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Getting Ready to Garden

Tips on starting a new garden

By Meg McGowan

THE PASTORAL IDEAL is alive and well at the dawn of the 21st century. Weary of our paved-over paradise, we believe that given hoes and trowels we can excavate Eden, at least in our own backyards. Martha Stewart and an armful of spring gardening magazines encourage such dreams. Our imaginary garden often focuses on the finished product as presented on a glossy page, on a table, or in a bouquet. But gardening is all about process, not product. Beginning a garden, like beginning a marriage, requires the grower to examine expectations; indeed, gardening is essentially about the relationship between the gardener and the earth.

What do you expect to grow: flowers, herbs, vegetables, or a cottage-garden combination? That's the first question to ask. The requirements for each are a bit different. Examine the garden in your mind. Gather the elusive images you cherish and put them down on the page. If you like, combine words with pictures clipped from magazines or catalogs. If you're a new gardener, you may not have the words to express what you like, but you'll recognize it when you see it. Be sure to include any descriptive information that is provided with the pictures, as it will save you time later. Identify the elements that attract you.

Do you prefer a look that is formal or informal? Neat or untamed? Brilliantly colored or a soothing interplay of textures and hues? A tiny nook or a sweeping expanse? Defining your desired direction will provide you with a framework for evaluating the space you have to work with.

Whatever you choose to grow, remember that your initial feelings of satisfaction and success are likely to be inversely proportional to the initial size of your garden. Like children, gardens require the greatest concentration of time in the first years of life. This is particularly true for your first garden, when everything is new to you. Consider that you are changing what the earth is in the habit of growing in this space. Many of those habits have deep roots--literally.

True change is gradual. A plan that is too ambitious often results in a mindset in opposition to nature, a war pitting gardener against pests, weeds, and unyielding earth. Ideals tend to get lost in the heat of those battles. When overwhelmed, you might consider chemical reinforcements, thinking that the means may appear to justify the end. That's not true. Gardening is all about means, about process, about working with the earth.

There is no end.

BY BEGINNING small you allow yourself time to gauge what your garden will require from you. Remember, you will be changing too, altering your own routines to make room in your life for a garden. If you dig up more space than you actually plant, the bare earth will soon be covered with weeds, and you will be mired in frustration. Starting small allows you to become intimately acquainted with the plants you are growing and increases, rather than diminishes, your rewards.

By controlling the area of your garden and the initial size of your plantings, you also control the size of any mistakes you may make. With that worry out of the way, you are freer to experiment and enjoy the process of gardening.

In selecting a site, you begin to take into account the expectations of your partner, the earth. If you have a particular area where you want to plant, the light and soil conditions will dictate a range of plant choices. If you are flexible as to where your garden will be placed, you can consider first what you wish to grow and then where those plants will grow best. Concentrating your first efforts close to the house, preferably in an area that you pass by daily, allows you to continually enjoy your creation. A word of caution: If you have small children, you may want to avoid planting flowers that attract bees close to play areas. Also, be aware that some plants have toxic properties.

Vegetables require at least six hours of direct sunlight each day. Many traditional culinary herbs also are sun-loving and make excellent companion plants for your vegetables. Herbs also contribute to a healthy garden plot by repelling pests. Many herbs, such as basil, thyme, fennel, and dill, attract beneficial insects as well.

A southern or western exposure is best for vegetable and herb gardens. A neatly tended vegetable garden may be placed anywhere, but if follow-through is not your forte, you may want to tuck the garden toward the side or back of your house. A rectangular shape is practical for vegetables, allowing for neat rows and maximization of space. If you choose to use lumber to define a raised vegetable bed in your yard, make sure that the wood is untreated. Chemicals used to treat lumber will leach into the soil and find their way into your harvest.

If your focus is on flowers, you'll want to know the difference between annual and perennial plants. Annuals must be planted every year. Though they occasionally drop seeds and surprise you with a reappearance, annuals almost always complete their life cycle in one growing season. Once annual flowers begin blooming, they tend to bloom until frost, providing almost constant color.

Perennials, on the other hand, have a specific period of bloom. They can help you create a garden that will change throughout the growing season. Most perennial plants die back to the ground each winter, but the roots remain alive underground. When spring comes, the plants emerge from the soil, sending up new shoots from old roots.

THE RULE OF THUMB with perennial plants is: the first year they sleep; the second year they creep; the third year they leap. Thus, it is important to plan for third-year leaping when you first plant your garden, and you will also have to plan to have patience. Perennial flowers will not provide you with a carpet of continual color in the same way that a mass planting of annual impatiens or petunias will. They will offer a deep and abiding connection to the changing seasons, creating a personal calendar by which to mark your days.

