Gardening for Beginners – Plant Care Guide

Want to start your own garden but don’t know where to begin?

This guide is designed to help anyone who’s interested in growing your own plants. It doesn’t matter what you want to grow, be it herbs, vegetables or flowers.

More importantly, you don’t need a lot of space to do so.

So, if you’re up to it, read on. By the end, you’ll know all you need to know to grow your own garden.

Let’s get started.

 

What Do Plants Need to Survive & Grow?

In this section, it’s time to get to know your plants better. And to do that, it’s crucial to understand the different things they need to survive and grow.

Here are the more important things to consider as a beginner gardener.

 

Light

Most plants need light. Often, they need a lot of it.

Light is needed for photosynthesis, which is the process where plants convert the CO2, water and light they’ve collected into carbohydrates (sugars). These sugars, will then be broken down to provide your plants with energy.

That said, not all light is the same.

 

Quality of Light

This refers to the wavelengths of light and the colors of light that reach your plant. Basically, light is made up of a spectrum of colors. This is why the sun is the best source of light. It contains the entire spectrum of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, blue, indigo and violet).

Alternatively, grow lights do not provide the same light quality. This is why you’ll need to run them 12 or more hours a day just to provide your indoor plants with the same effect of fewer hours of sun.

Also, it’s important to understand that different light colors affect plants in different ways.

  • Full Spectrum. This comes from the sun. It’s also the healthiest kind of light plants can get. That’s because it covers all the different colors. As such, it supports them at every stage of growth.
  • Blue light is key to growth during its initial stages. It’s the color you want to expose your plants to during the vegetative process (growing leaves/foliage). That’s because it helps with chlorophyll production and is needed during photosynthesis.
  • Red light promotes blooming. As such, it’s what you want to expose them to when they’re flowering in combination with blue light.
  • Green light. Leaves look green because plants don’t absorb much of the green light. As such, it’s the color that bounces back which your eyes see. That said, plants do use a little green light during photosynthesis. But, it’s not as useful as the other colors.

 

Intensity

Intensity refers to how strong or intense that light is. For example, sunlight during summertime is much more intense than it is in the spring. In the winter, there’s very little intensity. Similarly, morning sunlight isn’t as intense as that during noontime or mid-afternoon.

 

Duration

Duration refers to how long your plants receive light. Most plants will need a specific number of hours of light exposure daily. Some want more, others require less. So this can vary.

So how do you know how much light your plant needs?

The good news is most plants you buy from the garden center will explicitly specify how much light exposure they need. All you need to do is read the packaging.

If you get your plants from friends or neighbors, you can look up the specific plant online.

Whichever way you go you’ll end up with one of these 4 recommendations: full sun, partial sun, partial shade or full shade.

Here’s what each of them means:

 

Full Sun

Plants that are full sun require at least 6 hours of direct, full sunlight daily. These plants crave light exposure.

And, if they don’t get it, they’ll quickly tell you by not growing as well as they normally would.

Here, it’s important to note the word “direct”. This means that they want straight, line of sight to the sun. No obstructions, no curtains or other things getting in the way between them and the source of light.

Because of this, placing them facing south is often a good choice. That’s because the United States is north of the equator. As such, the sun comes from the south. Similarly, because morning and afternoon suns individually last for only a few hours, you need to get a combination of both to achieve the minimum 6 hours of sunlight daily.

Unfortunately this requirement also makes it difficult to grow these plants indoors. But, not impossible.

The thing is full sun plants make up most of the beautiful flowers your garden will want, including annuals and perennials.

 

Partial Sun or Partial Shade

These two are often used interchangeably because they both refer to 3 to 6 hours of sun each day. But, it’s important to separate them because of how they define light.

  • Part sun or partial sun plants want to get at least the minimum amount in that range (3 hours). But, they’re not as demanding as full sun plants. As such, it’s okay for them to get indirect sunlight or be shaded from the light for the rest of the day.
  • Partial shade plants require the same number of hours of exposure to partial sun plants. But, the focus isn’t on getting the sun. Instead, it’s about getting away from the sun the rest of the time. These plants prefer the cooler morning sun combined with afternoon shade. That way, they’re able to avoid the most intense sunlight which happens during afternoons. One way you can help them get this is to position them where trees will cast a shadow on them during the afternoons. Or, place them on the east side of your home. That way, they get the morning sun and your house blocks the afternoon sun from the west.

 

Full Shade

Full shade plants prefer less than 3 hours of direct sunlight each day. It’s important to note that they still need light. But, only a small amount of it relative to the other kinds. This enough to make them happy. Just as importantly, they prefer staying the shade or getting filtered sunlight for the rest of the time.

 

Water

Just like light, plants need water. But, in contrast to what many people think, it isn’t too little water that’s killing your plants. Instead, it’s too much water.

In part it’s probably because most people believe that they need to keep watering their plants.

  • Too much water. Overwatering your plants is one of the leading reasons why plants die. This can happen because you water it too much or too often. Similarly, overwatering can also happen in there isn’t enough drainage (with pots or containers). Too much water increases the risk of root rot. The excess water also prevents oxygen from getting through to the roots since air pockets in the soil are clogged up by moisture.
  • Too little water. Plants need water to absorb nutrients (fertilizer). So, when there isn’t enough water, your plants are not able to move the nutrients from its roots up the stem. As a result, you see it start wilting, growing slower, or have dry leaf tips.

