Gardening Guide for New Gardeners
Note: For beginner gardeners that are not a part of the Free Seed Project, you are still in a good place. This guide will help you start growing food and be successful at it.
Welcome to the Free Seed Project!
Now that you have received your seeds or will be receiving them soon, it’s time to figure out how to turn them into vegetables, herbs, and flowers!
Before getting into it, we suggest joining the Free Seed Project Community Facebook Group, where you can:
- Ask questions and get answers from experienced gardeners.
- Share advice with people just now starting gardens with Free Seed Project seed packs
- Post photos with updates from your garden. Use this group as a source of motivation from other gardeners and share your successes and failures to encourage them back.
For those with little or no experience with gardening, we want to say that you can do this!
Gardening can be very intimidating to those who have not done it before. But the good news is once you get the basics down, most of the rest becomes common sense.
Keep in mind that you will have some failures. Even the most experienced gardeners do. Expect failures and embrace them. You will never create a bounty of fresh, homegrown food without setbacks.
Sometimes plants will die because you didn’t take care of them properly, but they might perish or do poorly even if you do everything right. We can’t control everything.
Growing food successfully will be a journey. Just as you would never expect to become a professional athlete overnight or to gain a college degree in a few weeks, you can’t expect to make the garden of your dreams in one season. Remembering this is likely just as important as the basics like sun, water, and soil. Your attitude can affect your gardening experience just as much as any of the earth’s elements.
In this series we show you exactly how to grow your own food – from planting the seeds, to tending the garden, to harvesting the food! All using the Free Seed Project pack!
Some top tips and advice
To ensure that you do not get overwhelmed, a small, well-maintained garden is better than a large, messy one.
Plan your garden on paper before planting
It will help you use your space more efficiently and plan what plants will do best next to each other. Remember the basics: the dimensions of your garden space, the spacing each plant needs to thrive, and the sun’s orientation. You can use our Example Garden Plan.
Use a garden journal.
Keep track of when you plant, your first and last harvest, when you add compost or fertilizer, relevant weather events, etc.
Seek local resources.
One of the easiest ways to become a successful gardener is to spend time with successful gardeners in your area.
Watch Robin’s beginner gardening tips video:
How to get started
Where do you get information specific to your area?
Find a community garden in your area.
Connecting with the people at a community garden will open you up to an endless supply of knowledge about growing food in your region.
Find other gardeners in your area.
Local is the key. Finding local information and resources is the best way to put your garden on the right path. Look for gardens in your area and talk to the people who tend them.
Gardeners are usually friendly and excited to share their knowledge, seeds, and abundance. Maybe you can help them weeding their garden, or do garden sitting when they go out of town in exchange for lessons.
Go to the local nursery, garden centers, and botanical gardens.
There’s a good chance they will either be a great resource or be able to connect you to great resources.
Find local classes.
Garden centers, botanical gardens, universities, and community colleges often offer classes. See if there’s a Master Gardening class offered near you. The US American Horticulture Society offers this search feature to help you find a class near you. They also have a search feature for societies, clubs, and organizations.
Use the Cooperative Extension Offices
Your local Cooperative Extension office provides research-based advice on agriculture and horticulture specific to your region. The U.S. Cooperative Extension System employs experts that can answer your questions regarding pest and disease management, growing conditions, sustainable agriculture, farm management, and more. They also offer local educational programs and publications.
Each U.S. state and territory has a state office at its land-grant university and a network of local or regional offices. Learn more about Cooperative Extension Systems here, and find your nearest Cooperative Extension office here.
Go to your public library.
Often libraries will have gardening books specific to your state or region that you can check out. Libraries aren’t just full of books, though. They are often a knowledge base of local initiatives and programs. Some libraries even have seed libraries.
Seek out garden clubs or meetups.
Search for local seed companies.
Search for books written about gardening in your state or region. Go to the local bookshop or library, or do an online search.
Where should you place your garden?
Where you have easy access
You want to set your garden somewhere you will naturally pass by every day. If you tuck it into a remote corner of your backyard, you are more likely to neglect it. If getting to your garden is his own task, you are more likely to get lazy and not maintain it. If you walk through your front yard daily to leave your house, your front yard could be a great spot.
