Gardening from the ground up. Once you’ve decided to start a garden, it’s tempting to grab the biggest shovel you can find and rip up the entire yard. While I experience the same urge every spring, there are a few things you need to consider before you start, such as the type of soil you have, light conditions, how to design your garden, and how to keep it alive. No matter how exciting digging new beds can be (and it is), you don’t want to run amok, because if you don’t plan in the beginning, you will be less than impressed when it comes time to harvest.
Gardening From The Ground Up: Your Soil
It’s important to have a clean start (sort of). Healthy soil is the most important part of gardening. It costs much less to do it right the first time than if you cheap out and buy bargain brand soil. Not only will you wind up with unremarkable even poor produce, you’ll only have to spend more money and resources in the long run.
I think of my soil as a living thing something to be nurtured, fed, and cared for. Lots of microorganisms play various roles in developing your soil’s structure, aerating it, and mobilizing nutrients. Therefore, you need to know what’s going on under your feet before you can plant.
Not all soils are created equal. Loam is the gardener’s best friend: it contains the perfect balance of sand, silt, and clay particles, along with organic matter. This translates into good drainage, as well as nutrient and water retention, which creates the ideal environment for most plants. Other soil types like clay, sand, silt, and chalk are more difficult and often require more attention to keep your garden healthy.
Clay soil is the most fertile since its wet, sticky structure holds nutrients and water tightly. Unfortunately, clay leaves little room for air and water movement, which can lead to root rot. In addition, clay also reacts to temperature extremes: cold, wet soil in cool SOIL. AS weather and hard, dry soil in warm weather. Sand is the opposite of clay. It drains well a little too well and readily loses moisture and nutrients.
Cacti and succulents thrive in sandy, often acidic, soils, but most other plants will suffer . from the lack of water and nutrients. The main benefit to sandy soil is that it warms more quickly in the spring, which is good for germination. Silt falls somewhere between clay and sand, producing light, moist soil that drains well, but also compacts easily. Chalky soil is often shallow, overlays rock, and is more alkaline due to its high lime and calcium carbonate content. The classic ball test will help you figure out what type of soil you’re working with. If you grab a handful of soil and it falls apart the minute you release, you have sandy soil. If it stays compact in a ball, you have clay soil, and if it’s more crumbly, you have desirable loam.
There are some things you can do to improve your soil structure. Adding leaf mold, decomposed manure, and compost to sandy soils will prevent them from draining too much. Conversely, incorporating ample amounts of bulky organic matter or gravel to clay will improve drainage.
Unfortunately, you don’t have a lot of options when it comes to chalky soils. My advice: embrace what you have and grow arid, alkaline-loving plants. The next step is to run a soil test to find out your soil’s pH, its organic matter content, and what its fertility demands are (you can get your soil tested for a small fee through your local cooperative extension office).
Think of pH as your soil’s temperature every species has its own optimal temperature and soil is no different. The pH scale runs from acidic to alkaline, 0.0-14.0, with 7.0 being neutral. A soil pH of 6.5 (5.5-7.5) is optimal for most vegetables. Once you know what you’re dealing with, it’s simple to adjust.
Raising pH is a lot easier than lowering it; just add limestone in the fall or winter. Lime is available in multiple forms (fine dust, granular, pelletized, or hydrated) and should cover the area completely and, if possible, be worked into the soil.
It should be spread at least two to three months before you plant since it takes time and moisture to neutralize the acidity. The finer the lime, the more quickly it will work. To lower the pH of highly alkaline soil (most common in arid regions), work aluminum sulfate or sulfur into soil. Aluminum sulfate works faster, but if you have several months before planting time, sulfur will work just as well.
Depending on how you amend and rotate you garden, you may also need to add organic matter to help your soil hold moisture and nutrients better. Your soil test will tell you more about your organic matter and fertility needs, but we’ll talk more about that later.
