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Gardening 101 (History, Basics & Tips) – GIY Plants

Gardening items like plants and tools

Gardening is part science, art, and hobby. The principles and techniques of gardening are a science requiring knowledge and experience.

Growing beautiful plants and vegetables in harmony with nature is an art. The self-satisfaction of consuming better-tasting home-grown vegetables makes it a great leisure activity.

Gardening is also a great expression of one’s creativity and imagination. It requires lots of trial and error, and no two gardens look alike.

Commercial farming also uses a lot of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, making home gardening more attractive for obtaining healthy, delicious, and nutritious crops.

What is Gardening?

Gardening is growing and cultivating plants as part of horticulture, usually done leisurely as a hobby or pastime.

Gardeners grow flowers for their foliage and appearance and vegetables, fruits, and herbs for consumption.

Gardens can range from long fruit orchards to a few container plants. Gardening is a good activity for the body and mind and is only gaining popularity.

History of Gardening

The history of gardening dates back thousands of years, probably after the last ice age in 10,000 B.C., when humans decided to deliberately enclose nature, sow the first seeds, and give up their nomadic lifestyles.

Gardening has always been integral to the development of early civilizations and cities. Cities meant a wealthy leisure class that pursued gardening for purely aesthetic purposes.

The most famous garden is the fabled Garden of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. One legend tells that King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon built the garden for his wife Amytis, a Persian princess, to help ease her homesickness for the greenery of her homeland. [1]

Various gardening traditions exist worldwide, from Indian to Persian, Egyptian to Roman, Chinese to Japanese, and European to Mesoamerican gardens.

As more and more countries rapidly industrialized after World War III, people had more time for leisure. This significant surge in gardening interest led to the development of nurseries, horticultural companies, and seed suppliers. Radio, books, newspapers, and television further spread the interest in gardening.

Gardening throughout the centuries has also led to some intentional and unintentional discoveries of new crops. Some of the most familiar crops we know today (e.g., tomatoes, orange carrots, corn, broccoli, peanuts, cauliflower, etc.) result from centuries of selective breeding in gardens and farms or purely accidental cross-breedings in gardens.

The 20th century has also brought many newer gardening techniques, seed varieties, and unusual cultivars, making gardening more scientific.

Despite this, gardening is still an attractive distraction from the hustle and bustle of the city, regardless of whether you are an amateur or professional gardener.

Types of Gardening

Types of gardening example of a flower garden

There are numerous types of gardening, satisfying all tastes and styles:

  • Vegetable gardens are the most common, providing fresh vegetables and fruits.
  • Flower gardens beautify any space.
  • Rose gardens are prevalent due to their symbolism for love and storied history.
  • Container gardens and raised bed gardens are great for those in areas without a lot of fertile soil, allowing you to purchase more suitable soil.
  • Greenhouses and indoor gardens are great for city dwellers without gardening space or those living in cold climates. Greenhouse gardening also allows growing crops out of season.
  • Community gardens provide shared space and crops for those who need them, usually in underserved or underprivileged communities. For example, SNAP benefits can be used to buy seeds for community or home gardens in the U.S. [2]
  • Tropical gardens require more advanced skills, resources, and equipment to maintain but provide lush scenery.
  • Botanical gardens display different plant species, often available for public viewing.
  • Zen gardens provide tranquility and beautiful aesthetics.
  • Landscape gardens enhance architectural spaces.
  • Hedge gardens also help ensure privacy.
  • Hydroponic gardens allow for soilless crop cultivation.

Benefits of Gardening

Benefits of gardening like exercise and sunshine

The joys of gardening are many, including physical, psychological, financial, educational, aesthetic, and social benefits.

A small home garden can easily provide healthy and fresh fruits and vegetables for an entire household, helping to improve food security and self-sufficiency.

Gardening also allows households to enjoy organic produce free from the chemicals used in commercial farming. It also promotes healthier eating, as gardeners enjoy fresh supplies of herbs, nutritious vegetables, and tasty fruits.

Commercial farms are also less environmentally friendly, as they employ more machinery and water resources. Growing your own food also eliminates the waste of supermarkets.

Digging, raking, and weeding are also excellent physical activities providing moderate exercise. Gardening also exposes people to vitamin D, essential for immune regulation and mental health.

