From The Ground Up

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A couple of issues ago, The Rim Review hobby/spare time feature focused on the plant recommendations of garden expert Glen McCombs, owner of Plant Fair Nursery. He discussed the plants and shrubs that can be planted now or in the near future as winter ends and spring begins in the Rim Country.

But before planting, starting a new garden takes thought and planning.

The following article "How to Start a New Garden" is from the Web site about.com and was written by Marie Iannotti in "Your Guide to Gardening."

• When starting a new garden -- Start Small

You may have visions of drifts of color, wild flower prairies or bushels of tomatoes, but get your feet wet first. For flower gardens, choose a site close to the door or with a good view from a favorite window. Place your garden where you'll see and enjoy it often. This will also motivate you to garden more.

• Evaluate and Choose a Site

If you have your heart set on growing a specific plant, check to see what growing conditions it requires. Vegetables will need at least 6 hours of sun exposure a day. The same goes for most flowering plants, however there are still many to choose from for a partially shaded site. If you want to start a garden where there is mostly shade, your choices are going to be more limited, but not prohibitive.

Also take into consideration when the sun hits your site. Afternoon sun will be hotter and more drying than morning sun. Many plants turn their faces toward the sun, so if your view of the garden is from a west window, your flowers may face away from you in the afternoon.

Evaluate other elements of exposure such as high, drying winds or heavy foot traffic. Drainage is another consideration.

Once you know where you'd like to try your first garden, use a hose or extension cord to try laying it out on the ground.

• How's the Soil?

Once you know where you want to plant, it's time to check the soil. Soil testing is the least glamorous part of gardening, but the most important. At the very least check your soil's pH. This will tell you how acid or alkaline your soil is. Plants cannot take up nutrients unless the soil's pH is within an acceptable range. Most plants like a somewhat neutral pH, 6.2 - 6.8, but some are more particular. If you are growing plants from the nursery, check the plant tag for specifics. If no pH preference is listed, a neutral range is fine.

You may also want to check the texture of your soil or even the nutrients and minerals in it. Soil texture refers to whether it is sandy, heavy clay, rocky or the ideal, a sandy loam. Whatever the texture, it can be improved with the addition of organic matter such as compost.

• Preparing the Garden Bed

This is no one's favorite garden chore, but there's no way around it. Your chosen site will probably have grass on it or at least weeds. These must be cleared somehow, before you can plant anything. Tilling without removing the grass or weeds is best done in the fall, so that the grass will have a chance to begin decomposing during the winter. Even so, you will probably see new grass and weeds emerging in the spring. It's better to either remove the existing vegetation completely or to smother it.

A sharp flat-edged spade can be used to slice out the sod. If you have poor soil and need to amend it with organic matter or other nutrients, removing the sod may be your best bet, so that you are able to till in the amendments.

Removing sod can be heavy work and you wind up loosing good topsoil along with the sod.

It your soil is in relatively good shape, it is possible to leave the grass in place and build on top of it. Place a thick layer (8-10 sheets) of newspaper over the garden bed and wet it thoroughly. Then cover the newspaper with 4-6 inches of good soil. The newspaper will eventually decompose and the turf and weeds will be smothered. There may be some defiant weeds that poke through, but not so many you can't hand-weed them.

Starting with good soil means you won't have to add a lot of artificial fertilizer to your garden. If you've fed the soil with amendments, the soil will feed your plants.

• Choosing What You'd Like to Grow

This is harder than you might think. If you are starting small, you have to limit yourself to a handful of plants. If you are growing vegetables start with what you like to eat and what you can't find fresh locally. Corn takes a lot of space and remains in the garden a long time before it's ready to be eaten. If you have corn farms nearby, you might want to use your small garden for vegetables that give a longer harvest, like tomatoes, lettuce and beans.

Flower gardens can be even harder. Start with what colors you like. Take a look at what your neighbors are growing successfully.

Take a walk around a couple of garden centers and read the plant labels. Then play with combining the plants that strike your eye until you find a combination of three to five plants that pleases you.

Make sure all the plants have the same growing requirements (Sun, water, pH...) and that none of them are going to require more care than you can give them.

Keep the variety of plants limited. It makes a better composition to have more plants of fewer varieties than to have one of this and one of that.

• Planting

Sometimes you have to plant when you have the time, even if that's high noon on a Saturday. But the ideal time to plant is on a still, overcast day. The point is, stress your new plants as little as possible.

Water the plants in their pots the day before you intend to plant.

Don't remove all the plants from their pots and leave them sitting in the sun for the roots to dry out.

If the roots are densely packed or growing in a circle, tease them apart, as shown in the photo, so they will stretch out and grow into the surrounding soil.

Bury the plant to the depth it was in the pot. Too deep and the stem will rot. Too high and the roots will dry out.

Don't press down hard on the plants as you cover them. Watering will settle them into the ground.

Water your newly planted garden as soon as it is planted and make sure it gets at least one inch of water per week.

You may have to water more often in hot dry summers. Let your plants tell you how much water they need. Some wilting in noonday sun is normal. Wilting in the evening is stress.

• Mulching

You hear a lot about mulching lately, but it really does make a major difference in a garden. Mulch conserves water, blocks weeds and cools the soil. Organic mulches like shredded or chipped bark, compost, straw and shredded leaves, will also improve the soil quality.

Plastic mulches are nice in a vegetable garden to heat the soil around warm season crops like tomatoes, peppers, melons and squash.

Whatever mulch you choose, apply it soon after planting, before new weeds sprout. Apply a 2-4 inch thick layer of mulch, avoiding direct contact with the plant stems. Piling mulch around the stem can lead to rotting and can provide cover for munching mice and voles.

• Garden Maintenance -- What to Expect

Hopefully when you were selecting plants you did some background checking and didn't select too many prima donnas. All plants are going to require some maintenance. The idea that perennial plants require less maintenance than annuals is wrong.

At the very least, your plants will require 1 inch of water a week. If it rains regularly, good for you. If not, don't let your plants get drought-stressed. Once a plant is stressed it will never recover fully that growing season.

There will also be weeding to do. Weed seeds come from all kinds of sources: wind, birds, soil on shoes...

Deadheading or removing the spent blossoms from your flowers, will keep them blooming longer and looking fresher.

Vegetables will produce more if you keep harvesting while young.

Some taller plants may need to be staked, to keep from flopping.

It may happen that one of your choices isn't happy and dies. Move on and replace it with something else.

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