Near easily accessible water sources
If watering your garden is a hassle, you are more likely to neglect watering it. If you use a hose, check that it reaches all the plants. If you use rainwater, ensure the rain barrel is near the garden with a clear path between them.
In an area with good drainage/Not too dry
Avoid planting in a low-lying spot that is always soggy and wet. Your plants will drown. Similarly, in a dry climate, stay clear of places most likely to dry out, such as the side of the house that always gets dry wind. Location varies drastically depending on whether you live in a desert, a semi-tropical region, or somewhere in between.
In one location
If you have several garden lots to water and maintain, you are more likely to forget or neglect some plants. Start in just one place, and once you establish that garden, you can start branching out.
In full sunlight.
Away from tree roots.
Trees can suck up all the water and nutrients, leaving less for the plants in your garden.
How much sun does your garden need?
You should plant your garden in a location that receives full sun. Full sun is at least six hours of direct sunlight. Any amount over eight hours is a sure bet for full sun.
You may not be accustomed to knowing how much sun an area receives. To learn this, keep track of when the sun first hits the location in the morning and check periodically throughout the day to see when the area becomes shaded. Keep in mind that the sun changes positions in the sky.
The location will get much more sunlight during summer than in winter. Pay attention to whether the spot will be shaded by trees when the sun changes position in the sky.
Plants growing with too little sun are less likely to produce fruit and tend to become spindly and stressed, opening them up to pests. Planting in the most favorable area is the simplest way to prevent them.
What size should your garden be?
Our recommendation at the Free Seed Project is to start small.
The seed packet you have received can make a pretty sizable garden. A few good-size kale plants can be enough for a small family, and this kit has about 30 kale seeds! That is far more kale than a family will eat. Never underestimate the amount of food just one tiny seed can make.
Especially if you feel overwhelmed, we encourage you to choose only a handful of seeds. You can always plant more later in the season. You can also share the seeds with friends and family or save them for next year. You are more likely to be successful if you keep the gardening easily manageable. The size of your garden can grow as you grow in confidence and skill.
How do you grow food in small places?
See Robin Greenfield’s blog on How to Grow Food for Free in the City.
Urban Organic Gardener: Basics of Starting an Apartment Vegetable Garden
Vegetable Gardening in a Small Space
Rodale’s Organic Life: 7 Secrets for a High-Yield Vegetable Garden, Even When You’re Tight on Space
Mother Earth News: Small-Space Gardening
What plants to grow?
When you start, avoid thinking about what vegetables you would like for dinner. Instead, research plants that grow exceptionally well in your region.
The free seed pack focuses on easy-to-grow foods that adapt to many climates and regions across the United States. So, we have already done a lot of the work for you in choosing these seeds. However, the United States is an enormous nation with an incredible diversity of growing regions. We recommend you check to see which of these seeds is easy to grow in your area. See tips to find out what grows in your area.
Having said that, do focus on growing foods that you, your family, and your friends will want to eat. There’s little point in growing a bunch of food that will never be eaten.
Watch Robin’s video: The Easiest, Most Abundant Edible Plants to Grow in a Garden, which focuses on colder climates:
When do you plant your seeds?
Timing is crucial for successfully growing food. Because of the extreme diversity of climates in the United States, it’s not possible for us at the Free Seed Project to tell you exactly when to plant your seeds.
The good news is that the work has been done already, and the resources are out there.
The Garden Calendar Planting Guide from The National Gardening Association is a superb tool. Simply enter your zip code into the guide, and you will find plating information regarding your area. Their guide is an excellent starting place, but avoid interpreting the dates as absolutely perfect for every location.
Better yet is to find a regional planting schedule. Your local Cooperative Extension office can help you with that.
How often and how much should you water the garden?
The soil should be kept moist as you start planting your seeds and establishing your garden.
Until the plants sprout, the soil should be watered every day. After that, every other day might be enough.
If you transplant veggies, they also need frequent, light watering for their shallow, young roots.