The physical activities associated with gardening also improve manual dexterity and strength, which decline with age. This physical activity also decreases the risk of heart issues. Studies show people over 60 who garden have a 30% less chance of strokes and heart attacks. [3]

Growing your own food provides stress relief, forcing one to be mindful and patient. Daily exposure to greenery also combats loneliness.

Lastly, gardening also brings self-satisfaction as the growth of plants beautifies your surroundings.

Gardening Basics

Garden soil

Garden soil contains primarily organic matter, usually from the decomposition of plants and animal matter mixed with minerals and rocks.

Silt, clay, and sandy soil refer to the size of soil participles. Sand is the largest and is good for drainage and aeration. However, it erodes quickly and cannot hold too much water.

Clay is much smaller, usually microscopic, and contains low amounts of oxygen. Water  also drains through clay very slowly.

Silt is between clay and sand and sits between them in its ability to hold water and nutrients.

The topsoil, sometimes known as loam, consists of all three of the above particles, usually in 40-40-20% concentrations of sand-silt-clay.

Soil pH

The pH scale measures the soil’s acidity and alkalinity, with 7.0 being neutral. Most plants thrive in slightly acidic to neutral soil between pH 6.2 and 7.5. This pH is essential because the neutral range allows nutrients to be soluble or accessible.

However, some plants may require slightly acidic soil, such as blueberries. Other plants, like lavender, cucumbers, cabbages, and alliums, can tolerate slightly alkaline soils.

Essential Plant Nutrients

Sixteen elements are essential for healthy plant growth. Carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen are needed in large quantities but are readily found in the soil and air.

Nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K)– known as macronutrients – are also needed in large quantities and are usually obtained from the soil.

Nitrogen is a critical component of proteins and chlorophyll (which helps plants produce foliage and stay green).

Phosphorus helps promote good root growth, increase disease resistance, and help with fruit and seed formation. It’s usually less available in winter, so adding it during spring is important.

Potassium promotes disease resistance and vigorous growth.

Secondary nutrients, required in lesser quantities, are calcium, magnesium, and sulfur.

Micronutrients (iron, manganese, copper, boron, molybdenum, chlorine, and zinc) are required in tiny amounts. [4]

Fertilizer

Fertilizer being put around newly sprouted plants

Deficiencies in some of the 16 critical elements above can cause a variety of issues in your plants, including a condition known as chlorosis or yellowing leaves.

Growing vegetables is an intensive process that often strips your soil of these important nutrients, so it’s essential to replenish them with fertilizer or crop rotation (e.g. rotating in nitrogen-fixing beans after growing nutrient-demanding crops like tomatoes).

Commercial fertilizers are usually labeled with three numbers indicating that element’s percent composition. For example, a bag labeled 5-10-5 contains 5% nitrogen (N), 10% phosphorus (P), and 5% potassium (K).

Fertilizers containing all three elements, N-P-K, are considered complete fertilizers. The other materials are unimportant, as they’re usually filler to help the fertilizer spread.

For example, other fertilizers such as bone meal typically have a 4-12-0 NPK ratio, making it a good source of phosphorus but does not provide any potassium (sometimes called potash).

A soil test is required to determine how much fertilizer you need. The type of crop will also help decide which fertilizer to use. Most plant seed labels also contain suggested fertilizers and amounts.

Fertilizers also come in organic forms – animal manure, blood meal, fish emulsion, cottonseed meal, granite dust, rock phosphate, etc. These usually help improve soil structure, are slow releasing, inexpensive, and are great alternatives to chemical fertilizers.

Worm composting or vermicomposting is another sustainable alternative to chemical fertilizers. Other gardeners may also practice no-till farming, which involves less weeding and incorporating natural organic matter to improve soil structure and dependence on fertilizers.

However, there are some disadvantages, such as their bulkier size, slower release (which may be undesired in some cases), and lower concentration of nutrients.

Another term you might hear is side-dressing, which is the practice of adding repeat doses of fertilizer throughout the growing season.

Irrigation

Different crops have different watering needs and will vary with your average rainfall. Vegetables like celery require lots of water and prefer moist soils around the roots. Others, like onions and cabbages, need more careful watering during dry spells.

Watering is usually given in inches or cm per week. Don’t feel like you have to measure water precisely. Instead, dig the soil with a trowel after watering to examine how far the water has penetrated. Eyeballing is perfectly okay.

