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Frequently Asked Questions (well, at least twice)
I know nothing, nada, zilch about horticulture. How do I begin to learn?

The best way is hands-on: make a garden! Basically, you want to do three things before you plant:

  • feed the soil
  • get gardening support & education
  • choose your plants

But the order in which you do each part of those things is interdependent on parts of others. I suggest the following plan:

  1. Start making compost.
    • Next meal you eat, and from then on, save any scraps that are from plants. Do NOT use any meat, dairy, fish....any thing that came from a flesh creature. It will attract rats and breed dangerous bacteria. Everything of plant origin is great: all kinds of peelings, moldy fruit, leftover pasta, stale bread, coffee grounds... Grass clippings, leaves raked up, dead houseplants, prunings.... EVERYTHING.
    • You don't need a big bucket to keep it in, that just starts to smell after a few days. I keep mine in a pretty one-quart covered casserole dish, right on the counter next to the sink. I don't mind making trips to the garden every day, it gives me a chance to say hello even when I have to go back in & do housework. Even on cold winter days, it gets me out in the fresh air and I see something interesting in winter's simple sculptures.
    • Put it in a heap somewhere that gets some sun (all day is not necessary), away from where its untidy appearance will annoy anyone. Later you can get fancy bins if you want it to look more organized; a pile is fine for now.
    • Since it takes a few months minimum to make compost, if you're hot to start right away, buy some. Try very hard to find organic. Organic soil and compost are harder to find than organic fertilizers, but getting easier all the time.
    • If there is grass growing where you want to plant, cover it thickly with newspaper for a few months and it will die and compost. If you cover the newspaper with kitchen scraps it will compost, too. Good juices from compost percolate down to the soil underneath; this way you keep them in your new bed. In addition since the worms are more active in and under compost , they will loosen the soil for you.
  2. Find a local garden buddy, or a garden club. Ask at garden centers, health food stores, libraries, churches. Drive around observing what people do with their yards, & find some you really like. If you're brave, knock on the door & ask for advice. If not, observing is important. You can get a lot of advice from garden centers too, but it will be slanted toward getting you to buy now. Garderners love to share information — and plants, too. Stick your hands in the soil where the plants are thriving, lift a bit of it and rub it between your fingers and thumb: get a feel for its texture.
  3. Study what's in print.
    • Read gardening magazines (especially, look at the pictures and read what the plants are). The best are Horticulture, Fine Gardening, and Garden Gate.
    • Spend an afternoon browsing through the garden section of a good book store, and buy something by Rodale Press, the oganic gurus.
  4. Determine what kind of soil you have.
    • Sand, Silt or Clay? Read the books and magazines to decide whether, in addition to fertilizer, you need soil amendments to improve the physical structure. (Lots of compost is good for any soil.) If you have heavy clay, consider building raised beds on top of the basic soil, and putting new, good soil in them. Don't use raised beds with sandy soil.
    • Buy a soil test kit at a garden center and check your soil's acidity and its concentration of the basic three nutrients:
      • Nitrogen (chemical symbol N): for leaf growth
      • Phosphorus (chemical symbol P): for root growth, as well as flower & bud set
      • Potassium (chemical symbol K): for flower and bud set
      • (These are rough generalizations; these primary nutrients also do a lot of other things. In addition trace elements can be important; compost does a good job of providing them.)
  5. Get some organic fertilizer. (For the health of the earth, your garden, and your own body, I urge you to do this the natural way.)
    • Locate sources and find out what they have, in what size packages.
    • Calculate how much fertilzer to use, and buy it. Rodale books provide good help in figuring out how much to use.
    • I use...
      • Greensand (~6% K) a powdered rock made from prehistoric undersea deposits, available around my area at the better farm supply stores, for example Agway and Blue Seal.
      • Rock phosphate — NOT "Superphosphate" — (~40% P), another natural rock powder that I get at Agway or Blue Seal.
      • Ground soybean meal (~7% N). Sold as a livestock feed, at farm supply stores: it's the cheapest high-quality nitrogen you can buy.
    • You can get complete organic fertilizers (that is, with all three: N, P, & K), but they're expensvie. My recipe for a general -purpose fertilizer mix: Four parts greensand, two parts rock phosphate, one part soy bean meal. You could double the soybean meal the first time you prepare the soil.
    • Find some liquid seaweed, too: the trace elements in this provide the best help to plants under stress for any reason: transplanting, drought, crowding.... (And it's good for them any time.)
  6. Design your first bed.
    • Decide where you want to put it. Watch how much sun it gets, and during what part of the day. Make a sketch of its shape, from a bird's-eye view.
    • Keep it small, to begin with. If you must have it wider than you can reach across, design it either narrow enough that you can reach at least halfway across from each side, or make narrow maintenance paths through it.
    • Decide on some plants you'd like to put there.
      • RESEARCH THEM: do they like your climate, and that sun exposure; and your kind of soil? Don't use any that need to be continuously moist, and use only plants that are described as "easy" or "dependable."
      • Put blobs for them into your sketch, figuring out how many you can plant in the space. Pay attention to the recommended spacing, it's very common to plant too close together, but then the plants don't have room to thrive. If you give them good soil, they'll fill in all the space between the recommended distances.
    • There's a lot of advice available for beginners in books and magazines, and most is pretty good, except for a tendency to talk about the garden design as something that you decide on. My experience is that the art of gardening is a conversation — or maybe a dance — continuously going on between me, the plants, and the earth. I can decide on how I want something to look, research the plants well, and put them where I planned — and then it'll rain for three weeks straight, or some bug will chew them all down, or they'll like the spot so well they overrun what I planted in front of them, or the color won't be what I thought it was going to be.... the possibilities are endless. You have to have a sense of humor, and to improvise new design as you go along. Luckily, you can move plants around.
  7. Prepare the soil.
    • Sprinkle the compost and any other amendments over the surface, along with half the fertilizer. Dig up a spadeful, turn it, and drop it — maybe with a little added shake. In addition to mixing, you are loosening the soil.
    • Don't walk on the soil of your bed any more than you can avoid (except for maintenance paths where necessary). Plants like fluffy soil, the tiny air pockets provide oxygen that soil bacteria need. Roots grow well past the drip line of a plant's leaf body, if the soil is good and loose.
    • When the soil is broken up and fluffy, rake it relatively smooth and spread the remaining half of the fertilizer on the surface; rake again to mix the fertilizer into the top couple of inches of soil.
  8. You're ready to plant. Before you do, watch a garden buddy planting. Get her to show you...
    • how deep to dig the planting hole; how to put the plant just deep enough in the ground
    • how to tap the root ball out of a pot,
    • how to get a plant into the hole without disturbing the roots,
    • how to water it in.
  9. Enjoy!

23 January 2000