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 these 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, have decades of amended soil, are not running after kids in diapers (or 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. I recently 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.
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. 5
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:
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.
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. Get your approximate chill hours here: http://www.sandybarnursery.com/chill-map.htm 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 Texas is here: http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/fruit-nut/files/2010/10/blueberries1.pdf It is on the second page of the .pdf file) Those in the Deep South (Southeast states) can get accurate information here: http://agroclimate.org/tools/Chill-Hours-Calculator/ The best sources are your local county extension office and nurserymen.
Know your season length and first and last frosts. If you have a short season, you won’t be able to grow long season vegetable 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/
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 if 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 Minnesota Department of Natural Resources: files.dnr.state.mn.us/…/texture_field_test.doc 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 (you should not be impulse buying large plants.) If you do, 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 22inch 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.)
Know your sun versus shade ratio. What parts of your yard will support a sun plant? A shade plant? How many hours of sun you are getting in each area? This is fairly easy to calculate, go outside several times a day and look at where you’ve got full sun. Doing this will give you a general idea of how many hours of direct sun each part of your yard actually gets. Full sun means: AT LEAST 6 hours of direct sun a day. What side of the house or other structure are you looking at planting on? Remember the sides of a structure are decided by the sun’s rays. You can be planting on the Northern side of a Southern wall on your property So, even though it’s the South side of your property it isn’t the South side of the wall. This explains it well sun exposure pretty well: http://gardening.about.com/od/gardendesign/qt/SunExposure.htm Where is the “best” place to plant? Look at what is already there and find the areas that are naturally doing well. Example: areas of your yard with thick healthy grass. Where not to plant: areas that are perennially dry and dead (like where your sprinklers don’t quite reach or on a rocky slope.) These areas will most likely not sustain tender plants and will need something more aggressive.
Decide what you will be growing in. Depending on what you have (poor soil, a small space, acres of room) you have different options: amending existing soil, raised beds and pots. I use a combination. Each has different advantages and disadvantages.
What are your planting goals? Beauty, shade, lawn, vegetables, fruit? Your yard not only needs to work for you, but if (and when) you sell your home (no one lives forever), it will be either a huge detractor or a huge plus (our yard was what sold every home I have lived in.) Your yard also needs to work for everyone in your family. When I move states I research at least a year before I try to install perennials. These are usually permanent plantings. You mess it up and it’s a big deal. I will list my favorite gardening book sources in here. There are plenty of fantastic and patient people who will take the time to teach you. Your county extension can help. Also, look for classes given by individuals and by your county. Go to garden shows. In the mean time: research as much as you can on the internet and in book form. Remember: forums are great resources, but more often than not, they boil down to individual opinion rather than scientific fact. Universities and local/state/federal horticulture sources are the best places to get real information.
What would you like to grow? Is it a cool season vegetable? Warm season vegetables? Bulbs? Trees? Plants outside your zones (that will need to be sheltered over your winter)? Each of these has a time and a place of ideal planting. If you are new to gardening don’t try to grow from seed. In ideal conditions plants will self-sow (regrow yearly from last years dropped seed). Each plant produces thousands and thousands of seeds to accomplish this. If you order a small bag of 10, 20 or even 200 seeds you are going to need to start them and baby them to get the same results. In most cases you will waste your seed if you go out and try and direct sow them (plant them straight in the soil. Although there are things that require direct sowing. Check your packet and don’t start or sow the whole thing! You may have a failure, need to restart or resow, or want to space your plantings for longer harvest.) Even if you manage to get seeds going, nursery plants will be much larger and produce earlier. Starting seed indoors has it’s own set of rules. (This equals more: time, energy, experience and research!) Once you have successfully grown a few things: expand into seeds from the kind of plants that do well for you. Squash and melons are terrific seeds to learn to grow. The plants are strong growers and need little from the gardener to start other than warm soil, lots of sun and water. Everything you transplant must be “hardened off” before planting. This is sometimes an ordeal but you will lose your plants if you neglect to do this. Here’s how: http://gardening.wsu.edu/library/vege003/vege003.htm Cool areas have cilantro spread like wildfire, hot areas have tomatoes and basil self sow. I still buy my tomatoes as nursery plants (the bigger the better). I have a super short season down here for tomatoes. They need cooler nights than my summer gives and they need more heat than most of my late fall, winter and early spring days have. I also only grow small fruiting tomato varieties. I’ve got to get them big, healthy and fast maturing to win down here. You will need to experiment before you can master seeds. It is one more thing to worry about and new gardeners need to go slow.
