Your First Garden Adventure: Plan now, plant later

Much of the country has been hit with some wild weather this winter and all most people can hope for is good news from Punxsutawney Phil. While we desperately await the first signs of spring, you may be knee deep in a home improvement project perfect for winter - maybe even inspired by another post on this blog. That being said, if you’re in deep hibernation mode, too gloomy to work, I encourage you to think ahead to spring projects. Planning won’t require too much energy and when the clouds finally part and the warmth sets in, you’ll be all set to improve the exterior of your home. And so I present a two-part blog that will have you thinking tulips and spring showers rather than icicles and wind chills. Today we’ll discuss some not-so-obvious tips for first-time gardeners.

When selecting what to plant, start by looking at the hardiness zone for your region of the country. This map gives the best indicator of what plants will thrive in your zone. Make sure to use the newest version as zone information was updated in 2012 with the development of new technology. Another factor to keep in mind is companion planting. This is the practice of planting two different kinds of plants together because one naturally enhances or defends the other’s growth. For example, basil is said to increase the yield of tomatoes by 20%. And with these two plants, you’re one step closer to a caprese salad! For more companion suggestions, click here. A final tip for what to plant is a very general one: chard, lettuce, pumpkins, green beans and blueberries are all considered great starter plants for a first time gardener.

When you’re selecting where to plant, the rule of thumb is that the area needs at least 6 hours of sunlight per day. If your ideal planting area is a little shy of this time frame, try a leafy vegetable, such as kale, which can get away with a little less sunlight. If you live in a colder climate, another factor to take into consideration is if the area is exposed to rock salt, such as next to your driveway or sidewalk. Some of the salt from winter de-icing that drains into your soil will remain there and absorb the water your plants need. Regarding spacing of the plants, many plant packets are a bit generous on what is needed between each plant. Feel free to decrease the spacing a little. If you end up planting too liberally in an area, you can always thin some plants down. Your biggest concern will always be that all plants are getting enough sunlight.

After all the time you spend in planting, the last thing you’d want to do with these healthy plants is pour synthetic fertilizers on your garden. The best route for naturally fertilizing your garden is to use compost. Compost can hold 90% of its own weight in water, acting as a natural time-release watering system for your plants. Compost also feeds the microorganisms living in your garden, buffers pH and improves the tilt of the soil. If you become a compost believer and decide to make it yourself, know that some areas offers big rebates for residents who buy compost bins.

And to any perennial gardeners reading this, don’t feel neglected, I have a tip for you as well. Many gardeners encounter problems in their first years growing that they can’t easily remedy. A soil test may eliminate the need of trial and error for planting issues that arise in your garden. Soil tests will give you information on pH levels, contaminants, and nutrients. Knowing the pH will help you better select what to plant as different plants have different pH “happy zones”. If you’re aware of what contaminates you’re dealing with (such as salt or lead) you can know if your garden needs some type of barrier (such as a hedge or fabric), extra mulch or to be raised. Nutrient readings will come with recommendations of what needs to be added to the soil. This customized reading of your soil is sure to provide ideas to help your garden thrive. If a soil test is just what your garden needs, click here to find a lab.

I leave you with this last fact about gardening. Soil has a natural antidepressant in it that is released when moved, which may explain the therapeutic effect some feel while planting. Above all else, enjoy this hobby as it will provide you with wholesome food you can be proud to call your own, a beautiful outside display for your home and a newfound way to relax. Happy planting.

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