Gardening is a satisfying lifelong hobby that keeps me fit, saves me money on food, and — without sounding too cheesy, I hope — lets me live a more beautiful life.
Many people turn to home gardening hoping to gain these benefits, only to find at the end of the summer that they’ve spent hundreds of dollars on dead trees and bug-ravaged vegetables.
Many garden failures are caused by human error, rather than a plague of locusts. The following 13 basic skills are worth spending time to master, as they will not only help you get the most enjoyment out of your garden, but also save you money, too.
1. Soil Analysis
Before you plant, it’s important to know if your garden soil can actually support life.
The first thing you will want to know about your soil is its pH. Is your soil alkaline, acidic, or neutral? Soil that is too alkaline or acidic keeps plants from absorbing key nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, so your plants suffer malnutrition. Although you can send your soil to a professional lab for testing, there are several inexpensive ways to test soil pH at home.
The second thing you need to know about your soil before you plant is its structure. Soil that is too sandy won’t hold nutrients, and soil that has too much clay can suffocate a plant’s roots by limiting its access to water and air.
Although some people are blessed with perfect soil, most of us have dirt with less than ideal pH and texture. Luckily, even poor soils can be improved by adding amendments.
One of the best soil amendments to add to your garden is compost.Compost is an excellent soil conditioner that improves the texture and nutrition levels of all types of dirt. Also, since compost is made from household garbage, it saves you money in two ways: It’s a free and natural alternative to chemical fertilizers, and it cuts down on your garbage bill and your water bill.
Compost is really just controlled rotting. Contrary to popular belief, a well-tended compost pile isn’t stinky, and composting is not a hard skill to learn, as microbes and worms do most of the work! Compost is made from two types of waste: green and brown. Green waste is made up of nitrogen-rich waste like grass clippings, coffee grounds, and food waste. Brown waste is made up of carbon-rich waste like dead leaves, pine needles, sawdust, or shredded paper. If the compost gets too stinky, add more brown waste. If the compost isn’t breaking down fast enough, add more green waste. Well-balanced compost has a nice loamy smell and texture.
Composting dramatically cuts down on what my household sends to the landfill, which is good for the planet. In addition to composting all of my plant-based food waste and yard trimmings, I also compost greasy pizza boxes and used cardboard food containers that cannot be recycled.
Compost also helps my heavy clay soil retain water, which is vital, since Southern California is currently suffering from an endless drought.
3. Tracking Sunlight
Most vegetables need plenty of sun to thrive, so if your yard is shady year-round, you will be disappointed in your harvest. How much sunlight your growing area gets determines what you can grow. Although there are sun tracking apps, it’s easy to track sun exposure with just a pen and paper.
4. Seed Starting
Planting your vegetable and flower garden from seed has two huge advantages. First, there are far more varieties available in seed form than as seedlings. Second, unless you are like me and read seed catalogs with the intensity that most people reserve for pornography, gardening from seed is the least expensive way to grow plants.
FYI, you can buy seeds and plants that produce food with Food Stamps! Consider stretching your SNAP benefits by keeping a small garden. If you buy a package of tomato seeds for $3.00 and grow 10 tomatoes from just one plant, that is a huge return on your investment.
5. Seed Saving
Why buy seeds when you can just use seeds that you grew yourself last season? Saving seeds isn’t just a great way to shrink your garden budget. It’s also a great way to grow your community. My friend Steve has an impressive victory garden that he grew from seeds that he “checked out” from the Kansas City Public Library with his library card. If you love the idea of a seed library as much as I do but can’t find one in your area, the Richmond, California Public Library has a tutorial on how to start your own!
6. Container Gardening
Not everyone has fixable soil or even open ground to use as a growing space. Luckily, container gardening allows even apartment-dwellers to create their own green space. Although I am incredibly vain about my vast collection of terra cotta pots, you can grow ridiculous amounts of food in containers such as plastic storage tubs and recycled food buckets. That said, Pinterest is full of brilliant ideas for upcycled planters, made from items you probably already own, for all kinds of vegetation.
