This is the third 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 and second parts of this course here: Beginning Gardener (part 1) and Beginning Gardener (part 2) The links in this post and part 1 and part 2 are up to date. 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 three for the beginner gardener:
What are you growing? Will the answers to the questions from part 1 and part 2 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 your choice of plants 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 can 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 Master Gardener 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. You can start at your local grocer. In the international isle you may find canned examples of fruit you are interested in growing. Also, Amazon might carry what you are looking for. Look for dried fruit, jams and jellies online. You can then decide if you want to pursue the plant. Sometimes there are only examples at the nurseries that sell the plants. Raintree nursery often carries jellies and jams of their products.
Also, if you have 50 pounds of 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 kinds 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 interested in selling your surplus call your local CSA and ask what they are interested in purchasing, then plant those types of plants. You can also find specialty markets online, but you are dealing with food distribution laws at that point and you will need to have sound advice before you begin. Find your market before you plant your trees. It would be a huge issue for you if you are planting things that you expect to sell that don’t (and won’t) have a market. Orchards are a huge responsibility and expensive to maintain and create. Make sure you are aiming at something that you can actually accomplish.
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. Raised squared beds can solve dense planting sites. I make a cinder block square, one block deep then fill the raised bed with compost and good soil. The next thing I do is turn the new dirt into the raised bed and finally dig the hole. This keeps a lot of my plant’s roots far enough from the constant clay yuck that they will flourish rather than become weak. You can definitely amend just your planting hole, but it needs to filled back in with mostly native soil. If you have heavy clay (like I do) and you dig your hole: if you fill it back up only with garden soil you have basically created an in-ground pot. The roots will readily spread out until they hit the dense soil around the hole. The roots will then turn back inward and spend the rest of their time filling in the looser soil instead of spreading out. You can amend soil for a tree, but keep the soil 70-80% native soil and 30-20% amended soil (like compost and garden soil.) Also, the size and type of plant dictates what you can add to the hole. For trees and shrubs you should not add fertilizer to the planting hole. For annuals and small perennials (and this is still only if you are planting in your growing season and not fall or winter): I always add some Osmocote (a kind of granular fertilizer) to the hole.
****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 what to plant each week in your growing season. http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/what-to-plant-now-zl0z0903zalt.aspx I totally rely on this site! It updates every two weeks and sends me personalized reminders to my inbox. This site reminds me to get going when my season starts and let’s me know if I’ve waited too long to put something in. I don’t use it religiously but I do check it every so often to wrap my head around specific dates I need to be aware of. Like that: my corn goes in in February. I like that this reminds me of current plantings in two week intervals in my inbox.
Want an easy way to drag and drop to get a vegetable map for this season’s garden? There’s several available here: https://www.thespruce.com/free-garden-planners-1357749
Burpee’s has a free garden app that is worth looking at. I tend to forget to use it because I prefer the planting reminders from Mother Earth News. But Burpees has plant specific information and growing tips. Want to keep track of when to harvest? Burpee’s app can handle that. Beginners will be able to take the guesswork out of the gardening experience.
I also enter fruit harvest dates in my phone’s calendar (I even keep track of when to expect bluebonnets and native fruit this way.) I currently keep track of plantings by taking a photograph of the bed on my cell phone and then using my phone’s screenwrite function to map out the name’s of varieties of seed that I’ve put in, their ripening period and the weight of the fruit. Otherwise I will completely forget, as I’m always trying new varieties. For example this year: I have 4 types of watermelon growing, and my map keeps me on top of everything. This way I am at least a little more organized!
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: Learn More”. 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, beekeeping, composting, canning and creating fermented food. I would never spend the kind of money they are asking for their products, though.
You got it all? You sure? I know: too much information right? You may not know everything 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 fourth and final installment of this class will cover my favorite publications and growing aides.