First Garden? A Checklist.
Call it "Lessons Learned the Hard Way" or more euphemistically, "Garden Wisdom".
At one point or another, everybody has a first garden. A lot of people get the bug, maybe when they go to a nursery and see some plants they like and figure it's time to start. Maybe you are about to start your first garden; or, you just moved into a new home that needs a lot of outdoor love.
America’s Favorite Retired College Horticultural Professor, Debbie Flower, and I explored these “lessons learned the hard way” (aka “Garden Wisdom”) in Episode 183 of the Garden Basics with Farmer Fred podcast, while relaxing in Debbie’s backyard garden.
LIVE WITH THE YARD
Fred: Anytime you move to a new house, it's a new challenge. It's a new garden. And it's kind of hard to tell gardeners this, but one piece of advice is: live with the yard for a year. And notice where the sun goes.
Debbie: Absolutely. Living with the yard for a year is very difficult to do. But it is worth doing. And I've had many gardens. And I can't say that I have the patience that would allow you to live with the garden for a year.
Fred: Well, there's always planting in containers. Have you heard of Smart Pots?
Debbie: Yes. And you can always plant annuals that first year, making sure they get enough water and seeing what happens. You need to see where the sun shines on your future yard, in the middle of winter, in the middle of summer, in early spring, and in fall.
Fred: One thing we did when we moved to the new house six years ago: we lived with it for a year, we planted in pots, temporarily. And I took pictures of the yard at four different times of the year, throughout the day. So, every three months or so, I'd take pictures of the entire yard. I'd take pictures at 9am, at noon, 3pm and 6pm. Just so I would remember where the shadows are, where the shade is. Because all the neighbors had big trees. And I wanted to know definitely which of those areas are going to get full sun, that's six to eight hours or more of sun a day. Turns out, not many areas got full sun.
Debbie: Yes. by taking those pictures, you knew what needed to go. Pictures are wonderful; not only do they inform you of sun and shade, but they show you how your yard is changing over time and what wonderful things you've done to it.
WHERE IS THE SUN? NOTE FUTURE SHADY INTERLOPERS
Debbie: Look for those areas where the sun-shade conditions favor plants. Six to eight hours of full sun for those warm season flowers or those vegetables is definitely desirable. And, I had to move my raised bed this year, because a tree got bigger, and it started shading the bed and I wasn't getting enough sun for production.
WHAT DOES MY FAMILY LIKE TO EAT?
Fred: I guess when we're talking about planning a first garden, we should get a little bit more specific. Are we talking about a flower garden, an herb garden, a vegetable garden? I guess with the vegetable garden one thing you should make note of: is what does your family enjoy eating? And no, there aren’t any french fry plants (but there are potatoes).
Debbie: Yes, I have a vegetable bed, it’s one raised bed, and some in-ground area that I use for growing vegetables. And my production of vegetables has decreased over time because of the things my family will not eat. So why should I grow them, if nobody's going to eat them? I have neighbors I can give some veggies to. But I remember showing up at one neighbor's house with some tomatoes, and she said, "You know, I'm not gonna eat all your leftover tomatoes this summer." "Okay, fine,” I replied. “Do you want these?" She took those, but we never took any more back to her.
CUT FLOWER GARDEN OR WHATEVER MAKES YOU HAPPY
Debbie: So the vegetable garden has gotten smaller. And at times, I thought about just converting it to annual flowers so that I could have bouquets of flowers. I mentioned that to a horticulture friend. And she said, as long as you have a good Farmer's Market nearby, yes, you do need to decide what you're going to grow, what's going to make you happy.
Fred: Another thing that beginning gardeners tend to do is: their eyes are bigger than their tummies. And when it comes to planting, they'll crowd in way too much. Those spacing suggestions on the back of seed packets, and the planting instructions that come with plants as far as spacing of plants, that's actually pretty good advice.
