New Gardeners Should Start Small—My Tips for Gradually Building Out Your Garden

New gardeners who take things slowly, one step at a time, are more likely to meet with success.

Sprouted Onions, Basil And Other Greenery Grow In A Flower Pot. Garden On The Balcony
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Those of us with big dreams can often get carried away with the excitement of it all and may be tempted to race onwards and plunge headlong into major, grandiose schemes. But as in the parable of the tortoise and the hare: It is the slow and steady tortoise who ultimately wins the race. New gardeners who take things slowly, one step at a time, are more likely to meet with success. 

One of the permaculture principles developed by David Holmgren is to "use slow and small solutions." This principle reminds us of the importance of a measured, thoughtful response. By taking slow, small, conscientious steps as new gardeners, we reduce the chances of major failure and make it more likely that our efforts will be successful. 

Slow Solutions

Those starting new gardens may often be tempted to take the quick and easy route—purchasing composts or other materials and buying mature plants rather than taking the time to sow seeds or propagate their own plants. 

But it is far more sustainable—and will improve long-term results— if you take more into your own hands. Make use of local, renewable resources: Think about what your garden and household can already provide. It may take a little longer, but setting up composting systems, rainwater harvesting systems, etc. upfront will help you create a firm foundation for your future efforts. 

Taking a more DIY approach also means taking the time to learn the skills for a more sustainable way of life. It is worthwhile expending some time and energy upfront to learn more—both from the garden and the natural environment, and from other gardeners, books, and other media. Of course, we also learn hands-on, through actually doing. But often, even a little time spent in improving your knowledge before you begin can make a big difference. 

As gardeners, we do need to learn patience. We need to think long-term. Not all of the design decisions we make when planning a garden will pay off right away. When planting a tree, for example, we might expect to wait a number of years before a yield is achieved. 

While we can also begin to see results and yields much more quickly, it is short-sighted to neglect things that won't pay off immediately in our designs. When we think longer term, we can expect to see truly amazing results further down the line. 

Starting Small

Group of tomato seedlings in plastic glasses on windows sill.
Tatiana Maksimova / Getty Images

It is not just the speed we go at, but also the scale at which we work that we should look at. No matter how large your property may be, starting small is often the best policy. 

New gardeners might plan to ultimately have a much larger kitchen garden. But starting with just a small number of smaller growing areas can be beneficial. You might begin with just one single raised bed. Or with, for example, four small beds which can be managed with crop rotation and companion planting. 

In smaller spaces, you might begin with just a small number of containers and create a small container garden before you expand further. You might even just grow a little food on a sunny windowsill before you expand your efforts to the outdoors. Focusing on setting up sustainable composting and maintenance systems, rather than on proliferating your pots, can be a better strategy. 

When determining ideas for perennial planting, when planning to create a forest garden, for example, it can be helpful to focus initially on a smaller area—perhaps just a single fruit tree and guild, perhaps a few trees with under-story planting—before you expand this part of your garden. 

Starting smaller reduces the pressure on finding sufficient resources and inputs required to implement a design. Often, over time, the system itself can begin to provide natural materials for its own expansion. It can become a truly self-sustaining system that needs no external inputs. 

Remember, it can be helpful to have an overall concept plan which gives a vision for the whole of your garden. But you do not need to implement the entirety of a design right away. 

The larger your garden areas, the greater the losses can be when things go wrong. Excessive growth and size can just mean that you have more to lose. 

So be a tortoise, not a hare. Use small and slow solutions to gradually build up your growing efforts and turn your new garden into what you would ultimately like it to be.