Tips for the new OR NOVICE gardener



            A garden writer for the Boston Globe recently said that 80% of people who garden are just starting out or call themselves beginning level gardeners. A few years ago I asked a Master Gardener Class to share with me what they would say if one of these new or novice gardeners asked “How can I improve my landscape?” Or “How can I make my flowers, shrubs, and trees grow better?” The group broke into small groups and provided written tips and recommendations.

          The #1 tip from almost every group was “improve your soil” when starting a new garden or improving an existing garden, or prior to planting a new lawn or shrub. This can be done by adding humus, such as compost, peat moss, composted manure, leaves, or any organic matter. Top soil as sold by garden centers, hardware stores, drug stores, and/or box stores is probably not any better than the soil you have now.  Most have very little organic matter, which is what you need to improve your bed.

          When I built my house and started my vegetable garden, which is now a flower bed, I double dug the new garden area even though it had very nice, black soil. For 50 years it has paid off and has been worth the initial effort. Double digging means laying out your area and then digging down two spadefuls deep for the width of the bed. I saved the dirt I took out and used it at the other end of the bed. In the bottom of this dug out area I put leaves,  and/or peat moss, and/or composted manure and then dug the next row and put the dirt over the leaves, manure, and peat moss. I did this until I reached the end of the bed and then put the saved soil over the humus in the last row. If you are starting a new lawn you can add peat moss, compost, or composted manure and then till this in. Anything to improve the organic matter in the soil will be worth the extra effort over time. 

          Every year in my vegetable garden I try to dig in compost and also try to put a layer of compost over the perennial flower beds. I also try to add a layer of compost to my raspberries, rhubarb, asparagus, and peonies.

Before you start on improving your soil, it is recommended that you get a soil test so you know the pH level (how acid or alkaline the soil is). Most good testing sites will also tell you, if requested, how much organic matter is in the soil, and if you need to add any nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous, potash, or micronutrients. Make sure you let those who are testing your soil know what you are going to plant in that area so they can give you a specific recommendation. This may mean a separate test for your flower garden, your vegetable garden, your lawn, and where you are going to plant a tree or shrub. To get your soil tested go to the nearest lab that tests soil. Contact your local County Extension Office for a list of laboratories in you area.  

          The second tip from the Master Gardeners is to make sure you save the tag on any flower, tree, shrub, or vegetable plants you purchase or seed you plant. Using the information from books, the internet, and that tag, learn as much as you can about the new plant so you put it in the correct place and give it the care it needs. The following questions are important:

1.     Does this plant like sun, part shade, or full shade?

2.     How tall and how wide will this plant get? Where you want to plant it, is there room? Do not put a tree or shrub too close to the house. Give it room to grow. Give vegetable plants room to grow. Especially vining crops as some, such as pumpkins produce primarily at the end of the vine.

3.     How much fertilizer does this plant need, if any, and how often?

4.     How much water does this plant need and how often? Will this plant tolerate wet feet? Will this plant tolerate a location that does not get any water, except the rain, after the first year or two?

5.     What kind of soil does this plant prefer? That is, does it like sandy soil, well drained soil, moist soil, and will it tolerate our hard clay soil? Also, what pH level does this plant need? For example, Blueberries, Azalea, Rhododendron, and some other plants prefer and need acidic soil (pH of 5 to 5.5) to grow well. Our soil in Southeast and South Central Nebraska is more neutral (pH of 6.8 to 7.2).

6.     Will this plant reseed itself or produce suckers or off shoots that get in the way? Will this cause the plant to become invasive in the landscape?

7.     Is this plant an annual (grows one year and then dies), a biennial (grows one year, then the second year flowers and produces seeds and then usually dies), or a perennial (will live for a number of years in the right location with the right care)? Many catalogs may list a plant as a perennial, but is not a perennial in our zone. We are in USDA Hardiness zone #5. Zone #6 starts just south of the Nebraska border and what is a perennial there and in Kansas City and in Wichita, may be an annual for us.  Find out what zone it will survive in.

8.     Will this plant take any special care during our hot, dry, summers, or in our cold winters? Every plant has special needs and/or preferences. What are they?

Learn what the answers to these questions are and you will be more successful.

 Copyright 2015