Everything You Wanted To Know About Gardening

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Beginning Gardener - Tools, Tips, and Terms To Get Started

You Have To Know Before You Grow

Everyone who looks at a broad expanse of yard, dreaming of lush plants, waterfalls, bird song, all while sipping leisurely at a cooling beverage on an outdoor chaise will be faced with the reality of back-breaking work with a shovel, dead plants, weeds, and the ever-present pest making off with your garden's bounty. The key to successful gardening is finding a way to reduce the amount of work YOU put in to your garden and still end up with the oasis you've imagined. This can be done, but work has to be done on paper before you ever begin digging.

More failures happen in gardening due to lack of understanding of how the whole process of gardening works. Just because a plant is attractive and you want it to grow, doesn't mean it will. There are some important steps to understanding just what will grow in your space, and once you learn this, your success at keeping plants alive and healthy will increase tremendously. Let's define some terms first, and keep in mind this is for the novice gardener:


  • Annuals: these plants grow, live, create flowers, seeds, and then die in ONE SEASON. As in: plant it in spring, it won't come back after the following winter.

  • Biennials: plants that start from seeds, make vegetables/flowers the first year, survive a winter, send up new shoots the following spring, create seeds from the flower/fruit and then die. (Hollyhocks - Althea rosa -are an example)

  • Perennials: live for many years, and tend to grow larger with each season. Herbaceous perennials die to the ground after a freeze, and woody perennials leave stems, such as shrubs.

The ideal garden will have a balance of all of these, giving your garden year round color and interest. Plants are also classified by their light needs.


  • Shade - this means equal or less than THREE HOURS of sunlight per day. In Southern regions, this should be in the early part of the day, preferably before noon.

  • Part Shade-Part Sun - 3-6 hours, again, the use of part-shade in the beginning should indicate the sun should be in the earlier, cooler part of the day.

  • Part Sun-Full Sun - more emphasis on sun, which translates to 6-8 hours of sunshine, midday on acceptable.

  • FULL Sun - ALL day, direct sun. Sun up to sun down. Any less and you'll not get desired results with the plant.

If you wish to have plants under a tree, keep in mind that while you'll have mostly shade under that tree in the summer and fall months, it is considered FULL SUN in winter if the tree is deciduous, or rather: loses its leaves in winter. Dappled light (such as light filtered through a tree's leaves, etc.) is NOT full sun.

Before you break ground for flower beds, keep in mind the amount of sun this new bed will receive. Is it near a western fence? That will limit the amount of afternoon sun. Under a tree? Next to a concrete structure? Concrete reflects heat, and light as well. Spend a day or two tracking the sun's movement at various intervals during the day. Which side gets morning sun? Afternoon sun? Shade? If you put your shade-loving plants in the full-sun, and vice versa, you'll end up with stressed or dead plants. It sounds simple, but it's a common mistake. Also, keep in mind that taller plants should be in the back of the planting area. If the back faces the south, those plants (when mature) will cast dappled-shade OVER the bed.

It's important to know your region's heat zone classification, as well. What's considered full sun in Pennsylvania isn't going to be the same as full sun in Arizona. A list of US and Canadian zones can be found here. Click on your region, and you'll be taken to a more detailed overview. This will help eliminate potential failure in your garden when buying plant materials from catalogs. For my region, 7b, that means a few things: 1) it's hot. We don't have hard freezes, which means that 2) plants that are "tender perennials" fare a better chance of surviving over winter than in Minnesota, a Zone 4. This also means that 3) plants that don't like heat won't thrive in my region. The USDA Hardiness Zone Map indicates the lowest AVERAGE temperature for your specific area. Cold snaps (and heat waves) do happen, but if you prepare your garden properly, environmental glitches like an early freeze won't be as detrimental to you, the prepared gardener.

Many nurseries and garden centers have plant labels that indicate a temperature range, as well as light requirements. Most online garden centers will give this information as well. A good garden center won't sell you a plant that doesn't grow in your region.

One of the most important factors in gardening is knowing what kind of soil you have. (Never call it dirt! Dirt is what comes inside the house on the bottom of your shoes. Soil is what we grow plants in!) It's all just brown stuff, right? In Texas, there are currently over 1400 soil classifications. Now, that's a bit specific, but you get my meaning. Not all soil is the same! When talking about gardening soils, we refer to the textures. The chemical make-up of soil will be discussed later.