Water the soil where the roots are, not the plant.
Soaking the plant is more likely to open it up to diseases. The water is needed in the roots, which are below the soil. If you are watering by hand, aim the hose at the ground rather than spraying it overhead.
Water in the morning
Avoid watering during the heat of the day or in the evening.
If you water in the evening, the plants will be wet overnight and are more prone to diseases and fungus. Watering during the midday heat is wasteful, as a large portion of the water is burned off through evaporation. Moreover, water droplets on the leaves can intensify the sun and burn the leaves.
By watering in the morning, the plants can dry out before nightfall. However, if your garden is dry in the evening, it’s better to water it; don’t let the plants go without water.
Deep, infrequent watering
By watering deeper, you encourage the roots to grow deeper where they will stay moist. Frequent shallow watering will result in roots near the surface, which creates weak plants that are more likely to dry out and need constant water.
An effective rule of thumb for watering is to stick your finger into the soil up to the second knuckle. If the ground at your fingertip is dry, you should water your garden. If it is moist, then you don’t need to water it.
Another rule of thumb is to look at the plants and see if they are drooping. If they are drooping in the cool mornings or evenings, they are most definitely in need of water. It is, however, common for plants to droop during the midday heat.
Know your soil type
Overly sandy soil has high drainage and doesn’t hold on to moisture, meaning it will need to be watered more often. Soil that is abundant in clay is heavy and difficult to work with. Soil that is too heavy in silt will not drain properly. Knowing your soil type will help you understand how much to water.
Additional information for more advanced gardeners
In regions where frost occurs (which is most of the country), your planting dates are heavily determined by frost dates. You can also use The Old Farmer’s Almanacs tool to find your first and last frost dates.
Once you know your average last frost date or “frost-free date,” you can use Johnny’s Seeds Seed Starting Date Calculator. This tool figures the dates when it’s safe to plant particular early crops outside, based on the specified frost-free date.
Look up what Plant Hardiness Zone you live in. This map will help you find your zone. You can also look it up by zip code here. The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location.
Note: The seeds we provided will grow in most hardiness zones across the USA
Top Tips for Using Water Wisely
Mulch reduces evaporation by protecting the soil from direct contact with the sun. It also helps to moderate soil temperatures, protects the beneficial bacteria and fungi in the soil, suppress weeds and adds organic matter to the soil as it breaks down.
Two to three inches of mulch is ample. You can use leaves from your (or your neighbor’s) yard, woodchips, straw, and many other things. It is a good idea to give the garden a good watering before you lay down mulch the first time.
Amend your soil with compost.
Organic matter holds moisture. Sand, which is not organic matter, holds very little water. Adding compost to sandy soil will increase moisture retention, meaning you have to water less. No matter if your soil has too much sand, silt, or clay – compost will help.
Do not use above-ground sprinkler systems.
They are the most inefficient of all.
Grow plants in the correct season.
If you grow crops when it is not ideal, they are likely to need more water than in the correct season, resulting in using far more water.
The most efficient watering systems are drip irrigation or ollas. And both save a lot of time spent watering.
How far apart do you plant your seeds?
At What’s in Your Free Seed Project Pack, you can find all the seeds included in the pack and a link to the seed on www.johnnyseeds.com.
A general rule of thumb is to plant:
Radish and turnips 1”-2” apart
Beets 3” apart
Smaller greens like lettuce, arugula, and herbs 6” apart.
Beans 6” apart
Larger greens like kale, collards, Swiss chard, and cabbage 12”-18” apart
Tomato and pepper 12” apart
Small squash, such as zucchini 18” apart
Large squash, such as pumpkin 24” apart
There are different methods of planting with different spacing. Square Foot Gardening, for example, packs plants closer together to utilize small spaces and get the highest yields in small spaces. Plants are likely to yield less by being so packed in, but it provides a great yield per space. To get the best usage of your Free Seed Project pack, we recommend giving ample space to each plant.
How deep do you plant your seeds?
There are two common rules of thumb for the depth of planting seeds.
