The most important tips on how to become the best gardener

The right time to start planting varies depending on which hardiness zone you live — use this chart to figure out the right time to begin (and the specific plants that will actually flourish).

The USDA determines hardiness zones every year and lists them on their website; it also lets you zoom in on your state. Your local garden center will be able to help you choose the right plants for you, and the information's often on the back of seed packets.

When you start to get serious, try a simple soil test, then figure out what you need to mix in based on those results.

In general, you probably want to test before you plant in the spring, and after you finish harvesting in the fall. But if you've never tested before, there's no time like the present! You can also send your soil to a lab for more thorough results, but unless you try this first and still have trouble, or are an experienced gardener who's obsessive about your soil, you probably don't need to go that far.

You may even want to consider mixing in compost or (erm) well-rotted manure to boost your rows or beds.

Those are things you'll probably want to ask around for at your local garden store at first; but eventually you might want to set up your own compost tumbler.

Try out a system like Square Foot Gardening to help you get the hang of how to actually grow veggies you can eat, and to grow more in less space.

It's very straightforward, where you grow in several square-foot-divided areas, instead of in traditional rows.

Consider ~companion planting~ as you plan: particular plants may help keep another's pests under control, and others just naturally grow well together.

For example, corn makes good climbing material for peas and beans, while the wide leaves of squash hide all of the roots from getting too much sun.

Pick up a few basic tools if you don't have 'em already, and a pair of durable protective gloves.

The trowel will be your main workhorse, but the transplanter (the one with the measuring marks on it) will make all the difference when you need to measure the right size holes for different plants, and the cultivator will loosen soils that end up packed over time. And gloves, of course, keep your hands clean and protect them from spiky thorns. (These are just starters of course; if you're looking at a big project, you'll definitely need more/different tools!)

Always snip your herbs with clean, sharp garden shears — never just pluck off their leaves.

Always snip them between two sets of leaves, as close as possible to the bottom set. Make sure to leave at least two or three layers of leaves on your plant, though! This encourages your plant to send out more leaves.

If you want to eat your herbs, don't let them flower — it can change their flavor, and might prevent your plant from growing more tasty leaves.

This goes especially for basil and mint! If they put their plant energy into flowers and seeds, they'll have less of it to make leaves.

Morning's also the best time to water gardens in general, and it's ideal to water both deeply (about 2 inches) and less frequently (like, once a week or so) so the plant roots can grow nice and deep.

In your dream garden, you'd get almost two inches of rain in weekly afternoon showers, but we know that never happens. Read more on Gardening Know How, because it's a little more complicated than that; containers may even need daily waterings, depending on where you live.

Although you'll still probably have to do some weeding; to make it easier on your back, you can always try a stand-up weeder.

Weeding's annoying, but if you devote a few minutes a day to it, or try to do it at least once a week, you can catch the weeds when they're young, and it'll be easier to pull them up.