Debbie: It is. And if you're looking at landscape plants, rather than annuals, which are usually plants that you're going to grow from seed, you need to look at the size the plant is going to be when it's mature. That information is typically on the tag. If not, you're going to have to look the plant up and and find out how tall and wide it's going to become. Sometimes, you only learn how tall it's going to become, then you assume it will be equally as wide, and then space them in the garden so that they will, at maturity, not run into each other, but maybe they'll touch.
MAKE ROOM FOR YOURSELF, PLANTS, WHEELBARROW
Debbie: You have to decide, where is your path is going to be? Where do you want to be able to walk between the plants? The plants touch, but you need to give them the space to get big enough. A friend of mine is a landscape architect. And I asked her this when I was teaching: “What, if there was one thing she could say to people when they are planning and planting their gardens or yards, what would it be?” And her number one thing was: “space the plants far enough apart”. More problems are created by them being too close together than anything else. And I'm guilty of that as well, planting too close together. Because it's so easy to do. When you buy them they're so small and cute, and they look so pretty together. And having these wide spaces between them doesn't make a lot of sense when they’re so small, but space them correctly anyway, for their health and for the future of your garden.
Fred: And not only is it healthier for the plant, it also can keep bad pests and diseases away, as well. Because when you cut down air circulation by planting too close together, especially if you live in an area of high humidity, you can have all sorts of disease issues that can be mitigated by allowing air to circulate freely through those plants.
Debbie: Absolutely true, yes. And I have paths. You need to set up paths when you create a garden, so that you can get around and check on things.
LOOK OUT THE WINDOW. WHAT DO YOU WANT TO SEE? OR NOT SEE?
Fred: When you're walking around your yard, figuring out what you want to plant and where you want to put it, go inside the house and look out the windows. Think about the area where you spend most of your time indoors, and which windows you're going to be looking out. And think about what you want to stare at for the rest of your life out those windows. And especially if you have a kitchen window, the vegetable garden, the fruit trees, the food products should be with an easy view of that kitchen window.
Debbie: Yes, when I initially laid the hardscape in this landscape we're sitting in right now, the landscaper suggested putting the vegetable garden in a place I would not see it from the patio, or from any window. And I said no, I have to be able to see it on a regular basis.
Fred: When you're planning the garden, do some sitting inside and look out and think about what you want to see, or not see, that's out there. And remember that taller plants closer to your window may block the view of whatever's behind it. So if you want a complete view of the yard, if you're going to put in those trees or those shrubs, you may want to stick those further out so you can see the rest of your garden. Or, if you're trying to create some privacy or block a view, then you would want those taller plants closer to the window.
Debbie: I love the “looking out the window” idea as a way to design the garden. I don't necessarily want to see my neighbor's house when I look outside the window. And so I've done lots of view-blocking, by planting trees and evergreen shrubs in places that will block those views. You can create outdoor garden "rooms". It makes your landscape feel bigger if you create where you can only see a small area, and then you have to walk around a plant to see the next area in your garden.
WHERE IS THE WATER SOURCE FOR THE GARDEN?
Fred: When you're planning your garden, one thing to keep in mind is: "Where's the water faucet?" How big of a chore is it going to be to water that garden? And this is where planning may require some pencil and paper because you may want to lay out an irrigation system, perhaps even a drip irrigation system.
Debbie: You may want that, and in our dry California climate, that's almost a must. But I've lived in places that get rain year round, and in that case, we just needed to be near a hose bib. But we still needed to be near that hose bib. You don’t want to be dragging it 50 feet across from the back of the garage over to the vegetable garden. So having that in place near the garden is critical.
Fred: Exactly. So plan on installing a permanent irrigation system so that the water controls are as close to the garden as possible. Or if you're putting in an entire irrigation system for the whole yard, consider valves that are dedicated to the vegetables that you can put on different timing regimens as opposed to a schedule for a lawn.
Debbie: Lawns are some of the highest water users in the landscape. So many things can survive with much less water than that. Even in our climate that is dry from May through October, I don't water most of my landscape more than once every two weeks or so. Lawns, especially lawns that are mowed, need to be watered more frequently than that. Grass needs more water so you don't want everything on the same watering regime.
