Beginner Gardeners: Walking You Through What You Need To Know

The Specter Of Drought

Spring is on the way! It’s already almost a month past our normal last freeze down here in Texas but thanks to this year’s unusually cold weather we’re only about two weeks into the season. This year I thought I’d get back to basics and start publishing pieces of my gardening advice from my page: Gardening Basics. For the novice gardener: read on and stay tuned! This is pretty much everything you need to know to grow a successful garden.

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So, take a walk with me through what every gardener can use in their tool belt: a great source for general gardening information! Good luck this season and go get your hands dirty!!!

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Gardening Basics:

Have you ever wondered what sets seasoned gardeners (the ones that have the photo perfect gardens and never seem to lose a plant) and new gardeners (people who seem to kill everything they touch) apart? Three main things: For one, what you think is going on in those perfect gardens is usually an illusion. It is a gardener’s photographic slight of hand. Not many people who garden will post photos of their failures, mid-season ratty plants and weak or neglected rows of corn. They certainly can’t sell books about it. They probably don’t live where you do, they have decades of amended soil, and are not running after kids in diapers (they also probably don’t have a full time outside job), grow only what does well for them and have a lot of years photographing (at just the right time) to look like they are gardening Gods. In the real gardening world we all experience failure, seasoned gardeners included. Part of what you learn as you accumulate experience is that there is no perfect garden, no perfect year, no one person who knows it all. Four years ago I traded living in a dry short season with zero insects, for a nearly year round season with more insects than I can identify without a degree in Entomology. Success is relative and so was my gardening knowledge. One of the things I truly love about gardening is: that I never get to “the end”. I’m always learning and my experience puts my failures into perspective. It is true, that with experience, you will learn to garden more effectively and your successes will begin to outpace your disasters. It takes a lifetime to learn to garden. That puts all of us on the same level at some point in our gardening careers and makes gardeners and plant people an incredibly inclusive group.

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The second part of this is real world experience. When I first started out: I pushed my growing zone; I planted things people said I couldn’t grow; and I defiantly told mother nature she couldn’t put limits on me. I actually encourage trying this (at least, if only, once!). You will learn what the difference is fairly quickly. Your choices are: having a large scale garden that you tend or, a small scale defiance garden that you have to put a million times more effort into. It helped me learn to respect what I was given. I learned to work closely with what nature would encourage rather than trying to impose my limited human thinking with it’s arbitrary rules and goals. I began to see why America’s farmland works so differently than a backyard garden. Organic growing conditions are achievable (if it’s your goal) but it is incredibly labor intensive and impossible on the scale my grandfather farmed: with multiple acres of wheat or corn. You will learn to really enjoy the grocery store as the back up to your crop failures (rather than the old standard of starving). At least, that’s how I see it. So, you can look up reams of information on the internet, read a library full of books and talk ‘one on one’ with a thousand Master Gardeners but you will still learn the most getting out into your own garden and getting dirty.

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Having said that, those of us that have been doing this for a while also know some pretty important basic pieces of information. The following list is essential to learn BEFORE you go out into your garden, BEFORE you buy your plants or order your seed. Learn what you need to know to successfully grow:

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Know your zone. Your USDA zone can be found using your zip code at: http://www.garden.org/zipzone/ This wonderful site not only offers zone information but will also list links under your zone like: View your regional report, Find public gardens in your zip code, Find plants in your zone and Find events in your zip code.

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Know your chill hours (If you are in warm winter areas, pay heed to your chill hour range!) Planting a fruit with a chill hour need that is too high for your region will mean your plant will not come out of dormancy at the right time and fruit for you, even if the tree itself is healthy. Too low of a chill requirement and your tree will break dormancy, flower and freeze back before your winter is over and you will not get fruit. Growing fruit in the South depends on working with your chill hours. If you are in the South: do not order a fruit tree if you cannot find its chill hour information. A lot of people use a map by raintreenursery.com (I like this nursery a lot and they sell nice plants) but it is incorrect for Texas. The best chill hour map I have seen for the South is here:  http://plant-shed.com/planting-fruit-trees-in-north-texas/ The best sources are your local county extension office and nurserymen. My favorite southern nursery is: http://www.justfruitsandexotics.com/JFE/ Absolutely fantastic plants but again: they cater to the very southern US regions. I have purchased fruiting trees and plants from http://www.raintreenursery.com/ for several years. I recommend them as well, and they sell fruits for the rest of the country.

