4 Basics of Growing Plants

Pink Lemonade Blueberry Plant
Trying out a new blueberry variety, Pink Lemonade.

I have been winging this whole gardening thing for the past few years. I promised myself several times that I would buckle down and commit to really understanding how it all works, rather than my usual method of throw a bunch of things in the ground and see what grows. This approach has worked to some degree but it is time to apply a little structure and discipline at my efforts to see what happens. This is partially the reason I started this blog. I have a lot to learn so I am starting with the basics and applying them to the beginning stages of this year’s Spring garden. Wish me luck!

For starters, plants have many needs but their four most basic needs are temperature, sunlight, nutrition and moisture. I am starting with temperature because this will help me figure what I should grow for best results.

1. Appropriate Temperature

Often, we do better and feel better when we have the comforts of home. Plants are no exception. Their happy place is their natural habitat: where they grow on their own in nature. So if my backyard can somehow mimic a plant’s natural habitat my odds for success better.

When I think of appropriate temperature, I am thinking two major factors are going to drive this: weather/climate and the season.


First step, I need to know what is going to grow well in my garden and in the current season. Knowing what USDA Plant Hardiness Zone I am in helps me select what to grow. I googled gardening zone and entered my zip code in a box to learn that I am in zone 10. This is relevant because each plant variety falls somewhere on the spectrum of “Hardiness”. The hardiness of a plant tells me how much cold it can tolerate.

Plant Hardiness

  • Tender – Plants can handle temperatures as low as 41ºF.
  • Frost Hardy – Plants can handle temperatures as low as 23ºF.
  • Fully Hardy – Plants can handle temperatures as low as -4ºF.

Since I am in zone 10 my lowest winter temperature, on average, is somewhere around 30ºF to 35ºF. Honestly, I cannot recall it getting that cold here, at least not often, so I think it is safe to say that more tender specimens can likely thrive here as well as Frost Hardy plants. I could run into some trouble with fully hardy plants that are used to freezing temperatures between winter and spring. Although, in researching growing blueberries… there may be some ways around that for some plants. Many plant tags will tell you how hardy the plant is. So I will be looking at plants that do well in zone 10 (ideal for tender and frost hardy plants).

Next up, seasons…


  • Cool Season – Fall and Winter
  • Warm Season – Spring and Summer

Crops can be divided into one of two seasons: cool season crops and warm season crops. Most seed packets will tell you if it is a warm or cool season vegetable. Your cool season crops will be veggies like broccoli, Brussel sprouts and leafy green while during the warm season you’ll plant crops like peppers and tomatoes.

It is good to know all of this but one resource I have started using this season is my local Master Gardeners Association or Co-Op extension program. Most cities have one. It is especially useful because I know that all of the guides provided on the site are tailored towards where I live. They also have a hotline to call and talk to a volunteer master gardener with any questions I have (or email). Mine also features a what to do in the garden list for each month. March has a lot. According to the “March in the Garden” guide I am still okay to plant cool season crops and I can start planting warm season veggies. There is also a big list of maintenance items to tend to.

Action Item:  Select and plant both cool and warm season veggies/fruits. The Master Gardeners Association made a few recommendations for my area so I will plant:

Cool Season

  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Swiss Chard

Warm Season

  • Peppers
  • Tomatoes
  • Corn

*Off topic: what’s in the garden right now… I also have a few berry bushes planted. (blueberry bush pictured above) We will see how these fare. This is my first year planting bare roots and I may have waited too long to get almost all of them into the ground. I will be keeping an eye on these along with my citrus trees: Meyer lemon, clementine, and Keitt mango (pictured below).

Keitt Mango
Keitt Mango tree, planted last Summer, is beginning to flower.

2. Sunlight

Photosynthesis is solar-powered. It is the process plants use to make their food. So sunlight is a biggie. It keeps the green parts green.

Plant Absorbs Light –> Carbon Dioxide + Water + Sugar/Starches = Cellulose –> Plant Tissue

Plants need varying amounts of sunlight. While I am purchasing my plants or seeds I will take into account how much sun they prefer or can tolerate and whether I have an available spot to accommodate their needs.

How much sun does my yard get?

The direction your yard faces determines how much sun you will get. To figure this out I looked at pictures of plants in my yard at high noon and took note of their shadows direction. Or I could have just stood outside and looked at my own shadow. With my back to my house and my front facing the yard the shadows were all pointing towards me/the house. This means I have a south-facing yard. (the yard is facing the south)

A south-facing yard is good because it gets a lot sun. But I have to be careful because it gets the most sun, which can be bad news bears for my container plants. Very important to stay on top of watering so that plants don’t get dried out.

