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Gardening 101: Learning The Basics

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Whether you’re an urban apartment dweller or a homesteader with five acres, growing a garden is one of the most satisfying projects you can undertake. In even a small space, you can grow ornamentals to lend beauty to your yard, as well as edible fruits and vegetables to grace your table. Sometimes you can even combine the ornamental with the edible! Gardening may seem like a complicated affair, but it’s really quite simple. It all comes down to choosing plants that thrive in your region and giving them the care they need.

Reasons To Garden

Interaction with nature. One hundred years ago, most people spent at least a portion of their day outdoors, particularly during the summer, tending livestock or working in a garden. People understood the seasons and knew how to predict the weather based on cloud formations, humidity, and even animal behavior. Today, though, many of us spend our days almost entirely indoors –running from air-conditioned homes to air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned offices. We’re out of touch with the cycles of nature, which can lead to a feeling of disconnection with ourselves as well. Gardening is the perfect antidote for this phenomenon. Gardening brings a sense of peace, well-being, and authenticity.

Self-sufficiency. Gardening is hard work, but few things in life bring a greater sense of achievement than walking through a productive vegetable garden, orchard, or berry patch in late summer. Along with this feeling of pride comes the knowledge that you’re doing something valuable for yourself and your family – putting fresh produce on the table. If you teach your kids to garden, you’re also transferring knowledge from one generation to the next. This knowledge is always valuable, but it becomes priceless if you’re ever in a situation where you must grow your own food.

Health. Not only can gardening improve your mental and emotional health, but it’s great for your physical health, as well. A love of gardening tends to go hand in hand with a love of simple, whole foods. As you gain gardening experience, you’ll probably learn new cooking and preserving techniques to deal with all that produce. Kids who garden are more likely to eat the crops they grew, encouraging healthy eating. And finally, if you’ve ever spent a day in the garden, you know that gardening is excellent exercise.

Getting Started

Learn about your gardening conditions. If you’ve never gardened before, your first step will be to learn about what grows well in your area. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has developed Plant Hardiness Zones that divide regions of the country by weather patterns, such as the average lowest winter temperature in a given area. Although your yard probably contains some microclimates – which are cold or hot spots – the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Guide is a good place to start when considering which crops to plant in your garden and when. Most plants you’ll find in a nursery are labeled with their corresponding plant hardiness zone number. So, for example, if you live in zone 5, which includes most of the middle of the U.S., you’ll look for plants that are labeled for zone 5.

Another important step is to observe the gardens in your neighborhood and talk to knowledgeable gardeners. They can tell you which plants grow easily in your area and which plants take a bit more babying. Learn from their successes and failures, and you’ll reduce your own learning curve. Reputable nurseries, a botanical garden, or your county extension office are other good sources of gardening information.

Consider your gardening goals. Do you want to grow vegetables for your family’s table or are you more interested in a few decorative ornamentals? How much time and space can you invest in a garden? Vegetable gardening takes more work than some types of gardening, but it’s a good choice for beginners because the plants grow quickly, providing almost instant gratification. Another advantage to vegetable gardening is the opportunity to experiment. If you make a mistake one year, simply correct it the next. Vegetable seeds are also fairly inexpensive. Mistakes in planting trees or designing perennial beds are much more costly.

Improve the soil. The ideal gardening soil is known as loam. It’s dark, rich, and crumbly. Some gardeners describe it as looking and feeling like chocolate cake. If you’ve got loam in your garden, half your gardening battles are over before you even begin. If you’re like 90 percent of gardeners, though, your soil is probably either sand or clay. Sandy soil is dry and coarse. It’s easy to work, but water and nutrients leach out of it quickly. Clay stays moist and retains nutrients, but it’s heavy. Work it when it’s wet and it turns to concrete. Plants grow slowly in clay because they don’t get enough oxygen.

Both types of soil can and must be improved if you hope to have a productive garden. Take a soil sample to your university extension office. In a few weeks, you’ll receive test results detailing the pH level of your soil and nutrient deficiencies. The test results will also offer recommendations for improving your soil. Dig at least three to five inches of compost or manure into your soil, along with any other amendments recommended by the extension office. Now you’re on your way to a better garden.

Get some good tools. Walk down the gardening aisle of any home improvement store or nursery and you’ll encounter a confusing array of tools. Most of these aren’t necessary for the beginning gardener. Focus on the basics and spend money on a few high-quality tools rather than numerous cheap tools. Look for tools with tempered steel blades and riveted handles. The tools should feel solid in your hands, but neither too light nor too heavy. To begin, you’ll need a shovel, a spade, a hoe, and perhaps a pitchfork. You’ll also want a good pair of gardening gloves and perhaps some rubber gardening shoes. Later, you’ll probably discover gardening goodies such as twine, floating row covers, or bulb planters. These tools aren’t absolute necessities, of course, but they make gardening more enjoyable. Every gardener has a few favorite tools.

Make a plan. Before you dig that first mound of dirt, you need to develop a gardening plan. If you want to grow vegetables, consult gardening books, such as The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch, or websites on growing vegetables. Here you’ll learn how much produce each type of vegetable yields and how much space to plan for in your garden. In general, start small. You can always enlarge your garden in subsequent years, but by starting small, you’ll gain experience without becoming overwhelmed.

Gardening is a constantly evolving process. Some years, you’ll grow abundant crops with little effort. Just when you think you’ve grown a green thumb, severe, unpredictable weather may hamper your efforts and humble you. As a gardener, your job is to collaborate and cooperate with Mother Nature, rather than control or subjugate the natural world. No matter the outcome, the process of gardening is always challenging and rewarding.

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