The first thing you need to decide is where to put your garden. Then you need to look at your soil in your chosen garden spot. Lastly you can decide what and how much to plant. In deciding where to put your garden, choose a well-drained and sunny site, with no large trees near by if possible. Tree roots will absorb nutrients and water that your garden needs and a large tree will shade the area too much. Also consider how much a young tree may grow in the coming years. Most flowers and vegetables need a full day of sunshine, but there are some varieties of plants that will tolerate some shade.
After choosing your garden’s locale, take a look at the soil in the area. Plant nutrient absorption is dependent on a soil’s pH, which is a measure of acidity or alkalinity. The minerals in a soil and the amount of rain that passes through the soil determine its acidity or alkalinity. You are shooting for a pH of close to 7.0, which is neutral, that is, it is neither alkaline, nor acidic. Soils with a pH below 7.0 are acidic, and those with a pH higher than 7.0 are alkaline. Most plants absorb nutrients best in a soil with a pH between 6 and 7.5. Test kits are available if you want to go to the trouble, but a good guideline is that acidic soils are more common in the eastern half of the United States, where rainfall is greatest, and alkaline soil is more common in the western half of the U.S. Add ground lime if the soil is too acidic, or garden sulfur if it is too alkaline. Most plants do best in a soil type known as loam, which contains roughly 50 percent sand, 25 percent clay, and 25 percent silt. You can add sand and compost to clay soils to improve its structure.
After you’ve prepared your soil, you can decide whether you want traditional garden rows or the newer square foot garden. I like the square foot garden which is divided into squares, so you can do one or two squares at a time and not kill yourself digging 30 rows at one time. It’s less time consuming in the long run. When one square stops producing, you can re-mulch it and replant another crop immediately. When you add your mulch more often this way, it helps improve the soil faster than a traditional row garden. This type of successive gardening helps with crop rotation. Just move everything over one square the next time you plant. It may help to map out your garden to help you remember what you planted where. Square gardening also helps facilitate companion planting which puts everything in closer proximity. Onions and garlic are never farther away than a few feet, which helps deter some pests. You can also plant a square of marigolds and nasturtiums to deter pests.
Before planting seeds, you should break up or till the soil. Some gardeners turn over the soil with a spade, while others break it up with a garden fork. I have found the t-handled hand garden tiller to be the best method for a small garden plot (under about 30 small rows or squares.) After tilling the soil, rake out any large debris, and then rake it smooth before planting. Some gardeners choose not to loosen the soil because the oxygen that enters the soil when it is tilled quickens the breakdown of needed organic matter in the soil. Instead, they just dig a small hole for each seed or plant. To keep the soil loose so that roots can develop easily, they keep it covered with a good layer of mulch. This organic matter encourages large populations of worms, whose tunneling breaks up the soil.
Every good gardener has a well-maintained compost pile. Garden, yard, and table wastes may be composted for a good fertilizer. A compost pile may be built by layering different kinds of waste in a wire or wood bin. It’s helpful to leave on side open for ease of access. Manure or greenery adds nitrogen to the pile to generate heat. Heat facilitates rotting and kills harmful organisms. Slightly dampen the pile and then cover it to facilitate the process. As heat builds up, the waste decomposes into a nutrient-rich compost. Some things you can add to the compost bin are grass clippings, leaves, wood ashes, fruit peels, vegetable matter, coffee grounds, egg shells, and animal manure, especially rabbit and chicken wastes. Adding wood ash adds needed potassium to the soil. Other materials that can be used as mulch include bark chips, pine cones, newspapers and cardboard. The compost should be mixed and watered ever so often. After a few months, the new compost can then be either dug in to the garden soil or applied around plants as a fertilizer and mulch. Mulching in bare spots between plants will also keep down weeds, but it is important that the mulch not touch the garden plants, or they may begin to rot. The mulch also keeps the soil from drying out. If plants look pale and weak in midsummer, add some new compost or other fertilizer again.
