My Step-by-Step Guide to Starting a New Garden

Join me, as I take you step by step to an awesome layout for your food gardens.

Easy productivity and resilience are yours by design! My wish for you is an easy garden life – your own little Eden, or, as I call it – garden nirvana.

Like anything worthwhile, it’s a process. A little thought at the start is the secret sauce.

orpingtons chickens

This guide is free.

There’s no log in, no sign up, its straight up no frills!
Just words of wisdom divided into 3 sections:

  1. Gather the info
  2. Lay the foundation
  3. Plan, Build + Plant

Each section contains a series of hands on projects. There are 18 in all.

Go at it steadily, project by project in the order I’ve laid out. Some bits you’ll already know and some bits wont apply – just skip through them.

18 Steps to Garden Nirvana

1. Gather the info

There are 4 projects in this first section – do them simultaneously.

The information you gather while doing these, is essential if you want to create easy productivity. Of all the 18 projects – these are the most important.

Project 1: Make an instant, temporary vegie patch.

A vegie garden is likely the thing you want to kick start right away, but don’t jump in just yet! Wait till you’ve finished Section 1 + 2. Your container gardens (or use existing gardens), will tide you over in the mean time.

READ: Grow Vegies in Containers + Make an Instant Vegie Patch

Project 2: Get to know your Land + your Needs: Make a Basemap + A Wishlist

Getting to know your land is the coolest mission of all. All the confusion about what to put where, fades away as you become intimate with all the little micro climates in every nook and cranny.

The best + simplest way is to make a Basemap. Take as much time as you need to experience and observe your land over 4 seasons – the info is gold.

READ: How to make a basemap + wishlist and Learn your winter landscape.

Project 3: Test your Soil

READ: my DIY soil test – and do your first test! Expect to fall in love, I’m yet to meet a gardener who doesn’t.

Send a soil sample away to Soil Safe NZ to check for heavy metals and contaminants. 

Getting to know your soil is essential to your easy garden life. Your soil is unique – you gotta get to know it, in order to figure out how best to treat it. It’s truly not tricky.

Project 4: Tree research

Rule number 1 for easy productivity, is to plant trees/ shrubs/ vines/ plants that suit your soil and climate. When well matched, they grow strongly with little effort from you – thats what I mean when I say an easy garden life!

The best place to gather this information is your community. Scout out the food gardeners in your hood, then turn up with scones and pick their brains! Join community gardens. Check out your council website – most have useful info about suitable natives. Visit local nurseries. Go to every garden open day you can. Attend Tree Croppers meetings. Local networks are the very best support on your garden journey!

Get a big sheet of paper, and head it up using the headings below.

  • Shelter. Organise this by tree height.
    Up to 3m is the most useful height – sheltering animals/small fruit trees/berries/vegies/you.
    3-5m to shelter house/ larger fruit + nut trees.
    Over 6m suits larger tracts of land/is for soaking up water/erosion control. Big trees should be thought about very carefully.
  • Deciduous trees for leaf supply, shade and autumn colour
  • Shade trees for greenhouse/ animals/ chooks/ humans
  • Nitrogen fixing trees and shrubs, organised by height
  • Deciduous fruit + nut trees
  • Evergreen fruit (citrus, avocado, olive, feijoa)
  • Fruiting vines
  • Berries + Currants

As you list varieties, note down their full grown height so that when you come to plant, you can match the right height to the space. This saves you alot of pruning later.

2. Lay the foundation

Here come the missions! There are 6 projects in this section. Most are hands on, and they all lay the foundation for strong soil and resilience! Steady as she goes, we begin with an almighty clean out.

Project 5: Spring clean!

Yipee! A big clean up! Clearing out your site allows you to truly see the potential of your land. Its all very well to imagine it, but to actually see it – that’s another thing entirely. Be bold. Let go!

  • Make 3 piles – rubbish + useful for you + useful for someone else. Only keep the useful to you pile!
  • Retain useful stuff like good timber, good corrugated iron, wire + pipes. De-nail/ remove screws and fillet stack under cover, out of the way.
  • Take time to decide on trees – wait until fruit trees fruit to see how well they do and whether or not you like them. Same goes for ornamental trees, take time to see whether you love them or if they are useful – shelter, leaves, habitat…
  • Remove trees that block light, crush the fence, give you hayfever, or are half dead – get a mulcher in and create a pile of future nourishment. Don’t be sentimental over fruit trees that are in a terrible way – start a fresh!
  • Roughly slash back weedy areas to help get to grips with the actual shape of your land and the state of the soil.