To dig or not to dig? Unless I’m creating a brand-new garden bed or working with severely compacted clay soil, I do not dig or till. There is a method to my madness, and it has to do with soil structure. Healthy soil is full of earthworms and other soil microbes that naturally till and incorporate your compost into the garden.
When I top my beds off with compost, I don’t bother mixing it in. As counter intuitive as it may seem, undug soil will reward you with good drainage, more air space, higher moisture retention, fewer weeds, and stronger, better anchored vegetables.
To sum it up: compost feeds soil; tilling destroys it. The microbes that live in the soil, like bacteria and fungi, help mobilize nutrients and extend plant roots to access these minerals, which encourages plant growth. Earthworms are nature’s rototiller, pulling compost and other organic matter deep down into the soil so that fungi and bacteria can break it down and release nutrients.
Furthermore, their castings help bind soil aggregates, or groups of soil particles, creating space for roots to grow and air to penetrate. So every time you dig or till the soil, you’re killing these organisms by breaking them up or exposing them to the environment.
Tilling makes it more difficult for plants to root, metabolize nutrients, access air, and hold water and brings new weeds to the surface. Most gardeners don’t realize the importance of air in soil, but it’s vital. Soil aggregates, organic matter, and plant roots create air tunnels and hold them in place.
Worms help perforate the soil with a network of channels for air, water, nutrients, and roots to move. Again, with every dig or till, these channels deteriorate, and depending on the extent of the damage, it can take years before they’re reestablished.
It’s easy for the untrained eye to mistake firm, undisturbed, healthy soil for the compacted kind, tricking the most well intentioned gardeners into rototilling. After rototilling, the soil appears “fluffy,” and people think this is the same thing as having well-drained, open soil it isn’t.
So unless you’re reinvigorating a long-forgotten garden or beginning a new one, don’t dig. Also, you may hear or read about a method called “double-digging.” Don’t get excited—this is the same as rototilling. Instead, apply organic matter and compost to encourage microbial activity and build soil structure.
Tools Of The Trade
Most of my garden tools have been accumulated over time. I bought a few tools when my husband and I purchased our first home, “borrowed” some of the non-crucial pieces from my mom as needed, and inherited others from my grandparents when they passed. You certainly don’t need an armory of tools to maintain a backyard garden, but a few quality pieces will make your work in the garden much easier.
Personally, I could not get by without a good, long-handled shovel, spade, fork, steel rake, a set of hand tools, and a wheelbarrow. Shovels and spades are different: shovels have a slightly rounded, pointed blade and are primarily used for digging holes and moving soil and compost. Spades on the other hand 1 are flat and rectangular-shaped.
I use these for edging and cutting in new beds. Additionally, they are ideal for turning green manures as they cut off the green growth easily at the root line, making it easy to turn and incorporate into the soil. Garden forks typically have
four twelve-inch square prongs that are used to loosen soil and turn compost. Don’t mistake a garden fork for a potato fork, which has flat, easily bendable tines. While you can choose tools with a T-shaped or Y-shaped handle, I prefer my long-handled tools have a D-shaped hilt, as it is easier to grasp and manage.
When it comes to a rake, not just any old rake will do. It should have a steel, bow-shaped hooped head with short, curved tines. I use this two ways: I use the tines to rake paths and soil and compost, and the back edge to smooth and flatten beds. And lastly, I could not get by without my wheelbarrow.
Used to move loam, compost, and large shrubs about the garden and in garden cleanup, it makes short work of backbreaking and time-consuming garden tasks. In the absence of a wheelbarrow, an inexpensive large tarp can be used to drag soil and plant debris to and from the compost bin.
Wheelbarrows are key, especially it you have a large garden. This all the flats, plants, mulch, compost, and weeds you will be moves wants to do that by hand? My favorite hand tools include a trowel, fork, and weeder. I use these to transplant, garden in small spaces, and weed.
