While it may be true that gardening at its highest level is an art, practiced best after years of training and experience, most of us are capable of producing wonderful, colorful, productive backyard gardens, that will make us the envy of our neighbors and friends.
Good gardens are practical, achieved with a minimum of fuss and maintained without requiring the time commitment of a share-cropper. Here’s an initial run-down on how to proceed with a successful backyard garden.
Let there be light!
Plants thrive on light, but some need more, some less. It’s easy to read the tags and see which plants require full sunlight and which require partial shade. It’s more difficult to decide which parts of your family plot provide the requirements written on the tags. If your back yard is treeless with no obstacles in the neighbors’ yards shading yours, then every plant you pick needs to thrive in full sunlight. Likewise, if bushes, trees, and buildings keep you in constant shade, low light-level vegetation is required. It’s the mix of shade and light that needs some definition.
The solution is easy. Take some 8.5” x 11” bond paper and cut it into four pieces. Staple the paper onto the top of popsicle sticks or tongue depressors. Then go out into your new garden and push one stick, with paper, into the ground where ever you think there might be an issue with the light level. Visit each stick at 9:00 AM, Noon, 4:00 PM and 8:00 PM, and see what the sun is doing. If you can see the sun, the sun can shine on your plants. Any stick on which you record four points of clear access is in full sunlight, two is in partial shade, and four notations of indirect light indicates full shade. This can be done on a stay-at-home Saturday and needs only to be done once to provide a guide for the entire season or seasons, unless you or your neighbors change the landscape.
Plants in full sun are water guzzlers so make sure you ask when buying perennials or seeds how water hardy your selection is. Plants can’t take direct sunlight right away, they get sunburned just like people, so you must put them out for a little time each day, then increasing their exposure gradually to harden them off. Plants need extra water to get roots growing, so be generous for the first two or three weeks they are in the ground. As a general rule, vegetable plots need as much sunlight as you can provide.
There’s Dirt and then there’s Dirt!
Whether your new garden belongs to a 70 year old classic home or a back split in a new subdivision, it’s a good idea to find out what your plants are growing in. Someone might have dumped something toxic in your back yard over the years, or the top soil that covers up the new construction scars might have been contaminated before it became the garden at your new abode. If you’ve got half an acre of property, scoop up samples at several sites you intend to use for growing things, (especially vegetables), and keep them separate, for separate tests. If you have a municipal-sized lot, several samples should still be collected and mixed together for one test. Your Agricultural Rep has test kits with bottles for this purpose.
The test will show what if anything is contaminating your soil, what the concentrations are and you can get advice on what you can do about it. Unfortunately the only option in severe cases is removing and replacing the contaminated dirt. The test can also indicate nutrient levels.
Soil comes in three consistencies. Heaviest and hardest to amend is clay. When wet it clumps together as if you could model with it. You need composted manure, a little sand and peat moss in abundance to break down its cohesiveness and provide a place where plants thrive. Second is loam and blessed is the gardener who acquires a plot of it. It does everything in moderation, retains moisture, clumps so it can be turned over prior to planting, usually has nutrients in abundance and encourages worms, which aerate and feed the soil. Outside of increasing its nutrient content after heavy-feeding crops, you need do nothing but spade over gardens like this each year.
Finally, there’s sand. It is the polar opposite to clay. No matter how wet it gets it never clumps, it doesn’t retain moisture well. When dry, the particles remain so separate, they blow away on a windy day. For sand you need all the additives you need for clay, but proportionally heavier on the peat moss to make the soil retain water. What ever type of soil you end up with, no soil is impossible to improve, given the time and correct additives. Ag Reps are also useful for general information on this topic as well.
If you plan on eating anything you grow, be sure to have the soil tested. If you just have to have a vegetable garden and worry about contamination, it may be possible to have the soil at a new house tested as a condition of purchase. Test kits are free in some areas, are charged for in others. Composted manure, brought from a pile at the co-op is messy and tends to be smelly, but contains many more bacteria beneficial to growing flowers and vegetables. If however, you want to avoid the fuss, all soil additives are available from your neighborhood garden centre, sanitized, compressed and bagged in movable amounts. Garden Centre employees owe their jobs to customer service, as a gardener who has bad results early on will either quit or not return. These people should be your front line source of information that needs to be in more detailed than could be provided in an article like this. Pick an old timer and odds are he’ll have an answer to your problem, no matter how esoteric you might think it is.