Water also plays a big role in photosynthesis. And, it is needed by plants to transport nutrients from the roots to its other parts.

As such it’s important to make sure they get enough water.

That said, different plants require different amounts of water. For example, larger plants need more water. Similarly, those outdoors, under intense direct sunlight will require more frequent watering because there’s more evaporation happening.

In contrast, plants that get a lot of rainwater are better off with good drainage. This prevents them from retaining too much moisture.

Because different locations experience different levels of rainfall, it’s a good idea to keep track of when it rains in your area. This way, you don’t end up watering them too much if they’ve already had enough from the rain.

 

Carbon Dioxide

Along with water and light, carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important component needed for photosynthesis.

Photosynthesis is one of the essential functions needed by plants in order to survive. Much like you and I consume food to get the energy we have, photosynthesis is how plants get their energy to grow.

The combination of light, CO2 and water is used during photosynthesis to create food in the form of sugar and starches (carbohydrates).

These sugars are then converted into energy during respiration, which is another essential plant life function.

 

Related

 

Oxygen

Plants breathe in carbon dioxide (CO2) and exhale oxygen. So why do they need more oxygen?

Here it’s important to go back and take a look at respiration.

 

Respiration

Respiration is the process of breaking down the sugars (carbohydrates) created in photosynthesis along with oxygen to make energy for plant growth.

More importantly, respiration is a continuous process that keeps going day and night, 24/7.

As you can remember, plants produce both food (the sugars) and oxygen during photosynthesis. So, during the day, there’s no problem (at least for the leaves and stems where photosynthesis occurs).

But when the sun goes down, photosynthesis stops.

Remember the equations:

  • Photosynthesis = light + CO2 + water.
  • And, the result of photosynthesis is sugars (food) and oxygen.

Since respiration keeps going when photosynthesis stops at nighttime, plants will need more oxygen than they have as they temporarily lose the oxygen provided for from photosynthesis.

It’s also important to understand that all parts of the plant respire, including the roots, which do a lot of work.

But, photosynthesis only occurs in the “green” parts of the plants.

Since the oxygen produced from photosynthesis doesn’t diffuse well down to the roots, the roots need to find oxygen for themselves.

Thus, it does so by accessing the oxygen that’s present in the air pockets in the soil. This is thanks to the small organisms like earthworms that constantly move. Due to their movement, they jar soil particles and loosen them up to create free space that air can flow into.

Finally, because water can clog the air pockets, overwatering prevents your plants’ roots from getting the oxygen it needs.

Thus, when this happens, your plant starts becoming ill.

 

Fertilizer & Plant Nutrients

Most people use these two terms interchangeably. But, it’s important to understand that they’re two very different things.

  • Fertilizer refers to the amendments you add to the soil. It often contains a combination of nutrients in varying amounts.
  • Nutrients are the actual minerals that the plant needs. While you can get them from fertilizer, they’re also available in the soil as well.

A good analogy would be how you take your vitamins. The vitamins and minerals are the nutrients themselves. But, you can take them in various forms. Some come as a multivitamin, others as standalone or combination of a few. For example, calcium supplements often only contain some form of calcium. In contrast, vitamin B complex contains a combination of different kinds of B vitamins.

In the same way, fertilizer comes in all sorts of varieties. Each of them containing a combination or in some cases just a few nutrients for your plants.

 

Plant Nutrients

One of the possible reasons that most people refer to nutrients and fertilizer as the same thing is because some of the nutrients are very visible in fertilizer bag labels.

When you look at a fertilizer bag or container, one of the first things you’ll notice is a 3 digit combination that may look something like 5-10-5 or 10-10-10.

These refer to the big 3 nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (N-P-K) in that order. Each of the numbers tells you the percentage (by weight) of each of the nutrients.

For example:

  • 5-10-5 means the fertilizer formulation contains 5% Nitrogen, 10% Phosphorus and 5% Potassium
  • 10-10-10 means that the fertilizer formulation contains 10% Nitrogen, 10% Phosphorus and 10% Potassium

So why N-P-K?

 

Plant Macronutrients

That’s because plants need these 3 nutrients in the largest amount. As such, they’re called macronutrients.

  • Nitrogen. Among all the nutrients, plants absorb nitrogen the most. This is why many gardeners consider it the most important nutrient. Plants need nitrogen for good overall health. It also plays a big role in foliage and stem development. In fact, it’s what helps plants keep their dark green color.
  • Phosphorus. Plants need phosphorus for root, flower, fruit and seed production. In fertilizer bags and containers, it’s the 2nd figure you’ll see in the 3 digit combination. And, it is referred to as phosphate in the label. That’s because the phosphorus in fertilizer comes from various compounds that contain phosphorus. One example of this is phosphate rock.
  • Potassium. This mineral keeps plants strong and allows them to combat disease. You also need potassium for better crop yields and good overall plant quality. In fertilizer bags, it’s often referred to as potash.