What are you growing? Will the above answers support it? Your county extension office will have suggestions for varieties of plants as will the agriculture departments of local Universities. In the planning phase, web searches can be your best friend!
What should you NOT grow? Invasive plants can be beautiful in one zone and a nightmare in another. Before you plant a perennial make sure you know what you’re getting into. An example is heavenly bamboo (nandina domestica, pictured above.) This is in most people’s yards down here and it shouldn’t be. It’s considered invasive in South Texas and I am already having problems with it spreading. I will be removing our pair (that came with our home) soon. Other common examples of garden bullies are: mint, burdock and Bermuda grass. These can be very aggressive and so hard to remove/keep out of beds once they have outgrown their space. There are a lot of plants that are commonly planted here that are invasive. If you live in Texas check this site out: http://www.texasinvasives.org/plant_database/detail.php?symbol=CYDA Plants that send out runners need barriers, others reseed heavily and still others have roots that can come back from very, very small pieces left in the soil. Understand the kind of work involved in keeping it contained or removing it if it does breach your barriers or outpace your attempts to slow it down. Look up your state’s invasive plant list and make sure you keep those species out of your life. Here is the National Invasive Species Information Center: http://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/index.shtml
What size will your mature plants be? In five, ten or twenty years you don’t want to live in a jungle of poorly spaced overgrown plants. Also, what are your plant’s mature fruiting expectations? If you are planting a fruit tree (or multiples) how many hundreds of pears, apples (or whatever) can you really expect to eat or process? (This huge surplus from trees will be a yearly conundrum. The bigger the fruiting plant size the more you will have. Often, a berry bush or two is a better idea than trees.) If you are growing fruits or vegetables what kind of yearly effort will these plants need from you? Planting, water, fertilizer, fungicides, insecticides, pruning. What exactly are you getting into? Fruits can be rewarding but they take a lot of work. What kind of work are you willing to invest to get a good return? Again, your county extension will have good advice on this. Your local Master Gardeners are volunteers that go through a course and must put in hours helping educate the community to keep their M.G. designation. These people are usually old hands at gardening in your area. They are there to help you! If you have some at your county extension, use their expertise!!! My extension answers emails. I often get responses within a day and it’s free! (Do not rely solely on information from people who are trying to sell you something. They have a conflict of interest.)
