A site visitor recently posed a question about advice for beginning gardeners, and I thought that this topic would be better used as the focus of a post. Feel free to chime in with any other suggestions that you have for neophytes to the world of gardening.
I have toyed with gardening for much of my life, but only in this decade have I fully embraced the gardening ethos. I prefer to use high-fallutin' terminology like "experiments in urban agriculture" for what I do in my .33-acre city lot, since I derive as much pleasure from seeing what happens as I adjust variables as I do from simply following the instructions on the seed packet.
Thus, I am more of a gardening dilettante than some sort of master gardener, but I have learned a few things that are worthy of passing along. Here, then, is my short list of advice to new gardeners.
1. Start small. I once rented a roto-tiller with the idea that I would create a bunch of well-defined plots in my backyard, but I was unsure of what to do with the spaces after I cleared them. Consequently, they returned to the domain of "lawn," and I have since learned that it is better to gradually add new growing spaces - even just one 8'x8' plot per year - to avoid getting overwhelmed.
2. Become an expert at a few crops first. I used to purchase all sorts of interesting plants and flowers every spring, only to become disappointed when they failed to sprout or thrive. I now try to focus most of my energy on 6-8 basics - such as tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini - and try one or two new plants per year. That way I can remember the specific approach I took, and not get confused trying to remember all of the variables.
3. Take notes. This is related to the last point, as I no longer have that razor-sharp young mind that can instantly recall details from earlier in the planting season. Heck: I can no longer even remember exactly what I planted and where I planted it if I do not keep notes.
4. Mulch is your best weed-reducing option. While chemical pesticides and weed-killers are an individual choice (I largely avoid them), you have to do something about the weeds. I prefer to heap mulched leaves and lawn clippings in between rows to keep down the weeds in spring and summer, and I use the fall leaves as mulch to cover my garden plots for the winter. Also: this type of mulch works well in killing grass over the winter, denying it sunlight, and this is much easier than ripping up sod in spring when you are starting a new plot.
5. Perennials rock. Listen: I love marigolds and zinnias and other colorful annuals as much as the next bloke, but there is much to be said for the ease of maintenance and predictability of perennial flowers. Provided that you choose perennials well-suited for your area, they can provide you with many years of color by which to mark the changing seasons. If you do some planning (like my very smart wife did in some of our plots), you can choose plants with staggered blooming times to have color from March through November in a place like Ohio.
6. Plan your gardens around your lifestyle. Parents with small children should be aware that there is an irresistible force generated by plants that will draw children to pick flowers. Thus, do not invest in expensive perennials or orchids until the children are older (and preferably after they leave home). Likewise, I used to get frustrated with my dogs running in my gardens until I created an 18-inch path along the fence, pushing out my garden plots into the lawn accordingly. Now they can run free, and I no longer spend time chasing them out of the garden when they want to bark at a passing dog.