There’s nothing like growing a garden to make your house (condo, apartment, townhome) feel like a home. It doesn’t matter whether you grow flowers, edibles, or a mix, there’s something about watching a tiny seedling mature into a beautiful plant that provides food or adds beauty to your landscape that provides an amazing sense of accomplishment. What makes growing a garden even better is that it isn’t difficult, especially if you keep the following six tips top of mind.
1. Select the right place for your garden.
The location of your garden is a major aspect of its success. If you are growing a vegetable garden, you don’t want to select a site that is shady for most of the day. Likewise, if you have decided to grow shade-loving plants like hostas, you’ll want to avoid sunny sites.
In addition to light considerations, think about the view. When growing vegetables, the space isn’t always as appealing to look at as a space planted with flowers. You can always edge a vegetable garden with flowers like zinnias to make it prettier to look at. This ensures you see the site and you don’t forget to tend it on a regular basis.
A final note on site selection is to think about proximity to water. If at all possible, select a site that doesn’t require hundreds of feet of hose. This is simply a tip of convenience. Unwinding and winding up a really long hose can be a lot of work.
2. Discover what USDA Hardiness Zone you are in
Knowing your hardiness zone will ensure you don’t select trees, shrubs, vines, many types of fruiting plants or perennials that won’t survive in your climate because it’s too hot in the summer or too cold in the winter. It’s also a good starting point for determining your last frost date in the spring so you know when you can plant vegetables and annuals.
The numbers start in the north and increase as you move south, so the further south you move, the higher the zone number and the warmer the climate. If you live in Zone 6 and you select a plant that is hardy to Zone 5, the plant will do just fine in your yard. However, if you select a plant labeled hardy to Zone 7, it will most likely not survive the winter.
3. Amend your soil
Just about every garden site will require soil amendment, so unless the dirt in the site you’ve selected for your garden is easy to dig, crumbly, accepts water easily and has a loose structure for plant roots to grow. Well-aged manure and compost are great organic amendments for your soil; work one to two inches of one of these into the top three or so inches of the soil in your new garden site. In an existing garden, when adding new plants, place a handful of compost into the hole with the new plant.
4. Water Wisely
Watering your garden isn’t something you’ll want to do on a schedule. For the best results, feel the soil. Take a small handful. If you are able to form it into a small ball, or it sticks to your hand, you don’t need to water, the soil has enough moisture. However, if it hardly holds together in your hand, or if the surface of the garden looks baked, cracked or hard, it’s time to water!
There’s also a best time of day to water. Try not to water late in the day. The plant’s foliage needs time to dry. If it stays wet for a long time, like over night, mold, mildew and disease problems can become an issue. When you water early in the day, the light and warmth of the day will dry the water droplets that sit upon plant leaves.
5. Stay on top of the Weeds
Weeding is likely the least popular garden chore. You will do yourself a big favor if you weed early and often because you’ll have fewer to pull, they’ll be smaller and have less developed roots, and they won’t have had a chance to go to seed. Hand weeding and hoeing are the best weed-removal methods. Be careful not to dig too deep because you’ll bring up dormant weed seeds that will then germinate and grow more weeds.
Putting down a weed barrier and a thick layer of mulch–two to three inches deep–can help keeping the weeds at bay by blocking out the sun needed to germinate weed seeds in the soil. You can purchase a commercial mulch or use shredded leaves, pine needles, or even straw. A word of warning on straw. Be cautious to ensure that you know you are buying clean straw. If there are weeds in the straw, you’ll just end up planting the very thing you’re trying to prevent!
6. Feed your plants
Even though you’ve started with great soil, your plants will likely need a mid-season boost from a quality fertilizer, which will ensure nutrient levels in your soil are at the right level for healthy plant growth. Testing your soil is the only way to determine the level of nutrients present in your particular soil.
Fortunately this is much easier than it sounds. Just give your local cooperative extension a call and they can tell you what they need to test your soil for free or at a low cost – depending upon where you live.
The test results will guide you to the proper fertilizer needs of your soil. Don’t skip this step because you may find that there are actually high levels of some nutrients, and adding more will further inhibit plant growth.
Once you have the results in hand and know what your soil needs, you can head to the nursery to pick up a fertilizer that fits your needs. Fertilizer labels have three numbers, such as 10-10-10. The numbers represent the percentage of Nitrogen(N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K) in the fertilizer. If your soil is high in Nitrogen, your plants will have great foliage but few blooms. In this case, you’ll want a fertilizer labeled with 3-20-20, indicating that it is low in N.
7. Basic Tools You’ll Be Glad to Have
Like any hobby, having the right tools makes a huge difference in your success. A trowel is going to be the most important hand tool in your garden tool belt. You will also want a cultivator to help loosen soil that has become compacted over time. The trowel will be your main workhorse, but the transplanter (the one with the measuring marks on it) will make all the difference when you need to measure the right size holes for different plants, and the cultivator will loosen soils that end up packed over time. A weeding tool is also going to be a big help in making sure you are able to pull weeds root and all, which will help ensure they don’t grow back. Finally, don’t forget gloves to protect your hands from picky thistles, thorns and of course to help keep your hands and nails clean.