  • Loamy sand: feels very sandy, has low amounts of silt and clay, does not hold together well when wet

  • Loam: equal portions of sand, silt, and clay

  • Sandy loam: (spotting a trend?) feels very sandy, but contains some silt and clay, enough to make it hold together when moist

  • Silty clay loams: smooth to the touch when dry, when moist is slick or sticky. Predominantly silt, but some sand and clay

  • Clay loam: clay dominates, and is smoothed hard when dry, and slick and sticky when wet. Sand, silt present in small amounts.

  • Clay: Holds it form when wet, and ribbons when pressed between thumb and forefinger. VERY hard when dry. Think pottery.

Knowing the soil texture is important. Soil texture determines how often you'll need to water, first and foremost. Clay soils hold water far longer than sandy soils. The minuscule particles of clay and silt adhere to the water, whereas the larger particles of sand allow the water to slip through and beyond your plants' roots. How deep this soil extends is also of value to the gardener. If you have only two inches of soil atop a hard rock surface, for example, your root systems will be severely limited. A deep soil (going to a depth of 30 inches and beyond), and made of a mixture of loam, clay, and organic matter is ideal.

So how can you determine what soil type you have? The first step: dig a hole. A garden trowel dug into the ground will tell you a lot about your soil. First, if you can't get it down into the ground, sounds like you may have clay. You probably have compacted soil, as well. Those of us that attempt gardening in North Central Texas experience that every time we wish to plant something. But that doesn't mean you have "bad" soil. Examine the plug you've pulled out. If it looks like a chocolate cake all crumbled up, well, that would appear to be excellent loamy soil. If it's mostly sand or clay, you'll need to amend it before ever putting plants in the ground.


If it's available in your area you should send a sample of your soil to be analyzed. Many local nurseries offer this service, and all 50 states have Horticulture Extension agencies that charge a nominal fee - about $10 - 20. It's well worth it, and will save you big bucks when it comes time to fertilize and amend the beds with additional nutrients. For those in Texas, a detailed description of how to take a sample and mail it off is here. For those living elsewhere, contact your local horticulture extension agency for details on how you can get this process done. "Lowes" offers soil testing services, as well. Expect a two to three week return for your results, in most cases.

Now you have the results, what on earth does this tell you? The laboratory will break down all the essential elements of the sample submitted, such as how much nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus is there. Incidentally, those three things are the numbers on a bag of fertilizer, in that order. If you know what your soil has and more importantly, what it's lacking, you'll know just which fertilizer to buy for your garden. You'll also be told about trace elements like iron and calcium, and a host of other minerals. You'll learn your soil's pH, which is crucial in growing a crop of fruits and vegetables, in addition to affecting many plants' growth and flower color. When you realize that your garden is rich in certain nutrients and lacking in others, you'll be able to best determine what plants will grow effectively in your region, and be able to identify disease and other problems you may have had in the past.

An example: in North Central Texas, specifically in Dallas and Collin counties, we have an abundance of calcium, phosphorus, potassium and iron. Yet every large nursery sells bag after bag of products to add these nutrients to local gardeners' lawns and beds. Not only is this money wasted, but can have a devastating effect: the soil can reach levels of toxicity that will inhibit most growth! That expensive fertilizer you've purchased not only won't help your garden grow better, it can add to the downfall of the entire planting space! This isn't even taking into consideration that many of these applied nutrients that aren't taken up into the soil run off and pollute our local water sources, which leads to eutrophication: the process by which a water body becomes - either naturally or by pollution - rich in dissolved nutrients. This promotes algal blooms and fish kills. For those living along the Gulf of Mexico, they've seen first hand the devastation caused by algal blooms - the shrimping industry has been severely crippled as a result.4


Most everyone will find that their particular soil is lacking in something. The first step that almost all gardeners will need to do is to add organic matter back to the soil. Organic matter, or OM, is any material capable of decay. Leaves, grass clippings (preferably seed free!), vegetable matter, animal matter, and even newspaper - vegetable dyes supply the ink in most newsprint - are all considered OM. It tends to contain microbes, which are beneficial to breaking down the matter and supplying essential nutrients back into the soil for your plants to use. It's not necessary for this OM to be completely broken down into hummus to be beneficial to the soil. However, keep in mind that some materials, such as fresh manures, should NEVER be applied directly to plants. They'll require a few weeks to mellow so as to not burn your plants with their high nitrogen (ammonia) content. Also, horse manure in particular is riddled with weed seeds, and a few weeks in a compost pile should take care of that problem.5

OM is added in a few ways: 1) tilled in to the native soil before planting or 2) added as a mulch or top-dressing to existing beds. A combination of both is ideal. Keep in mind that OM breaks down - that's what you want it to do - so you will have to reapply it as a top dressing or mulch at least once a year. In hot climates, the process of breaking down is much faster, and you'll find that two or more applications may be needed for desired results.