In addition to nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, 3 other essential nutrients often aren’t mentioned. But, they’re understood to be included. These are:

  • Carbon
  • Hydrogen
  • Oxygen

The reason they’re often skipped over is that plants can get them from the air and water. Thus, there’s no need to add them yourself. But, as a gardener, it’s important to know the 3 are just as vital as N, P & K.

 

Secondary Nutrients

Besides the macronutrients, plants also need secondary nutrients. But, they don’t need as much of them as they do the primary ones.

  • Calcium helps plant roots develop. They also need it to grow strong cell walls. Calcium likewise mitigates soil acidity. Lack of calcium often presents itself with abnormal dark green leaves, weak stems and premature shedding of flowers.
  • Magnesium. Plants need magnesium for photosynthesis. They help activate many plant enzymes that perform various growth processes within plants. Magnesium deficiency results in yellowing or curling of the leaves. If you notice any of these symptoms do check your soil before making any other changes. Acidic as well as sandy soil often lead to magnesium deficiencies.
  • Sulfur. Sulfur helps your plant build sturdy and thick roots. It also helps it develop a healthy leaf color. As such, a lack of sulfur can lead to yellow or light green foliage. Similarly, it can also slow their growth, delay maturity and cause them to become spindly.

 

Micronutrients

Micronutrients are minerals that plants need in trace amounts. However little, they still need them. And, if they don’t get them, you’ll see symptoms of deficiencies.

  • Boron
  • Copper
  • Iron
  • Manganese
  • Molybdenum
  • Zinc
  • Chlorine
Plant Nutrient Chart. Shows the macronutrients, secondary nutrients and micronutrients plants need alongside their functions and the signs of deficiencies and excess of minerals.
Plant Nutrient Chart. Shows the macronutrients, secondary nutrients and micronutrients plants need alongside their functions and the signs of deficiencies and excess of minerals.

 

Fertilizers

One thing you’ll quickly realize when buying plant fertilizer is that it’s confusing, especially in the beginning. As such, I suggest you read up on the differences before heading to the garden center or store.

Some customer reps in stores are very knowledgeable and helpful. But, I’ve also come across many of them who didn’t know what they were talking about. Or worse, looking to sell you their most expensive or profitable item.

As such, knowing the differences and what you need ahead of time will help you avoid the headache, confusion and spending extra cash.

Here are some of the things you should know when starting out.

Complete vs. Incomplete Fertilizers

The first thing to understand is the difference between complete and incomplete fertilizers.

  • Complete fertilizers contain all the 3 main macronutrients (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium). It’s worth noting that some brands will label this as mixed fertilizer as well.
  • Incomplete Fertilizers contain only 1 or 2 of the 3 macronutrients. As such, it could only have nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium. Or, it could contain both nitrogen and potassium.

Why bother with an incomplete one when you can get everything?

Well, with fertilizer, more is not always better. Too much of it can be harmful to your plants. As such, it’s important to know when to hold back.

The reason is that fertilizers are made from some kinds of salt. As you probably know, too much salt soaks up moisture. As a result it can dehydrate the plant’s root system causing damage. It also causes leaf discoloration turning them yellow or brown. This is what gardeners refer to as fertilizer burn.

In addition to this, you can likewise opt for an incomplete fertilizer to save money. But, before doing so, it’s important to know what you’re looking for.

To figure this out, you’ll need to do a soil test. Soil test kits are inexpensive. And, they’ll tell you which nutrients are available in the soil of different sections of your garden.

From there, you’ll know which minerals you need to supplement.

 

General Purpose (All-Purpose) vs. Special Purpose Fertilizers

Another way of grouping fertilizers is whether they’re all-purpose or design for a special purpose.

 

General Purpose Fertilizer

General Purpose fertilizer is better known as All-Purpose fertilizer as more manufacturers use that term. Either way the mean the same thing.

Unfortunately for consumers like you and me, it can get confusing because of the different terms they use.

In any case, all-purpose fertilizers are designed for overall plant health. They’ll include adequate amounts of the 3 primary macronutrients to help your plants grow.

In some cases, a few manufacturers will call their all-purpose fertilizer balanced. Unfortunately, this only increases the confusion.

Why?

In most instances, a balanced fertilizer means that all of the 3 figures (N-P-K ratio) are identical. As such, a fertilizer grade of 5-5-5 or 10-10-10 tells you that the product contains a balanced formulation.

That said, while a lot of all-purpose fertilizers are balanced, not all of them are. Some all-purpose products are 16-4-8 or 12-4-8.

 

Special Purpose Fertilizer

As the name suggests, these formulations are designed for specific kinds of plants. For example, you’ll find products that are labeled as citrus food, blueberry food or rose food.

These are less common than all-purpose fertilizers. But, they’re a better choice for that specific plant simply because the formulation has been created for it.

As an analogy, you can take a patient with weak bones. On one hand, they can take a multivitamin that includes calcium along with all the other vitamins and minerals. This works like an all-purpose fertilizer.

But, the person will probably be better off going with a strong or special calcium supplement that’s designed to strengthen bones. This is similar to special purpose fertilizers.