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Know your season length and first and last frosts. If you have a short season, you won’t be able to grow long season vegetables without turning it into a defiance garden, and you still may be unsuccessful. Also, if your average last frost is a month away but you’ve got great temperatures now, you will want to wait to avoid losing your plants to a frost that is just around the corner. Find your frost dates and growing days here: http://davesgarden.com/guides/freeze-frost-dates/

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My season length down here is unbelievable! My growing season (usually) starts around Feb 28 and ends Nov 25! That averages between 271 and 280 days in my growing season (actually, I can grow spring/fall veggies all through winter and summer is usually my down time.) My long season seems like it would be perfect, but we get really hot really fast. My season for tomatoes is super short. It’s either too cold or too hot (tomatoes won’t set fruit in high heat). I really struggle with tomatoes and most people can’t imagine a vegetable garden without them. Being aware of your natural limits will help you work around the edges. For instance: I can grow short season and small fruited tomatoes. I have pretty much given up on the larger varieties…but with a little effort, I still get my fill of tomatoes! Learn what limits your garden and keep most of your efforts inside of that natural structure.

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The season length also brings unimaginable amounts of bugs. I get multiple rounds of problem insects so I have to build spider and other predatory bug friendly beds. You can see them here: Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed!  and here: Hugelkultur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas I totally recommend cinder block beds because spiders love the damp deep holes they provide. More spiders equal: low to no insecticides. I also use nematodes for insects below the soil. They don’t affect ground worms and they are my only answer to the twice a season squash vine borers we have. They kill pupating insects before they have a chance to come up from the soil and attack my plants. You can find my post about those here: When Life Gives You Grubs, Serve Them Nematode Tea! With these two approaches my garden is pretty much covered. If you add in some nectar producing flowers that feed the larval stages of predatory insects: you basically have my completely insecticide free approach to gardening.

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Know your soil. This is something your county extension office can help with. Use a search engine to find one in your county. Put your county’s name in the search bar with “extension office”. This should guide you to your specific regional growing information including what soil tests your county extension office offers. You can also buy very basic test kits at home improvement stores. It’s is vital to know your soil pH as well as it’s nutrients. (For instance: my clay soils have only needed regular applications of nitrogen fertilizers with iron. That cuts down on my garden expenses and makes fertilizing effective.) Do it yourself: http://organicgardening.about.com/od/soil/a/easysoiltests.htm and from the Colorado State University: You can figure out what you have with this simple test using a mason jar or just your hands. http://www.ext.colostate.edu/mg/gardennotes/214.html Scroll down to the part that says: Identifying Soil Texture By Measurement. Right below that is Identifying Soil Texture By Feel. These are both excellent and easy ways to tell what kind of soil you already have.

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Cinder blocks equal tons of predatory insects. LEAVE the holes OPEN! Spiders = a SCORE for team organic!

I know this is a hard one for beginners: but get your soil ready the Fall before the Spring you plant. That means don’t order plants and seed with the thought that you will be able to fix everything before they come. Get out and get it done (and put the breaks on the credit card.) Never buy a tree before you have dug the hole, or at the very least: have an exact spot you want to place it. (You should not be impulse buying large plants.) If you buy a bunch of plants before you have a place for them, you may have to watch your plants waste away while you are breaking your back trying to quickly dig twenty holes (“quickly” is a goal you will not be able to achieve in gardening.) Even after amending, my soil always does better after being allowed to settle (or planted with low expectations) the first year. If this sounds too daunting: begin working on a larger area, do it in small bits and in the mean time focus on a few large pots (like 22 inch pots) to start your garden with. You can grow almost anything in a big enough pot and I always have a use for mine! (Pots will dry out fast, so they need more: water, shade and attention. For the beginner: this is not a bad thing. I usually keep my pots in morning sun and afternoon shade. This will help keep the heat out of the soil in mid-afternoon and your pots will retain water better.)

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Now you can be completely prepared while looking for spring additions at your local nursery or when you are purchasing seed. If this isn’t enough to satisfy your quest for knowledge: look at the top of the page and you will see the “Gardening Basics” tab. It includes all of the main information I will be posting in the next few weeks (minus any new material I add in these posts.) I’m currently working backwards updating links. These posts include my newest favorite links for information. (Some links on the “Gardening Basics” page are no longer functional or I’ve found better examples. The links in this post are all working as of today, please let me know if you ever find some broken ones!)

