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Gardening 101 – Back to Basics

Whether you’re just starting to think about planting a garden or a veteran of many seasons, it never hurts to return to the basics for a refresher. Gardening is possible just about anywhere there is a plot of ground that gets full sun for four or more hours daily. Even if that ground is covered with asphalt or cement, a beautiful garden is possible, so we are going to start at the beginning and discuss what is needed to have the best garden you can, regardless of where you plan to put it.

Planning Your Garden

Decide what you want to grow and what grows well together. Lettuce grows well with strawberries, carrots grow well with tomatoes and bell peppers, and garlic grows well in your rose garden.  Other combinations that work well together can be found in my article on crop rotation and in the book Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte.

Draw a garden blue print to map out where you will plant your vegetables and herbs. Take pictures before, during, and after the gardening season. Keep good records of your plantings, successes, and failures along with your pictures, as these will help you become a more successful gardener.

Choosing Your Spot

You have heard it said of business that success depends upon three things— location, location, and location. Gardening is also dependent upon its location. It should be close enough to your home to be convenient – the further you have to go to reach it, the less likely you will be to go work in it, and gardening is year-round work. So find a place close by with at least four hours of full sun. Don’t worry about soil at this point, for we will discuss how to prepare it for plants in a little while.

If your garden will be sitting on a plot that is covered by concrete or some other hardscape material or your soil is not useable, you can still have a beautiful, organic garden. You will need to build and design your raised beds using bales of inexpensive straw. Place them close together in the sizes and shapes desired to form the base for your raised beds. You can be very creative in forming these beds, for your only limits are formed by your imagination.

Sunlight Needs of Your Plants

Full Sun (6+ hours daily)

Beans, Cabbage, Broccoli, Cucumbers, Squash (winter and summer), Corn, Eggplant, Melons (all kinds), Tomatoes, and Peppers

Partial Sun (4 to 6 hours daily)

Lettuces, Swiss Chard, Spinach, Kale, Collards, Root Veggies (carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, potatoes, etc.), Peas, and Cauliflower

New Survival Seed Bank Lets You Plant A Full Acre Crisis Garden!

Bed Design

Design your beds to be easily reached from all sides where access is possible. A good rule for bed size is that you are able to reach full width of it and half of its length so that you have access from all sides. The number of beds will be dependent on the size of your area. For the best success, multiples of four plus one is a good plan, as this allows you to rotate your crops and leave one bed to lie fallow each year. The shape of your beds will depend on your garden area and imagination. They don’t have to be rectangles or squares. You can make diamonds, triangles, circles, or even use free-form designs. Use your imagination and have fun in designing and growing your garden.

I built my first beds 4 ½ feet by 7 ½ feet. I found that this was too large as I was unable to reach the full width or half the length. I built my next bed 3 feet by 9 feet. This width works somewhat better as I can reach across the full distance. This bed is against my garden wall, so the length wasn’t as critical. I built some other beds this spring, too. They are smaller, and I am able to reach across the length and width of each of these beds.

If you are building your new beds on a concrete slab using bales of straw, once you have built the walls for your beds and placed the straw bales tight together inside the walls, cut the strings that hold the bales together and ‘fluff’ the surface of the straw down about four inches. Next cover the area with a natural fertilizer that is rich in nitrogen. I used bunny manure and made it about two inches deep over the top of the area. On top of this I placed about two inches of garden soil.  The fertilizer and soil will work its way down into the straw. As the garden grows the straw will break down and eventually will become part of the soil in this bed, too.  This same method can be used in other raised beds too—just build your bed frame, fill with straw, and top as above.

Prepare Your Soil

  • Till up your rows and beds with a small roto-tiller or by hand with your hoe, shovel, fork, and/or rake. Having the soil workable to a depth of twelve to eighteen inches is a good goal. Finally, rake them out for ease in planting.
  • Test your soil. Most garden centers and home improvement stores sell soil test kits for affordable prices. This test will help you know what type of fertilizer you will need to add to the soil.
  • Amend the soil. It is good to add compost and other organic matter to the soil. Peat moss is good to lighten soil that is heavy with clay. Vermiculite is good for helping the soil to retain moisture, and sand is a great additive for soil that lacks good drainage.

New Natural Fertilizer Doubles Garden Production!

Build a Composting Area

Using compost is a great way to add organic matter to your garden, and making your own compost is an inexpensive way to get your compost for free. Important things to remember about composting are:

  • Add all the vegetable matter from your kitchen into the your compost pile.
  • Never add animal matter to your compost pile except for eggshells and animal hair (and only those in small amounts).

Your compost area should have three bins or pile areas: one that is currently being added to and stirred; one that is cooking, being watered, and turned weekly; and one that is being added to the garden area. These areas will be rotated among your three bins/piles regularly.

Spend Time in the Garden

Walk through your garden once or twice a day. Take your favorite chair out and sit among the plants, drinking your coffee/tea. Talk to your plants and get to know them, their habits, and their needs. Watch for garden pests like insects, slugs, and weeds. Pull the weeds when it is easy to tell what does and doesn’t belong in your beds. Add the weeds that you’ve pulled into your compost pile.

Spray an insecticide on insects. Start with a simple solution of one teaspoon of dish soap in a quart of water. If this doesn’t work, buy a spray that uses pyrethrums derived from chrysanthemums to kill them.  You may also plant herbs and flowers among the veggies to aid in the battle of the bugs.

Water Right

Watering should be done for long periods (fifteen to thirty minutes, once or twice weekly in all but the driest climates, where daily watering may be needed) and as close to the soil’s surface as possible; this will allow the garden to use the water to feed the roots well and to encourage them to grow strong and deep. Watering should be done either early in the morning or late in the evening (before 10 a.m. or after 6 p.m.) to allow more water to soak into the soil instead of evaporating. This will also aid in reducing fungal diseases. If your plants are wilting in the heat of a particularly dry, hot afternoon, pamper your plants with an additional watering session and likewise in drought conditions.

Other Considerations

There are various other considerations that should be reviewed while planning your garden. Those living in more remote area should consider wildlife-resistant plant varieties and fencing to keep your particular wildlife pests at bay. For high and low desert dwellers, drought-tolerant plants should be a part of your garden plan.  Take a good look at your area’s hardiness zone and soil type when selecting your plants, and choose wisely.


There are many specialized tools intended for your ease in gardening. However, you need not purchase all of the garden gadgets that come along. A few staples that are necessary are two shovels (a good round nose and a pointed nose), a garden rake, a leaf rake, a hoe, a steel-bladed trowel with a comfortable handle (soft rubber handles are easier to grip), a good pair of hand pruners, a garden fork, a wheelbarrow or cart, a watering can, and several hoses of various lengths. More info on tools:

  • Though forged tools will cost you more, they will last much longer.
  • Longer handles provide more leverage.
  • Keep handles from drying out by rubbing them with linseed oil.
  • Sharpen tools before storing for the winter and protect them with a coating of oil, wax, or Vaseline.
  • Check and tighten all screws and fasteners often.
  • Store hoses on reels under cover or in a shed during the winter to preserve them for longer use.

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