As such, specialized fertilizers will contain varying nutrients at varying amounts.

 

Natural (Organic) vs. Synthetic (Chemical) Fertilizers

As with most things today, fertilizer comes in both natural and synthetic formulations.

  • Natural fertilizers are made using organic products. These include materials derived from plants and animals including blood meal and animal manure.
  • Synthetic fertilizers are those that are created in the lab by synthesizing chemicals.

That said, it’s important to understand that plants can’t tell the difference between natural or synthetic products. What they experience are nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients.

You can think of it like working out. Your body doesn’t care that you’re getting the cardio on a treadmill or if you’re actually running outside. All it experiences is the cardiovascular workout.

That said, there are some differences between natural and synthetic fertilizers. Here’s a summary that’s easy to understand.

Difference between natural and chemical fertilizer. Organic vs synthetic fertilizer pros and cons

 

Fertilizer Grade

Fertilizer grade refers to the minimum guaranteed amount of plant nutrients available in that specific bag.

All the plant fertilizers you’ll see in stores are labeled with 3 big numbers. These 3 figures represent how much of the product’s weight in percent (%) of nitrogen, phosphate (the compound containing phosphorus) and potash (water-soluble potassium) is present (in that order).

The 3 numbers on the label are often simply referred to as N-P-K to make it easier to say.

As such, a 20-pound bag labeled with 10-10-10 will have 2 pounds of Nitrogen (10% of 20). And, also 2 pounds each of phosphate and potassium each.

The grades for secondary and micronutrients are likewise available on the backside of the package.

 

Forms of Fertilizer

It’s also worth noting that the form in which your fertilizer comes in or is used will determine how you’ll be able to apply it. For example, you won’t be able to use a broadcast spreader for liquid fertilizers or dry fertilizers that are mixed with water.

As such, do read the instructions to see if you need to get a sprayer or other applicator before buying the product. Otherwise, choose a product that fits the tool that you already have.

Here are some of the types of fertilizers available in stores.

 

Liquid Fertilizer

Liquid fertilizers are easy to apply. But, you’ll need to dilute them with water, which is likewise easy to do. The best thing about liquid is that you can easily apply it uniformly onto different areas of your garden.

That said, do read the instructions of the product as each of them will have different amounts of water to liquid fertilizer in the mix.

Additionally, depending on what you’re growing you may use a higher or lower ratio of fertilizer to water. Often, the manufacturer will likewise give you instructions for different kinds of plants.

 

Granular Fertilizer

Granular fertilizers come in pellet form. You apply them by working them into the soil or sprinkling them over the area.

Once you water the plants or ground, the shell of the pellets dissolve. Thus, releasing the minerals onto the soil.

The downside to this method is that the nutrients are “dumped” into the areas where the pellets were, instead of being distributed evenly across the entire section or area.

Granular fertilizer is cheaper when you purchase in bulk. They’re also easier to store since they’re not affected by temperature like liquids are. And, there’s no chance for particles to settle to the bottom.

 

Powder Fertilizers

While most dry fertilizers come in granular form, you’ll also see some fertilizers in powder form.

Powdered fertilizers work similarly to granular ones. But instead of spreading the pellets, you’ll be applying the powder.

That said, powder fertilizers only become effective once you water the area. This allows the plants to absorb it.

 

Slow Release Fertilizer

To fix the problem of granular fertilizer, manufacturers now offer slow-release formulations. These work like their namesake medications or those that are time-released.

Instead of dumping all the contents of the tablets once their watered, these pellets are designed to break down more slowly, and at different times.

So, with watering, and over time, the shell of the pellets break down releasing the nutrients into the soil. Because the pellets are made differently, they don’t all break down at the same time. As such, the pellets can last anywhere from 1 to 9 months depending on which kinds you get.

This enables a slower release so that you don’t end up over-fertilizing your plants.

As you would expect, slow-release fertilizers are more expensive.

 

Soil

Soil is what anchors plants to the ground. But, contrary to what many people think, soil isn’t necessary for growing plants.

For example, houseplants or plants in containers use potting soil or mix to keep the plants standing upright. But, they’re not really soil at all. They’re actually made from other materials.

Similarly, some growing methods like hydroponics don’t use soil at all. Instead, hydro systems use a nutrient solution and growing media as a substitute for soil.

That said, most garden plants grow on soil. And, because it’s where your plants live and where they’re able to get moisture and nutrients, it’s important to understand what it is and how it works.

 

What is Soil Made Of?

For the most part, your eyes will tell you that soil is this brown matter that’s made up of dirt and some rocks. But, it’s composition is actually very different from what you actually see. In fact, soil is broken down into:

  • 40-50% mineral matter
  • 50% air and water (combined)
  • 5 to 5% organic matter

In case you’re wondering, it’s the organic matter that matters most for gardeners. That’s because it’s what helps your plants grow.

In fact, experts suggest that for the best gardening and landscaping results, you want to have soil that is 4-6% organic matter.

It is also why people compost. The end result of composting is this dark, crumbly material that resembles decadent chocolate cake called humus, which is the organic component in soil.