There’s more to come! Tune in next time for my latest and greatest: links and advice!

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Australian Shepherd undercoat! Oh my gosh, he had a lot of hair!

On a much sadder note: my family has been dealing with an enormous amount of stressful and challenging happenings. My dog passing away was one of the worst. I’m dedicating this year’s blog to my awesome companion of 13 years: my dog Christmas. Christmas passed away this year because of his advanced age (for his breed) and that he developed exercise induced collie collapse disorder within the last two weeks of his life. If you have a collie related dog: you need to know about this disease. It was certainly a surprise for my family. These active dogs will actually run themselves to death when they develop these symptoms. (This is not my dog in this video. The disease can be fatal, as it was for my elderly dog. I am grateful for the owner that posted this video. I would not have known what to look for without it) Exercise induced collie collapse disorder youtube video.

Christmas was born on the 1 year anniversary of 9-11 and he was the perfect antidote to the anger and hurt that that 9-11 had caused. He was full of love, life and compassion. My heart is completely broken without my dog. I don’t regret a single moment I spent with my loving, loyal, deep, sensitive, and wonderful Australian Shepherd. Here’s to you sweetie. You will always be my “pooh bear”! I miss you every moment of my day.

I have had many dogs in my life. He was the absolute best.

You can read more about my awesome pets here: A How To: On Animals and Life My family owes a lot of their greatest experiences to these wonderful, loyal and incredibly special animals.

11 responses to “Beginner Gardeners: Walking You Through What You Need To Know

  1. Pingback: Beginner Gardeners: Walking You Through What You Need To Know | Annette Rochelle Aben

  2. Excellent piece! One thing in that’s contrary to my experience is that it is possible to grow tomatoes all through the hot season — I live in Tucson, where it often gets up to 105 to 110 in the summer — though only a few varieties will bear fruit then.

    The three types I’ve found that will work in summer are cherry tomatoes (almost any variety), San Diego tomatoes, and Zacatipan tomatoes. Both the San Diegos and Zacatipans are salad tomatoes with relatively small fruit (2″ to 2-1/2″). All of these bear in the summer (though not as well as in the fall). You just have to use plenty of mulch, give them plenty of water, and put them under shade cloth.

    • I have tried some heat tolerant varieties. Our problem here is nighttime temperatures don’t drop very much in full summer. We’re over 100° F after midnight frequently. Even if I get my plants to produce large fruit (which they will) we get torrential rains and they split. I’m happy with the paste tomatoes and cherry tomatoes because they will fruit easily for me. I’m sure there’s a way to get large tomatoes down here, but it’s a matter of energy I have to put in versus what I get out of the process. I have tomatoes planted out already. I am thick headed and I don’t give up easily. Eventually I’ll figure out something. Thank you for the variety recommendations. I will keep an eye out for them!

  3. Reblogged this on Sharp and Pointed and commented:
    The info in this excellent piece is pretty much right on. The one place where it errors is that it is possible to grow tomatoes in the summer in extremely hot climates if you plant desert-adapted varieties.

  4. Awesome tips!! So sorry to hear about Christmas.

  5. I’m excited to be starting my garden this year. It’s only my second time doing one and I already feel so much more comfortable with the process. I do have a kiddo in a diaper to chase around, so it is hard to get anything done out there, but I’m sharing my yard with another parent this year and I think that’s going to take a lot of the pressure off me. Sorry to hear about your pup. I lost mine this February. I grew up with dogs, but she was the first dog that was *my* dog, and she went almost everywhere with me for the better part of five years. Saying goodbye to her was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and I also miss her daily.

    • It is always comforting to know you are not alone, that there are many others walking the same path. Thank you for sharing. I appreciate it! Good luck on your garden and mommyhood! I’ve noticed in my own life that the two tend to go well together.

  6. Pingback: Beginning Gardener: Class 2-Walking You Through What You Need To Know | Crazy Green Thumbs

  7. Pingback: Beginning Gardener: Class 3-Walking You Through What You Need To Know | Crazy Green Thumbs

  8. Pingback: Beginning Gardener: Class 4-Walking You Through What You Need To Know | Crazy Green Thumbs

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