The most important step in staring a garden from scratch is choosing the right plant for the right site. First, learn what “zone” you live in. The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map identifies an area’s average annual minimum temperature and assigns a zone number. Central Virginia, for example, is in zone 7a, with average annual minimum temperatures of 0 to 5°F.
Each plant’s preferred zones are listed in most catalogs and reference books. The herb lemon verbena, for instance, grows best in the warmer climates of zones nine to 10, and will not survive a hard frost. The hearty lobelia does well in zones two to nine, or from Canada to Florida. Don’t be shy. Scope out your neighbor’s garden and see what thrives. Local garden clubs, nurseries and the extension office also can recommend varieties well suited to your area. Select disease-resistant varieties whenever possible.
Give some thought to the type of plants you prefer – annuals, biennials or perennials. Annuals like tomatoes and snapdragons, complete their life cycle in one year. Parsley and foxglove are examples of biennials which take two years to fully develop and then go to seed. Perennials, such as asparagus and daisies, may take several years to bloom or bear usable fruit, but will last for many years once established.
Before setting out plants and seed, the soil must first be prepared. Remove any sod or weeds, and loosen the top six to 12 inches of soil with a pitchfork, shovel, hoe or Rototiller. Some gardeners swear by “double digging” which loosens up to 24 inches of soil to allow for deep root growth. If you’re an adventurous type, or have a strong back, give it a try! You should only need to do it once, and it will make it easier for roots to penetrate the soil. Never work wet soil, as you’ll change its entire structure and end up with a concrete-like substance.
Improve the soil by adding organic matter to increase its oxygen and water-holding capacity. Organic matter, which includes everything from composted kitchen vegetable scraps to manure to grass clippings, can help make sandy and clay soils more “crumbly” or friable. Organic matter – especially manure – often has a high nitrogen content which can burn tender shoots, so compost these materials or purchase them in a composted form before adding them to the garden.
Rototill your garden as little as possible. It’s not good for the soil or for tender, far-reaching roots. Instead, reduce weeds by mulching around plants. Be careful not to let mulch touch plant stems, which may encourage fungus problems. Mulch paths, as well. Line paths with soy ink-printed newspapers about five pages thick. Cover with mulch, such as wood chips, and poke paths with a pitchfork to allow easy water absorption. The newsprint and mulch will decompose and can be tilled into the soil in the fall.
Fall is an excellent time to plant cool-season vegetable crops and perennials. If you’re planting in the spring, keep an ear tuned to weather reports. A late frost can cripple young plants.