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soil with a garden tool and seedling

PLANTER BOX GARDENING 101:
WHAT YOU ACTUALLY NEED TO BUY TO START A GARDEN TODAY

Shopping List to Start Gardening Today

As part of the Planter Box Gardening 101 series, it's important to know what you actually need to get growing. If you're excited to start gardening but not sure what you really need, this is the place to start

Click on the following list to learn more about these essential items for getting growing today. 

Quality, Easy-to-Grow Seeds

The Perfect Growing Soil
Must-Have Equipment
Planter Boxes and Shelters

Essential Books that I use DAILY!

kids holding pumpkin seeds over pots of dirt getting ready to plant

Quality, Easy-to-Grow Seeds 

Seeds

Shopping for seeds is one of the most exciting parts of gardening! Ask any gardener and they'll share how much they enjoy browsing the seed catalogs as they start pouring into our mailboxes in dark and cold winter months each year.

However, deciding between seed companies can be a challenge. I follow the The Wahls Protocol®, so I prefer to grow organic or heirloom vegetables from reputable seed companies, including:

high mowing gardens logo

®

High Mowing Organic Seeds - High Mowing is one of the first seed companies I learned about when I became a Master Gardener several years ago. Their vast variety of cover crops, herbs, vegetables, and flowers can be bought online or in stores. One of my MG mentors suggested I buy their seeds at a local garden store and I've never looked back. Their selection of healthy microgreens is the best!

hydrangea bush with purple blue and pink flowers

Eden Brothers Seed Company: I come from a long line of flower and vegetable gardeners, and my family swears by Eden Brothers - especially for their wildflower mixes and healthy bulbs. (Side bar - read here why I always incorporate wildflowers in my food garden.) Eden Brothers offers great coupons constantly like 20% off just for joining their low-spam mailing list. Their "Shop by Solutions" page is a go-to for me as I decide what to plant in the right places. I also love to stock up on their fall-planted bulbs. They come up perfectly every spring, and return each year without fail.

eden brothers garden company logo with seed sprout
Orange Tulip

True Leaf Market: What a company ~ True Leaf Market was one of the first seed companies I ever loved. Located in the Western US (like me), their seeds seem less sensitive to low-water and harsh conditions than seeds from other areas. True Leaf Market is so much more than just a seed company; they offer fermentation supplies, skincare, gardening supplies, and a huge selection of organic and sale seeds. Their customer reviews are very helpful!

true leaf market gardening logo
organic rainbow chard

Choosing the Right Seeds

Seed packets and catalogs contain very important information that you should consider before buying that plant. Before I fall in love with the glossy photos in the catalogs or on the seed packet, I flip them over to read the fine print - it's very important. I've learned this through plenty of trial and error, just like many other seasoned gardeners. 

1) Days to Maturity - This is how many days (on average) it will take for the plant to grow from a seed to harvest time. In my region, I have a very short growing season due to year-round frost risk. Therefore, I am careful to not stock up on "100+ days to maturity seeds." Those plants need to be either started indoors early, or planted in my greenhouse for a prolonged growing season. Days to maturity will also help you know when to start them and whether or not to succession plant. 

2) Spacing and Depth - Plants need room to grow and to mature. They can be very deceptive when first sprouting; many of us get *so* excited at the sight of tiny sprouts after they germinate. However, it's important to picture these precious little seedlings as full-grown and mature plants. Otherwise, you'll risk never seeing the "seed packet model picture" in your own garden.

 

"Spacing" information tells you how much space each seed needs between one another, and is really about how much the mature plant will need for a great harvest. Planting the seeds too close will crowd them and make your crop yield less healthy; planting too far away will waste precious space in your garden. (By the way, I'm a HUGE fan of Square Foot Gardening! It's a simple method to know how many seeds can be planted within a square foot area. Check out the must-have bestselling book here.)

 

Whereas "depth" information tells you how deeply to plant the seeds. Depth definitely varies by plant! Some seeds require light to germinate, and only need to sit on the soil. Others require being deeper so that their roots can take-hold and the plant can reach maturity. I grow colorful cascading petunias from seed each year; these must sit on the surface of the soil in order to germinate. Whereas my dahlia tubers need several inches of soil above them in order to grow healthy and strong enough to hold their heavy blooms. 

