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13 Fundamental Things About Gardening | Gardening Tips

Updated on April 28, 2013
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Gardening is broadly considered as the cultivation of plants in or around the home. In the more usual, restricted sense, the term gardening refers chiefly to flower and vegetable gardening typically employing herbaceous annual and perennial species. The latter definition excludes turf grass and lawns, which constitute a separate category, and also house plants, ornamental shrubs (including roses), and trees, which are greenhouse, woody ornamental, and nursery plants, respectively, rather than the typical home garden types.

Before you start gardening, there are 13 fundamental things you should know about gardening.

1. Garden Location

A garden should be located in a spot favorable to plant growth. Soil can be built up and weeds and other pests controlled, but not much can be done for a garden that is overly shaded and must contest with tree roots for moisture and nutrients, or for one in a boggy, poorly drained location. Ideally, a garden should have full sun or be shaded only part of the day. Reasonably level land is desirable so that soil will not be washed away. A garden established near trees will soon be invaded by tree roots. While a site near small trees should be satisfactory for a few years, it will probably have to be abandoned later for a more favorable location.

Choice of location will vary with the available property, including the land's accessibility, convenience, and aesthetic factors. Flower gardens are typically for display, their location being tied to the property's landscaping, while vegetable gardens are planted more for the fresh produce they yield and so may be placed out of sight.

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2. Drainage

Whether drainage is adequate is usually evident from the lay of the land. Plant growth can be a clue. Sedges and rushes instead of grass and typical field weeds indicate poor drainage. Moss usually indicates soil compaction and infertility. If water continues to form puddles long after a rain has ended, it may be wise to lay drainage tiles in a trench 1 foot (30 cm) or so beneath the surface of the soil before the garden is laid out. The trench will have to be dug in a gradual incline from the garden area to some lower-lying part of the yard. Agricultural tiles or perforated plastic pipe is laid in the trench, with lateral feeder lines about 10 feet (3 meters) apart extending throughout the garden area.

Not often is so elaborate a drainage project necessary. Usually the establishment of adequate surface drainage will suffice to conduct water away. To facilitate surface drainage there should be a slight grade away from the plantings if at all possible. In some cases it may be advantageous to bring in soil to raise the garden level. Raised beds, however, may dry out a bit more quickly in periods of drought, and slopes made too steep will be a perpetual source of soil erosion.

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3. Soil

An indication of the ability of the soil to support a good garden is the way vegetation, whether comprising weeds or cultivated plants, is already growing. If the vegetation is abundant and vigorous, chances are the soil will be good for garden plants.

Garden soils vary greatly from place to place, ranging from nearly pure sand to nearly pure clay. The difference is one of texture. Sandy soils consist mostly of larger-sized particles (sand), whereas clays are made up primarily of microscopically small particles. The former drain quickly but hold moisture and fertility poorly, drying so fast that they are a perpetual nuisance to keep watered. The latter absorb water slowly but hold it and nutrients well. Clays are tillable only within a narrow range of moisture content, which may occur naturally only a few days out of the year. Soils with a texture falling between those of sand and clay are composed of intermediate-sized particles, or silt.

The best soils are loams, which exhibit a balance of components liberally buffered with organic residues. Only when there is adequate organic content will the soil be a pleasure to handle, being tillable soon after a rain and loose and crumbly to work.

If the garden does not have good loam, this deficiency can be remedied by the regular addition of organic materials in the form of compost, manures, peat, processed sewerage, tankage, and vegetable wastes. A green manure crop, such as ryegrass or a legume, that is grown to be plowed under, can be raised where feasible. Such additions help promote fertility, but their main advantage is in improvement of soil structure, making the soil more tillable and receptive to water, thereby encouraging good rooting.

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4. Fertility

Nutrient elements needed for plant growth are much more easily and inexpensively provided than are additions for improving soil structure. An inexpensive fertilizer does much to foster growth and makes even a poor soil productive. For flowers and fruits, a 10-20-10 or similar fertilizer, which is relatively rich in phosphorus and potassium, is recommended. The numerical values indicate the respective percentages of nitrogen (10%), phosphorus (20%), and potassium (10%), the major nutrients. A fertilizer meant to encourage leaf growth in plants such as spinach and lettuce, or a lawn grass, should have the nitrogen predominating, with a 20-10-10 or similar analysis recommended. Only in rare cases (and almost never where organic matter is adequate) are secondary and minor elements needed in addition to the three major ones.

Manure was the original and traditional fertilizer for gardens. It not only contributes nutrients but also improves the soil physically with its organic content. Nowadays manure is hard to get and is very expensive, compared with chemical fertilizers, for the nutrient strength it provides. Moreover, it frequently carries weed seeds. Modern gardeners generally have forsaken manure in favor of adding weed-free compost, lawn clippings, purchased peat, or other "clean" organic materials and supplementing them with chemical fertilizers.

