Gardening for Beginners

Try These First Timer Tips

If you are a beginner, you’ll soon learn that Gardening is both an art and science….and a bit of luck. You start by reading books and the backs of seed packets. You ask other gardeners and talk to strangers at the garden center. But mostly you observe. You watch what others are doing. You watch the plants in your garden. You pay attention to the weather and birds and insects and raccoons. And best of all, no matter what you know, or how long you’ve gardened, there is always something new to learn. It doesn’t matter either if you don’t have enough space outside to do gardening. You can easily just get something like these LED grow lights and do some gardening inside, or you could go see if there is a community garden center that you could partake in. There are loads of options.

The Very Basics you Need:

Light. Gardens do better in sun. You can get by with partial shade but if you want tomatoes and beans, you need at least six hours of sun a day. More preferably.

Soil. Roots need soil and air. If you have soil that needs a pickaxe to dig a hole, you need to add “amendments” like compost or composted manure, to lighten the soil. It doesn’t need to be fluffy like potting soil…but it needs to have enough air to receive water and to drain.

Water. With drought at record levels all over the country last year, it’s easy to understand that plants need water. When you’re starting seeds, the soil needs to be moist on the surface till the seeds germinate. Later, the soil needs to be moist an inch down when you put your finger in the soil. In the beginning, when plants are young, you might need to water every day. You have to keep checking. There’s a solution to this problem, if you have a look into the Powerblanket sizing chart and follow up by purchasing the recommended size, this will allow you to have a temperature controlled bucket which will preserve the water supply throughout summer.

Space. Plants need space both above and beneath the ground. Not too much space because they do like growing in groups and communities. But read your seed packet and be sure to give your plants at least a few inches of space.

Time. Gardening is a four-dimensional event. It changes dramatically over time. You need enough time for the plants to grow to full term. Lettuce is ready to eat in a few weeks. Winter squash can take 100 days. As the weather changes, what the plant needs changes, so you have to keep adapting. You also have to keep track of time and can’t let a week or two pass without checking on your garden.

Love. Gardens that children grow will often thrive even though the kids don’t do everything right. That’s the love factor. I look back at my first gardens and can’t believe I managed to get anything to eat. But I loved the process. I loved playing in the dirt and watching seeds germinate. I loved the idea of the garden even when I forgot to go out to water. I loved the red tomatoes in the sun. And the plants forgave my shortcomings and grew in that atmosphere of love.

Watch, Learn and Enjoy.

Or as we like to say at BBBSeed: Grow. Enjoy. Share.


‘Organic Gardening’ magazine is a great resource. Years of articles are online. You can start with their basic how to garden.

Square-foot Gardening was most helpful to me when I started learning. Gardening seemed like such a big project…but I could do 4 feet x 4 feet without feeling overwhelmed.

Gardening is very different in an arid climate like Colorado compared to humid places like Louisiana or Oregon. Check with your local Cooperative Extension (every state has an extension service from its ag university.)

Gardening for newcomers to Colorado is here:

Wildflower Mixes

Grass Seed

Grass Seed Mixes

Winter Watering Decision Matrix

How To Make The Right Choice

Yesterday was a glorious snow day. There was light fluffy snow falling steadily all day. It gathered about three inches on the car, but this morning, winds have reduced what’s on the ground to a rather negligible half inch. That great day of snow is going to amount to almost no actual water getting into the ground. In dry climates like Colorado, the snow evaporates under relentless winds or high sun and after a day of warm sun, it won’t be muddy or wet in the garden…except in little north side niches.

The taunting appearance of moisture is one of the reasons I made my own winter watering decision matrix…so I would have a methodical approach of deciding when to water in winter and not just let visual clues like ”it snowed all day” decide whether watering is necessary.

So here’s my Decision Matrix for Wintering Watering:

Has it been dry without significant precipitation or snow cover for the last two weeks and/or have the temperatures been warmer than usual?

If yes, the next step is to walk outside and ask,

“Is the ground frozen?”

If the soil is frozen, winter watering doesn’t help anything. Any water would just roll off the soil and not do the plants any good.  Go back inside.

I usually wait until a couple of days of warmer or sunnier mid-day temps and repeat the “Is the ground frozen?” question in the afternoon.

When the soil is thawed, then the next question is,

Did I plant new plants in 2012? If the answer is yes….then you need to winter water those plants once a month during dry times.  This is true for new trees, bushes and perennials.  You need a good slow soak right at the root ball.

Now move to other parts of the garden with older plants and ask, “When I put my finger in the soil, is it moist one inch down?  You’re checking the soil here….not just the mulch on top of the soil.  If it’s still moist, then go back inside and leave the water in the aquifers.

If the soil is dry an inch down, water now to save the lives of your plants and especially your trees which have suffered greatly with drought in most of the country over the last year.

Water slowly so it can seep into the soil.  A good rule of thumb is 10 gallons of water per inch of stem caliper.  If you have one of those root watering spikes….insert it shallowly…less then six inches….most roots are rather shallow and you don’t want to water under the roots.

Here are resources: a winter watering fact sheet, and the US Drought Index.  Most of the country is under greater drought now than it was a year ago. In Colorado after the drought in 2002, we lost many of our trees the following years….because the impact of one year of drought stresses trees and plants for years. So this is the time to save your landscape. Don’t water on top of snow or frozen soil….but keep your decision matrix in mind as we finish out this winter.

Wildflower Mixes

Grass Seed

Grass Seed Mixes

Managing Drought

Preparing Your Garden for Winter

Boulder is arguably the center of the meteorological world…NOAA, NIST, NCAR and other great scientific centers that study and forecast weather are located here.  I went to a lecture this week with three lead scientists talking about water and drought conditions this year and into the future.  As you can guess…no one said firmly….”this is what next year will look like.”  At best the forecasts were…either it’s going to be an “OK” winter or it’s going to be dry.  No one was forecasting massive snows that would replenish our water tables and reservoirs. 