3) Required Light - Plants range in their sunlight needs - some thriving in full shade, while others requiring full sun. Ultimately, this information helps you to know whether or not a plant will be happy where you intend to put it. Most gardeners have stretched this information a few times; some plants can certainly handle a few more or less hours of sunshine. But if you want your plants (whether flowers or food) to really be happy, find varieties that are well-suited for that space in your yard.

 

For example, I have a tricky part of my yard that is in full shade all day. It's on the very northern-facing side of my home. I've tried all sorts of plants on that side of my house - and killed several of them. Even though we get intense sunshine all day, the only thing that survived this finicky region of my yard were my shade-loving hostas from Eden Brothers and other low-light plants.

 

Light requirements matter and should be considered before you click, "Checkout."

4) USDA Hardiness Zones - A plant's Hardiness Zone means (on average) the lowest temperature the plant can tolerate and still live.

 

Zones are not the necessarily the first thing that I consider when choosing whether or not to plant a vegetable or flower. That's because it's possible to use greenhouses, cold frames, planter boxes, and indoor gardens to overcome the temperatures that could kill a plant. You may also wish to grow something as an annual that can't survive your region's winters (like I do with dahlias - they cannot overwinter in my area and don't always survive storage).

 

That said, if you're looking to plant, say, a perennial herb that will survive your winters and come back year after year, then definitely pay attention to the USDA Hardiness Zones on your seed packets. Not sure which Zone you're in? The USDA website can help; simply search for your address on the interactive map. 

Soil
potting soil and trowel

The Perfect Growing Soil

Soil is a very important topic in any form of gardening, and entire college-level courses are dedicated to understanding its formation, composition, role, care, and importance in the garden.

Discussing soil in depth is a topic for another day; as a former geology major and current Master Gardener, there is so much to say and teach about the role that soil plays in gardening! However, suffice it to say that (through lots of trial and error) I've identified two critical elements of quality soil - its ability to drain and/or hold water, and the presence of nutrients for feeding plants.

 

Over the years, I've tried countless variations of soils (native and non-native), potting mixes, composts, and more in the garden. What I use in my garden today has been my go-to for five bountiful years.  

1 Part Compost

(I use homemade)

+

1 Part Peat Moss

+

1 Part Vermiculite

If you're an avid reader of Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening (like me), you'll instantly recognize this soil concoction as "Mel's Mix;" I take no credit for the above formula. Several years ago when I discovered his simple and helpful book, I decided to give "Mel's Mix" a shot, after several years of spindly vines and measly harvests. I have never looked back and proudly share the formula with my friends and fellow gardeners. Thank you, Mel! 

I purchase bales of peat moss and vermiculite from big box stores like Lowe's and Home Depot. Then I use a 5-gallon pale to loosely measure the three-part mix. 

You can easily purchase a compost mix from your local garden store. I love to make my own using a delicate balance of "greens and browns" including kitchen scraps, yard clippings, and trimmings from my greenhouse plants. If you're interested in starting your own compost, there are several helpful books out there. My favorite for easy-to-do composting is Four-Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman. He makes composting so easy and a cinch to setup. My first composter was this one from Miracle Gro® and was a great way for me to get starting making compost. 

This soil formula (equal parts compost, peat moss, and vermiculite) provides the perfect amount of drainage, moisture retention, and nutrients to help my gardens grow beautifully year after year (with very little amendments). 

Equip
Yellow gardening equipment

Must-Have Equipment

There are so many gardening tools to choose from - where do you start? And which tools will you actually use? Though this answer varies from gardener to gardener, here's a list of my go-to supplies that are sure to be used (whether you're a beginner or an expert gardener). 

Gloves - Gloves are essential for me. Don't get me wrong; I love to get my hands dirty and am not afraid of dirt! However, time and time again, I have found myself much more willing to "dig in" to a project while wearing a pair of garden gloves. 

Which kind of glove you choose is a very personal matter. Whether you choose leather, rubber, or a synthetic glove, I highly suggest that new gardeners start with a pair of new gardening gloves. In truth, I find that I do so much more gardening ( minute for minute) if I'm wearing them. Gloves prevent me from getting splinters from tool handles or pokes from rose and berry bushes. 

