15 handy online tools for gardeners
We've pulled together some go-to resources for the first-time gardener.
Thu, Mar 07 2013 at 4:35 PM
A Google search can help you find many online gardening resources, but the amount of information can be overwhelming, and there's no guarantee that the top search results will be written by knowledgeable gardeners or even answer your questions.
Experienced gardeners have their favorite gardening websites and resources bookmarked for easy reference. If you're just getting started with gardening, you may not know where to start. Below we've compiled a number of websites and resources to help you get your garden off the ground this year.
Determine your garden zone
Making a trip to your garden center when you don't know what plants to buy can be a costly mistake. One summer early in my gardening endeavors, I wondered why the beautiful hibiscus I had planted the previous summer hadn't returned. It turned out I had planted a tropical hibiscus. Before you fall in love with a plant, tree or shrub at the garden center, take a look at the USDA Zone Plant Hardiness Zone Map to determine your zone. The map will give you a good idea of what plants are likely to thrive in your location. Once you know what your hardiness zone is, compare it to the zone hardiness printed on plant labels and only buy shrubs, trees and perennials hardy to your zone.
Layout your garden
Another beginner gardener mistake I made was stuffing plants wherever I had room. Years later and I wish I had planned out my garden when I first started. You don't need to be a landscape designer to layout a garden that makes sense for your space and needs. There are several online garden planning tools that make designing your own gardens seem like a game. Garden Planner Online is a clean, simple and easy-to-use online garden planner you can demo. If your ideal garden consists primarily of edible plants, GrowVeg can help you space out many of the most popular herbs, vegetables and fruits in raised beds.
Put your tax dollars to work in your garden
The United States Department of Agriculture has several webpages that every gardener should become familiar with. In conjunction with local extension service partners, the USDA publishes a plethora of gardening information online. See a list of plants in your state, see a list of threatened and endangered plants in your state, and compare your plant wish list with your state's noxious weed listing so you don't accidentally create an ecological disaster in your backyard. The horticulture section of the extension website covers every gardening topic imaginable. You can even use the "Ask an Expert" button and get an answer to your gardening question from a real-life person.
Trusted plant, seed and garden tool sellers
Every winter, garden catalogs land in our mailboxes and tempt us with beautiful pictures and amazing gardens. But how do you know which catalogs carry the best products and provide exceptional customer service? The Garden Watchdog is an online directory that ranks more than 7,000 gardening mail order companies based on the feedback from customers. It's like Yelp for the gardening community.
The right time to plant
At this stage the costliest mistake you can make is to plant your garden too early. One snowstorm or dip in temperature when you're not prepared and all of your garden planning has gone to waste. Become familiar with the average last frost date in your area. A Google search for "last frost date" + "your city/town" will give you a good indication of when winter is really over and the threat of cold has passed. Last frost dates are a rough guide, and the actual last frost date can vary by a week or two, but they can help teach patience to a first-time gardener. The average last frost date can also vary according to different sources. For example, this last frost date calendar tells me I can safely plant by April 14, while the Farmers Almanac frost date says it is April 20, and the Victory Seeds last frost calendar says it's April 25.
Seed starting and planting calendars
After reading these articles on how to get free seeds and the 17 easiest seeds for beginner gardeners, you should have a good selection of plants to get a garden going. Follow the Old Farmer's Almanac planting dates and the Burpee Growing Calendar to start and transplant your seedlings into your garden.
Gardening on social media
Gardening is the perfect hobby for a recluse. You can plan a garden, order plants and harvest a crop without needing to talk to another gardener face-to-face. But there are times when you'll have questions and you can turn to social media to get answers. It used to be that you had to join a garden club to socialize with local gardeners and get advice from someone in your area. Garden clubs are atrophying because today's gardeners are diverse and can fulfill their needs online. Want to "meet" other gardeners without having to put on pants? They're on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Flickr, YouTube, and specialty sites like MyFolia, Garden Web, and Dave's Garden. Even sites like Reddit have gardening communities that you can tap for practical gardening information and camaraderie.
With so much free gardening information available online, there's no reason you can't grow a successful garden. Visit and bookmark these online gardening resources to grow your green thumb this year. Got a favorite site we didn't mention? Leave a note in the comments.
Ramon is the original urban garden blogging male espousing a DIY philosophy to gardening and garden projects. Better known online as MrBrownThumb, he’s been demystifying gardening secrets for average gardeners online since 2005. Besides writing the popular MrBrownThumb garden blog he’s co-founder of @SeedChat on Twitter, the creative director of One Seed Chicago, and founder of the Chicago Seed Library.
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