12 Things I Wish I Knew Before Planting My First Garden

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Starting your first garden? Or maybe it’s even your second. Or tenth. Gardening takes a lot of hard work, patience, research and learning. And just when you think you know all there is to know, you learn you don’t and then you learn some more. So I wanted to share all the things I wish I knew before planting my first garden.

12 Things I Wish I Knew Before I planted my First Garden

We have dabbled in gardening for over 20 years. We never really took the time to study the process. We just threw in some plants and hoped for the best. We never got anything close to the best. 

In 2020 when the world went on lockdown we decided we wanted to be a little more self-sufficient. We decided on two ways to do that. We bought baby chicks for eggs and we focused on growing our own food. 

If you are interested in chickens, check out our Beginners Guide to Backyard Chickens.

While JJ built our garden boxes, I spent countless hours studying everything I could about gardening. I watched videos, read blog posts and bought several books. I wanted to know everything. What to plant, where to plant it, what should be side by side, what shouldn’t. I was overloaded with information and couldn’t wait to get started. We finished the boxes, planted them with all my new knowledge and then the real learning began. 

Everything I wish I Knew Before Planting My First Garden

1. You will wish you planted less. 

Gardening is a lot of work and a massive learning curve. Every plant requires a little something different. The more you plant, the more you will find out how little you know. The first year you plant a garden, pick five to seven vegetables to plant.

Every crop requires different knowledge. When to plant, how much water, when to prune, when to pick the vegetables Helpful Hint: The size of produce you buy at a grocery store is not the size your garden is going to produce. You will likely need to pick everything earlier than you think) 

2. You will be frustrated.  

Check your perfectionism at the garden gate and allow yourself to suck at gardening. You most certainly will. Even the best gardener’s suck. We are at the mercy of the elements, the critters, the overwhelming amount you need to know …

3. You will constantly be at war.

There are predators, insects and fungi and they are all out to get your garden. I was so bummed when half of what I planted was being eaten by bugs, worms, birds and (gag) rats. A wise friend said to me, you plant two plants. One for you, one for them. Still working on that. I’ve never been good at sharing. 

Helpful Hint: Join a Facebook group with other gardeners in your area. It will be your BFF of gardening. You can take photos of attacked plants and they will help you understand what is attacking and how to attack it back.

4. Skip the seeds year one (and maybe two and three too).

First timers, start with organic plants and skip the seeds. Gardening is hard enough without the added failure of seeds not doing their thing. I am on my fourth year of this garden and I am still trying to get seeds to not suck. I’ve planted in the ground. In containers. In a green house. In my main house. Seeds are hard. There are a thousand variables. Don’t’ start with seeds unless your endgame is failure. Or you are a superhero. 

5. Choose your plants wisely.

Plant only what you will eat. Don’t plant what you wish you would eat. If you aren’t eating Japanese eggplant now, you aren’t going to eat it just because you grew it. Don’t waste your time on things you aren’t excited about. It takes enough energy to grow what you ARE excited about.

6. Plant in phases. 

Don’t plant everything at once. Succession planting is where it’s at. If you plant three tomato plants at the same time you are going to have a fork-ton of tomatoes all at the same time. Stagger your planting dates. Plant one tomato plant, wait a few weeks and plant the next. 

7. Irrigation is a non-negotiable for success.

Set up an automatic irrigation system. Girl you know you aren’t going to stand out there with a hose every day. AmmmIright? If you can’t do it on your own, hire someone. It’s worth it.

Want JJ to create a video showing you how to do it yourself? Comment below and let us know and we will make it happen if there’s interest.

8. Soil, soil, soil. 

Soil is EVERYTHING! The first year JJ said our ground soil (as in what we dug out of our own yard) was good enough. He was an expert on the topic. And by expert I mean knew literally less than I did. But he insisted.

After days of me repeating over and over that we should really have dirt brought in, I was tired and reluctantly gave in. I filled our brand new garden boxes with the soil, aka clay dirt, we dug up from our property. With every heavy shovel I flung into my garden box I thought, “no chance in hell is this going to work.”

Thankfully, that night the skies opened up and it poured. 

We went out the next morning and the soil was so dense that the boxes were half soil, half swimming pool. There was so much clay in our dirt, the water couldn’t penetrate the it. 

