Learning to garden takes time. It’s also helpful to have a seasoned gardener show you how to garden in your area. If you don’t have someone on hand: you now have me! I may not live where you do (and it makes a huge difference if you are growing in a different area) but I can show you the basics. This is the second part of a four part online course. It’s free and if you would like to know more go to the top of this page and click on the Gardening Basics tab. Or you can get the first part of this course here: Beginning Gardener (part 1) The links in this post and part 1 are up to date. (I’m still working on the links in the Gardening Basics at the top of the page.) Follow along in these posts and I will get you started with a solid gardening foundation.
There are some things seasoned gardeners know about that will help you (regardless of where you are growing). I’m in South Texas. Not many places get or stay this hot. Florida does, but they have a lot more rain than we do. You will have a local growing climate whose specifics will not transfer to other places any better than mine do…but the basics apply: no matter your longitude or latitude!
I always recommend finding local growing information at your county extension’s website. Just put your county’s name and “county extension” in your search bar. This will pull up local gardening information and give you access to local master gardeners. Having a “master gardener” designation means these people are current volunteers in your area. They keep that designation by volunteering their time and knowledge to help people who need answers to horticultural questions. They are here to help. I email my county extension office with a question and frequently get my answer within 24 hours. Regardless of your gardening location: the information below will help. So, here is part two for the beginner gardener:
You will need to 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 sun exposure: 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.
If you are in a water restricted area please read my post that explains why you should not put rock down: Please Don’t Rock Your Yard! If you need to cover an area: use wood mulch. It breaks down and is not a permanent answer to a temporary problem. There are wood mulches that resist wind. Again, ask your county extension agents for more help in this area. Dry or rocky sloped 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 large 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 also 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. (Note that your local nurseries, especially big box stores, will sell you plants that will not do well in your area in the long run. Perennials are expensive. Do your research before you buy anything that you want to last.) 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 flower or vegetable? Warm season flower or vegetable? 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: I don’t recommend trying to grow from seed by randomly grabbing seed packets while you are out and about. I see a lot of new gardeners buying up seed and then sprinkling the whole package directly out in their yards. You may get a couple of plants that way, but in nature (and in ideal conditions): plants will self-sow (regrow yearly from last years dropped seed). Each plant produces hundreds to 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 some 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 a beginner gardener gets seeds going, they might want to also check their nursery for plants. Grow a set of plants: one set from seed and one set of the same kind of plant from a local nursery. You will be able to see which does better in your climate. Although nursery plants are more expensive than seed, it is not as complicated to get them going. They will be much larger and produce earlier. I buy large potted pansies to grow over our winter. If I started with seed it would be much more complicated and my flowers would most likely not be very impressive. I skip the extra work with sprouting and growing pansies from seed and pay the grower to do that for me. I then watch for sales and buy several flats when they mark them down to 50 cents a plant in during the Fall. Efficiency is a big part of my gardening plan. I have so much area planted that I focus attention on what I know will work best for me, so that I have more picking and less planting. This will become more clear to the beginner gardener as their experience grows.
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 are terrific seeds to try when you are starting out and learning to grow. Corn and melons are strong growers too, but harvesting takes experience. The best things to start out with are things that don’t require judging ripeness. Leaf vegetables, root vegetables, herbs and nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, ground cherries, tomatillos etc that ripen well for your area). These plants that I recommend 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://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/914/ (Here is my short cut to the hardening off process.)
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 big, healthy and fast maturing plants to win down here. If I try and grow large fruited tomatoes I usually end up with one or two tomatoes on a plant and then they usually split from heavy rains or the birds peck a hole in them long before they are ripe. I understand most people think tomatoes are easy (and in certain climates they are), but they don’t live this far South!
In a nearly opposite climate, I’ve also lived on the front range in Colorado. To get tomatoes to ripen before frost you had to make a plastic tent to cover mature plants to keep the daytime heat in. In Kansas: tomatoes were bountiful and simple plants to grow. As you can see: it depends on where you are. Ask your county extension office what seeds and vegetable or fruit varieties are sure fire growers in your area.
Buying seed can get expensive and you need to remember to buy only for the space you currently have. If you don’t think ahead you can end up with so much seed that the seed will go bad before you have space to plant them (leeks, onions and parsnips are notorious for being short lived seed)! Seeds are one more thing to worry about. New gardeners need to go slow. If you are just starting out, pick a couple of recommended plants and expand only as your experience gives you the opportunity to do so.
This is the end of the second course. I hope you picked up some tips you can use this season! Watch for the third course and I will be posting my favorite gardening books for the fourth segment. Good luck and get out there and get dirty!