Gardening 101: A Back-to-Basics Primer for Growing
All gardeners start out the same way—not knowing how to garden, and then learning. Here is the first in a series of articles written for those just starting out. Read on for an overview of what it takes to grow your own plants, from location to equipment to watering and feeding your plants.
Gardening can be a soothing and healthy pastime for those so inclined. Learning how to care for and nurture living things is a talent that can be rewarding for both mind and body. All you need to start reaping the benefits of gardening at home is to find a place to start a garden, decide what type of grow media to use in the pots, figure out a light source and then water and feed your plants.
Outdoors, Indoors, or in a Greenhouse?
Gardens can be as small as a single small plant on a windowsill, or large enough to supply fresh vegetables for several families. The first step in starting a garden is deciding where it is going to be. Outdoor gardens benefit from free lighting but are at the mercy of the seasons and available light.
Greenhouses can help extend the growing season and hot-houses (heated greenhouses) can sometimes allow for year-round, outdoor gardening. Indoor gardens allow for greater environmental control, but in turn the gardener becomes responsible for supplying the light.
Indoor gardens are usually container gardens of some sort. Care should be taken to select a location where spills can be easily wiped up without damaging the flooring—it isn’t a matter of if a spill will eventually happen, it is a question of when. The electrical supply should exceed the demand the garden will place on it and the garden should also be in a location where it, and the light pollution from it, will not interfere too much with everyday living habits, but be accessible enough to tend to.
Windowsills are commonly used for houseplants. Backyards and, in some neighborhoods, front yards, are potential gardening sites depending on how many hours of sunlight they get a day—check the light requirements of the plants you wish to grow.
Closets and grow tents are two popular choices for enclosed indoor gardens, or spare rooms are a good fit for those who need a little more elbow room. Gardens in basements can benefit from the natural cooling effect of being underground, and garages can often be put to work growing fresh vegetables during the winter months.
Lighting Considerations for Your First Indoor Grow
Once an area for the garden has been chosen, the gardener must determine how the environment needs to be adjusted for plant growth. If you are using artificial lighting, a simple light meter can help judge how much light an area is getting much better than the human eye can guess.
Lighting options include T5 florescent lights, metal-halide lights, high-pressure sodium lights and other technologies such as LED lighting. T5 lights use a technology similar to other types of florescent lighting, but give off a particularly intense light commonly used for growing plants.
Metal-halide and high-pressure sodium lights are considered high intensity discharge (HID) lights, and are comprised of a lamp (the bulb and fixture) and a ballast that powers it. Plants that do not receive enough light will perform poorly, and supplying a garden with too much light increases the electricity costs of running the garden.
The well-lit area should have enough environmental control to keep the garden within optimal growing temperatures, which vary according to plant type and native habitat. Many types of plants will stall in their growth or even perish if they become too hot or too cold. Proper air circulation is important to help prevent mold growth.
Watering Requirements for Indoor Plants
Plants need water to survive, and some method of supplying them with it must be decided upon. This can be as simple as hand watering, or automated with pumps and timers. In my experience, overwatering is the most common gardening mistake. Soil, for example, holds water well, and may be able to go days between waterings, but clay pebbles are often watered continuously, or at least several times a day. Soilless media is often made from peat moss, coir, chopped wood or other fibrous material.
There are some systems such as deep water culture and aeroponics that don’t use any media at all, and the nutrient solution is applied directly to the root system. Hydroponic systems can be complicated, but they can also be as simple as an avocado pit suspended in a jar of water with toothpicks (and if you drop an air stone in that jar, you have a basic DWC system). One advantage of using a hydroponic system over soil or a potting mix is that the container size per plant tends to be smaller.
Nutrient Requirements for Indoor Grown Plants
Plants also need nutrients, which may be mixed into the grow media before planting, sprinkled on the surface of the grow media (top dressing), or diluted in water and then applied to the plants. The three most important nutrients for plant growth are nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K).
These three are listed on the front of nutrient bottles as N-P-K. Plants also need a variety of other elements usually referred to collectively as micronutrients. Electrical conductivity (EC) and parts-per-million (ppm) meters are used to measure the level of conductive material in a nutrient solution and potential of hydrogen (pH) is a measurement of how acidic or basic (alkaline) something is. Plants prefer a given pH range, and there are test kits and meters than can be used to check the pH of a nutrient solution or water runoff.
There are other materials than can be added to affect (hopefully in a positive way) plant growth, known as additives, which include pH adjusting agents, micro-organisms, carbohydrates and hormones.
It is also important to select plants that do well in the environment you can provide for them. Some plants that are easy to start off with include: cacti and other succulents, which tend to be forgiving of being forgotten for a while; sprouting seeds for eating is a simple enough technique for children to do; and tomatoes, squash and beans are usually simple enough for even the most novice gardeners to succeed with.
These are the basics for those starting out, from location to lighting to nutrients.