Always test out how these tools feel in your hands as grips and sizes vary. There are a number of choices for handle materials, and you get what you pay for Cheaper tools break readily, are poorly designed, and often hurt your hands and leave blisters.
I prefer wood over plastic or metal because it holds up well over time, looks good, and doesn’t tend to get too hot to the touch in summer or too cold in early spring or fall.
Invest In High quality Pruners And Snips.
When it comes to harvest and pruning, invest in a pair of high-quality bypass pruners and lightweight fruit snips. Some gardeners prefer the anvil-style pruners with a sharp blade that cuts against a flat anvil, but I favor Felco bypass pruners for their scissor-like, sharp, clean cuts that rarely tear stems.
Non-tearing cuts are important. If your cut tears, it invites disease, and plants are prone to damage. Snips are used to harvest stems from Snips are used to harvest stems from fragile plants like pea sprouts and sweet peas. Regardless of what types of pruners you select, I advise choosing ones with safety closures and bright-colored handles.
I will often drop my pruners while I work, and by the end of the day I have trouble locating them bright colors make finding them easier.
What In My Garden Raw
Most girls keep an arsenal ready fora night out in their purse. I have a bag filled with my favorite goodies for when I’m out in the garden.
- Notepad and.pencil – you may think you’ll remember which variety is in each row, but good intentions are often forgotten. I’ve learned to write everything down.
- Hand trowel
- Hand fork
- Dandelion weeder Twine – I always seem to be running out. You can never have enough.
- Pruners and snips
- Labels and marker Small soil blocker (Hey-you never know when you’re going to need onel)
Other tools that you might find helpful in the garden include hoes, hedge trimmers, hand shears, edgers, and lawn rakes. Hoes work similarly to brooms, and when dragged along the soil, cut weeds at their roots below the surface. They are available in many configurations, specific to various uses.
Different types of hoes include the basic hoe; the Dutch hoe, which has an angled head and is used to cut weeds below the soil between rows and around plants with the least amount of damage to nearby plant roots; swan and collinear hoes, which have narrow, semicircular, and rectangular blades attached respectively the stirrup hoe, which has sharpened edges on both sides of its blades, allowing you to cut weeds in the garden by both pushing and pulling; circle hoes, which are circular in shape and are excellent for weeding in small, awkward spaces and around nearby plants; and the cape cod weeder, which has a small blade at a 90° angle and can be held by a short or long handle.
Recently I discovered a new handheld weeding tool called a hori-hori. It is a Japansese knife with sharp, serrated edges that is used to pry and cut weed roots down to eight inches. Remember to be extra careful, as this tool can cause just as much serious damage to you as it does to weeds! Curved three- or five tined cultivators can be used to incorporate air and compost into the soil and release nutrients. Hedge trimmers are typically powered and make quick work of the laborious task of pruning hedges, while hand shears should be used for short hedges and small shrubs.
Hand shears also have a thick shoot-notch in the crux of the scissor like blades for thick stems. Loopers and pruning saws are used to prune tall trees and large shrubs. Half-moon edgers are useful in bed preparation and lawn rakes for fall garden cleanup.
Some essentials that every gardener should have are a good pair of garden gloves, a watering can or hose and don’t laugh a kneeling pad. I know it may seem like something only your grandmother would use, but your knees will thank you after a long day of working in the garden!
While leather and cloth gloves protect your hands when pruning sharp, prickly, plants, they can be hot in the summer and uncomfortable when wet. Alternatively, you can use nylon gloves with a nitrile coating, which breathe easily, are flexible enough to facilitate fine motor movements, and keep your hands dry.
Water is an absolute must in the garden. Planning your garden close to a hose spigot is helpful, but if one is not at the ready, hoses and watering cans are a necessity. And while I adore galvanized aluminum or zinc watering cans, they are much heavier to carry than plastic, and thus I err on the side of comfort over aesthetic.
