Smart Gardening 101

Gardening Badge, Step 2

Smart gardening means understanding a little bit about why and how plants grow so that we can have more success in the garden. We’re all busy and planting seeds that don’t grow or starting plants that never produce vegetables can feel frustrating. Michigan State University offers an online class called “Smart Gardening 101.” When I learned about the class, I knew it would be perfect for the Gardening Badge and for upping my game in the garden.

We covered the history and many mental and physical benefits of gardening in this post. Below, we’ll share what we learned in MSU’s Smart Gardening 101 class and how you can sign up for the class if you’re interested. It is inexpensive and 100% online, so you can take it from anywhere!

Earn the Gardening Badge

If you are interested in earning the Gardening Badge yourself, you can see the Gardening Badge Guide, or “recipe” for the badge here. Each Badge Guide contains three steps to be completed in order to earn the badge. These steps can be done on your own, but we encourage you to grab a few friends and learn together!

Step 2 of any badge is to learn from others. Taking an organized class is a great way to do this step if you can find one!

Smart Gardening 101 Class

Just in time for spring planting, I enrolled in Michigan State University’s Smart Gardening 101 class at the end of April. The class offers Michigan-specific tips and dates but would be useful for any gardener looking to understand more about how and why plants grow and how to be more successful in the garden.

I’ve had a home garden for many years but never felt any sort of confidence around my gardening skills. I would just plant things and hope for the best! I kept my garden watered and had some successes and some failures. This course gave me one of the keys to success in life: confidence in myself!

In simple and approachable terms, the course’s many short videos taught me about selecting a site for my garden (which I had already done, but I felt good about the site I had selected), soil and what terms like silt and loam mean, useful tools for gardening, when to plant and what to plant, and when to harvest.

I’ll share some of the most helpful information I learned below. If you want to learn more, I encourage you to check out the course which can be found here, and follow MSU’s Gardening in Michigan Facebook page here (@GardeninginMichigan) where they post useful information and videos that are certainly applicable to gardening outside of Michigan!

Selecting a Site

Most important, put your garden in a place where you will check on it often. Closeness to your house and where you often walk and closeness to a water source are important considerations.

The site should get 8 or more hours of sun per day in the summer. The site should not be sloped so that water runs away too quickly and water should not pool on your site.

Raised beds or containers are a nice alternative to planting in the ground because you have control over the soil, they can be moved, the soil in them tends to warm up quickly, and they are easier to reach because they limit the amount of bending down you’ll need to do.

Feed your Soil

You have to feed your soil to feed your plants. This is one area of gardening I had very little confidence in. I’m not a huge fan of bugs, so I really didn’t want to think about what was going on in my soil. But soil is alive! And amazing. One thing I’m doing differently since taking the class is calling it “soil” instead of “dirt.” I may get dirty and have dirt on my body… but what I plant my seeds in is technically soil.

A perfect mix of silt, sand, and clay is known as loam. Loam is great for growing plants!

Soil is fed by adding leaves, compost, or other organic matter. Garden soil should be 5% organic matter. The rest is made up of air, water, and minerals. Soil that is good for growing should not be too compact or too loose. You want room for the air and water and seeds to grow, but if it is too loose the water will drain right out.

Photo by Lukas on

Top Tools You’ll Need

  • Shovel
  • Trowel
  • Hose/watering can
  • Claw
  • Containers or beds
  • Gloves

Search estate and yard sales for great deals on these tools!

Garden Planning

Making a garden plan was the one thing I’ve been doing for years because it is fun and creative! I love drawing out the shape of my beds on a piece of paper and then deciding what will go where. My last step is always to color it in (the fun part!).

There are several things to keep in mind when you plan out your garden:

  • What do you like to eat? If your family does not eat radishes, do not plant radishes! My favorite veggies are snap peas fresh out of the garden, small tomatoes like romas and cherry tomatoes, zucchini, strawberries, and lettuce. As a result, most of my garden is dedicated to these few plants. Plant mostly what you love to eat!
  • Make sure to leave room to walk among your plants or consider a space large enough for a wheel barrow if you plan on using one.
  • Start small! A good beginner garden is manageable and small with room to add on over the years – the class recommended 10×10 feet.
Photo by PhotoMIX Ltd. on

When to Plant

The first thing to do when deciding when to start planting seeds and transplants is to learn your area’s last average frost date. This is easier than ever to do – you can even look it up by zip code! The Farmer’s Almanac site is a great one to keep handy:

You can use the back of a seed packet to estimate when you should plant, but the maps on the back are often small and hard to read accurately. Knowing your last average frost date will help.

In my area of Michigan, the last average frost is May 17. This date is different than the last recorded frost date which is June 12!

Cool season vegetables like peas, lettuce, spinach, kale, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and beets should be planted when the soil temperature is 40-50 degrees. These vegetables should be planted in spring and again in late summer.

Warm season vegetables like beans, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant should be planted when the soil temperature is 60 degrees or higher. These vegetables should be planted after the danger of frost is past.

Nurturing your Plants

Once you’ve got your seeds planted, you’ve got to nurture them for success! Patrol for weeds in your beds and containers as they take resources away from your plants. Kate has “Weed Wednesdays” all summer and gets her whole family involved in weeding on Wednesdays.

When your plants get big enough, you’ll need to assist some of them in standing up. Tomatoes can benefit from tomato cages or other types of stakes. Snap peas need a trellis to grow up. Pole beans need poles.

Bees are amazing and should be encouraged around your garden. I recently watched a documentary on Disney+ called Wings of Life that has completely changed my views on bees. I recommend you check it out!

Harvest Time!

Keep track of when you planted your seeds in a garden journal. Write down the date when they were planted, approximately when the seedlings should emerge from the ground, and when the fruit should be ready to harvest. All of this information should be available on your seed packet. You can just wait and see when all of these things happen, but it is good to know what to expect when so that you know if you are having success or need to help your plants along a little more.

Photo by Lukas on

Each plant is different. Tomatoes and strawberries turn from green to red when they are ripe and ready to be picked. Zucchinis are easy to tell when they are ready because they look like a zucchini you’d see in the store. Other plants are harder like tomatillos which are encased in a husk. Potatoes are ready when their leaves start to wilt. When in doubt, google it! Check out pictures of ripe plants to know when they are ready to pick.

For Step 3 of the Gardening Badge we planted our own gardens! We’ll share our tips for starting a garden in our next post. 

We want to hear from you! Message us on Instagram or Facebook or drop us a line here.

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