The Easy Way to Start a Garden from Scratch (That Won’t Break the Bank!)
Across the alleyway from my last home I had good friends—almost family—who had a beautiful garden. My lovely neighbors rented the house and didn’t have a huge budget to start a garden from scratch so they devised a smart and frugal way to start an impressive garden without breaking the bank. And guess what? They did it in just a few months! With this easy way to start a garden they went from bare soil to a lush garden in the first season, and continued to build it over the next 15 years. That’s right, 15 years! What started in one season became an incredible space full of lush plants, gorgeous flowers, and edible plants in the easiest way possible: from planting a seed.
There is no single correct way to start a garden. I have certainly developed my own gardening style and techniques, some of which are a bit unconventional, I admit. Likely because gardening was not a skill that was passed down to me. I’m a self-taught gardener who picks up bits and bobs from the other brilliant gardeners out there in the world. One of my favorite ways to learn is to walk through the back alleys in my neighborhood and talk to people out in their yards gardening. When I watch and learn from other gardeners, even if they don’t speak a word of English, I’m adding generations of tried-and-true gardening advice from those who are successful at gardening.
I think about my neighbor’s garden design plan often, and have used it to successfully start my own garden beds.
The concept is simple. Grab some packages of mixed seeds. You can budget whatever you need to for the seeds but it shouldn’t cost you more than $20 (especially when you can get 500 mixed seeds for just $8). Choose perennials and annuals, wildflowers and edible plants, whatever you think will be a good mix for your space. You prep the soil, scatter the seeds, and then watch the garden grow!
“But,” you say, “what about spacing and design and putting the tall plants at the back border?!” Never fear friends, what begins as a haphazard sowing turns into a process of refinement. As you tend to your garden, you can remove or move plants, and you can add more too. Over the first season you can work together with your garden, collaborate on what is working (or not working) for you both. And remember, you are the boss and have the final say. If something isn’t working for you, you get to compost it!
Pick the Seeds
You can handpick the seeds you want to grow or buy a mix of seeds created for a variety of garden types: cutting flowers, butterfly / bee/ hummingbird mixes, wildflowers, perennials, etc. My best advice is get your seeds locally. Find a mix that is made for you area. Ask the seller or store clerk if there are any invasive species in the mix, how long they take to germinate, and which ones will flower in the first year. Look for seeds that suit your soil conditions (see how to do an at home soil test here) and pick the right flowers for sun, part sun, or shade.
Prepare the Soil
Building great soil is essential to building a great garden. You don’t need to truck in a bunch of organic soil, you can find amendments right in your own backyard. Add well-rotted compost to the garden bed and loosen the top 12-18” of soil. Mix the compost in well and leave the soil loose and fluffy. If you aren’t composting yet, get started because you could be creating your own backyard gold!
Plant the Seeds
Mix the seed packets together and scatter them liberally in the prepared bed. Cover with a thin layer of garden soil.
Keep the garden bed well-watered as the seeds are germinating and sprouting. This garden should be damp in most cases, not drying out for days at a time. Your seeds and young plants need lots of water to get started, but soon they will be able to last longer as they grow roots to reach the damp soil below.
Thin out the Garden
Dense planting like this will require thinning, but it is very easy to do. As you see the seeds begin to sprout, make sure that they have a room to spread out by pinching off those you don’t want. If you are a fairly new gardener, you may not know what the flower will be until it blooms. Don’t be too hasty with thinning, as you want to give the many varieties a chance to grow and thrive.
Observe and Edit
This planting method doesn’t come with a plan, you make it up as the garden grows! Observe what is growing and flowering and ask yourself what you like and what you could happily be rid of. You should have enough flowers growing that you can simply pull up and compost those that don’t suit you. As you edit the garden it will continue to produce more of what you love.
Harvest and Enjoy!
As the season goes on and you are enjoying your cutting garden, see some ideas for cut-flower arrangements here: