How can I learn to plant a healthy garden?
June 24, 2006 1:25 PM   Subscribe

Please share resources for learning about, selecting, and planting a garden given a particular climate and soil.

I'm moving soon, and the yard has great potential. I enjoy growing plants, but technically I know very little about what I grow. Some of my plants thrive, others wither and die.

I'd like to learn more about how to effectively select plants for a given soil type and climate. Of course, I'll also need to learn how to describe and understand my soil (nitrates, pH, hardness, water retention?), and climate.

What are some good resources for learning about what I want to plant, when to plant it, and how to care for it, with a good deal of technical reasoning to back it up?

By the way, I'm interested in herbs, vegetables, and flowers. Thanks!
posted by odinsdream to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Usually your local cooperative(agricultural) extension will do a soil test for you.
That gives you a good starting point on what will grow in your dirt.
They'll also know what USDA zone you are in, as well as which bugs to watch out for.
posted by madajb at 1:42 PM on June 24, 2006

Well, you are fairly far away from me, so I won't speak so much about specific regional issues. Everything I will ever recommend to people is based on ecological and organic methods. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers kill bugs(duh!) and soil(yes, soil is alive), so if you are opposed to "organics" for whatever reason: rethink.

The best way to learn is to read, talk and do. Find books, talk with other knowledgeable people and just do stuff. Things will die, some will live. Learn from it. If you of the type to take notes, start a journal so you can look back each year and see what to change for the next. Find a reliable local data set for weather and temperature(or get your own weather station), perhaps keep this data in your journal also.

-The Soul of Soil, or similar. It's reliable and organic. Success in gardening is primarily based on proper soil management
-Soil testing. This is a pretty serious resource, but you get the idea. You don't need every test out there, but you do want solid information.
-Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch. Good books for anywhere, but especially for four-season climates.
-Ecology Action. Small-scale sustainable mini-farming. Don't be intimidated, the techniques are applicable anywhere.
-Biodynamic. Another good small-scale farming system.
-Permaculture. A bit of a more comprehensive system.
-Any decent book on identifying garden insects.
-Rebugging Your Home & Garden. A great way to learn about natural balance with insects.

Find people who garden. The diversity among people is vast and their methods will vary greatly. Sometimes you will need to take what they say with a grain of salt, i.e. wive's tales, misinformation, etc. Clubs, university extensions, community gardens are great places to poke around. Find a nursery you feel comfortable going to. Also, share your knowledge when you can, you will learn twice. Garden forums can be good places for info. Again, grain of salt.

Start it up!
Purchase good quality tools and learn to care for them. English spades and forks are the way to go. More money initially, but you can will them to your children. A bow rake(stiff soil rake). A pair of comfortable pruning shears(Felco's are my favorite). A good trowel, maybe two of different widths. There are lots of other tools out there; They fall into two categories for me, a)things that are useful aquiring but aren't necessary at the outset, and b) crap that is made just to sell a tool. a) will come as you expand your knowledge and needs, b) you will buy and use for one specific task every now and then and will often sit unused after a while and/or break within a year because they are designed to be consumed. Gardening can either be very expensive, or incredibly cheap. After tool purchases, with seed saving and swapping, cuttings, composting, growing your own seedlings, etc,, it can be done with any budget.

OK, that's it for now sorry if my writing is clunky, I can't spend all day on this and there is sooo much to say. Feel free to ask more and I will keep an eyeball on this thread and expand on anything if you wish and to slap down anyone who recommends Monsanto ;)

I also officially request a picture of your garden when it has something growing in it(email in profile)
posted by a_green_man at 2:37 PM on June 24, 2006

Learn about your local growing climate:
Weather varies significantly from one part of North Carolina to another. Plants that flourish in one part of the state may do poorly or fail in another area. The primary guide to determine plant hardiness is the USDA Hardiness Zone Map which is divided into ten zones based on average minimum temperatures. Each zone is subdivided into A and B sections in order to be more precise.
Ask the folks at NC Cooperative Extension:
North Carolina Cooperative Extension gives our state's residents easy access to the resources and expertise of NC State University and NC A&T State University. Through educational programs, publications, and events, Cooperative Extension agents deliver unbiased, research-based information to North Carolina citizens. We can answer your questions on a wide array of topics.
And ask questions at your local garden center and at your back fence. Neighbors know exactly what works and what doesn't in your soil and climate.

But one good solo strategy, if you have enough land to play around with, is to buy seeds for everything that looks likely. Get at least 20 or 30 different things. Two or three different kinds of things you really like (tomatoes, for example). Read the backs of the seed packets to determine when, where, and how to sow the seeds. Then keep track of what works and what doesn't -- make a sketch of your garden layout and write what you planted, when and where. A few packets of seeds is a pretty cheap experiment.
posted by pracowity at 3:13 PM on June 24, 2006

Thanks everyone so far for the advice. I'd like to add a few clarifiers:

1. I'm very interested in learning how to make not only a nice garden, but a sustainable one also. I.e., reuse of materials, tools, seeds. I'm not especially interested in using pesticides unless necessary, but again, if it is necessary, I don't have a moral objection to it.

2. I'm comfortable doing the "test and check" routine of planting something and just seeing how it grows, but this honestly sounds uninformed. I'd like to think that there are enough resources now, given that we're thousands of years into the history of agriculture, that I'd be able to count on at least marginal success without blind testing.
posted by odinsdream at 5:27 PM on June 24, 2006

Get a good seed catalog. Such as from Burpees.

I've learned most of what I know just from reading catalogs and I've had some very large and successful gardens with both veggies and flowers.

Also, we've always been pretty organic/natural. No pesticides and few fertilizers. A couple pest tips; mildly soapy water sprayed on leaves for leaf eating bugs and wood ash sprinkled around plant bases for other stuff like snails.

Good luck with your new garden.
posted by snsranch at 5:46 PM on June 24, 2006

Definitely check out your local cooperative extension, and buy a book on gardening in the area you are locating to.

Besides soil preparation, planting the right plant in the right place is one of the most important things you can do for a successful garden. If you do this, your landscape can last for decades. Unless you have a greenhouse or a large budget I wouldn't fool around with plants that aren't suited to your climate, soil, or light conditions. Usually local garden centers carry what is going to grow in your climate. I find that Lowes and Home Depot are very good about this. Research the plant before you buy and plant it, and learn what the plant needs to thrive. For instance, azaleas are water hogs. They are heavy feeders and like an acid soil, an acid fertilizer, and dappled light.

For sustainability you can choose perennials instead of annuals. Choose vegetables and herbs that have a long life span (bell peppers and rosemary come to mind). Also, choose plants that don't have a lot of pest problems--natives are good for this. Hybrid roses and some vegetables need to be sprayed, watered, and babied to death. If you can't devote daily visits to your garden don't plant high maintenance plants. I do have many shrub and climbing roses that are virtually maintenance free.

You can also choose plants that re-seed themselves. But be careful, because some re-seeding plants can be a nuisance. Many plants are very easy to propagate from cuttings, and a lot of easy to divide, such as daylillys.

I also love containers. I have lots of containers of herbs, vegetables, flowers, and even a key lime tree in a pot fitted with casters. If there is a danger of frost, I roll it into the garage.

Rig up a rain barrel if your new hose has gutters. You can also start a compost pile to save money.

Environmentally friendly pesticides and fungicides I like: Neem, horticultural oil (especially SunSpray ultra-fine oil), and horticultural soaps. A water wand at the end of your hose is a good, environmentally friendly way of spraying pests off plants.

If you plan well, and do it right the first time, you will save yourself a lot of cash, labor, and frustration. I have made so many mistakes over the years, but I guess that is part of gardening.

Have a great time in your new yard!
posted by LoriFLA at 8:37 PM on June 24, 2006

You might look for a local organic gardeners organization or club, where you can socialize, ask advice, visit other peoples' gardens, trade seeds, trade work, etc. Maybe ask around at a Farmer's Market, or visit an organic farm. Community makes for better gardening. :)
posted by shifafa at 9:19 PM on June 24, 2006

I'd like to think that there are enough resources now, given that we're thousands of years into the history of agriculture, that I'd be able to count on at least marginal success without blind testing.

As a professional gardener with over a decade of experience, I'd suggest that you look upon all gardening as "experimental", or you're going to be in for a lot a disappointment.

Thousands of years of agricultural research may apply to your backyard in only a limited number of ways: if you don't live on the banks of the Nile, grow all citrus in an orangery, or plant thousands of acres of a single product that has to all be harvested and shipped in a week then growing and observing plants in your own backyard over several seasons is ultimately the best way of finding out what works. I'm not trying to be contrary- I have had dozens of clients who have been extrememly disappointed in their efforts to garden "by the book" (which is of course, great for my profession, because then they hire me to fix and maintain their garden). There is also a huge amount of very good information mixed in with theory and outright mythology, sometimes trial and error are the only way to sort it out. I would second everyone upthread who suggested local resources: nurseries, garden clubs, community gardens, and neighbors. These people will have done enough experimenting in their gardens to help get you off to a good start. They will also be albe to recommend the best gardening books for your area. Most gardeners are more than happy to share cuttings, divisions and seeds. You may also be able to get a knowledgable person from your local nursery to do a garden consult for a fee.

My own suggestions for any gardener starting out woud be build the soil. Get a soil test done and spend money on amendments. Take a composting class. Soil is key- you'll save time, effort, and money in the long run if you have a good substrate.

Think carefully about trees, how big they will get, how much shade they will make and where, how deep rooted they are. Trees live for decades, if not centuries. Consider them as architecture and temperature control for your garden. Fruit trees are fabulous if you really plan to do something with all the fruit, otherwise they are a high maintenance nightmare.

Consider water usage when planting certain plants together. Lots of people swear by planting tomatoes with basil, for example (I've seen this in several books, as well). However, tomatoes make tastier fruit with deep, infrequent watering and lots of sun and heat, while basil stays sweet and bolts more slowly with consistent moisture and cool temps.

Take your time. The best gardens are built over years.

Have fun!
posted by oneirodynia at 3:15 PM on June 25, 2006

There's a forum on that site & many people can answer questions you may have.
posted by Alpenglow at 7:16 AM on June 26, 2006

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