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Get the Dirt on Gardening

Find out how to grow your hobby with the right plants and tools

spinner image a person planting flowers in a flower pot

"Gardening is like painting or writing or any creative endeavor — it's ultimately the process that is satisfying,” says Jennifer Solow, publisher of garden-heavy food magazines Edible Hudson Valley and Edible Westchester.

And it's a hobby that more than 77 percent of American households really dig, according to a 2018 national survey from Garden Research.

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"I started gardening in midlife and really plunged in after my second marriage led me to buying a house with a nice yard — only planted with roses, which wasn't our vision,” says Solow's colleague Susan Able, publisher of Edible DC, whose yard is now planted with a mix of flowers and vegetables. You don't have to choose just one or the other. “We have peppers and herbs, with flower borders. I plant cherry tomatoes in a sunny spot with a couple of sun-loving miniature begonias around the base. We also have hydrangeas, peonies and daisies flanking the raised beds, which corral the veggies and herbs. The flowers add color and are great for table vases."

Bounty aside, studies also show that gardens have a number of tangible benefits. They improve our physical and psychological well-being, particularly as we age. Activity associated with gardening has been shown to reduce blood pressure, stress and muscle tension. And a 2016 Taiwanese study found that daily gardening for pleasure was associated with improved survival for people 50 and older.

Getting out in the garden is also a great social activity, where dirt lovers of all ages have an opportunity to bond as they gather for a common purpose. A community garden is also a good way for beginners to ease into the hobby, as they are able to soak up guidance from the more experienced in the group.

Community gardens come in several forms: Some involve common land divided into personal patches in which each gardener tends the plants and harvests the produce; others are more of a communal effort, functioning as a single patch, where the work and bounty are shared by all participants.

How to get started

If you're a beginner, choose plants wisely, based on the plot where you plan to plant: How much light does it get? How much space do you have? What are the characteristics of the soil?

"Any gardener must remember that your garden is only as good as your soil,” says Solow. “If growing in a pot or a small patch of earth, remember to amend the soil every year with rich compost."

Where to find answers

An unsung hero in the gardener's arsenal is the local extension service. Each of the 50 states has a cooperative extension system, and most will answer questions via a hotline and will offer soil testing and pest identification for free or at a nominal cost. You can find your nearest extension service on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Land Grant Directory (click on your state and then choose “extension” in the drop-down menu).

Garden-focused podcasts also offer a wealth of expertise and advice on the topic (side benefit: They can be listened to while pulling weeds). A few highly rated shows include “A Way to Garden,” “Still Growing” and “You Bet Your Garden.” Find one that suits your interests wherever you get your podcasts (iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, etc.).

Garden shops are also helpful. “If you know what you want, often the big-box garden stores will have killer deals because they buy in bulk,” says Able. “They often don't take quite as good care with their plant stock, though, so I like to buy things that have just come in."

Solow's best advice for finding good advice: the neighbor with the best garden. “Ask them a million questions. And then always pay them back with the fruits of your garden. Share seeds and six-packs of plants. But never give a neighbor your overgrown squash!"

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What should I grow

Choose varieties that will give you the most bang for your buck. “If I could only grow one thing, it would be a Sungold cherry tomato,” says Solow. “It's the perfect variety of tomato if your sun is limited.”

If you have space and light limitations, you also have options. “In a tiny, no-light apartment, you can still grow amazing sprouts,” adds Solow. “My daughter grows them in her dorm room."

People over 50 buy plenty of landscaping supplies — and manufacturers have noticed. These clever tweaks to traditional tools work well for older gardeners.


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Courtesy Melnor Inc.

Watering wands are easy to hold and can eliminate the need to climb ladders to reach hanging baskets. If you use a hose, get a nozzle with thumb control — no more strainful squeezing.


spinner image trowel
Courtesy Freedom Distributors

Manipulating small tools can become more difficult over time. Some companies have redesigned trowels and hoes to make them easier to grip and work through the soil.


spinner image pruning shears
Courtesy Equinox

Trimming gadgets, whether long-armed loppers or short shears, often seem to be made for those who possess Schwarzeneggerian forearms. Ratchet pruners use a gear mechanism that increases cutting force with less effort.

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