By adding compost to your garden soil, you’re able to improve its quality because you’re adding more organic matter to it.

 

The Balance Air and Water in Soil

Similarly, you’re probably surprised to learn that half of soil is made up of air and water.

Air and water in soil actually play a big role in your plants’ life and growth. As a gardener, you want soil that allows air to pass through. This way your plants’ roots can get oxygen.

At the same time, you also want the soil to retain water. This way, your plants’ roots can “drink” water from them.

The reason why air and water are grouped together is that they affect one another. Both air and water essentially take up the “free space” between the soil.

As such, when there’s a lot of water (wet soil), very little oxygen can get through. And, when the soil is dry, there’s little moisture and more oxygen.

The key is to get a balance of both since the root system depends on both air (oxygen) and water to grow properly.

 

Types of Soil

In gardening, the size of the particles of each type of soil is what defines it.

And, you’ll find that there are 6 types of soil. Although, you’ll probably see some gardening books limit their discussion to 3 or 4 types depending on how they classify them.

In any case, these are the 6 types of soil you’ll see.

 

Sand

Sand, silt and clay are the 3 main mineral components of soil, i.e. the 40-50% part in the soil composition breakdown above.

Of the 3, sand is the most common you’ll find. And, you’re likely very familiar with it because you’ve seen and played with it on the beach.

Sand particles range from between 0.05 mm to 2 mm in size.

Unfortunately, while they’re abundant, they rank among the poorest kinds of soil for growing plants. That’s because they don’t hold nutrients or water well.

As such, it’s hard for your plants to get the minerals they need to grow. Additionally, they dry up fairly quickly which is another problem for your plants.

Below is a chart that shows the different types of soil and how much each of them can absorb and retain moisture.

This will help you decide which kind of soil is ideal for the plants you plan on planting.

Soil Water Holding Capacity and Infiltration Rate Chart
Soil Water Holding Capacity and Infiltration Rate Chart. Shows you different types of soil and how well they hold or drain water.

 

Silt

Silt particles are much smaller in size, they typically range from 0.002 mm to 0.02 mm. Unlike sand, they don’t have a gritty texture. Instead, they’re fine and smooth to the touch.

Their fine size allows them to hold more water. And, they’re likewise more fertile compared to clay and sand.

One disadvantage of silt soil is that it easily gets compacted. This makes it hard for the roots to break through the soil to extend outwards. Similarly, when the soil gets compacted, it becomes difficult for water, nutrients and air to get to the plants’ roots.

 

Clay

Clay soil has the smallest particles of the 3. Most particles are less than 0.002 mm in size. Its fine size makes it good for holding water. But, it also prevents it from draining moisture quickly. This prevents it from being a good option for your plants.

Additionally, clay is the densest of the three. As a result, it’s heavy as well.

You’re probably familiar with it because you’ve seen clay being used in creating pottery on TV shows and movies.

That said, clay soil also holds a lot of nutrients. That’s because its particles have quite a bit of a negative charge. This makes it attract positive ions in the soil. Thus, binding the nutrients to it.

 

Loam

Loam is a combination of the 3 types of soil above. Thus, it’s actual composition can vary depending on whether there’s more sand, silt or clay in it. This is what you’ll see variations like sandy-loam or clay-loam.

That said, loams are the best choice for your garden and lawn. That’s because it gives you the advantages of the 3 with less of their drawbacks.

This allows it to retain moisture and nutrients, while still providing good drainage.

 

Peat Soil

Peat soil is acidic. It also feels spongy and damp. And, is formed from the decomposition of plants and animals.

That said, it holds moisture and nutrients very well. It is also high in organic matter. But, it’s rarely found in gardens.

 

Chalky Soil

Chalky soil is alkaline in nature (pH above 7.0 to 10). As such, it’s not a good choice for plants that like lower pH. Otherwise, you’ll end up with yellowish leaves and plants with stunted growth.

They’re often full of stones and have larger particles compared to the other soils.

If you have chalky soil and want to grow plants that aren’t limited to alkaline soil, you’ll need to amend it. One way you can improve it is by adding humus.

 

Soil pH Level

The pH level of your soil tells you how acidic or alkaline it is.

To explain, the pH scale runs from 0 to 14.

  • Anything under 7.0 is considered acidic.
  • Levels over 7.0 is alkaline.
  • And, a pH of exactly 7.0 is neutral.

So why bother with pH?

A high or low soil pH isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. The key is matching your soil’s pH with what the plants you want to grow prefer.

Some plants like blueberries and gardenia like acidic soil (pH of 4.5-5.5). Other plants like beets prefer more alkaline soil.

Just as importantly, soil in some states or areas is more acidic or alkaline for one reason or another. If you’re not sure, you can take a look at the plants that are native to that area. They’ll quickly tell you whether the soil there is more acidic or alkaline.

That said, most soil range from pH levels as low as 3 (very acidic) to as high as 10 (very alkaline).

But, since most plants prefer slightly acidic pH (pH of around 6.5), having that kind of soil increases your chances of making the “right match”.

Why is this important?

When your soil’s pH is out of the range your plant likes, it will end up getting sick. You’ll start seeing stunted growth, yellow leaves and other issues even when you’re doing all the other things right.