We'll focus on #1 for starters. Now that you know what elements are needed to "beef up" your soil - acquired from your lab results, ideally - now begins the process of getting your beds prepared. If you have a tiller, mazel tov! For those of us that rely on unsuspecting teenagers in need of work, or even ourselves, you'll want to either rent a tiller, or have a very good pitchfork and shovel. If your test results indicate a need for additional nutrients, you'll be able to visit your local nursery and purchase exactly what's needed, be it in the form of greensand (a HUGE no no for Dallas County and most of Collin County residents), rock powders, or just straight nitrogen - usually in the form of ammonia. You'll also want to apply your compost, manure, shredded leaves, etc. at this initial stage.

Dig or till down to a depth of 2 feet for the ideal planting bed. If it's simply not possible, dig as deeply as your back and ground will allow. But before your back groans at the thought, this is best achieved through a process known as "double digging." 6

  1. Dig a trench one shovel-length deep (nine or ten inches) and the length of your planting area.

  2. Pile the soil in a wheelbarrow (or on top of a tarp)

  3. Loosen the soil at the bottom of the trench another shovel-length.

  4. Add organic material, such as compost, and any necessary soil amendments. Using a spading fork, thoroughly mix them into the subsoil.

  5. Dig a second trench parallel to the first and repeat steps 2 and 3.

  6. Use the topsoil from the second trench to fill the first one, adding more organic matter and mixing it in.

  7. Repeat the procedure until you've dug, enriched and amended the entire planting area.

  8. Fill the last trench with the topsoil you put in the wheelbarrow from step 1 and enrich it with organic matter as you did the other sections.

You've now aerated and amended your beds. Keep in mind that this process can be spread out over a period of time. There's no need to cause yourself injury! After this process, you'll need to MOISTEN the soil - notice I didn't say soak - and allow it to settle. If you've ended up with a lowered planting bed after settling, add enough OM to raise the planting area either level with the surrounding areas, or higher by a few inches. This same process can be applied to existing beds, taking care to dig where other plants' root systems will not be harmed. All gardens can use the addition of organic material!

A last note to help get the ideal soil environment in your minds. Soil is THE MOST IMPORTANT aspect of maintaining plant health. Soil is the primary source of water and nutrients, plus it provides the physical anchor for the plants to remain upright. The composition should generally be the following:

50% solids (sand, silt, clay)
21% Oxygen
25% H2O
4-6% OM

Air and water should be in almost equal proportions - this means to stop turning your gardens/lawns into swamps! We'll talk about water management in the garden at a later time. This should give you enough to get started on some homework:

  • Map out the planting area, noting the sun movements and intensity of light (shady, partly sunny, full sun) and keep in mind permanent structures that may affect planting (trees, fences, walls)

  • Determine your region's hardiness zone, to insure that the plants you want will grow and more importantly, thrive in your zone

  • Dig a small hole to learn which soil texture is present in your planting area

  • Either send off a sample to a testing facility to determine your garden's nutrient needs, or contact local extension agencies for detailed information

  • Dig and prepare beds for planting

Next time, we'll talk about intelligent watering practices and what every person should do before purchasing a plant at a nursery. (You'll get your hands dirty, but your wallet will thank you!)

All references cited, general information obtained from Texas A&M Horticulture/Extension program.

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The function of the Master Gardener is to assist the public in environmental improvement activities, horticultural therapy projects, and community/school gardening programs.

In a nutshell, Master Gardeners are a FREE resource to the community in respect to horticultural management. Turf, trees, insect and biological diseases, as well as ornamental and native plants are the area of expertise for an MG. Most states have MG programs, and this link will take you to a map to help locate your closest horticultural resource.

While a portion of the information presented here will be fine tuned for gardeners of North Texas, the principles of Good Gardening and insect/pest management are universal. We are the stewards to the land in our possesion, and we all have a responsibility for its proper care and management.

What will set this particular resource apart from others will be the steadfast commitment to free information to the public, as well as unyeilding adherence to scientific data to support statements. It's imperitive to me to give factual information, and is my responsibility as an MG.

As of now, this blog will be updated once a week, and questions from the public will be answered to the best of my abilities - time constraints may make it difficult to respond immediately, but all will be answered, or redirected to other sources of information.