Gardening is not too complex. Almost all of us—probably in grade school—planted a seed in a cup of dirt, watered it, and watched it grow. But creating a garden that produces fresh food and flowers all season is not so elementary, especially to those who did not grow up gardening. So we've compiled this guide to the basics of organic gardening and the keys to success we've learned over the years. When you're done reading, look at your thumb—you may see a tint of green that wasn't there before.
1. Make your bed. About three weeks before you are ready to plant, after the soil has dried so that it doesn't clump when you pick up a fistful, sink a fork into the earth. Loosen it down to about 12 inches, add a half-inch layer of compost, and rake the surface of your garden until it has no weeds, dirt clumps, or big stones. Over the next three weeks, pull any weeds that come up. Raking and then letting the soil sit for a few weeks brings out weed seeds that were lurking in the soil.
2. Dig a furrow—or not. If you like symmetry and order, carve out a shallow trench with a hoe or hand trowel. But you don't have to plant in rows. You can organize your garden as a grid, with plants at the four corners of each square, or you can choose not to organize it at all. Whichever style you go with, dig shallow furrows or holes for the seeds.
3. Water lightly. Moisten but don't soak the soil. Watering before rather than after planting the seeds protects them from being swamped, or washed up and out of the soil.
4. Sow the seeds. Spread the seeds through the trench or place two or three in each planting hole. The seed packet tells you how far apart to plant them. If you plant too closely, you can thin them after they come up and, in many cases, eat the thinnings.
5. Cover with soil. As a rule of thumb, bury seeds only about as deep as their diameter. Sprinkle soil on top of the seeds, pressing gently to ensure they have contact with the soil. A few seeds, such as lettuce and dill, need light to sprout, so cover them sparingly. (Seed packets tell you if they need light to germinate.)
6. Keep moist. Sprinkle water on the seedbed whenever the surface is dry until all the seeds have sprouted.
Key to success: Add compost to planting holes to improve the soil's structure, provide slow-release nutrients, and activate the beneficial microbes in the soil.
Six Essential Tools