I spent the next day cursing under my breath while removing all of the soil from our garden boxes. JJ spent the next day being VERY nice to me, finding me new amazing organic mushroom soil mixed with the most incredible compost and had it delivered. It was a game changer. 

I received many texts from friends that first year who were following along on Instagram saying, “What the hell is in your soil?” Not clay. 

9. Fence it

And then fence it some more. Fence in the whole garden to prevent ground predators.

Cage the tomatoes. An actual cage, not just a riser they can grow on. Check out our DIY Tomato Cage and make your own. This keeps the birds, squirrels, rats and other creatures from stealing your tomatoes. 

10. Invest in good gardening tools.

Of course all the right tools, but also a fabulous hat and cute gardening boots. I wanted you to know everything I wish I knew before planting my first garden BUT you also need to have all the right tools, so I put together all my GARDENING FAVORITES for you! Click the image below to shop my favorites!

11. Do your research. 

Everything you plant has a different nuance. Is it determinant or indeterminate? How long does it take to produce? When will it stop? What month should I plant it? When should I pick the vegetables or fruits?

That one is huge. If you overgrow your vegetables they aren’t good. Cucumbers get bitter. Tomatoes split open. Don’t use the grocery store vegetables as a guide. What you grow in your own garden will likely look different, grow smaller and need to be picked well before you think it should. 

12. Use Landscape Fabric

Weeds are a NIGHTMARE and you will already be at war with everything else. Don’t spend time fighting the weeds too.

Line your garden with landscape fabric. We built garden boxes (you can either make your garden boxes, or you can buy them), lined the bottom with landscape fabric and then filled the boxes with soil. I have zero weeds in my garden.

And there you have it, everything I wish I knew before planting my first garden. Have additional questions not covered in this post? Ask us below!

Join the Conversation

  1. SMullen Author says:

    Let us know if you have any gardening questions! We love to talk about gardens!

    1. La’Quan Charity says:

      Love love this article! Thank you for sharing and in such an entertaining, encouraging, and informative way . There is a garden in my head and heart, one day it will be so!

      1. SMullen Author says:

        I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for taking the time out of your busy life to leave us a comment. I can’t wait for you to have your one day garden! ❤️

    2. Thank you for the helpful post! My husband just built me a garden box and I’m researching before we start adding stuff to it. I would love to learn more about the automatic irrigation system!

    3. Antonia Amador says:

      i typically dont put my opinion on the comments or at all. but i really appreciate everything i just read. thank you. very transparent and clear.

      1. SMullen Author says:

        Thanks so much for taking the time to comment this time Antonia! We really appreciate it and are so glad you found the post helpful!

    4. Hi I’m so excited on starting my garden indoors! I’m glad I came across your blog.. also I wanted to know what are they best vegetables and fruit to start off with I living in Minnesota and I’m looking to start in the next month or 2 with a vertical planter.. Thank You and also I’m looking to start .y own blog about it along with my journal but don’t know where to start there either

      1. SMullen Author says:

        Hi Julia! I am not familiar with indoor gardening. BUT I would suggest a couple of main things!
        1. Plant what you use the most, herbs for example. Thyme and Rosemary? Same with vegetables.
        2. Since you are planting indoors and vertically I imagine you don’t have a ton of space so choose smaller plants that don’t need a ton of space.
        I can’t wait to hear what you choose to plant and would love to hear how the indoor gardening goes!

    5. Hi! What is the specific soil you used? Love the post! I don’t have a yard yet but I can’t wait to one day.

      1. SMullen Author says:

        Hi Michelle! I have the soil brought it by our landscape specialist on all our projects. It’s some sort of organic soil with mushroom compost. If you are looking to have it brought in by someone, I would call around to your local nurseries and see who provides good organic soil. If you want to create it on your own, also call the local nurseries for advice on what the best add ins would be for your soil locally.

  2. Christine says:

    Loved the article. Been thinking about starting a small one, and this made me realize I better do more research before I start anything ! Your garden looks more and more beautiful each year. Clearly your hard work is paying off.