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5. pH

County agents can send soil samples to the state laboratory for testing, but these tests can also be performed at home with inexpensive kits, especially for a simple determination of acidity or alkalinity. Acidity-alkalinity is indicated by a mathematical index termed pH, in which 7 is neutral, less than 7 is acid, and more than 7 is alkaline. A deviation of one unit in either direction from neutral represents a tenfold increase in acidity or alkalinity. Thus, a pH of 6 is ten times more acid than a pH of 7, and a pH of 5 is ten times more acid than a pH of 6. A pH range from 6 to 7.5 is usually best for gardening, although some acid-loving plants—especially members of the azalea family—prefer soils even more acid than pH 6.

Acid soils can be made more alkaline by the addition of ground limestone, with 50 to 100 pounds for each 1,000 square feet of surface (24.5 to 49 kg per 100 sq meters) usually sufficing to raise the pH one unit (as from 5.5 to 6.5). Sulfur and gypsum mixed into alkaline soils at somewhat lesser rates help to correct excessive alkalinity. When the pH rises much above 8, essential trace elements tend to become unavailable to the plant, which may begin to suffer from a condition called chlorosis, characterized by a yellowing of the leaves.

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6. Mulches

A mulch is any relatively inert blanketing material that may be applied to the surface of the soil, where it prevents the growth of weeds and helps retain moisture. In summer a mulch keeps the soil cooler than if it were exposed to the sun. In cold snaps a mulch prevents a sudden change in soil temperature. A mulched garden needs watering less frequently. Mulch keeps plants that tend to trail along the ground free from soil splash, and it protects against the rotting of fruit in contact with soil.

A mulch should be loose enough to let rain soak through to the soil but thick enough to smother sprouting weeds. Most of the time organic residues, such as peat moss, chopped straw or twigs, shredded bark, nut shells, grass clippings, pine needles, or similar materials, are used. As these materials gradually decay—on the underside of the mulch, in contact with the soil—they add humus, improving soil structure. From time to time old organic mulch can be spaded into the soil and replaced with new mulch on top.

Polyethylene, fiberglass, and other plastics also have been used for garden mulching. When used in sheet form, these materials are staked down with wire wickets or large-headed nails to avoid blowing. Matted layers of newspaper or wet newspaper shredded to pulp also find use, as does excelsior (wood shavings). A black mulch is especially useful in early spring for absorbing the sun's heat and raising the soil temperature, encouraging faster early growth of seedlings adapted to warm weather. Black polyethylene sheeting is often used for this purpose.

Mulches such as shredded bark and nut shells are quite attractive and are often used in ornamental beds that are prominently on display. Colored stone is becoming much used for ornamental mulching, especially in the southwestern United States. It is usually best underlaid with a plastic sheet to prevent emergence of weeds through the loose stone.

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7. Equipment

Equipment for tending the home garden can be as simple or as elaborate as taste and budget dictate. In an age of powered equipment, not many gardeners spade extensive areas, preferring to pay to have the garden plowed by tractor or to rent or purchase a rotary tiller. Once the garden is under cultivation and weeds are prevented from seeding for several years, the need for cultivation is lessened. It sometimes can even be dispensed with entirely if the soil is in good physical condition. Freezing and thawing through winter loosens and naturally cultivates the soil. While the soil is soggy in spring, running machinery or walking over it causes compacting and should be avoided. Often, scratching the surface of a good soil with a rake is all that is needed to make a seedbed. Furrows for row crops can be prepared simply with a triangular hoe.

If the garden is of appreciable size, a cart will be useful for hauling. Hoes, rakes, spades, tined forks, and other tools can be used for loosening soil and keeping down weeds. Bigger gardens may be cultivated with a rotary tiller. Some gardeners use power shredders to chop up garbage and old vegetation for making compost and for creating mulches from coarse materials. In most climates occasional irrigation will be needed to supplement rain, which means that sufficient hose for watering, or a sprinkling system, will be required. A fertilizer spreader may prove handy for the lawn as well as the garden. Sprayers or dusters for applying pesticides, and a few small hand tools such as trowels and pruning shears, round out equipment needs.

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8. Preparing the Soil

The type of gardening soil being used governs how extensively it must be prepared. Most gardens should receive an initial plowing to bury vegetation and debris, which will then decay underground to the benefit of the soil. Organic materials and fertilizers should be mixed in during initial cultivation. Hand tools or powered machinery such as a tractor-drawn disk or rotary tiller can break up clods and provide a finished soil surface suited to planting. Thereafter tillage will vary according to the abundance of weeds, the kind of crop being planted, the tendency of the soil to pack, and other factors.

Ground with only limited topsoil—the dark, humusy layer near the surface—may require improvement of the infertile subsoil for rooting to be deep. These soils may have to be plowed quite deeply or, in the case of small gardens, may require double spading. In the latter case a deep trench is dug and then successively adjacent soil is turned into the trench, with the deeper layers on top. If this much effort is to be expended, it is wise to invest in organic matter and fertilizer for mixing throughout the soil column in order to improve the deeper layers.