Fred: Besides, you can’t eat grass or put it in a vase indoors. But it is soothing to look at. Perhaps limit your turf area to just a small portion of your yard. Lawns require more maintenance and time than just about any other aspect of gardening.
WHERE DOES THE WATER GO?
Fred: Another thing to watch in that first year before you plant is: where does the water go? Especially after a heavy rain? Are there muddy areas that seem to persist for days after a big storm? Those areas should probably get marked off. It could be as simple as taking a t-post or a stake and just stick it in that muddy area to remind you of its location. Most plants that are desirable, they don't like muddy soil. So in those areas, you may want to consider raised beds or planting in pots.
Debbie: Absolutely. I have a spot like that in this yard. And I put the vegetable garden’s raised bed near there, covering part of that wet spot. Part of it I just don't use in the winter when we get our rains here in California.
BEFORE PLANTING, AFTER PLANTING: WEED, WEED, WEED
Fred: If you haven't planted a garden in your yard before, what are some first steps you should take?
Debbie: Sometimes if you move into a place like we did here that was empty for two years, the landscape was not maintained and it was full of weeds. So the first thing to do is clear those weeds away.
Fred: Clear the weeds away. And there is debate now about rototilling the soil and the damage it does to the microbiology underground. However, I could justify rototilling once, initially, to mix in compost. But if you don't want to do that, one easy way to improve your soil is through sheet mulching. Just mow or weed whack the area first as close to the ground as possible.
Debbie: Yes, sheet mulching. I did that at my mother's house. She wanted to add some perennials around her shed, and near a lightpost in the yard near the driveway. So, one time I went out and laid down a bunch of newspaper. It takes several layers of newspaper, which is now made with soy ink, so you can use the dull pages, not the shiny ones. They may have other chemicals in them you don't want in your soil. But the dull newspaper pages, several layers, five, six layers, lay it down in the fall. I put mulch over it, bark mulch over the top, or leaf mulch, whatever I could find. And then let it sit. And by spring, you have smothered those weeds and you can plant into it.
Fred: And you've improved the soil as well.
START WITH “TRAINING WHEEL” PLANTS
Fred: For that person starting a garden for the first time, I would kind of shy away from recommending starting from seed, unless the plant typically grows from seed, such as corn or squash. Just go to the nursery and get yourself a six pack, a four pack, a gallon plant, a five gallon or a 15 gallon containerized plant. But what are some easy, confidence-building plants to put in as far as annuals, perennials and vegetables go?
Debbie: Annuals are plants that complete their lifecycle in one year. Often it's a portion of one year, let's say from spring through early fall, and it goes to seed and dies later in the fall. Spring is a great time to garden, especially with kids. And with kids, big seeds are very desirable because they can handle them well. And they can see the results of those plants that come up quickly. And so sunflowers are a wonderful, easy to start plant. There are beans that can you can grow from seeds, they can be bush beans that you're going to get an edible crop from; or, they can be a vining scarlet runner bean, which does give an edible crop. I often grow it just for the beautiful red flowers that it produces. And I did some research on it back when my kids were in a daycare and found that at that time, in the late 80s, the research said that a kid could eat the entire plant and not get sick. So it's a great thing to have around little ones as well. Zinnias are another one that is quick to sprout from seed, but they are not such big seeds, though.
Fred: Perennials are plants that you can expect to last for more than a year.
Debbie: Right. And the trick, I think, about perennials is planting them at the right time. Nurseries will have them when they're in flower. I would prefer to buy them when they're not in flower and put them in the ground or in a pot in the fall. Some are perennials that bloom in the fall, but there are a lot of perennials that bloom in the spring and the summer. I would prefer to plant them when they're out of flower. They root better that way.