Make the most of this window – its easy to fell trees and make a mess while you don’t have to work around new gardens, young trees, greenhouses et all.

Project 6: Set up a wormfarm

Recycling your foodscraps is a no brainer – theres so much fertility in your food waste!, and worms produce vermicastings – one of the most potent fertilisers. Not to mention resilient – there’s ongoing bought stuff required once you are set up.

READ: DIY Wormfarms for Tiny, Medium and Large gardens.

Find a simple, low tech wormfarm set-up that you like and get going with it. It’s worth a bit of research – don’t just rush down to Mitre 10 and buy the first wormfarm you see. Meantime, trench your food scraps direct in your soil, or use bokashi buckets, or find a local food recycling/ compost making team that takes them.

Project 7: Organise water.

Water is the keystone of your gardens health. Our goal is to moderate either too wet or too dry because soil in either of these states cannot convert minerals, and without minerals, our plants choke. Our easy garden life, relies on plants that grow heartily from transplanting through to cropping. Start by figuring out how well drained your soil is.

READ: How to do a drainage test

Great news is, whether too dry or too wet – the solutions are the same, and they’re mostly simple.

Capture as much water as you can and store it for dry times. Do this simply in:

  • Strong soil. Mulch and build soil to create humus. Humus holds onto water like a sponge, slowly releasing it over time.
  • Trees + perennials. So much water is held in trees – in both the canopy and the roots! The more big rooted plants about your property the better.
  • Tanks. Catch water from every roof and then, make good use of the overflow.
  • A wetland or pond. A fab ending for the overflow from tanks.

READ: Simple solutions for too much water

Now’s a great time to get help if you need it. Engage a permaculture designer, a clever friend, book a garden coach session, or do your own research. Check out “Managing Water”, Pages 28 – 36 in my Edible Backyard book.

Project 8: Get a new weed mindset

Weeds are the guardians of the soil. Learn your weeds, the names of them, whether they are annual or perennial and how they spread. From there, you can learn to work with them.

READ: Managing weeds naturally and Easy as alternatives to weed spray to prepare for planting.

Get a new mindset around weeds! It makes for an easy gardening life.

Project 9: Gather organic matter.

Your easy garden life relies on always having stashes of organic matter (OM) to hand. Start to gather now in preparation for making composts, building soil and starting vegie beds.

READ: OM is your guardian angel

The thing you need most is carbonaceous (dry) stuff. Discover local sources eg: leaves, hay (slash down long grass) or mixed wood chip (the best!).

If you can get manure – pile it up and cover it.

File OM in piles according to type and leave them to mature – this is your gardens version of money in the bank. No more bought fertiliser for you!, and rather than scrabbling around to feed your garden – you’re getting the feed sorted before the garden. You’re ahead!

Project 10: Practice making compost

Homemade compost is the only feed your garden needs. Once you get in the rhythm of making compost – you’re away laughing. What a huge difference in your gardens vitality when you switch from bought to homemade!

READ: Easy peasy compost

Bought composts are often minerally imbalanced and contain herbicide/ pesticide residue. Its safer and better to make your own, and not at all hard. I’m hoping you’ll kick your vegie growing venture off with your homemade stuff and be strong from the get go.

READ: The ins and outs of choosing bought compost

Project 11: Make a harvest calendar

Such a satisfying project! Turn the fruits + berries on your tree research list, into a year round harvest calendar. Seeing it written up is so very useful.

READ: How to make a harvest calendar

This ensures that your fruits arrive steadily throughout the year, and not in one big hit.

3. Plan, Plant + Build

The final phase begins! We start by playing with the location of your buildings (greenhouse, berryhouse, chookhouse etc), then choose places for fruit trees and lucky last – locate the vegie gardens.

The 2 best ways to do this, are to

  • sketch your ideas onto a fresh basemap
  • test them out on the ground using hoses/ ropes/ stones to mark bed shapes and stakes to mark trees.

Live with your test run for a while – walk around it, ponder. Brainstorm with a mate. Get help. Then, when you’re certain – let the building and planting begin!

Project 12: Plan + plant shelter

Now that you know where your winds blow through and how they behave, start to plan out where you need shelter. Go stand in the wind – all the different winds. With your plan. Huzzah! Best way to check.

READ: Step by step to kick ass shelter.

Project 13: Plan buildings

Have a play with locating greenhouse, chook house, berryhouse, garden shed – whatever buildings you are wanting.