The reason is that soil pH that’s “off” prevents your plants from accessing and absorbing the minerals (nutrients) even if you’ve provided it for them in the form of fertilizer.

As a result, your plants experience some kind of deficiency (depending on which minerals they’re not able to absorb).

You can think of this as taking vitamins or medicine with calcium or milk. Calcium binds to many minerals. As a result, instead of getting 100% of the minerals in your vitamins or medicine, you’re only able to receive 30% of the dose.

So, after a while, you’ll lack the nutrients you thought you were getting from the vitamin or the dose from the medication.

Most plants do well in slightly acidic soil because that pH range allows them to access all nutrients. As such, they’re less likely to get any deficiencies if you’re supplying them with enough nutrients.

 

How Do You Find Out Your Soil’s pH Level?

One way is to check what’s growing around you. This is probably the simplest and quickest way. By looking at the plants that are thriving in your neighbors’ yards, then looking up the pH preferences of those plants online, you’ll get a good idea of what pH level the soil in your area has.

Of course, that’s the cheapest (free) way.

A more accurate way is to do a soil test.

Getting a soil test kit is the most affordable way to get this done. You can buy them online and follow the instructions.

But, if you want a more thorough (and accurate) assessment, then getting soil samples from your garden or yard and sending them to a lab is the best way. While more expensive, it will give you a lot more information besides pH. And, it will also suggest ways for you to improve or modify your soil.

How to adjust soil ph chart. The list shows you how many pounds of limestone or sulfur to add to increase or decrease soil pH to 6.5
How to adjust soil ph chart. The list shows you how many pounds of limestone or sulfur to add to increase or decrease soil pH to 6.5

 

Composting

Whenever the discussion about plants reaches the topic of soil, it will eventually make its way to composting. That’s because compost, or the end result of it, gives you what’s called “black gold”, at least for gardeners.

This is the organic matter in soil. And, something you can use to improve the quality of your soil to make it more hospitable to plant life and growth.

 

What is Composting?

Composting is the process of decomposing organic matter like yard trimmings, leaves and kitchen scraps to produce compost. When all is done, you end up with humus which is a dark brown, crumbly material that resembles chocolate cake.

While decomposition happens naturally, composting is more of a controlled environment in that you intentionally decide what to add and what not to put into the pile. Doing so allows you to produce the final product and not just a stinky pile of trash.

The entire process from start to finish takes at least one month. And, depending on how fast the decomposition process goes, it can last up to 6 months or more.

By the end, your pile of scraps will become a fraction of what it once was. But, you’ll have something very valuable you can use to improve the soil in your garden.

 

Why Compost?

The reason many people go through the trouble of composting is that compost improves the texture and overall quality of your soil. It does this by:

  • Increasing the amount of organic matter
  • It contains many nutrients including nitrogen, which is the most important nutrient for plants
  • Loosening up the soil to make it easier to roots to penetrate deeper
  • Allow for more air circulation
  • Improve moisture retention
  • And many more

 

What Can Be Used as Compost?

When it comes to your compost bin, there are two groups of items you want to compost. These are:

  • Carbon-rich materials. The easiest way to identify items that are rich in carbon is by their exterior. Most of them are brown in color, which is why carbon-rich materials are often referred to as browns in composting. Some examples include dried leaves, stems, branches, sawdust, hay, wood trimmings, bark, coffee grounds, and filters.
  • Nitrogen-rich materials. These are mostly green on the exterior. Although, there are some exceptions. That said, they’re often referred to as greens in composting. These include things like: green leaves, grass clippings or trimmings, kitchen scraps, feathers, fur, seaweed, manure and tea bags.

Composting Materials List Chart. The tables shows you items that you can compost that are carbon-rich or nitrogen-rich. And, alongside each material is the Carbon to Nitrogen C:N ratio of each one so you know what you're composting.

The goal of this is to maintain a good carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (C:N ratio).

Research says that the ideal C:N ratio is 25-30:1. That is, the contents of your compost bin should contain 25 to 30 parts brown (carbon-rich materials) for every 1 part green (nitrogen-rich material).

From experience, I can tell you that measuring it every time you add to your bin sucks. As such, an easier way to do it (that works) is to go with a 3:1 ratio (3 parts brown to 1 part green).

Likewise, if you really don’t like to measure much, a 1:1 ratio works as well.

While both the 3:1 and 1:1 ratio won’t compost as fast or get as hot as the 25:1 to 30:1 ratios, they’ll still produce valuable humus. It just takes a little longer.

 

What Should You Not Compost?

On the other hand, there are a lot of things you don’t want to put into your compost bin. If you do, you’ll end up with a stinky pile. Worse, you can allow pathogens (disease) to grow which isn’t good since you don’t want to incorporate that into your soil as it would get your plants sick.

Similarly, the wrong items can attract animals and other unwanted critters that can mess up the entire process.

As such, your compost pile isn’t like a trash dump where you can just throw all the waste and unwanted items there.

