Advice for New Food Gardeners

Advice for New Food Gardeners

We’re halfway through spring orientation for the Peterson Garden Project 2013 season and it makes my heart happy to see folks who, last year, had no clue about growing food going into their second season. And I really love the gardeners from our first, original garden in 2010. Some of them, novices at the time, have gone on to share what they know and teach others.

But most of all I love our GREWBIES (growing newbies)… every year they show up, eager, excited and a little scared… here’s some of the advice I share with them.

[Hopefully, if you're a grewbie too, no matter where you are, this advice gives you some comfort and encouragement as well. And to our Peterson Garden Project grewbies - I'll see you in the garden soon!]

1. Mother Nature is our best friend… and sometimes our worst enemy. One of the joys of gardening is becoming less distracted from our high technology, media stimulated world and settling back into the rhythms of nature. She is a little moody these days due to climate change and she’s keeping us on our toes. Last year on this day, April 18, it was 76 and dry as a bone. Today we’re in our third day of non-stop rain and there’s a chance of snow tomorrow. You never know what nature is going to throw at you but, as a gardener, you learn to adapt.

2. You will make mistakes. This is a promise and part of the fun. Even as a lifelong gardener I make lots of mistakes. Sometimes the same ones – see Top 5 Dumb Gardening Mistakes as a case in point. Just forgive yourself and move on – gardens are a good place to learn to not take yourself so seriously.

3. Your garden won’t look like Martha Stewart’s garden. Most normal peoples’ gardens aren’t photo ready and perfect. Sometimes leaves are brown or plants are scraggly as they’re getting started or ending their growing cycle. Sometimes insects like to camp out and there might be disease. You will learn to deal with these things and love your garden with its imperfections.

4. In fact, you might over love your garden but not in the way it needs… while last year over watering seemed impossible due to the stinky heat, you can over water, over prune, over tend. Find the balance of what your plants need and admit it if you have a little OCD. Save that for work, let the garden be your relaxed place.

5. Chances are you will over plant. If I had a dollar for every time one of our new gardeners showed up with enough plants for the back forty vs. their 4×8′ I could buy a house in Hawaii. I gently explain over planting, expecting the dejected look, and then remind them (and myself) gardening is all about trial and error. If you must plant all that then you go on and plant all that. It will be a great learning experience. (And I’ll smile next year when I hear, “you were right, we planted too much” and smile more when you do it again…)

6. You need 200 square feet per person to feed someone all season from a garden. Your 4×8′ will not feed your family of four. You will get a lot of produce, herbs, great stuff and save yourself some money, but you’ll still need to go to the grocery store. Sorry.

7.  You don’t have to buy a lot of fancy stuff to garden. You can if you want and you have the dollars but, even then, I don’t recommend it. Gardens are great places to recycle things and spending more money won’t make your plants any happier or make you a better gardener.

8. While it would be great if every seed and transplant provider grew their material organically, it is how you raise the plant that matters. If the seeds or transplants you buy aren’t organic, it isn’t the end of the world. You’ll raise them organically. That’s what counts.

9. Gardeners are the most generous people I know. Why? Because after all that love and care you bestow on your plants you can’t stand the thought of something going to waste. Extra produce is a great excuse to get to meet your neighbor. Since you’re a gardener now, why not get a head start and meet your neighbor ahead of time? Chances are they might have some good advice to share, offer to water while you’re on vacation or be really happy at the prospect of homegrown tomatoes. Share the love, people!

10. The most important piece of advice is this - plants want to grow. As much as we like to complicate gardening today with special methods or gadgets and create anxiety over it all, we have civilization because of agriculture so it can’t be all that hard. And it isn’t a contest. Gardening is a partnership with you, your plants and your patch of soil. So be nice to yourself – you can do this! – and welcome to a lifetime of adventure.


  1. Do you have any advice for people new to Chicago? We created a plot in the backyard but the weather is killing us. We just moved from Texas. Can I attend any of your events without being a member this year? How do I find organic plants and organic fertilizer? Thank you.

  2. What vegetable plants do you recommend in the shade? Swiss chard does well in the shade and in the summer here? Thank you.

  3. Most leafy greens can deal with a little shade…

  4. You can attend any Peterson Garden Project event you like. See classes & events page for details. Gardening in Chicago is much different than Texas! I commuted to Dallas for two years and was amazed at just how different it was…

  5. I just found your site and I LOVE it! thanks for all the great info. It makes me want to start a community garden project! I will come and visit again and read more. Thanks again!

  6. #10 is my personal gardening mantra! I try to remind myself that gardening is more of an art than a science–you need to be flexible, patient and trust that you can’t control everything but that it will all be ok in the end. :)

    Sarah, Sprout it founder

  7. Thank you for your blog LaManda. I will bookmark it and return time to time. Looks like some very good information. This is my first year gardening and I have been doing my research, created two blogs about organic gardening and gardening products, started a group and a fan page on Facebook. I am encouraging everyone to grow something. Keep up the good work.
    Make it a great day and a better tomorrow…
    Roy L Morris
    A Guerilla Gardener.

  8. I really appreciate this advice. I have struggled and failed with my porch gardening tactics. However, I have sometimes succeeded as well. It’s hard to keep perspective sometimes.

  9. Great article! All of this advice is great for a gardening beginner.

  10. I am a new veggie gardener, as well. I am slowly pulling myself away from the glow of the computer screen and trying to get outside more. I was overwhelmed by the details and all the things I thought I needed to know.

    I appreciate so much the permission to make mistakes and that my garden will not be perfect, but I will learn and just to have fun.

    God Bless,

    Matt Sullivan

  11. This is great advice, I tried planting some veggies this year and I failed horribly. I will definitely keep these tips in mind for next year. Thanks!

  12. Very relatable! Especially the part about overplanting… it’s easy to get carried away when you love something!

  13. Thank you LaManda for your advices. There are many variables in gardening and you covered some of them.

  14. Thanks so much!
    Went a little seed crazy (more than a little) and will be calling in the troops to help me transform my backyard into a bonafide gardening oasis…At least thats what I’m hoping.
    I have a few dwarf trees and want to plant around the perimeter of my backyard. I planted an orange tree two years ago and I can see my mistake was planting it too close to the brick wall of my backyard. Poor thing is doing its best to grow without having a lifetime of a headache.

    Any tips for planting mango trees?

  15. I’ve definitely experienced some of these mistakes here in my first year of gardening. I’ve also documented them on my website. I planted too many seeds too close together. My carrots never stood a chance.

  16. hello, i love your website!
    I cant wait for the garden season to officially begin!

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