Gardening Basics

From Chapter 32 of "Healthy Garden Healthy You" by Milo Shammas

To succeed at gardening, you must understand your natural surroundings. Learn the usual dates of the first hard frost and the springtime thaw in your area. What you can plant and harvest depends on when your specific planting and growing season begins and ends and how long it lasts. Also, you must know where the sun rises and sets in relation to your planting beds. For example, you need to know how many hours of direct sunlight your plants can receive and where the shadows, if any, fall in the afternoon.

Next, you must attune yourself to the annual and seasonal weather patterns in your area. Gardeners love a comprehensive weather report (rain, wind, high and low pressure and temperature extremes) because it helps them plan their activities. Note when seeds germinate and when insects (and which ones) begin to appear. Invest in good quality soil and air thermometers to give yourself an edge in living with the elements.

Your garden is likely to have small yet important microclimates. Shadows can cause a cold pocket, and a hard surface facing the sun can reflect too much heat. These areas will not only change daily but also with the seasons. Summer might be too hot for lettuce but great for tomatoes. Anticipate these changes when you decide where to grow your garden.

You may have at least four different microclimates around your home:

  1. A hot side facing south
  2. A shadowed, cool side on the north
  3. A warm western side with afternoon sun
  4. An ever-changing eastern side that may be warm or cool depending
    on trees, high fencing or the time of year

Carefully observe heat and light to know where to create your garden. Position your raised beds, rows or plots to run north and south so plants will receive more sunlight in winter and not shade each other. In winter, keep tall trellised plants against the north wall and the shorter plants to the south. In the summer, do the opposite. These are the basics of microclimates.

Plant Zones – What To Grow Where
Your geographic climate zone will determine which plants can thrive in your garden. The USDA publishes the most commonly used hardiness zone map, which divides the continental U.S. into 11 zones derived from the average annual minimum temperatures. You can find a copy of this map online, at a local library or university, or in gardening books.

Another good zone map comes from the editors of Sunset Magazine. They divided the United States and southern Canada into 45 climate zones, considering many variables such as area temperature extremes, humidity, rainfall, local topography, elevation, and even proximity to large bodies of water.

You can also just visit your neighborhood nursery. Nurseries want to offer plants that will thrive for their customers, not those that might fail. Your success is also their success, so they are unlikely to even carry plants that won’t do well in your zone.

Sun and Shade—a defining factor
Plants that produce fruits require plenty of sun. Allow at least six hours daily for tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, beans, corn, eggplant, summer squash and cabbage. In general, the bigger the fruit, the more sunlight it must have.

On the other hand, many vegetables and herbs do well in shaded areas, needing only about four hours of sun per day. Try carrots, beets, chard, cauliflower, chives, lettuce, chicories, radicchio, arugula, basil, mint, parsley, spinach or winter squash in these shadier areas. For leafy green vegetables, less sunlight is fine.

Sandy soils drain too quickly and clay soils too slowly. Adding organic materials helps to correct and balance both types of soil. If you have a good balance between sand, silt, clay and organic materials, you have a solid foundation for good drainage as well as moisture retention in the space between soil particles. When you improve your soil’s drainage, you reduce the level of fungal pathogens. You also improve root development and nutrient availability in a healthy aerobic environment.

Do a simple test to see how your soil drains and whether you need to make changes to correct your drainage. Dig a hole about 1 foot deep and 6 inches wide. Fill the hole with water and let it drain completely. When the hole is empty, fill it again with water to the very top. If it takes more than 10 hours to empty again, you have a drainage problem. The good news is that this problem can easily be solved by adding organic materials or drainage pipes.
You can also grow plants in raised beds.

Advantages of Growing In Raised Beds
Raised beds make it easier to plant and harvest crops and can be attractive. They also give you control over the composition of the soil. Your home’s previous owners might have contaminated the soil without you knowing it. Adding new soil to a raised bed assures you of its safety.

Growing in raised beds makes projects seem more manageable, since tackling your weeding or other chores one bed at a time feels doable and satisfying. There is less back strain and better air circulation, because you don’t walk on the soil and compact it. Also, that loose, fluffy soil is easier to weed. Raised beds have also been shown to increase crop yields.

Raised beds can be constructed from brick, stones, or even hay bales, which are the perfect height. If you use wood, make sure it is redwood, cedar, or some other hardwood that has not been dipped in chemical wood preservatives. Pressure treated wood is full of heavy metals and painted wood will eventually decompose and contaminate the soil. Cheap plastic materials will also work but are not very esthetically pleasing.

Container Gardening
Perhaps you live in an apartment, have limited space in your yard, or just don’t want to have a full-scale garden. By growing in containers, you can have an abundance of fresh vegetables and herbs just steps from the kitchen. These plants can be attractive and will enhance your patio, deck, or balcony. Nothing tastes better or is more nutritious or flavorful than fruits, vegetables, or herbs harvested minutes before eating. Paying attention to a few important rules and investing only a little time will assure you of a container garden that will be easy to set up and maintain and one that will offer a bountiful harvest. Here are the aspects you must consider:

Sunlight is the most important factor. Track the sun and shade patterns in your immediate area to get a good sense of the space where you intend to garden and what plants will do well there.

