Whether you want to create a new landscape, flower, herb or vegetable garden, these few gardening basics will assure your success.
- Measure your plot and make a rough but accurate drawing on graph paper.
- Do a soil test. Dig up soil from 4 or 5 areas of your proposed garden plot – about half a cup each – and mix the soil together in a pot. Take out 1 cup for the soil test. Get a testing bag from your Cooperative Extension office, insert soil sample and mail off to the lab. Be sure to tell the lab what type of plants you will be growing: landscape ornamentals, acid-loving plants, vegetables, annuals, perennials, etc. You will get a detailed soil analysis and recommendations for fertilizer and pH adjustment.
- Do a sunlight test. With your rough plan in hand, mark where it’s sunniest and shadiest from spring through summer. Mark the sun’s progress with dashed lines and times. What area is the sun covering at 9 am, noon, 3 pm and 6 pm? You can also use SunStick, a product that measures sunlight exposure for you.
- Make a plant wish list. Granted, everything you want may not fit your circumstances, but it’s a starting place. Likely, you can find a similar plant to substitute for one that won’t work. For diversity and balance, choose large and small plants, and fill the seasons. Gardens need large and small elements, different leaf textures and colors and interest throughout the four seasons. A paperbark maple (Acer griseum) is a focal plant with four-season interest: an attractive peeling multi-toned bark that’s great, especially in the winter garden. Plant early species like witch hazel, snowdrops and hellebores, they bloom with snow on the ground!
- Match your choices to what your plot provides. Plant tags have good information to guide you in selection. Check each plant for light, soil and moisture requirements and size at maturity. A willow won’t last in a dry, sandy soil, nor will sunflowers thrive in the heavy shade of a large maple.
- Draft a garden plan on graph paper and test it for good spacing and arrangement. Here’s how: Use empty garden pots in large to small sizes, matching the types of plants you will grow, large for trees and shrubs, smaller for perennials, annuals and bulbs. For vegetables, follow spacing directions on the seed packet. Lay out the pots where you want to place species, being sure to allow spacing for the mature size of the plants. Trees can grow 15 to 40 feet wide, and can make shade as they grow. Will that tree shade out your sun-loving plants? If so, move the tree further away, or plan to change the garden down the road. Many perennials spread horizontally, some 18-36 inches, so give each enough space to mature. It’s easier to move empty pots than dig up plants that are overcrowded. When the plan seems right, get out your spade.
- Remove turf and weeds, using them in the compost pile.
- Plant, feed, water and mulch. If planting in stages, plant trees and shrubs first, as they take more time to get established. Next tackle perennials and bulbs, and finally the annuals. After planting, use a pre-emergent weed control like Preen to stave off annual weeds, reducing your maintenance chores. Spread a fertilizer as directed in your soil test report; apply lime if needed. Next, mulch with pine or cedar bark in medium size, shredded if possible. These will resist being blown away and decompose slowly to feed your plants. Water the plants in well.
- Maintain: keep up on weed removal, feed adequately through the growing season and water in dry times, especially trees and shrubs, the most costly plants. One inch of water a week is recommended. Avoid compacting the soil when you work in the beds. Reapply pre-emergent control when you disturb the soil.
Now, that’s a great beginning to a garden paradise!