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9. Sowing and Planting

Most gardeners purchase seeds of their choice and sow them directly outdoors, thinning or transplanting the plants to required spacing. In a good soil, and with seedbeds that are well cultivated, this is rather simply accomplished. Larger seeds, such as corn and beans, are laid out in shallow furrows, and then adjacent soil is raked on top of them. Soil can be firmed along the planted row by tamping with a rake or other tool or by walking along the row. Smaller seeds, such as those of the onion and snapdragon, are probably more effectively planted if scattered evenly over the surface, after which the soil can be raked 0.5-inch (1.3-cm) deep so as to tumble the seed among the soil chunks. The surface should be kept firm and moist. Very tiny seeds, as of the petunia and nicotiana, are probably best started in separate seedbeds that can be given intensive attention and then transplanted to a permanent location. Some home gardeners start these and other bedding plants indoors in early spring for transplanting outdoors in late spring. An outdoor cold frame is desirable for "hardening off" seedlings started indoors.

Garden supply stores offer special apparatus for indoor seedbeds, including trays that are self-irrigating, lights of sufficient intensity for compact plant growth, and a prepared soil mix, like that used in greenhouses. Many home gardeners prefer to buy young plants from a greenhouse or garden center for planting outdoors. Ordinarily it is more convenient to purchase new seed of precise genetic identity each year rather than to try to save seed from a previous harvest. However, some gardeners do save seed. Some seeds, such as melon seeds, store quite well, whereas others, such as parsnip seeds, lose viability within a year. Seed to be saved should be allowed to mature fully "on the vine" and then be sifted or washed free of pulp and other debris, thoroughly dried, and kept in a closed container away from moisture and heat until time for planting.

10. Cultivation

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Very little cultivation is needed in gardens that have been kept weed free for a long time or have been well mulched to keep down weeds. Soils that are low in organic content and pack at the surface, shedding rain, may benefit from cultivation that, by loosening the soil, lets rain soak into it. Other than this, the main reason for cultivating is to fight the growth of weeds, which compete with the crop for light, nutrients, and water. Deep cultivation, however, may hurt crop roots. In some instances weeds can be controlled with preemergence chemical herbicides that kill most weed seedlings as they sprout but that do not injure the crop, either because the crop is already up or because the particular chemical is not antagonistic to it. Weed control is seldom perfect, even in a mulched garden, and occasional hand pulling or hoeing of weeds is usually necessary.

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11. Watering

Gardens should be watered whenever plants show signs of wilting. Inexpensive soil moisture meters are available. In most cases a gardener soon becomes familiar with plant needs and does not allow the garden to completely dry out or remain waterlogged for any length of time. The frequency of watering varies with the kind of soil, but as a general rule it is well to water generously but infrequently. In this way the whole root zone is moistened periodically, while the surface becomes desiccated between waterings, helping to restrain sprouting weeds. Air, which is vital for good root growth, enters the root zone as the water percolates downward.

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12. Pest and Disease Control

No garden is entirely free of pests and diseases. A wide variety of pest controls is available, including herbicides for spraying weeds or providing a chemical blanket at the soil surface that prevents them from sprouting, highly effective insecticides that control both sucking and chewing insects, and helpful fungicidal sprays. Some insecticides are systemic—that is, they are absorbed into the plant sap stream from applications made to the soil and keep the plant immune to insect attack for many weeks. The fungicides, requiring fairly accurate identification of disease symptoms and timing of application, are less used by home gardeners and are better suited to the professional horticulturist. Any well-stocked garden store can supply an assortment of remedies from which to choose. In the United States all of them are given federal approval for safety and effectiveness when used according to directions.

Many gardens, however, get by adequately without the use of pesticides. Also, fear of environmental pollution has led to the abandonment of products that are effective but too persistent, such as dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT). New, more suitable pesticides are continuously introduced, and home gardeners are urged to seek the recommendations of local authorities as to the best agents for controlling particular pests.

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13. Fencing and Supports

Depending on the local situation, supplementary measures may be needed for the garden. Choice vegetable plants, such as beets, chard, and beans, are favorites of rabbits, and it may be necessary to surround the garden with a low chicken-wire fence to forestall loss of crop. Ornamental fencing may be useful in screening a vegetable garden from general view, particularly unsightly components, such as a compost pile or tool shed. Stockade fences of abutting logs are often used, as are open fences and trellises, over which vines can be trained. Strong fences may be needed to protect the garden from being trampled by trespassers. Where space is limited, stakes may be needed for tomatoes, as an alternative to letting the plants sprawl over the ground. Plants such as pole beans and morning glories need a tepee-type framework or other structure on which to climb.

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