It is also important to ensure your can includes a rose spout to break the stream of water into droplets, otherwise your seeds will swim and seedlings will bend under the onslaught of heavy water.
And finally one of my newest garden acquisitions is the Tubtrug, a flexible but sturdy bucket that comes in a variety of sizes. I use this versatile tub for everything and anything; it is with me all the time. I use it when weeding, transplanting, harvesting, and even carting my tools about the garden. Definitely worth the investment!
Feeding The Soil
All living things need to be fed the more nutrition an organism has, the more productive it is. Therefore, you want to enrich the soil such that both fertility and moisture retention increase. Compost is the ideal amendment, full of just the right amount of macro- and micro nutrients. Leaf mold and cow, or farm animal, manure are also excellent soil conditioners.
Develop your own stash of leaf mold by collecting and wetting leaves in either black plastic bags or wire cages for up to two years. Farm manure must be aged, well-rotted, or composted, as the nitrogen is not available in the first year. Nutrients, specifically nitrogen, must be converted into a form that plants can absorb, a process called mineralization. If the nitrogen isn’t broken down, the manure has a good chance of burning plants roots or foliage due to the high ammonia content.
Mulch and other organic bulky materials suppress weeds and encourage earthworms and other beneficial microbes to tunnel to the surface to reach the new organic matter, thereby improving drainage, aeration, and soil structure.
I often hear gardeners talk about fertilizer as if it’s a dirty word. You wouldn’t expect to go through life without eating foods containing vitamins and minerals, so why would you deprive your garden of such nutrients especially if they’re from natural sources? Plants, particularly flowering ones, need to replenish spent or lost minerals, but as with any vitamin regimen, the right balance is critical.
This is why soil tests are so important. Macro nutrients are three of the seventeen essential minerals that plants need in SOIL TESTS large quantities for optimum growth, and include nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), ARE VERY and potassium (K), often referred to as NPK. Nitrogen is needed to synthesize IM POP 1′ A. 14 T. amino acids, chlorophyll (particularly important for photosynthesis), enzymes, nucleic acids, and proteins, and responsible for lush, leafy green growth in plants. Phosphorus plays a vital role in strong root and stem development.
It’s integral to several crucial biochemical reactions such as photosynthesis, respiration, and energy storage and transfer that are necessary for all plants’ normal life cycles. Potassium is important for many processes, including drought tolerance, water retention, and other regulatory functions, but is well-known for its critical part in bud and flower formation.
Potash (K20), nitrate of potash (KNO3), and sulfate of potash (K2SO4) are all good natural sources of potassium. Calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulfur (S) are considered secondary nutrients, and you should pay attention to these levels on your soil test results. Trace, or micro-, nutrients like boron (B), chlorine (CI), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), molybdenum (Mo), nickel (Ni), and zinc (Zn) are essential, but are required in smaller amounts. The remaining elements, hydrogen (H), carbon (C), and oxygen (0), are considered non-fertilizer minerals and are delivered through air and water.
Fertilizers are differentiated by varying amounts of nutrients, particularly macro nutrients. This is clearly delineated by the three numbers listed on the packaging, each indicating the percentage of nutrients. These ratios are often referred to as NPK for their respective amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. So a 2010-15 package is made of 20 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorus, and 15 percent potassium.
The remaining 55 percent of the bag is usually inert filler material. Balanced fertilizers, such as 10-10-10, have equal amounts of these macro nutrients and are good general purpose choices for later in the season. Organic fertilizer options are often bulky, sloppy, smelly, and take time to work in your soil, but they provide natural, specialized amendments for your garden. Check out some of my favorites below:
(12-0-0) is a highly concentrated nitrogen amendment, good for leafy vegetables and to replenish the soil after hungry brassicas have depleted the nutrient stores. Made of dried animal blood (typically cow), it is a powder that can be applied to the soil and worked in or dissolved in water or a liquid fertilizer. Since it quickly adds nitrogen to the soil, follow the instructions as the excessive ammonia can burn your plants if it’s not used properly.
