Everything you need to get growing…below is a guide for beginners that will lead you down the garden path.
The majority of flowers and vegetables need at least six hours of sun. This suggests a spot in your yard that faces south or west. As you shop for plants keep two basic terms in mind, annual and perennial. An annual grows blooms and dies the same year. A perennial comes up every year. Most annuals and perennials are sun lovers, although there are colorful exceptions that like shade. Virtually all vegetables and most herbs are annuals that require full (6-8 hrs) sun. Lettuce, spinach and chard can get by with a little less sun as well as herbs in the mint family. There are also a few plants called biennials. Biennials grow foliage the first year. They bloom the second year then die. Many biennials freely reseed themselves. If seedlings aren’t pulled you will have an ongoing cycle of blooming plants every year.
Start small. A garden the size of a twin bed is big enough to grow three tomatoes, six peppers, several rows of lettuce, radishes and carrots and 24 flowering plants like zinnias, marigolds and petunias. That’s enough salad and flowers for a family of six. This is big enough for the beginner. You can increase your space yearly, but be sure to prepare your beds as you expand them.
Soil can vary across your property. Fortunately poor soil can be improved with various additives. Peat moss is the main ingredient in most soil mixes because it is a stable and consistent element. Peat absorbs water easily without adding bulk to the soil mix. To provide water retention and aeration bark is sometimes added to the mix. However, as bark breaks down it does deplete nitrogen from the soil. Compost, leaves and grass clippings are excellent ingredients to improve your soil structure and will increase air and water movement throughout the root zone. Other ingredients used to provide aeration to soil mixes, are vermiculite, perlite, and even styrofoam pellets and flakes, but these do not break down in the soil and your soil would not be considered organic.
If your ideal spot is now lawn you will need to get rid of the grass first. When it starts growing in spring spray an herbicide such as Finale or Round-Up. Either product will kill the grass within a couple of weeks, but will not harm the soil. Never spray when windy. Any overspray will result in the death of other plants. You will not be able to plant your garden right away using this method. It is best done the previous summer or fall. Two organic methods, lasagna gardening and double digging should also be done the previous season. Double digging cannot be done when the soil is wet in the spring, it will ruin your soil’s structure. We have information on both of these methods or you can go online for further information.
Working the ground the first year is especially important. If there is too much clay or sand this is the time to add your amendments. A power tiller will make short work of preparing the soil. Large machines can turn dead grass and any additions into the top 12 inches of soil. Good soil to a depth of 12 inches is the target to shoot for. You can rent power tillers or hire someone to perform this job for you. Wait until heavy spring moisture is out of the soil. Working wet or frozen soil will make it lumpy and ruin the soil structure for years.
The best way to water is by snaking a soaker hose between plants. Water for 30 minutes twice a week. Soil should be slightly moist several inches below the surface at all times. Overhead watering should be avoided as it wastes water and can spread disease.
Annual flowers and vegetables should be fed about every six weeks beginning July 1st. It is possible to overfeed. This will result in excessive leaves at the expense of flowers. Always follow label instructions. If you want chemical free vegetables use organic fertilizer or compost.
Established weeds will require hand pulling. Preen is a pre-emergent herbicide to control seed germination. Granules are sprinkled on the ground and lightly raked into the soil. This product should be watered in immediately.
A 3-inch layer of mulch will help conserve water and keep soil temperature more even. Mulch will also make it easier to pull any unwanted weeds or volunteer seedlings. Most organic mulches decompose in two or three years. Grass clippings are not a good option as they will mold if layered to thick. As the clippings dry they will form a mat that water will not be able to penetrate. It is best to add grass to the compost pile but only if it is weed and chemical free. Pine straw, shredded bark, wood chips and cocoa bean hulls are good organic mulches.
Visit your new garden every other day. Pick any weeds that have emerged. Try to keep up with this unpleasant task and you could be on your way to becoming an organic gardener. As the season progresses, you’ll be amazed at how quickly changes occur!