Adding a flowmeter to your outdoor spigot for more precise measuring may help with more extensive gardens. Usually, 60 gallons (227 liters) of water per 100 sq ft. (30 sqm.) will get you an inch of water.

If you don’t get rain, then it’s essential to stick a finger 3-4 inches (7-10 cm) into the soil. If your fingers are dry, it’s time to water.

There are also many techniques for watering. Furrowing involves watering the trenches between raised mounds. Basins involve creating a circular moat of water around a plant.

Hose watering is the most common way to water plants. However, hose watering can be inefficient if there’s runoff.

A soaker-hose irrigation technique uses a rubber hose with tiny holes in them, allowing water to leak out. Soaker-hose irrigation will enable you to efficiently water at the soil level, which prevents splashback that can spread fungal diseases in the soil.

This method is similar to drip irrigation, which involves more complicated pipe installations. [5]

Garden Pests & Diseases

Garden pests such as aphids getting eaten by ladybug

Gardens pests and diseases are the banes of every gardener.

Animals such as deer, gophers, rabbits, squirrels, and voles love your vegetables as much as you do and will often eat through your garden.

Insects such as aphids, gnats, grubs, cucumber beetles, Japanese beetles, spider mites, whiteflies, scales, hornworms, mealybugs, and thrips can infect your plants, destroying foliage and fruit, weakening plants, and spreading disease. For example, Silverleaf white flies can cause tomatoes to be unripened.

Other insects, such as ladybugs and bees, are beneficial, helping by feeding on the larva of undesired pests and pollinating flowers.

Diseases can also affect all parts of your plants, including roots, stems, leaves, foliage, and fruits. Infections are usually spread by insects or from the soil in high-moisture environments and are generally caused by bacteria, fungi, or viruses.

For example, tomatoes are especially prone to several common plant diseases such as bacterial leaf spot, early blight, septoria leaf spot, fusarium wilt, verticillium wilt, powdery mildew, and mosaic viruses. These diseases can cause many problems for tomatoes, including yellowing leaves, blossom drops, and curling leaves, among other issues.

Most commercial insecticides or fungicides should help with pests and diseases. Horticultural oils such as neem oil or peppermint oil also keep pests away. Viruses are incurable, however, and infected plants should be destroyed.

Preventative measures include crop rotation, watering at the soil level, good sanitation, weeding, mulching, and pruning also help keep diseases at bay.

Essential Gardening Tools of the Trade

Essential gardening tools every gardener should have

These are the ten essential gardening tools we recommend for those who are looking to take up gardening:

  1. Watering Hoses and Cans

For larger gardens, you may want to use soaker hoses, sprinklers, or drip irrigation pipes. However, most small-scale home gardeners can make do with a simple hose and watering can.

Rubber hoses are heavy but kink less than nylon or vinyl. Ensure the hose is long enough to reach all parts of your garden without shooting water from afar. Hoses with brass filters and an integrated washer are less likely to fail.

For watering cans, plastic is lighter but galvanized metal is rust proof. Make sure to have sprinkler heads for more delicate pressure watering (perfect for seedlings).

  1. Hand Trowels

These are essential for digging soils. Wide-blade and rounded-end trowels are better for loosening soils. V-shaped ones are better for getting through tough weeds.

Choose a trowel forged from one piece of metal or has a secure blade and handle attachments for better sturdiness.

  1. Hand Cultivators

These three-pronged or more hand-sized rakers are perfect for breaking up clumps of soil, smoothing seed beds, working in fertilizer, or removing weeds. Steel-bladed types are the most sturdy.

  1. Garden Hoes

Garden hoes come in all manner of blade shapes, and most are designed for the basics of digging and weeding.

Reciprocating hoes have moveable blades, which make them suitable for scrubbing and removing unwanted plants.

Others have longer blades for wider rows or shorter blades for tight spots, such as the collinear hoe. Oscillating hoes (or stirrup hoes) weed on both the push and pull stroke, enabling faster weeding.

A tined hoe has 3-4 steel prongs or tines attached to the bottom of a 5-6 inch steelhead. Tined hoes are light and versatile, making them ideal for weeding, digging, chopping, hilling, and breaking up clods.