    1. SMullen Author says:

      Thank you! You should definitely start a small garden. And you have a direct line for any questions. Maybe I should even fly out and help you. ❤️

  3. Stefanie
    Your article is very good your also very hilarious we live in Michigan can’t wait to start a little garden we had one years ago used to can a lot of our food got away from it as our two older kids moved out we have our youngest daughter at home still so going to try all your suggestions for sure thank you Karen

    1. SMullen Author says:

      Thanks Karen! Sounds like we have similar aged kids. Our oldest boys moved out as well. Well … one is out, one is renting our guest house and we still have a junior here at home. I love my garden for the first 30 days then I just curse at it all the time. But what it does yield is worth it! 🙂

      1. Beth Snelling says:

        I saw your post a few times on Pinterest and scrolled past it. I have been interested in planting in my 1 acre for the last 5 yrs and I’m finally ready. I did my research aka pinning all I can from Pinterest. Something made me read your post this evening. Maybe I was thinking there could be something I don’t know and so I read it. Hmmmm. There seems to be a lot I don’t know. So, thanks to you, I am reworking my plan. I live in central Florida on the west coast on an island surrounded by the Withlapopka lake. I will definitely keep your email handy and may even ask a few questions.
        Thank you

        1. SMullen Author says:

          Hi Beth! So glad you found it helpful. Reach out anytime!

    2. Thanks for the tips! We have the landscape fabric and the creeping grass still gets underneath and gets everywhere. How do you keep that out? We have borders and I have been trying to pull them but it grows so fast .Thanks for your help 🙂

      1. SMullen Author says:

        Hi Carolyn! Hmmm. I haven’t had that issue. Likely because we have garden boxes. Is your garden in the ground as opposed to garden boxes?

  4. Planting in stages is definitely good advice and one I will be following this year on my second garden. I planted 8 tomato plants last year, yes you read that right, 8!!! I had so many tomatoes it was ridiculous, but my friends and neighbors loved me! That was really fun sharing. I think I figured my garden, with the soil and plants, cost me over 150.00 but it was so worth it. This year I’ll be more realistic in my plantings and know a little more helps. Your advice was spot on in my opinion.

    1. SMullen Author says:

      You must have been quite popular in your hood! My tomatoes were a bust last year. I planted three rounds and got 1/3 of my normal crop. I wish I lived next door to you! Thanks for the positive words on my advice. Much appreciated! I am planting this weekend and can’t wait to get started! Thanks for taking the time to comment! Looking forward to gardening with you this summer! 😉

  5. Would love info for diy irrigation

    1. SMullen Author says:

      We are working on it! Let us know if you have any specific questions. Thanks for stopping by the blog 🙂

  6. Tracye Hill says:

    Omg…I feel like you were writing about my life and my slow gardening journey over the past few years. This has been sooooo helpful—you have no idea! Concise, to the point and easy to follow. I wish I had known this too lol

    1. SMullen Author says:

      I’m so glad it was helpful! Gardening is a humbling adventure! Just planted my summer garden, preparing to be humbled. 🙂

  7. Lisa Shafer says:

    Wow, what a great article! So glad I stopped to read it. So informative. I’ve been struggling with my garden for the last few years. Your information will help SO MUCH! I would very much like to read about JJ’s take on irrigation ☺️

    1. SMullen Author says:

      Thanks for stopping by Lisa! Super grateful you took the time to let us know you loved it. JJ is working on the irrigation post this weekend!

  8. Hiya! Thank you so much for this entertaining and informative article.
    We just bought a new home with some property and I’m beyond thrilled, and let’s be honest, a little nervous, about starting a garden in our desert home .
    I’ll definitely be checking in with your links and following you for advice..
    Thanks again!

    1. SMullen Author says:

      Congrats on the new house Emma! Looking forward to connecting. Follow us on Instagram if you are on there so we can check out your new place and all you are doing!

  9. Thank you for your article this is my fifth year gardening and yes, I as well planted too many tomatoes last year I did them all at once, so I’m definitely taking your advice and spreading them out a few weeks at a time and this year, I’m only planting what I need and I’m concentrating more on my new garden, which is flowers in my front yard if you have any tips on doing flowers, I would love to hear them. Thank you so much.

    1. SMullen Author says:

      Hi Kathy! I unfortunately don’t have any flower tips. I’ve tried over the years to grow a flower garden but my skills are sad at best 🙂 Send me photos on Instagram of your flower garden. I would love to see it!