Two things made our life more difficult this year from a weather and garden perspective: early bloom times and high temperatures. We had both of these events this year combined with an epic drought across the country.  Even if we start getting more rain and snow, it will take several years for our trees and our soils to recover from this year’s drought.

What you can do in the Garden this Fall before Winter comes:

Make sure everything is well-watered going into winter.  Don’t just rely on snow to help the plants get through…the plants and trees have the best chance of survival if they are well watered before soil freezes.

After the soil freezes, put more compost or mulch on your garden.  Keep that soil good and frozen all winter and protected from desiccation of winter winds.  If you’re in an area where there’s still time to get fall cover crops in…get them in now. Last year’s dry hot February and March was tough on soil and plants.

Spend some time this winter thinking about managing drought with water use in your yard and whether you might find areas you can make more xeric to help spare the water you do have for other thirstier areas.  Lots of us had sticker shock this year when the water bills came. We have some good mixes of drought-tolerant wildflowers that will let you have flowers and not have to pay high water bills.

And Pray for Rain.

Drought Monitor:

Wildflower Mixes

Grass Seed

Grass Seed Mixes

Ignoring what “they” say.

Keeping An Open Mind

by Sandy Swegel

I visited a garden yesterday tended by my friend Lou.  Lou has gardened for other people for many years and the heavy shade garden I visited has lots of color despite being in shade and the fact that we’ve been in high temperature, drought conditions.

As we walked around and she told me some of the secrets of the garden’s success, I found myself thinking, “But “they” say not to do that.”  Things like “they” say native plants don’t want rich soil and shouldn’t be fertilized like other garden plants.  Hah. Her well-fed natives were twice the size of mine.  Or “they” say dahlias don’t do well in shade and need full sun. She had twenty magnificent blooming dahlias that begged to differ. And she used all kinds of plants the opposite of what the labels say: Euonymous species, sold as shrubs, were tough interesting reliable groundcovers when kept short by pruning.

My favorite gardeners have always been the ones ignoring what “they” say and think about what might actually work.  My first experience was an older gentleman who had grown tomatoes for 70 years by the time I met him.  He had tried all the tomato techniques I ever heard of.  “Epsom salts,” he guffawed…”don’t do a thing except make the tomatoes taste salty.”  “Water has to be consistent.”  He had watered every day with soaker hoses since they had been invented.  So as I watched him fertilize, I expected some down-home advice.  Instead, I watched in horror as he just spooned tablespoons of dry Miracle Grow crystals right next to the tomato stem.  “But, but…” I stammered, “Aren’t you going to burn the plants and kill them?”  Nope….they just got watered in slow-release-like with each soaker hose watering and he had the best tomatoes in town.

That still didn’t match the shock of watching my friend Barbara.  She definitely walks her own path and is agreed by all to be the best gardener we know.  She never fertilized with fertilizers. She composts and mulches and puts goat manure and earthworm compost on everything, but she has never bought a bottle of something and put it on her yard. Geraniums bloomed in containers for fifteen years with only compost and maybe grass clippings in the bottom of the pot for the earthworms to eat. The most startling part of watching her garden was that she never treated pests.  Sawflies came two years in a row and ate every single leaf on her six-foot-tall gooseberries. They looked terrible.  She made sure the plants were watered and had lots of compost, but said the plants needed to figure it out if they wanted to survive. It was up to them to figure out how to defend themselves.  She just made sure the garden environment was good.  To my amazement, the plants survived and put out new leaves, and the third year the beetles didn’t return.  Who knew?

I still do lots of things “they” say because much is based on someone’s research and experience.  But I keep an open mind. Every time somebody gives me a lecture about the right way to garden or what “they” say I should be doing, I ask myself, “Who is this ‘they’?” “And who gave them all the power?”

Wildflower Mixes

Grass Seed

Grass Seed Mixes

Feed Me

Giving Your Plants What They Need

by Sandy Swegel

It’s a fact of all young growing things.  They need food.  And while big hungry plants like Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors can loudly demand their food, the young seedlings you have growing on windowsills are no less insistent and starving.  Most potting soils and seedling mixes come with a tiny amount of fertilizer to get seedlings off to a good start the first couple of weeks.  But then comes the day when were vigorous seedlings now no longer look so good.  My pepper plants are making this point to me right now.  I’ve been watching them grow their first true leaves and finally their second set of true leaves. I’m ready for them to get off the windowsill and out of the garden but, until now, growth seemed a little slow.  Then yesterday as I walked in, I noticed how yellowy the peppers looked.  Hmmm. I checked the water and wondered briefly about some kind of fungus when I had the “duh” moment.  I hadn’t fed them at all.  I had switched to a new “organic” seedling mix this year and it probably didn’t have as much nitrogen in the mix, since “organic” mixes can’t just use cheap synthetic nitrogen.


Seedlings aren’t all that particular about what you feed them.  Just that they get some food.  Later in the garden, their roots will gather food from the soil and plants growing in good soil will also take in nitrogen in the air.  But right now, they’re just growing in tap water.  So I just mixed in some liquid kelp to make a weak fertilizing solution.  Fish emulsion or any “grow” natural fertilizer will work at a weak concentration level. Don’t need to overwhelm them.  I expect that by my dinnertime tonight (water-soluble fertilizers can work quickly) the tiny pepper leaves will green up with tomorrow’s warm sun, the seedlings will perk up and soon be ready for the move into the nutrient-rich garden soil.