READ: Use your chooks!

  • Butt the greenhouse, berryhouse and chooks together if you can – it saves such alot of work when you can easily let the chooks in to weed and fertilise.
  • Go as big as you can with your greenhouse and berryhouse – such useful spaces, you will fill them up!
  • Use buildings for shelter.
  • Keep buildings on the south side to create warm, north facing microclimates for your vegies and tender fruits.

The Build chapter in my Edible Backyard book has sample designs, layout ideas and loads of help.

Project 14: Plan fruit trees, nut trees + berries

Now that the buildings are located, start to think about where your fruit trees might go. Using your tree research list and the observations you made on your basemap, match fruits to their ideal environment, giving them enough space to grow.

READ: How to space your fruit trees and My healthy fruit tree game plan

Label stakes with the names of fruit trees, and bang them in where you imagine they’ll go. This is super helpful! Keep moving stakes about until you are happy.

READ: How to grow citrus and How to grow an avocado

Once your trees are all located, order your trees in. Don’t order the whole lot at once! Citrus and Avocados and othe subtropicals are best planted in spring, deciduous trees are best planted in winter.

Start with the biggest and hardiest ones, especially if you are on a windy site, or don’t have alot of water to spare for tree watering through summer.

READ: How to choose your fruit trees

Project 15: Start to plant your fruit trees

I say start, because its best to do a small selection each year rather than all at once.

READ: How to plant and prune deciduous fruit trees

Deciduous trees are hardier than evergreen – start with them, especially if your shelter is not developed.

Leave the more tender trees like Citrus and Avocado, until the shelter is up, your soil is awesome and you’ve created the right micro climates for them.

READ: How to plant citrus

Project 16: Get a new pest mindset

With new gardens, pests arrive. Newsflash! – we aren’t at war with them! Huge pest burdens aren’t inevitable – they’re a result of the way we garden.

READ: Natural Ways with Pests.

Focus your energy on keeping your whole garden well, rather than worrying about the pests. Varieties well suited to your site + homemade compost + vermicastings + homemade mulch + diverse plant cover = hardly any pests! Simple as.

Project 17: Plan your vegie patch

Lay ropes or hoses to mock up your vegie patch.

Don’t build raised beds unless you have serious drainage issues, rabbits or are on rotten rock – your fertility, water retention and weed management are better served at ground level.

  • On small sites or windy sites, you will likely have a few dotted about rather than one biggie.
  • Use the space beneath young deciduous fruit trees for pumpkins, leafy greens, herbs, zuchinni and potatoes while you develop your vegie gardens.

READ: How to grow a living soil

  • Plan to have your vegie patch grass free – its heaps less work.
  • Mulch the paths and plant the edge of the garden with herbs, perennials and maybe citrus or espalier fruit trees too.
  • Set up at least x3, 3 sided compost bays in this edge.

READ: Mulched paths and Pay attention to the edge

Project 18: Start your vegie beds

Finally! You made it!

Start small – by creating 1 or 2 beds at a time. Increase a little more each year until you have enough. You can, with practice, grow heaps of vegies in a small space. Part of your easy garden life, is using your space well rather than having loads of beds.

READ: Introducing guilds: the easy way to garden.


1. Lay black plastic on the weeds and wait till the weeds are melted back into the soil, then aerate with a forksta, spread a 2cm layer of compost, sow a greencrop to gather the biology, then slash it down pre flowering and plant amongst the residue.

2. Slash the weeds down. Lay cardboard. Wet the cardboard. Spread a 10 – 15cm layer of compost. Plant away!

3. Make a compost pile on the spot and once its broken down, plant right into it. Make a new compost every month and eventually you’ll have created all your vegie beds and be off to the strongest possible start. Spread a new thin layer of compost after the bed has cycled through 2 crops.
READ: A compost is a strong beginning

You made it!

I’m stoked for you, and so proud that you took the time. The solid foundation you’ve laid is winging you to nirvana, to the easy garden life we’ve spoken of all the way through. And though we are done here, the journey continues.

You’ll have questions and uncertainties till the end of your gardening days – and I’m glad for that! Stay curious and adaptable to meet the needs of your everchanging brilliant, garden.

Nothing is permanent, we are never done, and that, my friends is the thrill of it.

Stay engaged with your soil and with your plants. Listen to what they tell you and respond in turn. Above all of the noise of the world, trust yourself. You know.

Enjoy the ride, it’s the best!

Lots of love,

My Step-by-Step Guide to Starting a New Garden