Gardening Mini Manual

Robert Mugaas
University of Minnesota Extension Educator, Horticulture

Home flower and vegetable gardening can be a fascinating and rewarding activity involving the whole family. There is hardly anything more rewarding than walking out to your gardens and harvesting fresh vegetables for your stir fry and cutting a few stems of flowers to decorate the dinner table.

Produce grown in the home vegetable garden is fresher and may have a higher nutrient content than those available in your local market. Backyard gardening also helps the planet in many ways, reducing your environmental impact. For example, if you grow your food with no or only minimal and judicious use of pesticides, you’ll spare the earth the potential burden of unnecessary air and water pollution. You’ll also reduce the use of fossil fuels and the resulting pollution that comes from the processing, packaging and transport of produce from all over the world (in planes and refrigerated trucks) to your supermarket. (See the Food Print article in the Food section for more information on our food consumption habits and how they impact our environment.)

If are planning to start a garden, this manual is for you! If you already have your own gardens, skip to the planting, watering and weeding sections in this article for great tips and resources.

Plant Basics

To the beginning gardener, planning a bountiful vegetable or flower garden may seem like a rather daunting task. However, it need not be difficult and, in fact, is usually quite enjoyable. Begin planning only after you have a basic understanding of concepts and terms related to the garden and landscape plants you intend to grow. According to botanists ”people who study the life cycle of plants for a living”our garden plants can be divided into two basic groups based upon the number of leaves that emerge from the seed when it begins to sprout. Monocots have a single seed leaf and dicots have two seed leaves. Also, the veins of a monocot leaf run parallel to each other, while the veins of a dicot leaf are organized in a more net-like or branched pattern.

On a more practical side, gardeners group plants by how long they continue to grow. For example, perennials live more than two years although they may produce seed every year. Perennial plants with a more permanent woody stem are usually trees and shrubs. Those with a more tender, succulent stem are known as herbaceous perennials. Garden plants such as peonies, garden phlox and asparagus are all examples of herbaceous perennials. Biennial plants complete their life-cycle over the course of two years. The first year is dedicated to storing food in leaves and roots. During the second growing season the plant will produce its flower, set seed and die. The flower garden plant known as foxglove is an example of a biennial. Finally, annuals germinate from seed, grow, flower, produce seed and die during one growing season. Petunias, impatiens, cucumbers and snap beans are all examples of annual plants.

Unlike humans and animals, plants make their food through the process of photosynthesis. Simply put, plants use the sun’s energy and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, along with water taken up from the soil, to make simple sugars that ultimately become the building blocks for all other molecules that the plant needs. Also, plants utilize or incorporate various nutrients from the soil to make other essential molecules for energy and growth. The three nutrients required in largest quantities by the plant are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Occasionally it is necessary to supplement the soil’s ability to provide these nutrients by fertilizing.

Locating Garden Spaces

To a large extent, gardening success will depend on your particular site and the possible areas you have to grow plants. Following are some important considerations when choosing gardening locations within your property:

  • Good soil is essential for the production of healthy, vigorous vegetable or flower garden plants. It is often necessary to amend soils with organic matter and nutrients to improve the soil prior to planting. Once planted, it is very difficult to make changes and improvements to the soil.
  • Direct sunlight in the order of 8 to 10 hours per day is essential for healthy growth and production of vegetables and most herbs. However, by carefully selecting annual and perennial flowers, one can achieve beautiful flowering gardens in either sun or shade.
  • Vegetable gardens should be located away from trees and shrubs. The vigorous roots of these plants will significantly compete with vegetable garden plants. In addition, they may cast too much shade to be very successful with vegetable gardening in that area.
  • Locate garden areas within easy access of a water supply. Having a convenient water source close to your garden area will make that maintenance task much easier. You can also respond more quickly when plants need more water, especially during the early establishment period before root systems have had a chance to grow and spread through the soil.
  • Consider locating some of your garden areas in close proximity to your house. This allows you to watch the garden grow on a consistent basis, often right from your windows. It will also facilitate harvesting things like fresh herbs for cooking, or flowers for a table centerpiece.

When you think you have decided where to locate the gardens, step back a bit and see how they all fit together. Try to have one garden area gracefully blend into the next garden area. This will help create a more pleasing, peaceful landscape than one with a bunch of small, disconnected garden spaces scattered all over your property.