For it to work you need to add both carbon and nitrogen-rich items only. And, avoid items like:

  • Animal waste products
  • Synthetic products and chemicals
  • Fruit peels that may have been treated with pesticides
  • Meat or their bones
  • Fish bones and leftovers
  • Weeds
  • Diseased plants
  • Anything that has dairy
  • Ashes (be it wood or charcoal)
  • Any oils including grease and other fat products)
  • Wood products that have been treated with chemicals

 

How Does Composting Work?

Before going any further, it’s important to understand that compost is not fertilizer, nor is it soil. Instead, it is something that you add to the soil to improve the quality of your soil (as mentioned in the previous section).

Here’s how to compost.

 

Step 1: Collect Enough Carbon-rich and Nitrogen-rich Materials

Your compost bin is going to be made up of 2 main kinds of items. They are

  • Carbon-rich materials
  • Nitrogen-rich materials

You can check the list above to see what items fall under each category.

Just as importantly, you need to be able to estimate how much of each you have, at least in the beginning.

A quick way to get started is to just use a 3:1 ratio of carbon-rich materials to nitrogen-rich materials.

As such, your compost isn’t going to be like a trash bin where you just dump everything in. And, because you want to measure how much of each you have, it’s a good idea to collect each one separately, at least when you’re starting out.

 

Step 2: Combine the Materials

Once you have enough to make a pile of at least 3-4 feet high, it’s time to combine the 2 materials together.

Start with a ratio of 3 parts brown materials (carbon-rich) to 1 part green material (nitrogen-rich).

Don’t worry if you’re off, there’s no need to aim for perfection here.

  • If your pile looks too green and wet, it will likely start smelling. So, start adding dry, brown material.
  • If your pile looks very dry and brown, add more wet, green material.

The goal is to get the pile slightly moist.

 

Step 3: Water the Pile

Water the pile until its texture becomes that similar to a damp sponge. To check, stick your hand into the pile and get a chunk. It should feel like a wrung-out sponge.

  • If it has too much water and drips a lot, add more browns.
  • If it’s too dry add more greens.

Make sure you add a little water at a time. And, don’t just water one area, distribute it across different sections of the pile.

Like soil, overwatering is not a good thing for your compost. That’s because water clogs up the air pockets preventing airflow. As a result, your pile will start rotting instead of compost.

When done correctly, the pile should gradually start heating up. You’ll feel it when you stick your arm into the middle of the pile.

 

Step 4: Aerate Your Pile

To help speed up the “cooking” process, you can add oxygen. The easiest way to do this is to get a shovel and turn the pile over. This allows air to get into the middle of the pile.

You can likewise use a garden fork or pitchfork and stir up the pile to loosen it. This will open up new air pockets for air to pass through.

Over time, your pile will start getting really hot, reaching anywhere from 120 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat will help sterilize the content killing pathogens.

 

Step 5: Add the Compost to Your Soil

After the pile heats up to 150 or so degrees, it will then start to cool off gradually. As it does, your compost heap will start to be completed.

In the end, you’ll have a dark brown, crumbly material that looks very much like soil. But, it’s more valuable than regular soil because of the high content of organic matter is holds.

You can now add this compost to your soil. And, by doing so, you’ll improve its overall quality.

 

Temperature

Above you learned how climate can affect the survival of a plant through the wintertime. But, it doesn’t stop there. In fact, temperature plays a very important role in how your plants grow.

Here are some reasons why.

  • Temperature can affect water/moisture. Very hot conditions increase moisture. As such, they lose water much faster than they’re able to absorb it. In contrast, too cold or frost prevents or restricts water movement. Similarly, cold conditions can cause ice crystals to form which can damage your plants.
  • High heat can burn leaves or dry them out. When there’s too much intense sunlight, or the weather gets really hot, your plants’ leaves can dry out or even burn. For most plants, 90 degrees is too hot. As such, when the temperature in your locale rises, it’s time to take action, like watering them more often, putting them under the shade or cooling them off by adding mulch.
  • Plants transpire more when the temperature rises. This causes plants to lose water as the weather gets hotter.
  • Photosynthesis and respiration both increase with higher temperatures. The hotter it gets, the more energy plants produce. Since both increase, it’s less of a problem during the day when there’s sunlight. But at night, when respiration continues at a high rate and there’s no light, photosynthesis slows down. As a result, your plants use more energy than it’s able to produce.
  • Plants use less energy during cooler temperatures so their sugar stores increase as well.

That said, each plant is different. Some have a higher tolerance for high temperatures. Others, not so much. Similarly, some plants prefer warmer climates while others prefer cooler weather. As such, the change in mercury up or down can affect them in very different ways.

 

What Happens When It Gets Too Hot for Your Plants?

Temperature that gets to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (or higher) is considered too high for most plants. When that happens you’ll start to see a few unpleasant things happen to your plants. These include:

  • Leaves start wilting. Hot weather increases the rate of evaporation. As such, it’s easier for your plants’ moisture reserves to dry up. When this happens, their leaves start to wilt.
  • Flowers die or drop. High heat can cause plants to go into survival mode. In doing so, they put their reproductive processes (flowering) in the back burner to conserve as much energy as possible.
  • Plants will close their leaf pores. To reduce the amount of water lost to evaporation, a plant will close its leaf pores (stomata). But, doing so also prevents it from getting the same amount of carbon dioxide. And because, photosynthesis relies on CO2, its growth slows down.