Also be sure to bury it well as its smell can attract some unwanted critters like dogs, possums, raccoons, and other meat-eating animals. Alternatively, blood meal can be a deterrent for herbivores like deer, moles, and squirrels.
(3-15-0), made of ground -up animal bones, is a well-known source of phosphorus. This fertilizer slowly releases its nutrient over time, and as such, I apply it to the hole directly at planting before my transplants or tubers are set in so my flowers and fruiting vegetable will have a reliable supply by the time they bud up.
Fish emulsion (5-2-2) is my favorite amendment, and I use it often. Derived from fish waste, it supplies a gentle dose of nitrogen with additional phosphorus, potassium, and other trace nutrients. I dilute it according to the directions and apply it to my crops at transplant and every few weeks afterward. Its foul smell is infamous, but it’s well worth the effort of holding your breath!
Kelp meal, or seaweed
Can be applied as mulch, in liquid or granular form. Obviously an ocean product, it is an excellent source of trace minerals rather than macro nutrients. Liquid kelp has higher levels of valuable growth hormones than powdered or mulched forms. Many times you may even find fish emulsion and seaweed blends at the store, which provide the best of both worlds the fish supplies your NPK and the kelp everything else
Other meals like alfalfa, corn gluten, cottonseed, feather, and soybean meals are agricultural byproducts and available in granular or pellet form.
Once your flowers and vegetables are growing, you want to keep them happy, and that will require a bit of your time to water, mulch, weed, fertilize, trellis, and prune. These simple tasks can quickly become overwhelming if you let them go. I know because I’ve gotten lazy a season or two and said to myself that I’ll catch up on my weeding next week. By the following week, the weeds had gotten out of control. Now I spend at least ten minutes every day walking through the garden and keeping on top of my chores, and it helps tremendously!
Watering is vital. It is a requirement for photosynthesis and how your plants absorb nutrients. It is easy to take the mindset that once you’ve planted and initially watered in your plants, Mother Nature will take care of the rest not so. You will most likely need to water at least once a week, more in hot weather.
It is best to water deeply, 6-8 inches, so it reaches the root zone and encourages deeper development, thus producing stronger, more productive plants. The rule of thumb is to ensure your garden is getting one inch of water per week between you and the weather. Watering will also depend on your soil. The more moisture retentive it is, the less often you need to water.
If you have too much sand, water will drain away quickly, requiring longer watering. Most newly planted seedlings demand regular watering until they begin to mature, after which you should assess each plant and water accordingly. The key to good watering practices is to water infrequently but deeply, and to know your plants. For instance, leafy vegetables like lettuce and broccoli enjoy lots and lots of water throughout their lifetime, while too much water during fruit development can cause nightshades, like tomatoes, to split. Container plantings will likely need daily watering.
Water From Below.
It is best to avoid watering during the heat of the day to avert leaf scorch and evenings so not to inspire root rot and disease. Cool early morning, late afternoon, and early evenings are best and give enough time for any water on wet leaves to evaporate and dry. Always water from below if you can.
Watering from above gets the leaves wet, which opens you up to a host of issues by encouraging fungi, mildew, and blight with moist leafy conditions. When hand watering I use a shower wand. Its long handle allows me to direct a gentle flow to the base of the plants without wetting the leaves. Soaker hoses and drip lines are especially useful if you have a large area to water. Once planted, I lay my drip lines and mulch on top. This helps maintain soil moisture and keeps the roots cool.
Mulching is so much more than spreading wood chips for curb appeal. It holds a multinational role in the garden suppressing weeds, retaining soil moisture, preventing erosion, warming the soil, keeping the roots cool, retrieving and holding nutrients, and reducing soil-borne disease . Once you have your seedlings planted and watered in, you should mulch don’t wait to give your vegetables and flowers a good start to the season.