Fred: When it comes to planting vegetables, some of the easier ones to grow include greens, such as lettuce, but the trick with things like lettuce is, what climate do you live in? If you live in a hot climate, those lettuce and some spinach varieties and other leafy greens that you may enjoy do best in the cool season, planted between September and February-March. If it's the warm season, you could switch to some other, easy to grow, heat-loving plants, perhaps tomatoes or peppers.
Debbie: Right. Cucumbers are also pretty easy to grow from seed, and they are another big seed. But all of these things we're talking about need that six to eight hours of sun. Except maybe the greens, if you have no bright sun, or if the spots of bright sun move around. A couple things to consider. One is put the plants in a pot that has wheels and move it around from sunny space to sunny space. That's a whole lot of labor, by the way. The other is to grow things in part shade where you eat the leaves, like the lettuce and greens.
MULCH, MULCH, MULCH
Fred: How do you feel about mulch?
Debbie: You can see my yard is full of mulch. One of the reasons I can water so infrequently is I have organic mulch on top of this soil. And that breaks down with the help of naturally existing soil organisms and then what's left is the broken-down organic matter which holds water in the soil. And that helps the plants to have an evenly-watered soil, even though I'm only applying it once every two weeks or so. The roots are getting it over a much longer period of time. I wouldn't use the same arborists’ mulch in my vegetable garden that I would use on my landscape. But you can buy compost, or you can make your own compost, something that is a little finer, that doesn’t have so much wood in the product.
Fred: Exactly. Save the arborist clippings for your hardwood plants, and then use worm castings or compost for your soft bodied plants.
HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU HAVE FOR YOUR GARDEN?
Fred: The one thing we haven't talked about, and this should be part of your first garden checklist: how much time are you willing to devote to taking care of the garden? Because just like raising a family, it's all about maintenance and being there.
Debbie: Yes, it really is. I like to walk my landscape every day. And then the number one thing I do, is weed. But often I need to prune something that's growing out into the path. Look for the pests. See what's flowering. See what needs to be harvested. You can't know what to do in the garden if you don't visit it on a regular basis.
Fred: Smart gardeners have multiple pairs of pruning shears that they they hide throughout the garden, in old mailboxes or some sort of structure to protect them from the elements, which isn't a bad idea. Because as you learn to enjoy gardening, you will always want a pair of pruning shears with you.
Debbie: Yes, I have them in my car, I have them in the kitchen, I have them in the garage. And I often have one in my back pocket.
SPEND TIME WITH YOUR PLANTS
Fred: One thing you notice as you become familiar with your garden: you're going to find out when your plant is healthy and when it's not healthy, just by observing. That's something you've said a lot on this podcast: get out there and spend time with your plants.
Debbie: That's right, get to know them, enjoy them, and visit them. So you know when things are starting to go wrong, it's so much easier to control a problem at the beginning when it starts to happen, rather than waiting until it gets much bigger. And the number one example of that is weeds. Weeds are much easier to control when they're small. But if you let them flower and produce seed, then you've just increased the problem.
WRITE IT DOWN
Fred: Keeping a garden diary of what and when you planted and how they performed is invaluable. Because the garden gnomes will steal that plant marker in the ground next to that new perennial; or, the worms will drag it deeper into the soil to use as a “slip n slide” in their playground. On the subject of “write it down”, one helpful hint that a lot of experienced gardeners follow is they realize while they're having their morning coffee, “Oh, I need to get out in the yard and do such-and-such today.” Write it down, put it in your pocket. Because when you go outside, you're going to find other things in the garden that will first capture your attention. And before you know it, four hours have gone by and you're going to ask yourself, "Why did I come out here originally?"
Debbie: That is so true. My filing system is my pants pockets. I do write them down, the chores that I think need to be done. I've been known to wake up in the middle of the night and write things down. Because, for whatever reason, it's going through my head. So yes, you do. It's like the jokes about people going into one room to do something, and never doing it, because they find something else to do. The garden is just the same way.
Fred: There’s always something to do in the garden. And that’s a good thing!
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Fred Hoffman is also a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener in Sacramento County.