 

How to Protect Your Plants From Hot Weather

So what measures can you take to protect your plants from extremely hot weather? Here are some simple tips.

  • Choose the right kind of plants. By selecting plants that are well-suited to the hottest and coolest temperatures in your area, the plants are better able to tolerate the extreme climate changes that happen.
  • Water more frequently. Keeping your plants hydrated allows them to stay cooler despite the hot weather.
  • Add mulch to protect them. The extra layer of mulch protects them from the heat. It also allows them to reduce water loss.
  • Place them under shade. If you can move the plants to a shaded area. Since afternoons are the hottest times, it’s a good idea to position them so they receive shade during this time.
  • Keep them cool. For indoor plants, you can add an oscillating fan or position them in areas that are cooler than the rest of the room.

 

What happens When It Gets Too Cold for Your Plants?

In contrast, when the weather goes under 32 degrees Fahrenheit, then it’s time to start doing something to protect your plants. Of course, different plants can tolerate different temperatures.

And, in most cases, it’s a good idea to bring your plants indoors before the winter months arrive.

That said, once the temp drops to 25 degrees or even a little higher than that, it starts to damage your plants and crops.

Here’s how:

  • Freezing can damage your plant’s cells. Water inside the plant can freeze. When this happens, it will destroy the plant’s tissues. As a result, its leaves start drooping, you’ll see discoloration and the plant will wilt.
  • Your plant and the soil can ice or freeze. Their exterior can ice up as well as the soil around it. Since ice is solid, your plant isn’t able to absorb water.
  • Reduced enzyme production. Enzyme activity speeds up during hot conditions. In contrast, it slows down when the temperature gets colder. As a result, nutrients are absorbed slower and growth gets stunted.

 

How to Protect Your Plants From Cold Weather

Since cold temperatures can harm your plants just as much as extremely hot temperatures, here are some ways to protect your plants from damage.

  • Choose plants that are able to tolerate the coldest weather in your area. Use the plant hardiness zone map to determine the best plants that are hardy to your locale. This allows them to withstand the coldest temperatures.
  • Move them indoors before winter comes. While it is quite a bit of work especially if you have a lot of plants, it’s well worth it because you’re able to shelter them from the cold.
  • Relocated them to somewhere that offers shelter. Besides indoors, there are other places you can move your plants to help keep them warm.
  • Add mulch. Placing mulch to protect the plant’s roots allows them to stay warmer and have extra moisture through the winter.
  • Set up barriers and other structures to protect them. If you experience the same cold winters year in and year out, investing time and a little work on setting up protective barriers really helps.

 

Mulch

Mulch is any material that is spread or laid over the surface of the soil as a covering. It is used to retain moisture in the soil, suppress weeds, keep the soil cool, and make the garden bed look more attractive. Organic mulches also help improve the soil’s fertility, as they decompose.

 

Why Mulch? – Benefits of Using Mulch

There are many advantages of adding mulch to a garden area, besides making the garden more attractive and finished looking. These include:

  • One of the best benefits of any mulch is its ability to retain moisture in the soil.
  • Organic mulches break down over time and contribute to soil health. This can be very helpful, especially if your soil fertility is poor.
  • Mulch reduces winter injury and helps with weed control.
  • Other garden mulch benefits include protection from erosion and protection from mechanical injury from weed eaters and lawnmowers.
  • Some mulch types, such as cypress, cedar or pinewood chips, do an excellent job of repelling ticks, gnats and fleas.
Types of Mulch chart. Shows you the pros and cons of different kinds of mulch you can use for your plants and gardens.
Types of Mulch chart. Shows you the pros and cons of different kinds of mulch you can use for your plants and gardens.

 

Plant Propagation

One of the great things about plant is that you can propagate them.

Plant propagation is basically growing new plants from your original plant. Therefore, you don’t have to go out and buy another one.

Instead, you can just start a new plant from the one you already have.

This makes it free.

Additionally, it is very easy to do.

What can sometimes be tricky is figuring out which propagation methods work on certain plant.

That’s because some plants can be propagated from cuttings while others can’t. As such, knowing the different propagation methods and which plants are best suited for each is important.

Here’s a chart of houseplants that can be grown from stem or leaf cuttings.

Plant Propagation by cuttings. Plants that can be propagated by steam and leaf cuttings.
Plant Propagation by cuttings. Plants that can be propagated by steam and leaf cuttings.

 

Plant Diseases

Plants, whether indoors houseplants our those grown outdoors in the ground can experience diseases.

This is something all gardeners need to deal with at some point.

Below is a chart of common houseplant diseases, their symptoms and likely causes.

Chart of Common Houseplant Diseases and Problems. The table shows the symptoms and cases of different diseases indoor plants can experience.
Chart of Common Houseplant Diseases and Problems. The table shows the symptoms and cases of different diseases indoor plants can experience.

 

Conclusion

So there you have it. If you’ve gone through all the sections above, you’ll know exactly what to do to get your own garden started.