Sit down. Draw out your plan (or use a computer program. Look for something simple). Make a master plan and keep it in a place that you can access and update. (If you own your home, an easy way to do this is to get a blueprint of your property from the county assessor’s office and make copies so you can mark things to scale.) Things to keep in mind with perennials: Start small (don’t put in a lot of plants at once) but start big (the largest additions and your non-plant structures). You need to make your plan then put your large trees in first. Fruit, syrup and nut trees take years (sometimes decades) to bear. Don’t put trees in that you aren’t sure you will like! If you’ve never eaten the kind of fruit you are buying: try and find a source online where you can try some. This isn’t the only site but you can start here: http://exoticfruitclub.com/trfrforsa.html If you have 500 pears from a mature tree (even if you loooove pears, what are you really going to do with that many?), or if you only like certain kinds of apples and you have no idea what the variety you are ordering is going to taste like (and even if you like them you will still end up with hundreds of them), then these are probably not good choices for you or your yard. If you don’t get out and harvest fruit before it drops you will have animals (large and small), wasps (and a million other kind of bugs) and angry neighbors from: the smell of rotting fruit in your yard. If you want to grow fruits go to your local farmer’s markets, find out what varieties of food you are eating, then plant what you love. If it’s growing well enough to be at the farmer’s market: it will probably be a good bet for you, too. You don’t want to wait 5-15 years to get something that you hate. Don’t put 5, 10, 20 or 50 full sized fruit trees in!!!! Unless you are starting your own farmers market (or super market chain), you CAN’T use this many! Before you purchase a fruit tree, find out how many fruit you will be dealing with at it’s mature age. If you are looking for shade or privacy: fast is not better. Fast growing trees have weak wood. You will be picking up limbs after every wind and ice storm and/or your plant will aggressively spread across your property. Look for a medium growth tree, get ideas from your county extension and realize: structures (fences, arbors, gazebos etc), not plants, are the fastest, easiest ways to accomplish immediate privacy and shade issues.
Keep a spiral notebook just for your garden information/notes and don’t put anything else in it. You will thank me later. For your spiral notebook: make a list of what you are growing from seed, what you have problems/success with during the season, what helps your plants, what doesn’t…this is a science experiment: heavy documentation truly helps. Otherwise, you WILL forget details between seasons. It’s okay, you will learn each year what you need to add and keep track of.
Interested in saving seed? Just because it’s a seed and you liked what it came from: doesn’t mean you can use it. Hybrid or GMO seeds will not grow into what you ate. Same with peach pits and other fruits. In large orchards, they use trees that produce the fruit you love and other varieties that are excellent, reliable pollinators. You need two varieties for good pollination but only one produces what they are selling. This means the seed you get is crossed. You are not going to grow the fruit you get at the grocery store from fruit you buy there. There is a fantastic organization for heirloom plants http://www.seedsavers.org that saves heirloom varieties for genetic diversity in the future. Without this sort of program we will loose our ability to grow our own foods with the diversity of current heirloom strains. Please think of joining or ordering your seeds from this company! Learn how to save your own heirloom seed here: http://www.seedsavers.org/Education/Saving-Heirlooms/ Seed saving is not for beginners. If you are starting out, try numerous types of the same vegetable and figure out what you like, what does well for you and then work with those. You also need large isolation spaces or specialized techniques to keep seed strains pure.
Dig a $20 hole for a $10 tree. How you plant will directly impact your success. Your plants will not do well if they are poorly planted or in poor soil. Watch my blog for examples of this.
****SUPER DUPER SITES: Are you like me and absent minded? If you don’t want to have to think too hard about your vegetable start dates, here’s a fantastic site that will walk you through each week in your growing season (remember when I said it was important to know your frost dates? You will need them) here: http://www.chestnut-sw.com/growform.htm I totally rely on this site!!!! (You will still need to keep track of your specific harvest dates. I use an excel program. I may load it here some day)
Want an easy way to drag and drop to get a vegetable map for this season’s garden? Go here: http://www.gardeners.com/on/demandware.store/Sites-Gardeners-Site/default/Page-KGPJS
One of the most inclusive and user friendly sites I’ve seen is here: http://www.williams-sonoma.com/shop/agrarian-garden/agrarian-garden-plant-a-gram/ They have a variety of tools listed under “agrarian”. Look towards the bottom of the menu on the left to access them. Of course they should have a great site with the prices they charge for their products! It’s really well done and free so I do have to recommend the site. It covers pretty much anything you’d like to know on a variety of subjects including raising poultry.
You got it all? You sure? I know: too much information right? Well the items above highlighted in orange you must know. You may not know it all this season, but do your best to get familiar with the concepts. The rest, you will learn to use as you advance in skill. Get out and play with your seed/plants/bulbs and trees!
The rest of my blog is dedicated to the action phases of gardening. Address the above issues, and you will have a great base to grow from!