While spring is the ideal time to begin digging and growing a traditional vegetable or flower garden, plenty of planning and other tasks can be done at any time of the year.
Gardeners spend most of the summer watering, weeding and watching young plants grow. Fall is a good time to plant trees, shrubs, bulbs and some perennials. And winter is a perfect time to start ordering seeds, planning out your rows and getting organized.
There’s no wrong time to start, but these tips might make it easier for you.
Get an idea
Is this going to be a vegetable garden? An herb garden? A flower garden? If you choose to grow flowers, do you want annuals, which you must replant each year but which give color most of the summer? Or do you prefer perennials, which have a shorter bloom time but come back year after year? You can mix any of the above — after all, it’s your garden. Just one bit of advice: Start small. ’Tis better to succeed just a little than to fail grandly.
Pick a place
Almost all vegetables and most flowers need about six hours of full sun each day. Spend a day in your chosen spot, and watch how the sun moves across the space. It might receive more sun than you think.
But don’t despair if your lot is largely sunless; many plants tolerate shade. Check plant tags or ask the staff at your local garden center to find out how much sun a plant requires.
Put the garden where you can’t ignore its pleas for attention — outside the back door, near the mailbox, by the window you stare out when you dry your hair.
Place it close enough to a water spigot that you won’t have to drag the hose to the hinterlands.
Clear the ground
Get rid of the sod covering the area you plan to plant. If you want quick results, you can dig it out, but it’s easier to smother it with newspaper. A layer of five sheets is usually thick enough; double that if your lawn is Bermuda grass or St. Augustine grass. Spread a 3-inch layer of compost (or a combination of potting soil and topsoil) on the newspaper and wait. It’ll take about four months for the compost and paper to decompose.
If you don’t want to wait or if the area is covered with weeds such as creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea), you’re better off digging the sod out.
Improve the soil
Invariably, soil needs a boost. The solution is simple: organic matter. Add a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost, decayed leaves, dry grass clippings or old manure. If you’re digging the soil, till the organic matter into the soil. If you decide not to dig or are working with an established bed you can’t dig, leave the organic matter on the surface, and it will work its way into the soil in a few months.
To learn more about your soil, have a soil test done through your county cooperative extension office. They’ll lead you through the procedure: how much soil to send from which parts of the garden and the best time to obtain samples. Expect a two-week wait for their findings, which will tell you what your soil lacks and how to amend it.
Dig or don’t
Digging loosens the soil so roots can penetrate more easily. But digging when the soil is too wet or too dry can ruin its structure. Dig only when the soil is moist enough to form a loose ball in your fist but dry enough to fall apart when you drop it. Use a spade or spading fork to gently turn the top 8 to 12 inches of soil, mixing in the layer of organic matter you’ve applied. In vegetable gardens and beds of annual flowers, turn the soil only once a year — in the spring before you plant.
Spring garden maintenance
Bring out pots and urns
If you brought pots and urns indoors during the winter, you can take them outside once temperatures are consistently above 45 degrees. Place the plants and flowers in appropriate areas around your patio or deck — some plants need shade, while others require direct sunlight. If you grew plants indoors during winter with a hydroponic garden, make sure you have enough pots or urns if you’d like to replant them outdoors.
Service electric- and gas-powered tools
Landscaping and gardening tools that are electric- or gas-powered may require maintenance or service before you use them this season. Electric tools like a cordless hedge trimmer will need to be charged fully prior to use. If the rechargeable battery doesn’t hold a charge as well as it used to, you may need to replace it. Gas-powered tools need their fluids and tires checked.
Organize your shed or garage
Since it’s gardening and landscaping season, rearrange your shed or garage to make tools and equipment more accessible. Manual tools like tillers or shovels can be hung on garden tool racks to free up floor space. Place regularly used tools in a garden cart, whose portability saves you trips to the shed or garage. Move large equipment such as lawn mowers closer to doors so they’re more accessible.