  10. Loved your artical. Last year was my first year gardening in 30 years. After working and raising a family. I double the size and am planning a fall bed also.
    I would love more info on building raised beds.

    1. SMullen Author says:

      Hi Rhonda! Would love to assist on your beds if it’s not too late. You can send me an email info @ jjandstefanie.com with any questions and I would be happy to answer.

  11. Crystal Hoffman says:

    Hi! Would mind sharing the organic mushroom soil/compost mixture you mentioned?? That sounds amazing. I’m starting my first garden and honestly don’t want to fight with soil in any capacity

    1. SMullen Author says:

      Hi Crystal! The soil I get is local and I don’t really know a ton about what’s in it. I would call around to your local nurseries and ask them if they have it and if not who the could recommend. Any good organic soil with good compost would work!

  12. Robin M Swangstu-kunz says:

    I was wondering if you have a article on what maybe a good beginner garden plants and plants that do or do not grow well with each other

    1. SMullen Author says:

      Hi Robin!

      I don’t, but I this is my go-to resource for that! https://www.farmersalmanac.com/companion-planting-guide Its a great read, but if you scroll down through the post, there is a downloadable PDF that I print out and use when planting each year.

  13. Linda Allott says:

    Hi Stefanie,

    Thanks so much for this article. I’ve been gardening in containers, but Iget space to garden soon. I’m going to do raised beds. I would be interested in info about irrigation also. You gave someone a resource for the best plants for a beginner, but the information is deleted for me. Could you give me that info, please?

    I will keep your post so that when I suck at this, I’ll be reminded that it isn’t just me.

  14. Love the Confidence Booster of this article.
    QUESTION: I live in an EXTREMELY windy prairie location with heavy CLAY soil.
    I need help figuring out how to deal with it all & produce healthy plants instead of debilitating frustration
    Any help is appreciated
    Thank You

    1. SMullen Author says:

      Hi Tannie! Can you do boxes and bring in dirt?

  15. We are starting our gardening adventures this spring. An irrigation video would be wonderful! I never thought about adding that to our beds!!

    1. SMullen Author says:

      I’m so excited for you! I will see if I can get JJ to get that video up this spring!

  16. Alicia Mackey says:

    Wow! Reading your article felt like we wrote it, it’s spot on everything we did and happened to us! 2023 was our first year going hard, we built (and by ‘we’ I mean my fiance ) all new garden boxes. We live in town and we omitted what should be a lawn area and decided to put in boxes. Every single one of your subjects happened to us! Except, with the clay soil… we didn’t realize it as fast as you did. We spent the rest of the growing season trying to amend soil around suffering plants and lost several. I’m not a cry-er, but this gardening adventure sure turned me into one. Lots of tears and melt downs took place in the backyard. We’re hopeful with the knowledge we learned through all the failure and heartbreak of last year will help us thrive this coming 2024 gardening!
    Thank you for sharing your experience- our experience!

    1. SMullen Author says:

      I’m sorry you had to go through it too! This year will be a great year for your garden. You have so much knowledge now!

  17. Hi. If you can have JJ create the video for DIY irrigation it would be great. I brought many items all never used because instructions were harder and not explained like the picture showed. Thanks

    1. SMullen Author says:

      He will definitely be making a video. As soon as all this rain stops, he will get on it!

  18. Hi,
    Four summers ago I started my first garden. It did wonderful, I used planter boxes, bought great soil etc. I thought wow gardening is so easy, I don’t know what people complain about. Well year two and three didn’t go as planned at all, things grew but not well and they tasted awful. I did not know you needed to rotate your crops or use all new dirt. Now the beginning of summer 4 and I have done so much reading etc. We went extra crazy and have around our whole back yard many raised planter boxes. My question is the old dirt, the one I used for 3 years for my Squash and tomato’s , is all that dirt no good anymore? It still looks good, and it has a ton of worms in it when I dig in it. Can I use that 3 year old dirt for other veggie beds, say sweet pepper, cucumbers etc?

    Thank you,
    Katya

    1. SMullen Author says:

      Hi Katya

      Thanks for reaching out. You can always reuse dirt, you just likely need to add fresh compost each year and it’s best to rotate crops as different crops take different things from your soil. Congrats on your amazing garden! Send photos!

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