One is to plant small seeds 1/8 to 1/4-inch-deep and larger seeds ½ to 1 inch deep.
The other is to plant seeds only as deep as the seed’s diameter.
Most of the seeds in the Free Seed Project pack are very tiny, so they should be barely covered with soil.
Swiss chard, spinach, beet, radish, cucumber, and cilantro will be planted deeper than the rest, at about 1/8 inch.
Direct sowing seeds vs. transplanting
All of the seeds in this pack can be planted directly into the garden. You don’t need to start any seeds indoors or have a greenhouse to have a successful garden.
For more information see:
Johnny’s Direct Seeding Guidelines for direct planting outdoors
Johnny’s Guidelines for Starting Healthy Seedlings: Tips & Troubleshooting Advice for starting seeds indoors to transplant
What about seed saving?
You can turn one seed we supplied you into thousands! Save your seeds and increase the size of your garden each year without spending any extra money or resources; grow your own heirloom seeds and self-sufficiency. With your abundance of seeds, share this gift with people in your community! Here is our Seed Saving Resource Guide for all the information you need on the topic.
How do you deal with pests and weeds naturally?
One of the main ways to naturally deal with pests is to attract beneficial insects. We have included Beneficial Insect Attractant Mix to help you with this. Watch this video to learn about beneficial insects.
To learn more, see: Effective, Sustainable Pest & Disease Control: Tips for Adopting an IPM Approach
For tips on weeds, see Got Weeds? Targeting Annual & Perennial Weeds
Johnny’s Seeds Ask a Grower
Johnny’s knowledgeable team of experienced growers will answer your gardening questions for free!
Johnny’s Seeds Grower’s Library
Johnny’s Grower’s Library contains an extensive selection of helpful product and methodological information, including manuals, charts, planting and growing guides, technical articles, instructional videos, and more. Browse information specific to each of our seed and plant product lines: vegetables, flowers, herbs, and farm seed, as well as tools, supplies, methods, organic certifications, labels, and material safety data sheets.
Key Growing Information from Johnny’s Seeds
This provides a listing of the vegetable, fruit, flower, herb, and farm seed lines they offer, with links to full listings for each line. Their key growing information pages provide the essential crop-by-crop sowing, planting, and growing steps you need to get started.
Urban Organic Gardener
Mother Earth News Organic Gardening section
Humans Who Grow Food features stories of home gardeners, farmers and community gardens across borders & cultures. This page is great for inspiration from other gardeners.
Food is Free Project is a nonprofit growing food & community in the front yard, while helping gain independence from a broken agricultural system.
Women Who Farm is comprised of strong women supporting sustainable agriculture. Imagine an organic farming revolution, one that builds soil rather than depletes it and saves seed rather than destroying them. Facebook page.
Attainable Sustainable Learn all about the lost art of self-reliance. Browse hundreds of DIY articles and tutorials on recipes, canning, gardening, and livestock management that will make you an expert at self-reliant living.
More frequently asked questions:
Does Free Seed Project provide seeds to people outside of the USA?
Seed packets are available for United States addresses only, due to the high cost of shipping internationally.
How did Free Seed Project choose the seeds in the pack?
We want to help as many people to become successful gardeners as possible, so we focused on the seeds that are often the easiest to grow. Size and cost were also two important factors. In order to keep this project affordable, we could only send smaller-sized seeds so that they’d fit into the cost of a standard envelope. This meant we couldn’t do large seeds like beans or pumpkins. Some seeds are far more expensive than others. Kale seeds, for example, cost us just two cents to include thirty in a packet. Tomatoes on the other hand, are over a penny a piece.
How did Free Seed Project choose the number of each seeds to send?
This came down to a combination of how much food the seeds produce, size (for fitting into the envelope) and the cost of the seeds.
Where can you purchase more seeds?
Here’s our recommendations if you’d like more seeds:
First search your area to see if there’s a local seed company. In San Diego, for example, there is San Diego Seed Company.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
Seed Savers Exchange
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
High Mowing Seeds
Seeds of Change
For more, see Mother Earth News article Best Vegetable Seed Companies