by Charlene Burgi
Patches of snow still remain on the ground. A new winter storm is predicted to come in this week, yet a great soils workshop, mailboxes overflowing with seed and plant catalogs, and garden blogs jamming my email jolted me to attention! Spring is right around the corner.
The abundance of garden and study material available can seem overwhelming to the faint of heart. Take a deep breath if you find yourself in despair about what to do first. The best approach for me is to prioritize what is most important for the garden at this minute, and then take action.
First: Plan, Plan, Plan
Start with a plan if this is the first time you are installing a new landscape or considering a section of the garden for vegetables, cut flowers, herbs or perennial beds. A plan will help answer questions necessary to determine if the area is best suited for the purpose you have in mind.
Start with several sheets of blank paper and sketch in the footprint of the house. Locate the doors and windows on each side of the house. If precision is a factor, you can Google Earth your property, print it out and use this as your base map. Indicate north with an arrow in relation to the house to help determine where the sun is during the day. Draw lines spanning views you want to capture or eliminate. If you have existing trees, note where they are on the property as they will shade the surrounding area, reflecting summer heat from the house or indicating poor placement for a vegetable garden.
Next, decide what your goal is, then decide on the best location, the amount of space required and what type of garden is best suited for your needs. A new landscape plan will need to show where you might entertain friends and family, walkways to get you around the house, points of interest, dedicated utility spaces, and dog run or play areas. Circle and label these areas to see if it feels suitable for your needs.
Each section of your yard can go through the same process for determining the use of space, factoring in convenience and the impact of placement. It is important to use a plan even if you are only installing a simple vegetable garden. For example, this type of plan can help you determine what location receives more than five hours of afternoon sunlight a day, is convenient to the kitchen and accessible for irrigation. Ask yourself if raised beds are easier to manage than open ground? What plants do you eat and what plants will attract beneficial insects?
A plan also will help with existing gardens that may require crop rotation. Or, if you decide to experiment with a new method of gardening such as vertical or French-intense gardening, a plan will help you see where each type of crop should be placed for companion planting.
As I heard at a recent workshop, “First get the soil biology right and the health of the plant will follow!” Get your soil tested now so you know what you are working with. For years we were led to believe we must fertilize our plants for their health and well-being. The reality is we need to feed the soil. Our healthy soil should be teeming with micro-organisms. When we feed the micro-organisms with good composted and organic material, we are indirectly feeding our plants with a steady infusion of all the nutrients they need.
A soil test will let us know what the pH of the soil is and if it is compatible with the plants we are growing. For example, the average vegetable garden needs a pH between 6.0 and 7.5. Lettuce, however, will not grow in soils with a pH greater than 7.0. You can find simple test kits at the local nurseries, or it might be wise to send soil samples to a laboratory that specializes in testing pH. These labs also can tell us how much microbial activity is found in the samples we send and provide a recipe to correct imbalances. Adding compost or treating the soil with compost tea now could make the difference in the performance of your garden this year. Proactively working the soil makes us stewards of a living earth—a good thing!
Spring is on the way and the clock is ticking. Are you ready? Challenge yourself and have a great weekend.