around your crops.

Choose Reliable Crops

It might seem obvious, but it’s worth planning what you will grow based on what you like to eat – of course – plus either what costs the most to buy in the shops, or what might give biggest yield for the space you have. Planning ahead does away with the risk of buying seeds or plants on an impulse – think of it like writing a shopping list before you go food shopping. There’ll be less waste and disappointment that way.

Take your time when selecting which varieties of each crop to grow. If you’re starting out, it makes sense to go for trouble-free varieties. For example, seek out leek varieties that promise good resistance to rust, a common disease of leeks, or spinach varieties that are slower to bolt (when vegetables flower prematurely) so you can pick leaves for longer before the plants need pulling up. Take your time to ponder and dream as you pore over the seed catalogs and websites – it’s one of the most satisfying times of the gardening year!

Runner beans
Set yourself up for success by growing crops that are known to be reliable

Plan For a Succession of Harvests

Starting a new garden – or even a new growing season - is, let’s be honest, thrilling! With so much to look forward to it’s hard to know where to even start, and it’s this that can lead to a scattergun approach and issues such as sowing or planting at the wrong time, overcrowding of plants, or choosing crops that aren’t suited to your climate or soil. Better to take a little time now to work out what you’ll be growing in the space available to you.

The best gardens have something going in every month to keep the harvests coming. Many vegetables are very quick growers or will be out of the ground by, say, midsummer, for example onions. Aim to have something else waiting in the wings to go in after the first crop – maybe winter cabbage, or a final sowing of carrots. If you want to get the most from your garden, then taking the time to work out what will be in the ground when can really help.

I love using the Garden Planner for this. You can set when you expect to plant and harvest your crops, then view your plan month by month to see when and where gaps appear. Best of all your Plant List, which automatically populates as you add plants to your plan, shows the date range when you can expect to sow, plant and harvest, making planning your next crop super easy!

Pots hung on a wall trellis
Use vertical surfaces to make the most of the space you have

Grow Up!

As a gardener you quickly find there’s never quite enough space, no matter what size of garden you have! But by growing upwards you can cram in even more delicious produce.

I have some bean arches which transform from their naked form to fully cloaked, dangling with beany goodness in just a few short months. You don’t have to spend loads on arches or other supports - many upright supports can be sourced for free, or even grown at home. Long straight rods of hazel or bamboo canes can be used to make bean poles for example.

Make use of walls too. Attach pots and tubs to vertical surfaces to create a real wow factor!

Save Time and Space by Purchasing Seedlings

If you’re starting out, don’t fret about purchasing ready-to-plant seedlings or plants. It may feel like cheating but – I’ll let you into a secret – I buy plug plants and young plants regularly. It saves time and space, and the uncertainty of that early stage of growth. So why not give yourself that advantage?

It might make good sense to buy warm-season veggies like tomatoes and peppers as young plants – they often don’t cost much, and it means you can enjoy a selection of varieties without having to open lots of different packets of seed for just a few seeds from each. Buying young plants also gets you that much closer to harvest time too.

Check plants are strong and healthy before buying them if you can, and prioritize higher value veggies. I’ve seen individual plugs of carrots sold before, which works out incredibly expensive!

Seedlings on a windowsill
Starting seeds in pots means you can grow plants into strong, resilient seedlings before transplanting outside

Start Seeds in Plugs or Pots

When I started off, I made almost all my sowings directly into the ground, where things were to grow. Now there’s nothing wrong with this – and this is the best way to sow most root crops like carrots or parsnips. But for many other vegetables, there are lots of good reasons to take the extra step of sowing into plugs or pots and then transplanting later.

Germination is often more reliable in a more controlled environment, away from slugs and other pests, whether that’s in a greenhouse, a cold frame, or even just an indoor windowsill. Build up a little collection of really sturdy rigid trays – they cost a bit more but will last for literally decades. By sowing into trays and pots, you can grow vegetables to plant out as sturdy seedlings that will be very resilient. And you can be starting a crop off even when there’s no space in the garden, so that it’s ready to plant as soon as you harvest earlier crops. It also means you can enjoy a bit of an earlier start to the growing season than you otherwise might.

Roll With the Punches

As gardeners we need the three Ps in shovel-loads: patience, positivity and pragmatism!

Little knocks and setbacks aren’t just likely to happen - they’re certain to. Weeds will always be there. You can never expect to eradicate every last one of them, but slow and steady weeding will help to keep you on the forward foot – a few minutes of hoeing every week can keep most of weeds in check. And bear in mind that many weeds offer a valuable home for wildlife, so don’t sweat it if it’s a bit weedy towards the edge of your plot (that’s my excuse anyhow!).

Ladybug on a nettle
Weeds have their good side too, providing habitat and food for beneficial bugs

In the same vein, pests are part and parcel of gardening life. Slugs, aphids, leaf miners – they’re all out there, seemingly waiting for you to head indoors so they can move onto your plants when your back’s turned! Accept that you can never annihilate all of them, but instead adopt sensible precautions like using netting or row covers to protect at-risk crops.

Many pests are a valuable source of food for beneficial bugs and birds, so switch your mindset from eradicating pests to attracting their predators, such as hoverflies, lacewings and insect-eating birds. And never, ever use artificial pesticides or weedkillers, because they will kill all the good bugs along with the pests.

There will be setbacks – there’ll be downright failures too – but embrace each failure and let it inform how you grow better next time round. A very simple example I can give are my outdoor tomatoes, which were clobbered by blight – all except one variety that turned out to be blight resistant. The lesson for this year? Only plant blight-resistant tomatoes outside!

Mulch your soil regularly, and worms and other creatures will gradually incorporate it into your soil

Mulch, Mulch, Mulch

If there’s one piece of growing advice that’s beautifully low-tech but stunningly effective, it’s to mulch. Mulching is when you lay down materials over the soil surface to cover it, and the best, most sustainable mulches are natural, organic materials such as compost or grass clippings.

We’re back on the subject of soil again – it really is so important! In nature soil doesn’t stay bare for long, and mulching can do so much to keep the soil happy in the absence of complete groundcover. It shades the soil from the hot sun, so moisture stays put for longer. It acts as a barrier to weeds, giving them a hard time. And it will eventually become part of the soil, adding to its fertility and structure.

Mulches can dramatically cut your workload for all the above reasons. My favorite day-to-day mulch is dried grass clippings – ideal for scattering around any crop. Make use of whatever you can produce in your own garden or find locally for free, or as cheaply as possible – this could include straw, compost, wood chips, or leaves for instance.

Recycled pots
Cut costs by using recycled containers

It Needn’t Cost Lots

And on that note, bear in mind that gardening needn’t cost lots if you don’t want it to. For many of us, growing our own food is a great way to save money. You can source seeds very cheaply or find them at local seed swaps. It’s possible to reuse things like mushroom trays, fruit punnets and yogurt pots for your seed containers, with holes punched in the bottom. And if you’re prepared to put in a bit of effort, you can often find organic matter to feed your soil for free if you’re willing to collect it. Just about anything you can buy for gardening has an alternative that costs either nothing, or very little.

Try New Things

Experiment! Try new things! Don’t be afraid to push boundaries. This is good life advice generally, but when it comes to gardening it’s what keeps things fresh. You never know, you might discover a new vegetable you love or perhaps a new growing method that transforms the way you do things. Honestly, as a gardener the more I learn the more I realize there’s still so much more to learn – and I love that!

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