Garden Planning

Once a location or locations have been determined for the garden(s), your next important step is to plan where the plants will go in your garden. While this may be somewhat frustrating at times, it is also one of the more enjoyable parts of gardening. There are many resources available that describe various plants we may want to grow in our gardens. Poring through garden and seed catalogs to gather that kind of information during our cold winter months is a favorite pastime of many gardeners in this area.

Here are a few important tips to keep in mind when planning your garden:

When planning your vegetable garden, always locate taller growing plants along the northerly edge of the garden. That way the taller plants won’t shade lower growing plants, thereby reducing their productivity. In flower gardens, place the taller plants at the back edge (often northerly edge) of the garden where they will not excessively shade shorter growing plants in front of them.

Remember to consider vertical space as part of your garden. For example, growing cucumbers on trellises can conserve precious garden space while helping to keep the fruits clean and easy to harvest. Growing a vining plant like clematis or morning glory on a trellis positioned as a focal point in the flower garden can create an impressive effect.

Having something in bloom at all times maintains interest in your flower garden. However, providing for season-long flowering can be one of the biggest challenges of planning a flower garden. If you can’t afford to purchase all of the perennial plants at one time to create this effect, use liberal amounts of annuals interspersed with your perennials to help create the season-long bloom effect. A very simple collection of tall bearded irises, peonies, daylilies, garden lilies, phlox and chrysanthemums will provide a beginner’s garden of cheerful, season-long bloom. As you become more familiar with different types of flowering perennials your collection and garden can grow to whatever size you desire.

Preparing Soil

A good place to start when contemplating how to prepare your garden soil is to take a soil test. To do this, contact your local University of Minnesota County Extension Office and request a “soil test kit.” The kit will be sent to you and includes information on how to properly take a soil test and where to send it at the University of Minnesota. Currently the charge is $15 per sample. The results of this test will provide information on how acidic or alkaline your soil is, whether it is more sandy or clay-like in texture, how much organic matter is present and what levels of phosphorus and potassium are present in the soil. From these results, the soil testing lab will suggest any necessary nutrient amendments needed to get the most from your garden.

In general, soils should be loosened before you begin planting vegetable gardens or annual flower beds. For small areas, use a tool called a garden fork or spade. Push the tines of the fork or blade of the shovel into the ground all the way up to the top. Usually this will be about 8 to 10 inches deep. Pull back on your utensil’s handle to raise the accompanying soil clump up and out of the ground. Turn the soil clump back down into the hole where you have just lifted it out. Doing this over the whole garden area will help loosen the soil for ease of planting and to give room for the roots of your plants to grow. Just prior to planting, take a garden rake and smooth out the surface to break up any clumps of soil. Your garden is now essentially ready to plant. For larger areas, roto-tillers can be used to accomplish the same soil preparation, although they may not penetrate as deeply into the ground. Whether using a tiller or digging by hand, never work the soil when it is wet and soggy. Just one incident of trying to work with wet soil can cause serious damage to the soil’s physical condition that may take several seasons to fully repair.

Adding organic matter, such as compost, on a regular basis can be one of the most important soil improvement practices you do. Before planting your garden, spread a couple of inches of well-decomposed compost over the garden and either till in the compost with a roto-tiller or dig it in with a garden fork. Adding organic matter will help improve the drainage and aeration of heavy clay soils while actually improving the water holding capacity of sandy soils. During the growing season, compost can also be used as a mulch over the soil surface. Maintaining a mulch depth of 2 to 3 inches will help keep soil temperatures lower, retain soil moisture, and provide some weed control by blocking out light to the soil surface. Mulches can be used effectively in all types of gardening situations from vegetable gardens to flower gardens and even around trees and shrubs.

Planting Gardens

With plans in place on where you plan to plant each item and your garden prepared, it is now time to plant. When planting seeds, be sure to follow directions on the seed package for proper planting depth and spacing between plants. You can create a shallow furrow or hole with a garden hoe. If the seeds are really small (e.g. carrots, cabbage), simply make a slight depression in the soil with a hoe or rake handle. Cover the seeds as per directions and gently water them with a very soft spray from a garden hose or watering can. Too hard of spray or large volumes of water applied too quickly can wash the seeds away or even drown them. After the initial watering it is critical that the soil remain damp until the seedlings emerge from the ground and begin to establish themselves.