For those with back issues, swan-neck hoes allow you to stand up straight while digging.

  1. Spades and Shovels

Shovels have curved blades and are ideal for digging and moving debris. Spades are similar to shovels in their ability to dig but have a flat bottom edge that is good for anything that requires a straight edge, such as digging trenches or edging flower beds or lawns. Foam grippers for handles help reduce blisters and cramps.

  1. Garden Forks

Garden forks look like shovels, except they have 3-4 iron tines on their heads, allowing them to dig as deep as 12 inches (30 cm) into the soil. Garden forks are ideal for loosening and aerating soil that has already been worked. They are also better than shovels at turning compost piles and digging root crops such as potatoes and carrots.

  1. Garden Rakes

Garden rakes are the perfect tool for leveling, breaking up soil clods, and smoothing garden beds after digging. Rakes are especially helpful if growing raised garden beds.

  1. Buckets, Wagons, Wheelbarrows, and Baskets

These items are essential if you’re wheeling around seedlings, fertilizer, or tools around the garden. A child’s red wagon is fine, but some wagons even have swivel stools, allowing you to sit and garden. Wire baskets are ideal for harvesting vegetables and washing them after. Wicker and wooden baskets are less functional but highly stylish.

  1. Power Tillers

Power tillers are a labor and time-saver for those who need to till or turn large gardens (over 1,000 sq ft or 100 sqm). Mini tillers (1-2 horsepower) weigh only 20-30 pounds (9-14kg) and are great for smaller gardens and tilling in tight places.

  1. Common Essentials

Besides the larger tools above, we recommend most home gardeners also stock up on items such as gloves, a straw hat, a pocket knife or pruning shears, garden clogs or boots, bug repellant, and sunscreen.

Gardening vs. Farming

Gardening vs farming with a vegetable garden

Farmers and gardeners both grow crops from sun, soil, and water.

However, gardening differs from farming in scale, equipment, financial implications, time, labor, and emotional commitment. Large-scale pests or diseases can be financially disastrous for farmers.

According to the USDA, a farm is a place that produced and sold at least $1,000 worth of agricultural products in a given year. [6]

Commercial farming also employs mechanical equipment and involves more complex supply chains. Farmers are also looking to profit from their crops, which determines the varieties of crops they can grow.

An in-between gardening and commercial farming is market gardening, which is usually farming done on less than 2-acres of land without mechanical equipment. Market gardeners often grow organic and varied products to sell in farmer’s markets or in community-supported agriculture (CSA) models, which connect communities directly to farmers without the intermediaries.

Common Gardening Terms

  • Annual vs. Perennial vs. Biennials

Annual plants typically complete their life cycle in one growing season, meaning they will need to be replaced yearly. Hardy annuals can be sown in spring or early fall; some can even be sown in winter. Tender annuals need to be planted in late spring to mid-summer to avoid the danger of frost.

Perennials are cold-hardy plants that will return in the spring, usually for 3-5 years or more. Perennials may also need pruning to maintain tidiness and vigor.

Biennials typically take two years to complete their cycles before dying. They are best planted in spring or early fall.

  • Plant Hardiness Zones 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides a map and guide which breaks up the United States into 13 geographical climate zones based on long-term average annual extreme minimum temperatures. For example, a plant that can survive in zone 12 can handle extreme minimum temperatures of only 50-60°C (10-15°C).

  • Invasive

An invasive species is any organism (plant or animal) that becomes overpopulated and causes ecological, environmental, and economic damage to its new environment.

  • Horticultural Oil

Horticultural oils are natural oils (also dormant oils) that are made from plants, vegetables, and minerals. Horticultural oils are popular as preventative measures for pests and plant diseases. Neem oil, for example, is a popular natural pest control made from the neem tree.

Horticultural oils are generally safe for plants and wildlife, but they can cause some irritation to the skin. They can also burn sensitive plants, and are toxic to fish and bees, so apply them in the early morning or late evening.

Oils should not be used in freezing temperatures, temperatures above 90°C (32°C), or when plants are moisture-stressed. [7]

  • Propagation

Propagating is the process of creating new plants from parts or pieces of an existing plant or two plants. It is often divided into sexual or asexual methods. Sexual propagation uses seeds to create new plants. Asexual propagation methods include cuttings (leaf, stem tips, stems, buds), grafting, layering (rooting a new plant while stems are still attached to the parent), and division.