Fruit trees and vegetables that set flowers (such as oranges, plums, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, peppers, or squash) need a lot of sunlight. Photosynthesis produces sugars that directly feed flowers and help grow fruits of appealing size, taste, and nutritional value. A good local nursery staff member can tell you how much sun is needed in your area for any plants you want to grow.

Container size is the second most important variable for container gardening. The more soil volume your plants have, the more extensive the root system to draw on a larger pool of nutrients and water. Available container space directly influences the nutritional value, size and quality of the fruits, vegetables and herbs you will harvest. More is definitely better. For example, tomatoes require a minimum of 15 gallons of soil in order to develop into full size plants that will produce tomatoes with rewarding taste and nutrition. Other vegetable crops can survive in smaller containers with less soil volume but would benefit from more.

Terracotta, redwood, or cedar containers give the best results because they “breathe” and their temperature doesn’t fluctuate as quickly as other material. They also retain water better. Plastic containers can work well if you mulch to retain moisture and be sure to water more frequently. It is a good idea to mulch all container plants.

Potting medium matters. The quality of the soil has a major impact on plant health and crop quality. In bagged potting soils, watch out for chemicals, such as synthetic plant nutrients. For peace of mind, choose Dr. Earth® bagged soils, knowing they are made from only the best natural ingredients and are never contaminated. We know how to formulate the most well-balanced mixture, one that drains quickly but also retains moisture to support a healthy transfer of nutrients to the roots.

You can use some of your own compost from kitchen and yard waste, mixing at the rate of about 1/3 compost to 2/3 potting soil. In the limited space of a container, a plant has access only to what you provide, so invest in the best soil available – Dr. Earth®.

Fertilizer feeds the living soil that feeds your plants’ root systems. Chemically fertilized soils lack organic matter and are more vulnerable to drought and extreme temperature changes. Organic gardening is based on soil health and the natural relationship between soil microbes and roots.
Fruit trees, tomatoes and most other vegetables, especially in containers, need a lot of fertilizer to reach full potential. Feed
the roots in your container plants slowly with the best, Dr. Earth® organic fertilizer for maximum nutrition from your plants. Sea-based organic fertilizers are superior and contain the most multi-minerals, from which you will benefit when you consume them. Feed container plants often throughout the year.

Trellising Support provides form and structure for better plant health. Exposing as many leaves to sunlight as possible helps to increase your harvest. Not all vegetables will require support, but cucumbers, tomatoes and other vine plants do. Trellises also create air space between plants to minimize fungal diseases and make flowers more accessible to insects that help to pollinate.

Some plants may need a stake in the center of the container, while a tomato wants a sturdy cage, and a cucumber needs a grid-like trellis. You can build many of these support systems from scraps around the house.

Most plants are 90 percent water, 60 percent of which is delivered from the soil to the plant through plant root hairs. To keep your plants healthy and thriving you must have a good soil with plenty of organic matter to act like a sponge and allow the almost microscopic roots to travel through porous, well-draining soil.

The best way to tell when and how much water your plant needs (whether in the ground or a container) is to feel the soil. Probe your finger about an inch or two and feel if it is dry or moist to the touch.

The soil type makes a huge difference. Also, the more organic material in a soil, the less you have to water. The hotter the day and the shallower the root system, the more you have to water. Gardeners should pay attention to soil, weather, dryness and humidity.

Your sprinkler system timers will likely need to be adjusted once a month, depending on weather conditions. Plants do best when they receive just the amount of water they need, right when they need it. Inspect your soil. Look at it and feel it. If it looks and feels dry, you may need to alter your watering schedule. Likewise, you could be overwatering and wasting water.

Watering in the morning gives your plants the entire day to draw the water from the soil as needed, especially on hot days. Water slowly, to insure proper absorption. Water deeply, so that it does not run off the surface, never making it down into the root zone. Shady spots need less water, while the sunny areas dry out more quickly and need more water.

Making A Plan”
Before a contractor can build a home, the architect must provide a plan, a blueprint that clearly shows how the house looks and functions. The same is true when creating and designing a garden of any size. You must know how to put it together.
Some questions to consider are:

  • Will you start from seeds or transplants?
  • In-ground or raised beds?
  • Sprinkler system or hand irrigation?
  • Fruits, vegetables, or both?
  • How will the elements of your garden work together?
  • What are the sun requirements for your plants?
  • Where will the same plant go next year?
    (Rotate crops each year to avoid plant diseases.)
  • What plants are you going to grow in summer, winter or fall?
  • What is the best soil mixture for you?
  • When will the transplants go in the ground?
  • How hardy are the plants you want to grow?
  • When should you start them?
  • What is the nutrient value of a desired plant?

Remember, you are growing a nutrition garden. You will have a health food store right in your backyard. Make sure to invest time in a solid plan that brings you that much closer to your dream garden. There are thousands of books on planning your garden. Pick one up and get more ideas. You can never have too much knowledge about your garden and your health.

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