Beginners guide to gardening
Gardens are undeniably gorgeous, but growing your own can be daunting if you've never set your hands in soil before. If you're thinking about starting your own garden, here's an easy-to-follow guide that'll teach you everything you need to know to go from planning to planting!
There are tons of gizmos and gadgets for gardening, but you really only need a few basic tools to get started.
1. Hand trowel: The hand trowel helps you dig holes for planting, and can work as a scoop for soil, mulch and fertilizer. Choose a wide one made of hefty forged steel that is securely attached to a solid wooden handle.
2. Pruners: Gardening snobs will swear by a certain brand, but all you need is a pruning tool that cuts cleanly through a multitude of stems and doesn't cramp your hand while doing so. Look for a bypass pruner with ratchet action for easy cutting.
3. Rakes: You'll need two rakes for any gardening job: a leaf rake and a soil rake. A leaf rake has a wide, fan-shaped head made of metal, plastic or bamboo, and is designed to sweep fallen leaves. A soil rake has a solid metal head with a row of teeth that helps level the soil in a garden bed before planting.
4. Cultivator: This three-pronged wonder is essential for successful gardening but often underused. Its purpose is to break up packed soil around established plants, loosen weeds so you can pull them out easily and score a plant's root ball before setting it in the ground or a container.
5. Spade: A spade is perfect for digging holes to plant small items and for working in a confined area. The ideal spade has a slightly dished blade instead of a completely flat one. The curve will help hold the dirt on the blade as you lift it out of the hole.
Your garden is only as good as your soil, so take time to prepare the ground far in advance before you start planting. Follow these tips to make the most of what you have:
1. Get a soil test: Buy an at-home soil-testing kit or, better yet, ask your local garden center or nursery if they will test the soil for you. Many will do so for no fee or a nominal cost. The test will help determine what nutrients you need to add to the soil to grow healthy plants. Do this first to save time and money and avoid disappointments later.
2. Remove turf grass: Once you've determined where you want to create a garden bed, you'll need to remove any grass or weeds occupying the space. But first, draw the outline of the bed using a flexible garden hose or string, or try sprinkling a line of baking flour around the proposed perimeter. Dig down along the edge with a spade or shovel, sliding it under the turf grass to remove it from the bed.
3. Turn over the soil: After removing the turf, dig down about a foot deep with a shovel and turn over the clumps to expose the fresh soil underneath. It's hard work, but important—you want to loosen the soil so the new plants have an easy time spreading their roots. Turn over the entire bed, removing stones, roots and debris along the way.
4. Add compost: Now is the time to add well-rotted manure or topsoil to existing soil. Add four to six inches or more to the ground and work it into the turned-over soil until it's mixed thoroughly.
5. Rake it smooth: Even out the surface of the garden bed with a soil rake. Once it's level, spray it with a hose to moisten the surface well; make sure the water drains well. If puddles remain after several hours, go back and dig deeper to loosen the soil, adding more compost if needed.
Sun vs. Shade
When selecting the best plants for your garden, it's important to know whether your space is in "full sun" or "part shade." Full sun is an area that gets six or more hours of strong, direct sun every day. This is ideal for growing vegetables and most flowering perennials and annuals. Part sun or part shade is an area that gets two to six hours of direct sun each day. Shade is an area that gets less than two hours of sun or no direct sun at all. Dense shade is dark most of the day but will still support plant life such as ferns and some types of ivy.
Dead plants will douse your enthusiasm for gardening. To start out, it's better to select tried-and-true winners—like these seven below—rather than exotic types that require skills beyond your expertise.
1. Mesclun lettuce: It doesn't get any easier than mesclun lettuce. The seeds sprout in a few days and produce waves of mixed salad greens all summer long.
2. Cherry tomatoes: Buy seedlings from a nursery and plant them in ground soil or in large containers. To help them grow, erect a cage of wire fencing around the plants and place their branches through the holes in the fence.
3. Sunflowers: One of the easiest plants to grow from seed is the giant sunflower. Bury the seed in spring and, with plenty of water and sun, you'll have a towering plant by late summer.
4. Zinnias: Available in lots of pretty colors—from pale pink to apple green and all colors in between—zinnias thrive on neglect. Plant them in spring and by midsummer they'll be blooming full bore.
5. Impatiens: They get a bad rep from garden snobs, but no one can deny that impatiens are a shade gardener's best bet. Just make sure to give them rich, moist soil that is nice and loose.
6. Daylilies: The modern garden daylily is vastly improved from those of years past. Give them a weekly watering, full to part sun and rich, loose soil loaded with compost, and they'll bloom until fall.
7. Hydrangeas: As shrubs go, the hydrangea is nearly foolproof. The key is to pick a type that is suited to your area (refer to the zone information above). Plant it in part sun in rich, moist soil, and give it time to get settled in and grow.
Weeds are unavoidable, but getting rid of them—just like regular pruning and watering—results in a better garden. Here's a short list of to-dos that will keep you busy between planting and harvesting:
1. Weeding: Weeds compete for resources with your plants, so you want to eradicate them. Pull weeds as soon as you see them. To help prevent weeds from taking over your garden, spread a thick layer of garden mulch, about two to three inches deep, over the soil and around the plants. Mulch not only smothers weeds but also holds in moisture and keeps the soil cooler, contributing to healthier plants.
2. Watering: You need water to live and so do your plants. How much water depends on the weather: If it's raining off and on for days, don't water your garden. If there is a dry spell of more than a week, give it a deep soaking. Water the roots, not the leaves. It also helps to water in the morning, so that by the end of the day the garden has dried up enough to prevent things like mildew and leaf-eating slugs. Plants in containers need extra water. By high summer, container gardens may need a soaking in the morning and another in the afternoon. Check the soil by plunging your finger down in it to the first knuckle. If it's dry, give it a drink.
3. Pruning: Clip off dead flowers and broken stems from flowering plants and they'll actually produce more flowers and stems. Yellowed or browned leaves will not turn green again, so clip those off as well. If plants get too big for their allotted space, wait until fall to dig them up and then divide their roots into multiple pieces and replant them. Be careful not to prune spring-flowering shrubs or trees late in the summer. Many of these plants set next year's flowers by summer's end. Wait to prune until shortly after they flower in the spring.
4. Cleanup: If you keep up with maintenance, by the end of summer you'll only need to clip off the browned stems (just above the roots) and rake the leaves. Leave a thin layer of leaves on the garden beds for winter cover. In the spring, rake the beds clear, weed if necessary and spread some more mulch.
Seed and Plant Sources
Gardening resources abound, whether you need seeds, plants or even trees. Websites offer tons of valuable advice for beginning and experienced gardeners alike. Catalogs are another great resource. Many are free or come with purchases, arriving in your mailbox in January, just when you need a garden fix. Information is available for nearly any plant you want to know about. Just do a Web search for a particular plant and scroll down to find out how to get it, grow it, eat it or kill it.