Are We Doing First Time Gardeners a Disservice?

>> Friday, February 27, 2009

I would like to see everybody have their own garden. Every yard, every apartment balcony, every city rooftop, every city park needs to be overflowing with natures bounty tended by knowledgeable dedicated gardeners. But, not everyone wants to and not everyone who wants to has the confidence to get started. This is where those of us who write garden blogs or gardening websites need to be diligent about presenting as much accurate information as we can and not paint incomplete pictures that will likely lead to failure or less than desirable success.

In my travels through cyberspace I come across many sites giving ‘tips’ on “How to Start a Garden”. Most list the basic considerations involved in creating a successful garden, whether for flowers or for edibles: color coordination for a flower garden, sunlight requirements, annuals or perennials, and focal point.

There are a few other considerations that don’t usually get mentioned, such as: soil type, when to plant, when or how often to fertilize, what fertilize to use. And then there’s the question of going organic or chemical.

I don’t fault these sites for not mentioning these other considerations, they can get quite involved and the site most likely does not want to invest that much time in these issues. But an injustice is being done by presenting the act of growing nature as a one weekend affair of walking out of a nursery or big box store with plants in tow, digging a hole and expecting those plants to perform year after year. And it is especially callous to paint this image for the sake of selling potted plants. There is quite a bit of work involved in having a successful and productive garden. And one of the most basic and most important steps in attaining a healthy garden is knowing what type of soil you have to work with.

Soil type: The majority of homeowners are not blessed with ideal gardening soil. The easily workable soil you see on televised gardening programs does not occur naturally. This soil type is known as loam, and is the result of mixing composted material with the natural soil which, in most parts of America, is clay. You can grow almost anything in clay, typically clay holds abundant nutrients for almost any plant but getting clay to release those nutrients while providing reasonable drainage are the two major problems with working with clay. These problems are not insurmountable. With dedicated attention, and lots of compost, clay will provide you a beautiful and productive garden.

The third soil type is sand. This soil presents the exact opposite problems of clay: too much drainage and very little nutrients. These problems can also be overcome with compost.

Compost can be purchased or made in your own backyard with cheap, readily accessible ingredients.

You can attain perfect loamy soil in one year’s time if you are willing to remove a lot of your existing soil and replace it with a lot of composted material. Most of us don’t have the money to do this. And the natural soil-type will return if you don’t keep up with it on a yearly basis. Ideal soil takes years to create. In the meantime, while building your substandard soil, you can grow whatever you like by digging individual holes for each plant and filling the hole with store-bought loam. This is going to be a pricey proposition as well, but it will get you started.

The bottom line is that you cannot just plop plants in clay or sandy soil and expect them to survive.

The special attention you give them, year after year, is going to make all the difference between healthy productive plants and brown lifeless twigs.

One important lesson I have learned is to buy from nurseries and not big box stores. Some people can walk into a Home Depot, Lowe’s or Walmart and find a plant that will perform quite nicely in their yard. It is rare that you can find a knowledgeable garden-type person in these stores. Plant tags are getting better about passing on important information but it is usually pretty general if given at all. If you are knowledgeable enough to recognize stressed plants (and know to stay away from them) and if you are confident enough that you can bring them back from otherwise certain death then I wish you much happiness with your choice and ability. But let me interject this thought, nurseries are struggling because they don’t have a very high profit margin due to all of these aforementioned box stores cutting into their trade. So if you can see your way to patronize them for your gardening needs instead, they, and the rest of us, would be most appreciative. By the way, I am not in any way affiliated with any garden nursery. I do not sell plants. My interest is in having local nurseries available to find healthy plants and knowledgeable employees that cannot be found in big box stores.

If you are fortunate enough to move into a home with an established garden then count yourself lucky. Otherwise, expect to add compost and/or composted materials, ideally, each fall but spring works too.

You can find good information on the internet and the many wonderful garden blogs it has to offer, and if you keep in mind this one very basic thought that when you feed the soil you will provide your plants the very best possible chance they have of meeting your expectations whether they be vegetables or flowers.

If we don’t get first time gardens started properly with accurate and complete information then we are selling ourselves short. The larger the gardening community grows the better the chance we have of guaranteeing seed diversity, of maintaining healthy eating habits, of educating our children as to where food comes from and the part we all play in nature, and of providing habitat to wildlife that our spreading population is destroying.


Ewa March 1, 2009 at 10:16 AM  

Hello Greg,
This is a great post for gardeners all over the world.
Thank you for adding my blog to your list. I add yours to mine too.
Hugs from Poland,

Greg W March 1, 2009 at 11:28 AM  

Thanks Ewa, and welcome.
I hope I didn't go on too long on the subject but I really would like to see many, many more gardens and we need to help as much as we can.

Looking forward to more posts on your site.


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