Without a doubt, gloves are my #1 recommended tool for anyone interested in gardening. And they're lots of fun to shop for! Here are my go-to varieties, which I buy for great prices on Amazon. 

Trowel - Another versatile tool I use daily in the garden is a quality trowel (small, handheld shovel). But not all trowels are made alike! I always buy trowels that have printed measurements on them (to show me planting depths), and that have strong necks that connect the scoop to the handle. If your trowel doesn't have measurements on it, then you'll also need a ruler to help ensure proper measuring depths.

 

I have frustratingly lost so many low-quality trowels when they bend at the junction between the handle and scoop. Be sure to look for trowels made of heavy duty materials and that are labeled as "bend resistant." Here's my current go-to trowel. It ticks all the boxes and has been going strong for three gardening seasons. 

Watering Can - Plants need water, full stop. I've lost countless precious seedlings after missing just two days of watering. Therefore, it's helpful to have a simple watering can that makes watering a fast cinch. Any watering can will do. 

Small Water Sprayer - This tool has changed my seedling success all together! Small water sprayers are used to mist those tender little sprouts as they're growing. I love this small half-gallon mister. It has an adjustable nozzle and a locking feature that allows you to simply hold and spray without much effort. It's perfect for providing a tiny amount of water to those vulnerable little sprouts, just where they need it. 

Plant Labels - Two things I've learned very clearly, especially after my traumatic brain injury. 1) If I don't track it somehow, I will not remember exactly what I planted in 4 weeks' time. 2) Sprouts often look identical.

 

Therefore, it's very important to be sure to label your plants - whether you're growing them from starts or from seeds. If you're using a Garden Journal (which I highly recommend for every gardener, novice or experienced), then you'll want to track which plants are successes, and which are duds for your garden. Labeling your plants is an essential part of successful growing. I prefer to use plant labels that I can label with a Sharpie, clean with a Magic Eraser, and reuse over time. These are the exact labels I use today. 

Tip! Label your plants immediately - when you directly sow the seeds, start them indoors, or when planting outdoors. Trust me, as your passion for gardening grows, it's very easy to lose track! Your future self will thank you. :)

Shovel - For those larger projects such as mixing your Mel's Mix soil or digging a hole for a larger perennial flower, it's important to have a shovel you love. My favorite is a short shovel with  a flat head that I can jump on if the soil is thick - one that is light and easy for me to use. Which shovel is best for you is a personal decision. For inspiration, here's my perfect shovel. Regardless of which is perfect for you, be sure to have one on hand. 

Small Scissors - In the garden (and especially in my greenhouse), I use scissors often. I use them for cutting the string boundaries on my square foot garden. I also use small scissors for thinning my sprouts when they start to crowd each other. 

For many foods (like carrots, lettuces, etc.), the seeds are so small that they are planted in large quantities and then thinned out as the seedlings start to emerge. It's not a good idea to simply thin them by pulling them up/out. That's because it's possible to damage the tender baby roots of the nearby plants. Instead, I use a small scissors to simply trim the seedling that needs to go. (Be sure to check read here how to  always grow seedlings with success! There are specific tips on how to master the art of thinning seedlings.)

Sharpies - A gardener's essential tool. I use these for labeling my plants; I then use a Magic Eraser at the end of the season to clean off my tags for use again next season.

Hula-Hoe/Stirrup Tool - The final (essential) tool! I only wish I had discovered it sooner. This tool is one of the simplest for all sorts of gardening tasks. Weeding, mixing soil, harvesting, cleaning up beds at the end of the season. This tool is essential for anyone who wants to make easy work of what is often hard work. Here's the Hula Hoe that I currently use

Boxes
flower and vegetable garden with planter box garden and tomato plants

Planter Boxes and Shelters

Most gardeners don't start out by growing plants directly in their soil. The truth is, most new gardeners begin by planting in pots of all sizes, in planter boxes, or in raised beds.  

Selecting the right container in which to plant is a ton of fun! It's possible to spend very little and DIY making containers, or invest good money into getting ready-made containers that are perfect for your lifestyle.