When transplanting, try to select a cool, cloudy day to do the planting. If plants have been grown in small plastic paks, carefully remove each plant. Using a small shovel or trowel, dig a hole just deep enough to accommodate the root ball. (Note: small fragile root systems can too easily be permanently damaged doing this, with the plants then being very slow to establish or outright dying. It’s best to handle root systems as carefully as possible in the transplanting process.) Water each transplant with a half-strength fertilizer solution containing some nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Either an organic or inorganic source of fertilizer can be used. Organic sources are sometimes preferred as they have little potential to burn the plants should an over-application occur. In addition, they provide a small amount of organic matter to the soil that can help stimulate healthy microbial activity in and around the plant’s root system. Once transplanted, keep plants damp until they become established. Gradually increase the water quantity per application and the time interval between waterings until you can establish a regular schedule.

Watering Gardens

Ample water supplies during the growing season are essential for producing high quality fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers. As there are usually a few dry periods during the growing season some additional water will likely be needed to sustain the growth necessary to produce plump, healthy vegetables and large, colorful flowers.

Generally, it is better to water early in the day such that the plant’s foliage has a chance to dry out before evening. This helps keep the plant drier overnight and creates an environment less favorable to the development of diseases and rotting. If possible, avoid watering during the hot midday hours as this helps to minimize water lost to evaporation. Usually an application of about 1 inch of water per week will suffice to keep plants well watered and growing through the summer period. Also, it is better to soak the soil thoroughly at each watering rather than light frequent, applications.

  • In sandy soils this might be about ½ inch of water applied twice per week.
  • In a heavier clay soil, you may be able to apply 1 inch of water all at the same time.

However, never apply water at a rate greater than the soil can absorb it. Once the infiltration rate of the soil has been exceeded, runoff or pooling will occur, neither of which is desirable in our vegetable or flower gardens.

As a means of conserving water, you may want to consider using stored water in a rain barrel or a form of drip or trickle irrigation. In the drip or trickle method, water is applied through a porous hose, plastic, rubber or canvas, at low pressure and volume. The trickle line is usually placed alongside the row of vegetable plants or carefully woven in and around flower garden plants. Tubes may be buried 1 to 2 inches deep or placed on the surface and either left exposed or covered with a surface mulch. In general, trickle irrigation uses less water, delivers it exactly where it is needed, and provides a more uniform moisture supply. Rubberized porous hoses are readily available at most garden centers, home supply centers and hardware stores.

Managing Weeds

Cultivation is the term most often applied to the mechanical removal of weeds from vegetable and flower beds. Weeds can be a serious threat to vegetable and flower gardens as they compete for the same sunlight, water, and nutrients needed by garden plants. If weeds are allowed to become large and mature, they can also shade garden plants, creating an even more unfavorable growing environment for these plants.

A garden hoe may be one of the most important tools you purchase. It is excellent for loosening the surface soil as well as uprooting and destroying young weedy plants. To be the most effective, keep the following in mind:

  • Using a hoe for weed control, begin routinely walking through the garden with hoe in hand and lightly scuffing the soil surface just enough to remove the young weed seedlings.
  • Be sure you check with your seed package or reference book to be sure you are not hoeing out your seedling flower or vegetable plants!
  • Remember, the roots of many vegetables and flowers are very near the surface. Therefore avoid hoeing too deeply or too close to the desirable plant. Damaging the plant’s root system can seriously check its growth and potentially compromise its ability to produce a crop or flowers.

Chemical weed control is usually unnecessary in your home vegetable or flower garden. Vegetables and flowers have varying tolerances for herbicides. In addition, they must be applied accurately, evenly, and at the proper stage of development for both the garden plant and the weed. As gardens may have many different kinds of vegetable plants, herbs and flowers and often at varying stages of growth, it can be difficult to safely and properly use an herbicide. The label contained on the pesticide product, be it for weeds, diseases or insects, must be used in strict accordance with label directions as that product label is a legal document. Using it not accordance with label directions is a violation of federal law. Using organic, or in some cases, plastic or fabric mulches can be a much more adaptable alternative to weed control than herbicides. Also, be cautious about using herbicides on other parts of the property as these materials under the right environmental conditions can drift onto your vegetable and flower gardens.

Get Going, Get Growing!

Begin by selecting a good location for your garden(s) and a well-crafted plan. Taking the time to properly prepare the soil, carefully do the actual planting followed by moderate but consistent maintenance will go a long way to achieving productive food gardens and bountiful bouquets of flowers.

Read Up

Grow Your Own Pizza! Gardening Plans and Recipes for Kids by Constance Hardesty. Fulcrum Publishing 2000.Easy Vegetable Garden Plans by Sally W. Smith ed. Ortho Books 1997.

Act Locally

Minnesota Garden Clubs Urban Gardener Certification Program,

Gardening Mini Manual

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