  • Evergreen vs. Deciduous

Deciduous means “to fall off” in Latin and describes trees that shed their leaves in the fall and winter. Evergreens (also known as coniferous trees) keep their foliage year-round.

  • Vining vs. Bushing 

Vining describes plants that trail or grow indefinitely. It is sometimes also called indeterminate. Bushing plants tend to develop more compactly and finitely. They are sometimes also called determinates.

  • Companion Planting

Companion planting, also known as intercropping for small-scale farmers, is the practice of growing crops near one another to benefit one or both.

For example, the “three sisters” plants (corn, bean, and squash), made famous by Native Americans, are an example of ideal companion planting.

Beans fill the soil with nitrogen, which corn and squash love. Corn provides natural stalks for beans to climb on, and the squash provides ground cover between corn and beans, preventing weeds.

For other examples of companion plants, see common tomato companion plants.

  • Cultivar vs. Variety

These terms are often used interchangeably for different variations of a particular plant species. However, a cultivar is typically man-made and does not grow true to type. Varieties are considered naturally occurring and grow true to type, meaning seeds will produce similar copies as parents.

  • Terms for Sun Requirements 

Full sun describes lighting needs for plants that require a full day (6-8 hours) of direct sunlight.

Partial sun usually describes plants that need 4-6 hours of sunlight.

Partial shade describes plants that require less than four hours of direct sunlight but more than 1.5 hours. 

Dappled sun describes plants that need just a little bit of sun, usually filtered through tree leaves.

Full shade doesn’t mean the plant does not require sunlight (all plants do), but rather, it means the plant can thrive in the shadiest parts of your garden or as a houseplant.

  • Hardening Off

Plants germinated indoors or in a greenhouse often require a gradual exposure period to the outdoors, known as hardening off.

Hardening off helps them adjust to outside conditions. Some plants will die or remain weak if not hardened off first.

To harden plants, expose them to the elements (wind, sun, outdoors) a few hours a day at a time over two weeks before planting them outside.

  • Heirloom vs. Hybrid

Heirlooms are open-pollinated plant seeds and have been passed down from generation to generation. They typically grow true to type, meaning new seedlings will reflect the genetic characteristics of their parents. Hybrids are seeds cross-bred in a lab by people for desired traits such as disease resistance or keep over time. For more details, see this article about heirlooms vs. hybrids in tomatoes.

  • Scarification and Stratification

Scarification is the process of nicking or scratching hard seeds with sandpaper or a knife to help the seeds absorb more water into the embryo. Scarification helps germinate the seeds faster.

Stratification is the process of subjecting seeds to a moist-cold environment before sowing to simulate the seed-softening conditions some seeds experience in winter. Stratification is necessary for germination in some seeds.

Seeds grown indoors often require these extra steps to help them germinate better.

  • Thinning

Thinning in gardening means removing or aborting the weakest plants growing too close together. Removing the weakest seedlings ensures that the remaining more robust seedlings have enough nutrients to thrive.

Mulching is the process of covering the grounds surrounding your plants with a thick organic or inorganic material. Common mulching materials include black plastic, small-grain straws, pine needles, ferns, sorghum fodders, wood chips, leaves, grass clippings, or moss.

Composting is a mixture made from decomposed organic materials, like leaves, animal byproducts, and food scraps.

References:

[1] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2000, January 12). Hanging Gardens of Babylon | History & Pictures. Encyclopedia Britannica.

[2] Gardening Advice. (n.d.). USDA.

[3] Torjesen, I. (2013). Home improvement and gardening can prolong life in over 60s, study finds. BMJ, 347(oct28 7), f6506–f6506.

[4] Stefferud, A. (2022). Soil the Yearbook of Agriculture 1957 (HARDCOVER). US Dept of Agriculture.

[5] National Gardening Association, & Nardozzi, C. (2021). Vegetable Gardening For Dummies (3rd ed.). For Dummies.

[6] USDA ERS – Farm Structure and Contracting. (2022, March 8). USDA Economic Research Service. https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-economy/farm-structure-and-organization/ farm-structure-and-contracting/.

[7] Skelly, J. (2013). Horticultural Oils – What a Gardener Needs to Know. University of Nevada Extension.

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