 

Here are some of the practical planter boxes and containers one can consider, in order to fit a variety of budgets:

Window Sill Boxes - I have a window sill on the west side of my home that is perfect for two horizontal sill boxes. These are long "pots" in which I choose draping varieties of flowers to add color and interest both from the inside of my home and the outside. I line mine with small pots full of petunias each summer, and simply water them every few days. 

Raised Beds (on the ground) - Since my native soil is very sandy, rocky, and lacks organic material, I opt to use raised beds for growing herbs and vegetables. These are relatively easy to assemble and fill with your choice of soil mix. I simply line the bottom of my raised bed with weed cloth to prevent an intruding plants from the bottom. The only downside to these is that, depending on your climate and the material it's made from, these raised beds may need replacing or repairs every few years. 

Raised Beds (standing height) - these are excellent for those who struggle with bending and kneeling. It's amazing how much produce a 4x6 foot raised bed can yield! 

Pots of all Sizes - Pots are one of my go-to methods of planting. I like the versatility of being to move them wherever I choose. They come in all shapes, colors, and sizes, and can be purchased for relatively cheap depending on the time of year. 

Whiskey Barrels - One of my favorite planters to admire are halved whiskey barrel planters. I don't currently own any because I find that whiskey barrels are hard to find. However, if you can ever find them on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist, don't pass them up! There are lots of barrel bottom pots available commercially; they're super durable but one of the more expensive types of planter boxes out there. 

Concrete Planters - There are two ways to get beautiful concrete planters for your yard. One is to make them yourself; the other is to buy them commercially.  Pinterest is plumb with ideas on how to make concrete planters of all sizes. If you are handy and have some time and materials on hand to make them, they are beautiful. If you choose to buy one, be sure to either purchase locally or make sure the seller has a policy to replace it if damaged during shipment. Though concrete is durable, it can also be fragile.

Directly In the Ground - In my region, basalt beds prevent many people from digging and planting directly in their soil. However, the Water Zone right next to one's house is usually free of the "no-dig rock" thanks to the excavation that took place while the house was being constructed. 

If you're fortunate enough to be able to plant and grow directly in your soil, congrats! Be sure to spend some time getting to know the growing conditions in that location (light, wind, water access), as well as the soil quality. Does the soil need amendments like organic material or sand? Drainage support? Protection from the elements? These are all things to consider when planting directly into the native ground in your garden. 

Shelters - Read more about hoop houses, greenhouses, cold frames, cloches, and more here

 

Books
Pages of Book

Essential Books That I Use Daily

There are as many books for gardeners out there as their are plant species, it seems! Over the years, I've essentially found that there are three books that I use constantly as a gardener. They are my "go to" resources for learning to garden and understanding the beauty and complexity of this hobby.

Essential Book #1) Four-Seasons Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long by Eliot Coleman. I fell in love with this book thanks to a Facebook Group for winter gardening in my region. The book has so much more than just winter gardening tips; it really paints a picture of what helps plants thrive and how to extend one's harvest beyond the "peak months." 

From this book, I've discovered varieties of plants that do very well in my climate (even in December!). I've also identified why I could never seem to keep so many types of plants alive over the years. This book, for me, was one "ah hah!" after another. I can't recommend it enough for new and experienced gardeners. 

Essential Book #2) Square Foot Gardening: Grow Food Anywhere by Mel Bartholomew. There were two mistakes that I commonly made when I started food gardening. The first was to only plant one time per season and hope (pray!) that I could keep the plants alive until harvest. The second mistake I commonly made was to either cram too many plants into a space or have lost/wasted space that later filled in with pesky weeds. 

Learning how to Square Foot Garden was a solution to both of those issues. This book is an all-around encyclopedia of great ideas and tips. The planting guides and charts are helpful and simple, and have made a world of difference in my gardening. A must have book for any gardener!

 

3) The Seed Saving Bible by Steven Dowding. This book is packed; it's so much more than just a "how to save seeds" book. As one begins gardening or is ready to dive in deeper to this hobby, this book gives important information to its reader about how a plant's life cycle works. From it I learned what different types of seed titles mean (ex. heirloom; organic; non-GMO, etc.) to help me make better decisions for my health. I use this book most heavily in the fall as I harvest seeds and store them for future growing seasons. It's a  fun, informative essential!

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SEED-STARTING MIX

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