7. Plant Propagation From Stem Cuttings
I learned how to grow succulents from cuttings as a kid and never looked back. Every year when I trim back my succulents, I save the cuttings to use as barter currency with the neighbors, to sell at my garage sale, or to pot up and give as gifts. Plants are great gifts, for just about every occasion. This one little skill makes/saves me at least $100 every year between what I save on buying gifts and what I sell for cold hard cash. More importantly, I managed to plant 90% of my front yard with plant cuttings I collected from my friends and neighbors. I saved hundreds of dollars on my landscaping budget because I barely had to buy any greenery.
But why limit yourself to just succulents? There are so many great indoor and outdoor plants that can be grown from cuttings.
My husband loves to collect… everything. So he’s always out in the yard, sticking something new into the ground. Unfortunately, up until recently, about 50% of what he planted immediately croaked. I only discovered the cause of his brown thumb this year. He had no idea that he needed to immediately water plants after transplanting to prevent shock. Now that he’s learned the basic rules of transplanting, he hasn’t lost a plant.
Everyone knows you can kill a plant by underwatering, but did you know the most common cause of death in indoor plants is overwatering? Fortunately, learning the proper way to water your plants, both inside and out, is not rocket science. Also, learning good watering techniques will cut down on your water bill, even if you don’t live in a drought-stricken area.
I love to mulch, because it provides immediate gratification. The yard looks instantly tidier after mulching. Also, mulch cuts down on weeds, and helps the soil retain water.
I am a great proponent of liquor store mulch, aka sheet mulching, because I don’t even have to weed before I lay down the sweet, sweet topcoat. Also, it’s basically free. Here’s how I mulch:
- Get cardboard boxes from my corner liquor store.
- Cover my dirt, weeds and all, with flattened cardboard boxes, working around existing plants.
- Water until the cardboard is super wet.
- Shovel green waste onto the cardboard. I use manure that my chicken-raising neighbor is so happy to give me for free, but you can use compost, grass cutting, etc.
- Shovel brown waste on top of everything to hide the stinky green waste. I used dead leaves and shredded cardboard boxes, but you can use what you have on hand.
- Water, water, water.
- Wait. By the following year, you will have lovely topsoil to grow in and far fewer weeds.
By the way, if you aren’t planning on growing a garden next season and just want to make your current planting look better, many cities offer free mulch, made from chopped up city trees, as part of their recycling programs. Just lay down that wood mulch over cardboard and call it a day.
11. Managing Pests
My mother is a master gardener. The second she thought my sister and I were old enough to handle garden tools without goring each other, she enlisted us in slug patrol. Every morning before school, we had to go out to the garden and decapitate every slug we found. To this day, I can throw a weed digger five feet with deadly precision.
But killing slugs Game of Thrones-style is just one of the ways I manage pests in my garden.
My favorite method of pest management is companion planting, because the plants do most of the maintenance work. One of my very favorite garden hacks is The Three Sisters, an Iroquois planting method that is perfect in its simplicity. The three sisters are corn, climbing beans, and squash. These three crops are planted together in a mound of dirt. The corn provides a trellis for the beans. The beans are nitrogen-fixers, so they fertilize the soil for the corn and the squash. The squash’s prickly leaves act as mulch, and they shade the roots of the other two sisters. The squash also acts as a defense against rodents and raccoons that don’t like crawling through the prickly leaves to eat the beans and the corn. So genius.
Because I am a beekeeper and own a koi pond, I cannot use chemical garden sprays without also killing my pets. Luckily, there are plenty of homemade bug sprays that do the job and are made of things you can find in your kitchen.
There are a number of reasons why you should leave tree pruning to the experts, but pruning shrubs and other small plants is easy, once you know how. Although most people think of pruning as decorative, proper pruning actually keeps plants healthy by removing dead or dying parts of plants that have been damaged by weather, disease, bugs, or animals. Pruning can also make a plant more productive by forcing the plant to put more energy into producing fruit or flowers.
13. Maintaining Tools
I am terrible at this. After spending approximately $539,287 to repeatedly replace wood-handled tools that I left in the yard to the mercy of the elements, I finally had to purchase way too expensive, rust-proof, all metal tools. Don’t be me.
Actually, maintaining tools is remarkably easy. If you clean your tools after every use and store them in a dry place, you can make most hand tools last a lifetime.