Why Start Gardening?

It’s time to ‘herb’ your enthusiasm for sustainable lifestyle choices by trying out a new hobby: Gardening! Preventive medicine studies suggest that daily contact with nature through gardening has long-lasting impacts on human health, including: 

  • Reducing depression and anxiety symptoms (due to vitamin D deficiencies and mindfulness practices)
  • Weight loss (from healthier food choices and more exercise)
  • Lower risk for respiratory and heart diseases
  • Reducing the widespread effects of “nature-deficit disorder”

Not only does gardening have deep impacts on human health, but there are serious environmental benefits to doing so. Environmental benefits include:

  • Reducing your ecological footprint (less trips to the grocery store, reduced plastic waste, more cooking at home)
  • Prevents soil erosion
  • Replenishes nutrients in the soil
  • Supports local wildlife, including honeybees, hummingbirds, and butterflies.

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To help you get started on your gardening journey, here are some tips, tricks, and advice from a gardening beginner and master gardener!

Interview with a Gardener

Why did you decide to start a garden? What was the process of starting it?

Lara: From the perspective of a college student, growing my own home garden was pretty low on my list of priorities. It wasn’t until I really started learning more about sustainability and the benefits of growing my own food that I considered this challenge. With the help from my dad and grandma (the gardening experts in my family), we made a plan to put a little gardening plot on my front patio. Home Depot is practically my dad’s second home, so he really helped me put this project into motion. We bought all natural soil and a few herbs and veggies to start it out, as well as clay blocks to make up the perimeter of the raised bed. I was a little nervous about keeping this garden thriving since I had no experience, but I was determined to put in the work and turn this idea into reality!

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Kate: My Dad always had a garden while I was growing up. One year, he encouraged me to get involved with a garden club at my local community college while I was a student. Soon after, I wound up landing myself a work study position as an assistant to the instructor to the non-credit gardening courses. As part of my work duties, I developed an unused piece of land into a garden plot and an outdoor learning lab for the courses being taught.  Under her direction, and with help from my Dad, I made it through my first growing season. From putting up fencing, removing grass, tilling and turning over soil, starting seedlings, keeping everything watered, it was a lot of work. From that experience I went on to become a PennState Master Gardener a few years later, started my own garden club at my University, worked with leaders in regenerative organic agriculture at Rodale Institute, and created a farm-to-fork intensive garden plot which served over 5,000lbs of produce to the local food pantry.

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Katelyn Armbuster

What have you grown in your garden so far? Do you recommend these plants for beginners?

Lara: So far, I have parsley, broccoli, snapdragons, dill and chocolate cherry tomatoes in my garden. I also have a few pots of various succulents and aloe vera, as they thrive in the arid desert climate. From my experience, all of these plants have been pretty easy to manage. In Phoenix, Arizona we are in Hardiness Zone 9, so I did a lot of research about what is best to grow in my area. Considering planting schedules based on the time of year is also important, so the best advice I can give would be to pick plants that you have the time and patience to care for based on your Hardiness Zone.

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Kate: Honestly, it might be better to write down what I haven’t grown, otherwise this post would quickly start looking like a seed catalog. I love trying out new seed varieties. I’ve had over 10 years of gardening experience at this point and my favorite thing to grow is kale. Kale can take the cold, the heat, all sorts of poor conditions that would make other plants wilt over. I’ve grown kale yearlong in PA and AZ, something I can’t say for any other plant. For beginners I would recommend kale and radish. These are both super easy to grow from seed, easy to thin out, and harvest. They also have a quick lifespan from seed to harvest! I should also mention here that it’s important to know which plants are best to direct sow versus which plants are better to transplant. For example, carrots and radishes are not good for transplanting, and I’ll always opt for buying pepper seedlings to transplant because they can take a long time to germinate and get established on their own from seed. In general, I suggest beginners start with direct sowing seeds like radish, zucchini and kale and transplanting tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. 

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What unexpected challenges did you find when you first started?

Lara: You need a lot more soil than you think you do! My garden consists of a 3×5 foot raised bed that is about 1.5 feet deep, and we ended up using about 20 cubic feet of soil to fill it up. That’s about 10 bags of soil from Home Depot, so it was definitely a struggle hauling those bags around. Another issue is that I live in a community that has a large colony of stray cats, so I had to come up with creative ways to keep them from using my garden as their own personal litter box. One way that has worked pretty well for me is to put citrus peels in between the plants, as cats tend to avoid the strong aromatic smell. 

Kate: Pests are a pain! I will never forget the striped cucumber beetle sabotage in the summer of 2015. These beetles completely decimated my entire crop of cucurbits overnight! I had about 60 cucumbers, zucchini and squash plants wiped out because of those pests. I hadn’t anticipated so many struggles with pests. Each new year you learn a little more about the bugs and critters that live near your garden space and how to deal with them. In PA I dealt with groundhogs, deer, voles, rabbits, aphids, beetles, and even diseases like blight and powdery mildew, so many things I wasn’t ready for. Another big challenge is the weather of course. Once I started growing fruit trees I learned the hard way that climate change could lead to failed crops. When the temperature warms up quickly in the winter, before the typical last frost, fruit trees can start to blossom. However, when winter weather continues and it freezes again, those blossoms die off. The fruit crop is over before it even starts. Currently, I’m learning how to deal with the extreme heat and unrelenting sun here in AZ. I’m definitely not as successful as I was in PA (yet).

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What tips or advice would you give beginner gardeners?

Lara: Don’t put yourself down if you make some mistakes as you’re first starting your gardening journey. There are so many factors that go into growing a healthy garden, and you are bound to experience a learning curve as a beginner. Just like any hobby, it takes time to perfect your skills and figure out what you want out of your garden. I didn’t realize how much I would love earning my green thumb and I am so happy I decided to put this project into motion. I have already reaped the benefits of my first harvest, and let me tell you, that was the best broccoli cheddar soup I have ever had!

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Kate: Sun, water, soil. Make sure you have those three figured out wherever you decide to garden. I’ve had many friends come to me for guidance only to find that their garden has been positioned in too much shade, too far away from their source of water, or planted in the wrong soil medium. I suggest doing some research to start. Check out some gardening books at the library. Watch some gardening videos on YouTube. Talk to someone who gardens, or the employees at a plant nursery. Chances are a family member, friend, neighbor, or community member is willing to help you get started, share their knowledge, and who knows, maybe even supply you with some items to get started. I’ve gotten so many free and low cost items on facebook gardening groups. I also must mention the resources provided by the cooperative extension service that exists in each state under the state’s land grant university, including the Master Gardener program. Master Gardeners are free resources that can supply you with answers, reading resources, and even help with diagnosing garden issues. They have so many free resources! Remember that as a gardener you will always be learning from and adjusting to the environment around you. Be patient and be observant, and don’t stop trying! 

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Katelyn Armbuster

Time to get started!

No matter how much experience you have, it is never too late to start your gardening journey! Fellow gardeners want you to succeed, so be sure to explore the resources available whenever you feel overwhelmed or stuck. If you do not have the time or space to create your own garden, connect with a community garden! These are a great way to get involved with the community and spend some time outdoors and in the soil. The U.S Department of Agriculture has plenty of community gardening guides for those hoping to set up a community garden in their area. Happy gardening everyone!