You can, of course, plant both annual and perennial flowers together. Familiarizing yourself with the characteristics of both types of plants, however, allows you to make informed choices that will suit you and your site.

Without making large structural changes, there is little you can do to affect the amount of sunlight that falls on a particular area of your yard. Matching plant material with the amount of available light is key to whether the plants thrive or languish. The best way to determine how much light a garden gets is to check it hourly. Our perceptions of what is sunny and what is shaded are often based on limited observation. Full sun is considered to be six hours of direct sunlight. The afternoon sun is stronger than the morning sun, which gives it a bit more weight in the equation. Generally speaking, the more sunlight a garden has, the more bloom you will get. Perennial plants for the shade tend to produce their showiest blooms in the spring, before the trees fully leaf out, or late in the year, as the trees begin to lose their leaves. There are some exceptions--notably hostas, astilbe, and day lilies--but much depends on the amount and quality of light available. For a continuous show of color in a shaded location, pockets of annual flowers are essential. Few plants will bloom in the deepest shade, but you still can create a native woodland garden or a restful setting with contrasting foliage colors and textures.

Curved lines are most pleasing for defining a flower bed. The idea is to draw the eye along the planting in a natural flow. If the garden is placed so that it is viewed from only one or two sides, the tallest plants should be set at the back, with heights tapering toward the front. If the garden is to be viewed from all sides, the tallest plants should be grouped in the middle, with plants tapering toward the edges of the bed all the way around. If your tastes run toward orderly and refined rather than cottagey and casual, look for words like "compact" and "low-growing" in plant descriptions. Avoid plants that require staking. Perennial plants are best planted in odd numbers for a natural look. For a more refined look, try using fewer varieties and planting in larger groups. Repeating color unifies any design.

WHATEVER YOU DECIDE to plant, food or flowers, try to include as much variety as possible. Monocultures invite pests, disease, and the potential for failure on a large scale. Diversify. Plant cherry tomatoes, plum tomatoes, and beefsteak tomatoes. Look for heirloom varieties that have not been overhybridized for uniformity. Many perennial plants are grown from cuttings; try to include some that are grown from seed to support an expanding gene pool. And include some native species in your flower garden.

With woodland wildflowers it is extremely important to buy from a reputable source that has not pillaged its plants from the forests.

Good soil is essential to the success of all gardens, so before planting anything, be sure to tend to your soil. You may want to have your soil tested to identify potential problems, especially if you are planting edibles or are doing extensive plantings or if previous plantings in an area have failed to thrive.

Look for earthworms as a sign of healthy soil; the good drainage they provide is an essential component of good soil. Mushroom compost (well-rotted manure in which mushrooms have been grown) and peat are good additions to almost any planting bed, along with any offerings from your own compost pile. Digging organic matter into a garden bed not only improves drainage, but improves the overall structure and adds nutrients to the soil.

Don't overdo on manure or mushroom compost, though; adding two inches for every six inches you dig down is sufficient.

Knowing when to dig also helps preserve soil structure. Digging when it is too wet or too dry is not advisable. To avoid compacting the soil, perform this test: dig when a clump of soil holds together in the palm of your hand, without being so wet you can squeeze water from it.

Planning the garden so that you can reach all areas without stepping into the beds or off of the paths reduces the amount of soil compaction as well.

BY DELIVERING water where it is needed and reducing the amount of water that evaporates, soaker hoses encourage correct watering practices. Soaker hoses laid while planting can be covered with mulch and will soon be obscured by flourishing plants. Covering exposed earth in between plants with organic mulch also helps the soil retain water, adds nutrients, and discourages weeds. Again, use moderation; overwatering can be as deadly as underwatering. Sprinkling a garden lightly each day causes plants to develop undesirably shallow root systems concentrated only in the top few inches of soil.

This leaves the plants highly susceptible to drought if watering is not continued, or to rot if the soil has no chance to dry between waterings.

Deep, less frequent waterings cause plant roots to reach down into the ground in search of water. This is particularly important for perennial plants, whose winter survival depends on developing hardy root systems. Perennial plants, therefore, require less water than annual plants and vegetables.

An invaluable resource for beginning gardeners is other gardeners. Gardeners tend to be passionate about their love and are usually as happy as matchmakers to help guide you down the garden path. Talk to your friends. Talk to people whose gardens you admire. Find a greenhouse or nursery with a knowledgeable staff and talk to them. Then go home to your own patch of land and listen.

Listen to the earth, which is to be your partner in creating life; observe the nuances that make your situation unique; resolve to keep the lines of communication open; and celebrate with a garden.

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From the April 6-12, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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