Avoiding Overwhelm as a First Time Gardener

If you’ve been carefully suppressing a passion for gardening then finally being the proud of owner of your first piece of land can be an overwhelming experience. All those dreams and ideas you’ve had over the years can finally become a reality. But hold on just a moment; if this really is your very first garden you simply can’t do everything straight off the bat…

Since leaving home to attend university I’d lived in rented properties with little or no garden attached. Even in those cases where I did have a garden, the tenancy agreement was very clear that my role was simply to maintain the garden – not to improve it. And so for years I had simply trimmed my lawn and pruned back overgrown bushes, yet never had the chance to really get creative.

Fast forward to around six years ago and I finally got a piece of land to call my own; something I had total control over and could do what I liked with. That initial excitement of a long-held dream come true rapidly turned to disappointment as I realized just how much work I would need to do.

The plot of land was once owned by a passionate gardener, though over the preceding years they had suffered from illness, and the garden had slowly reverted to it’s “natural” state. In other words the grass paths were overgrown, and had encroached into the borders, whilst weeds had largely taken over any previously bare ground. I had a matter of a few months until the main growing season began; what could I do to start gardening as soon as possible?

Here are my top tips for avoiding overwhelm and setting realistic, achievable goals that will not only make gardening a pleasure (rather than a chore) but will also help you feel like you’ve really made progress on your plot…


Start Small

If your new garden is a long way from what you’d like then you need to be realistic about your abilities. What’s more, the longer you garden for, the better you get to know your own patch. You’ll figure out where the sunniest spots are, the areas that dry out rapidly in summer and what tends to grow best where. This means that each year your successes will grow.

When you’re starting out I recommend that you don’t try to spread yourself too thinly. Select a small patch of ground and aim to get just that in order initially. Personally I chose one (large) border and made this my first year focus. Other borders, particularly those around the periphery, which are less visible, got left for future years.

By following this process over time, I have had a new “focus” each year. Every winter I can look back on another section completed, and therefore being one more step closer to your ultimate goal.

Make a (Realistic) Plan

If you’re anything like me then it’s easy to get envious of other gardeners. One of my neighbours has a garden that could win awards, but I have to remind myself they’ve been tending and cultivating it for almost four decades. They’ve got a pretty big head start on me.

If you over-reach then disappointment is likely. Instead, try to set realistic goals about what you’ll achieve, then turn these rough ideas into a detailed week-by-week plan. By breaking down tasks in this way you can ensure you always have the equipment you need, when you need it.

I already know that I’m going to need garden twine in two weeks time, and some new plant labels the week after, so I can order these nice and early, ensuring they’re ready for me when I need them.

Prioritize the Big Jobs

Some gardening tasks can make a far bigger impact on your overall results than others. Clearing an overgrown patch of ground not only looks better instantly, but also creates open ground for planting. It might be tough work whether you use a fork or a weed whacker, but it will pay you back rapidly.

In contrast, jet washing your patio might make it look a little nicer, but the impact on your garden enjoyment is likely to be a lot less.

So assess your yard, make a “to do” list and then prioritize those jobs that provide maximum results in your first growing season.

Focus on Annuals

Whilst there is much to be said for perennial plants, many take years to truly reach their peak. If you’re just starting your very first garden I think it makes sense to focus on annual crops and flowers that will pay back your effort in a matter of months.

Cosmos, pot marigold, chrysanthemums and so on will all produce a bounty of flowers, whilst crops like tomatoes and peppers will crop heavily within months of planting.

By focusing on annuals in this way you can enjoy the fruits of your labour that much sooner, which helps to keep you motivated to carry on.

Assign Tasks to Free Time

I am a busy person, and don’t have a huge amount of free time to spend on my garden. In truth, apart from a little watering or harvesting, I generally devote no more than three or four hours per week. On the odd occasion I can invest this time on both a Saturday and a Sunday, but generally Saturday afternoon is my only “free time” to focus on gardening.

This means I need to be realistic with what I can achieve, and I assign tasks to times.

By estimating how long a job will take (always over-estimate if possible) I can decide that this week I will complete Task A, then the next two weekends will be devoted to Task B and so on.

I therefore have a very clear plan of what I am doing when, which keeps me focused and motivated. Just as importantly, on completing each of my tasks in the time I have allotted, I can also feel a continual sense of satisfaction in the progress I am making.

Keep a Journal

I can’t tell you how many times my garden journal has come in handy. By not only keeping a written record of what I’ve done, but also taking photos along the way, I have a detailed report to work on.

I can quite easily see what varieties I tried, when I planted them out, when they fruited  or flowered and so on. With this information I can slowly improve my processes each year, leading to ever-improving results.

Celebrate Small Successes

If this is your first year of gardening then it’s unlikely you’ll be winning any awards just yet. But that’s OK. Remember to celebrate progress, not perfection. When that beautiful dahlia that you’ve been tending finally opens, take the time to fully enjoy its beauty.

If you’re growing tomatoes for the first time then enjoy the pleasures of plucking and eating your ripe, juicy fruits straight from the plant. Gardening is a sensory experience, so don’t spend every hour available working on your garden; also take the time to step back, admire your work and enjoy everything that you’ve achieved.