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Preparing Your Garden

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A garden keeps many promises. Plant a plain seed and reap beautiful flowers, bountiful produce, and a wonderful feeling of accomplishment and self-fulfillment. America's favorite pastime pays dividends well worth the small investment of time and energy. Each year many new gardeners face the prospect of starting first-time gardens from scratch. For them, a journey full of promise has just begun.

Preparing the garden for planting is usually a rite of spring. However, fall prepping has many advantages. Organic matter and soil amendments like lime used to adjust soil pH have time to be incorporated into the soil. Fall tilling lets the cold kill exposed weed roots and seeds, and prepares beds for early spring planting without having to work wet spring oil.

Whether it's to be a vegetable garden, flower bed or a combination of both, starting with a blank canvas offers limitless possibilities and challenges. Armed with imaginative plans gleaned from magazines and catalogs, we're eager to dig into this labor of love. But where to begin?

The first step is to select the best site
Our yards are composed of many levels and pockets were light, temperature and moisture levels vary. These microclimates dictate the types of plants we can grow. The edge of a backyard pond or low-lying areas that collect rainfall are ideal for moisture-loving plants. Plants preferring shade would likely do best in a yard's tree-covered north corner. A house's south side near a heat-radiating driveway is most suitable for drought and heat-tolerant plants. The site ultimately will determine the sort of garden you'll grow.

For a first garden, choose a level area with good drainage that offers some protection from prevailing winds, and is within reach of the hose or sprinkler for easy watering. Most gardens, vegetable patches in particular, require at least six hours of sun.

Test the soil pH of the proposed garden site
Although it sounds complicated, soil pH is easy garden science that determines whether the soil is acidic, neutral or alkaline. The pH test assigns the soil a numeric value on a scale of 1 to 14. Seven is neutral. Numbers below seven are increasingly acidic, and above alkaline. If a soil is too acidic or too alkaline, important nutrients required for healthy plant growth become "locked" in the soil and cannot be absorbed by the plant roots. As a result, plants do poorly and eventually may die. Most plants prefer a slightly acidic or "sour" soil; however, certain varieties like blueberries and azaleas like higher acidity.

By knowing the pH, the soil can be amended as necessary. Usually, lime is added to make soil more alkaline. Sulfur is applied to make soil more acidic. But, before adjusting your soil, talk with an extension agent or reputable nurseryman to determine the type and amount of soil amender to apply.

It's easy to test your soil
Nurseries, garden centers and catalogs sell pH test kits. The local branch of the state cooperative extension office may offer soil testing for a nominal fee. Private labs will also perform the test and do a complete soil workup. They identify the pH, availability of nutrients that plants need to grow, and soil type- sandy, loamy or clay. The professional tests also make fertilizer and soil amendment recommendations based on the vegetables, flowers and grasses you intend to grow.

After choosing the site, take some time to plan the garden
Plot your garden on graph paper, grouping plants with similar fertilizer and water needs together. Place tall plants on the garden's north side to prevent them from shading smaller plants as the sun rotates east to west.

Theme and specialty gardens, such as Japanese water garden or those that attract hummingbirds, butterflies and bats, require extra attention to detail and might be better attempted after a year or two of experience is gained.

Don't forget fencing
Even in suburban and urban areas, it may be your only defense against Peter Cottontail, Bambi, and neighborhood cats and dogs.

Installing edging for garden beds involves a lot of kneeling. Protect your pants from permanent grass and dirt stains, or your bare knees from pebbles and grass cuts by wearing garden kneepads or kneeling on a piece of cardboard.

Hard, dry soil is easier to work if you soak it a few days before digging a garden bed.

After laying out a garden bed, you will need to prepare the ground for planting by digging it up. This means cutting borders as well as getting rid of grass and weeds and other undesired growth. Often you'll work peat moss, manure, compost, or fertilizer into the soil to improve it. These tasks are usually easier to do before edging is put in place -- edging gets in the way of tillers and wheelbarrows. By taking out all the unwanted sod first, for example, the edging won't have to survive heavy loads being carried across it later.

The use of pesticides is a controversial subject among gardeners. Increasing concern for what our families eat and environmental issues like ground water contamination are turning many to chemical-free gardening practices. From reducing pests to increasing soil nutrients, organic remedies are gaining more and more acceptance. Good garden cultivation and sanitation are the easiest ways to control pests. Rotate crops, mulch, remove dying and diseased plant material, pull weeds, water early and maintain a health pH level. As a last resort, use a pesticide according to the label, which dictates the amount to be applied for specific pests and plants.

For best results, fertilize your soil with the right proportion of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. (Grass, roses, tomatoes, etc., call for different formulas.) Check the fertilizer bag for the N-P-K numbers that explain the proportion of elements inside. For instance, when the label reads 10-20-10, the fertilizer is 10 percent nitrogen (N), 20 percent phosphorus (P), and 10 percent potassium (K). Nitrogen gives the leafy part of a plant new growth and dark green color. Phosphorus helps plants develop root growth and additional blooms for blooming plants. Potassium helps keep plants healthy and helps resist disease.

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