Sun Exposure & Garden Direction

Different parts of the yard will get varying amounts of sun throughout the day depending on the direction of the garden

  • South Facing – All day sun
  • North Facing – More shady area (in my south-facing yard, this will be my back wall)
  • East Facing – More morning sun
  • West Facing – More afternoon/evening sun

I have a general idea of which areas get the most sun and which are more shady, but I wanted to really see how much sun each area gets. There are a few different ways to attack this. But what seemed easiest and most straightforward to me was to take snapshots of my yard throughout different intervals of the day from sunrise to sunset. This allowed me to see that the western half of my yard only gets about 3 hours of sun in the morning because it stares at the east side and the east side of my yard doesn’t get sun until about 10 AM but then it gets full on sun for the remainder of the day because it is facing west. This is great intel for site selection of my plants.

Some plants prefer more shady spots and only need a little sun while others thrive in full on sun. This is usually denoted on the plant tag or seed packet.

Plant Sun Needs

  • Partial Sun – 3 to 6 hours of sun (in my south-facing yard, this will be the right side/west side of my yard)
  • Full Sun – at least 6 hours of sun, preferably 8 to 10 hours (in my south-facing yard, this will be the left side/east side of my yard)

Now I know that anything that I want to grow that prefers partial sun should go on the west side of my yard and anything that likes full sun will go on the east side of my yard.

Action Item: All of the veggies I’ve decided to grow, except swiss chard, require and prefer full sun. So I will be planting those veggies on in my west-facing garden beds. Swiss chard needs about 6 hours of sun per day and can tolerate some shade. So I am going to plant it in a south-facing container towards the west side of my yard.

The shoots and leaves of plants will follow the light to capture what they need. And just like people, if the plant is not getting enough sun it will look paler than usual. I will keep this in mind with the swiss chard to make sure I have selected the right spot. For potted plants, it’s nice because I’ll just move or turn the pot to help it get the sun exposure it needs.

Lavender Bush
This lavender bush thrives in the shade.

3. Nutrition

Now that I know what I want to plant and where I am going to put it, next on the list is the soil. This is where the plant will source its nutritional needs. Plants need 3 key elements among other trace elements:

3 Key Nutritional Elements for Plants

  • Nitrogen (N) – Promotes leaf/shoot growth
  • Phosphorous (P) – Promotes strong roots
  • Potassium (K) – Promotes flowering/fruiting

The three numbers you see on fertilizer packaging represent the percentage of each of these elements in that particular fertilizer (N-P-K). The most natural source for these elements is in compost. Compost is rich in all three and has other trace elements that act as a slow release fertilizer. I have a compost pile at home but because I don’t compost by the book the rate of return is slow-moving so I do purchase compost from the nursery. BUT I will be following most of the rules starting next week and will see if the claims of faster compost are true. Another good source for trace elements is worm castings. I will not be starting a worm bin this year but last season I started using worm castings and noticed a HUGE difference in production, relative to past years. I will absolutely be mixing these in with my native/potting soil this season.

4. Moisture

Last but certainly not least is moisture. This is the common sense step that even your most out of touch gardener knows, you have to water your plants. But it is still good to understand what watering actually does as opposed to just knowing that plants need water.

Moisture keeps stems and leaves upright. Water’s role in the photosynthesis process is transpiration. Transpiration is the process where moisture in the soil pulls the nutrients and sugars from it, through the roots and out the leaves which kicks off the process of making food for the plant. Under-watering can prevent the plant from getting the nutrients it needs.

When a plant is watered the roots follow and reach for the moisture. If the moisture is out of the roots reach the roots will adapt and grow towards the water. This is what we want to happen because this results in more roots and deeper roots. The deeper the roots the sturdier the stems allowing for more growth overall. The important key here that I did not understand previously is what this tells me about how I should be watering. I had heard that less frequent watering was better than frequent shallower watering. Now I understand why. If I provide only a shallow watering the roots have no reason to grow further down. Also, watering a little further away from the base will encourage the roots to spread out more.

Action Item: Create a watering schedule and water deeper and less frequently.

This was a long one but it is mostly background because it is easier to retain steps for success if you remember why they are important. But it all boils down to:

  1. Select the plants that make sense for my climate/hardiness zone and the current season.
  2. Follow the plant’s sun exposure needs and select a planting site that can accommodate.
  3. Stock soil up with 3 key nutritional elements: Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium. I will go the natural fertilizer route and use homemade compost and worm castings.
  4. Water deep, wide and less frequently (as opposed to shallow, close to the stem and all the time). Check the soil periodically (especially during hotter days) for moisture and water accordingly. (stick a finger in the soil. should be moist up to the second knuckle.)

Happy gardening!

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