Getting It Right from the Start
Whether you recently moved into a new home or you’ve just got the gardening itch, planning a new garden can be a great deal of fun. The opportunity to act as creator can be very appealing. But anyone who has gardened for long has learned the necessity of accommodating nature and has developed a sense of humility in the process.
The hardest thing to convince new gardeners of is the need for patience. With the first warm day of spring they are eager to begin planting and nothing can stop them. Many of these bursts of enthusiasm yield ill-conceived gardens doomed to failure. The plants wither and the would-be gardeners become convinced that they lack some secret knowledge or inherent skill. In most of these cases, however, a few hours of planning and preparation would have made all the difference. It is quite easy to dig up a plot and throw some plants in the ground. It is another thing entirely to create a healthy, living garden.
What Will Grow There?
The first thing to determine is what will grow in the spot available for your garden. This is where many gardeners make their first mistake. Too often plants are purchased before thought has been given to the conditions under which they will have to grow.
The three chief factors determining what will grow in a particular spot are sunlight, the composition of the soil and soil moisture. While you can have some influence on soil composition and moisture, as far as sunlight goes, you’re stuck with what you have. It is important to have a good idea of what amount of sunlight will reach your garden throughout the year. Plants that require “full sun” will generally need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day. Patches under large deciduous shade trees receive only mottled sunlight. In this situation there can be large variations in the amount of light hitting nearby spots, so generally you will want to find plants that require “half sun,” or a few hours of direct sun a day. Other sites, like the north side of a building, are going to remain in shade year-round. The shade garden requires the most careful planning, but there are many wonderful plants that will thrive in the darkest of shade.
The Lay of the Land
Next, you will need to determine what type of soil you’ll be working with. The three main constituents of soil are sand, silt and clay. Sand has the largest particles and clay has the smallest, which is why it packs so tightly together. Silt particles are of intermediate size. An ideal garden soil, or loam, would be about 40% sand, 40% silt and 20% clay. The easiest way to see what type of soil you have is to dig a few holes and take some samples. There are a number of simple tests you can do to determine the composition of soil. One method is to take a fistful of soil and squeeze it into a ball. If it is unable to hold its shape, your soil is probably too loose, or sandy. Now try to break the ball apart by pressing on it with your thumb. A good soil will break apart readily; if not, you probably have too much clay in your soil. Another method is to take a couple of cups of soil and put them in a half-gallon jar half filled with water. Agitate the mixture until all the soil is in suspension and then let it settle overnight. The next day you will see that three distinct layers have formed: sand at the bottom, then the silt and at the top a layer of clay.
Amending Your Soil
The best way to amend a poor soil, whether sandy, clay or silty, is to add organic matter. If your soil is high in sand or silt, add a combination of topsoil and peat moss or compost. (Always moisten peat moss before adding it to your soil.) If the problem is too much clay, add peat moss or compost and some sand. Many gardeners advise never adding sand to soil as it can sometimes create a kind of concrete. I have found this to be the case when dealing with urban soils, which can be 80% silt. But when used in addition to organic matter, sand can help loosen clay soils and allow for proper drainage. If your soil is very heavy, i.e., high in clay, you may want to work with a raised bed. This will provide your plants with a little more drainage than they might have otherwise and won’t entail replacing several tons of soil. Landscape timber or stones can be used to create a short wall several inches high, or the soil can be gently sloped to prevent erosion.
Keeping a Watch on Moisture
Soil moisture is obviously tied to the climate of the area where you live, but even in a small yard there can be wide variations. If your garden is at the bottom of a hill, the soil may remain wet for long periods of time. In this situation, you can try creating a raised bed as mentioned above, but it is best to stick to plants that enjoy having their feet wet. Alternatively, if your plot is very dry, don’t asume you’ll be able to compensate by frequent watering. Select plants that will be happy in a dry place and you’ll be able to take that two-week vacation without worrying whether your neighbor has remembered to water every day for you.
Don’t Fight Mother Nature
While some measures can be taken to make your garden a hospitable place for particular plants, your experience will be much more rewarding if you learn to work with nature. Yes, you may be able to plant your rose garden in that shady spot, but you’ll need to feed the roses more fertilizer and spray more fungicide, and they still won’t look as nice as if they were planted in full sun. And azaleas in bloom might look great at the front of your south-facing home, but if they were planted beneath some protection from the sun, they might not be constantly infested with lace bugs. Of course, you can spray them regularly with insecticide, but now your garden is becoming about as environmentally friendly as an oil refinery. Learn to work with nature and you will save yourself a lot of time, money and grief.