After preparing the soil for your garden of delights, you can decide what to plant and how much you want to plant. Most beginners so too much seed and don’t thin the plants enough, so don’t over do. Seeds need to be planted at different depths, depending on the seed’s size and its need for light. Seeds contain stored food that provides the energy needed for sprouting, or germination. Small seeds don’t hold much food, so they are sown on or near the soil surface, where they will not need a lot of energy to push through the soil. Larger seeds have enough food to be planted a bit deeper, which gives the root system more time to develop as the seedling grows up through the soil. As a general rule, a seed should be planted three times as deep as the seed is wide. Some seeds, such as lettuce, need light to germinate and must be sown on or very near the soil surface. Once the seeds are sown, the gardener gently presses down the soil so that the seed touches soil, which helps keep the seeds moist. Flower bulbs need to be planted at a depth that prevents them from sprouting above ground too early, when the weather may be too cold. Bulbs should generally be planted at a depth that is at least three times the bulb size.
After sowing your seed or planting your bulbs, young plants will need to be watered regularly. Most plants need about an inch of water a week, so if nature doesn’t provide the needed thirst quencher, then you will have to do it yourself. One way to water plants is by using plastic milk jugs or cola bottles with small holes punched in the bottom. These should be filled with water, and placed beside a plant. Watering larger areas usually requires a sprinkler. Evaporation of water from the soil can be minimized by covering the soil with a protective layer of mulch. Mulch acts as a barrier that slows evaporation by reducing the amount of air and heat that reaches the soil surface. Most gardeners water in the early morning, when the air is cool and still, but the sun will soon dry the leaves. This helps to avoid plant diseases that thrive in cool, moist conditions and to reduce water lost through evaporation.
Gardeners who want to plant in early spring, while there is still a threat of frost, should use a cold frame. A cold frame works like a small greenhouse to protect young plants from the cold. It can be as simple as a wood box with no bottom, and a piece of plastic or glass over the top. The clear plastic or glass cover traps heat from the sun. Another way is to have a small green house to start and protect young plants. Any old shed can be easily converted to a gardening shed with a few shelves and a table or two to work on. It helps if it is well lighted or has windows or sky lights to let the sunshine in.
After your garden is planted, the next thing you have to worry about is weeds. But if you’ve mulched well, it shouldn’t be a big problem. You can hoe up the roots or dig out the long tap roots of some weeds. Some of these weeds, though, are quite edible and can be left or transplanted in another area of the garden. Sorel, which has a lemony taste, is one weed that can be a good addition to a beginner’s garden. It can be a good salad green. Another good green is the common dandelion. The dandelion’s leaves are edible if collected early in the spring before they become too bitter. The young leaves are used for salad greens and the larger older leaves for potherbs. The root of the dandelion can be used as a laxative and is also roasted and ground as a substitute or adulterant for coffee, and the flowers are sometimes used for making wine. Wild ginger is another. Its roots make a good tea. If you’re planting flowers as well, daylilies are a good addition and can also be eaten. The roots, as well as, the flower are edible. These might make a good border around your vegetable patch.
The last thing on the list for a beginner is to watch out for bugs. Insects that are good for the garden are pollinators, like bees and wasps, and insects that eat bad insects, such as the preying mantis and the ladybug. Other good things for the garden are earthworms and rolly-pollies. Snails and slugs are the biggest pests and should be eliminated if possible. Placing used coffee grounds throughout the garden may help deter these. Some swear by stale bear traps, which are tin cans placed in the ground with a little stale beer added to it. The snails crawl into them and can’t get back out. If you’ve laid walking planks between your garden plots, you can periodically lift them and destroy the snails you find there, as well. There is an assortment of other insects that cause problems in the garden, so you may want to consider using a pesticide, but these can destroy beneficial insects as well. It’s best just to had pick in a small garden and destroy what you know is bad. Caterpillars can be nasty invaders, too, along with the tomato hornworm. Onions and garlic helps deter some pests, as well as marigolds and nasturtiums. Plant these in several areas of the garden.
Some additions to the garden that will make your little piece of earth a little piece of heaven is a water pond, a fire pit, and a bird bath. A small decorative water pond near the garden can bring beneficial frogs to the garden to help control insects. A stylish bird bath is also a nice addition that will bring birds to the garden to eat the insects. A fire pit is a nice place to sit beside on a cool evening and also keeps you supplied in wood ash. You can burn pine cones and other small fallen yard debris. Benches, trellises, and other additions can help beautify the area. These can be very simple or highly elaborate and as decorative as you desire them to be. Your garden should be as beautiful as it is healthful, so eat the fruits of your labor fresh from the vine, and feast your eyes on all the beauty that God has provided us. So now that you have the basics of garden graces, sit back and relax a while in all your heavenly places.