New: Starting out more prepared than not

silverspring(7a)July 15, 2010

Hi, I'm new. gardening, organic gardening, the house I've just moved into, this forum, etc.

My lawn is a blank slate - nice and flat. Judging by the look of the grass, there's been some weed and feed used maybe in the last two years, maybe even this season.

We're planning on doing some raised beds, and we're also planning a level plot in our backyard. We're inheriting a rather large leaf compost heap, and I wonder about composting in place.

And thanks a lot for any advice. I really appreciate it.

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What good fortune to have a 'blank slate' to plan for and toil in! May I suggest a few things for you to do [in no particular order]
1] Start a garden notebook TODAY.
2] How much sun do various parts of the yard/garden get? All day, morning, afternoon, full, dappled, etc.
3] What kind of soil do you have? Does it show evidence of having been ammended? The whole 'worms-no-worms' argument for fertile soil is eternal ... I go with the worm- population-indicates-healthy-soil-life..
4] What is the drainage pattern in your yard? Do you get puddles in low spots, erosion where water forms channels?
5] What kind of gardening ... veggies, flowers, fruit trees
6] What kind of gardens do your neighbors have? [hint on soil fertility][Also if they follow a 'spray & kill' regimen, you may want to plan your garden accordingly [spray drift, fencing, etc]And for sure get on the best possible terms.]

How nice to have a compost pile already. Anyway, these are some questions that came to mind. After 40 years of gardening, I'm still asking some of these questions about a new garden plan/bed. .... still making mistakes, learning, and pushing the envelope of what can/can't be done in my zone.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2010 at 1:38PM
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I would map out the site and make copies so you can make notations right on the map. In my case, I am taking pictures and recording the date and time -- it's a better record of where the sun/shade line is than a worded note. But you could draw it on the map, too. Finding true north will also help you guess what the sun patterns will be like in other seasons, but you don't really know until you've been there a whole year.

Make note of prevailing winds and the direction storms usually travel over the year. You probably have sheltered spots which are good for tenderer plants.

Another key thing to look for is your elevation compared to the surrounding terrain. Cold flows downslope, and tends to "puddle" in low spots. You don't want to plant your most frost-tender plants there since they will be more likely to take damage from a late or early frost.

And the plants that require the most work should be closest to your regular traffic patterns and your gardening supplies. The farthest corner of the yard is the spot you are least likely to tend, but fresh vegetables and herbs outside the kitchen window will find themselves in your dinner much more often.

Your local extension office should be able to do a soil test for you. You should test any distinctly different parts of your yard where you want to plant things.

Perhaps most importantly, remember that gardening is a long term project. You can make big plans, but prioritize your projects and bite off reasonable sized chunks at a time so that your garden doesn't become a chore, but is always a pleasure.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2010 at 3:58PM
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dan_staley(5b/SS 2b AHS 6-7)

Good advice above, all of it, esp. 'biting off only what you can chew'.

I always recommend living in the place for a while to truly understand what you have before going whole hog - my clients thought I was crazy coming over at all times of day before even making one drawing. Notebooks and pix are a good way to record. And no pushing zones until you understand the microclimates in your yard. Plural.


    Bookmark   July 15, 2010 at 6:52PM
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I wasn't going to comment until dan mentioned the microzones. I am supposed to be in a zone 6 area, but my microzone is more like a 7. It's frustrating to plant tomatoes and have to re-plant because they got frosted a month after the 'last frost date'.

Learn about your soil. Go the local extension office and get their instructions on how to take soil samples, then get the soil tested. Do you have clay, sand or silt soil? Leaf compost is very good stuff.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2010 at 8:21PM
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As others have stated a good place to start is your state universities Cooperative Extension Service to inquire about having a good reliable soil test doen. They may not do those but can provide information about where if they do not. In addition these simple soil tests,
1) Structure. From that soil sample put enough of the rest to make a 4 inch level in a clear 1 quart jar, with a tight fitting lid. Fill that jar with water and replace the lid, tightly. Shake the jar vigorously and then let it stand for 24 hours. Your soil will settle out according to soil particle size and weight. A good loam will have about 1-3/4 inch (about 45%) of sand on the bottom. about 1 inch (about 25%) of silt next, about 1 inch (25%) of clay above that, and about 1/4 inch (about 5%) of organic matter on the top.

2) Drainage. Dig a hole 1 foot square and 1 foot deep and fill that with water. After that water drains away refill the hole with more water and time how long it takes that to drain away. Anything less than 2 hours and your soil drains too quickly and needs more organic matter to slow that drainage down. Anything over 6 hours and the soil drains too slowly and needs lots of organic matter to speed it up.

3) Tilth. Take a handful of your slightly damp soil and squeeze it tightly. When the pressure is released the soil should hold together in that clump, but when poked with a finger that clump should fall apart.

4) Smell. What does your soil smell like? A pleasant, rich earthy odor? Putrid, offensive, repugnant odor? The more organic matter in your soil the more active the soil bacteria will be and the nicer your soil will smell.

5) Life. How many earthworms per shovel full were there? 5 or more indicates a pretty healthy soil. Fewer than 5, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, indicates a soil that is not healthy.

can help you find out more about your soil and what you need to do to maintain it or make it better.

    Bookmark   July 16, 2010 at 6:36AM
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I'm going to start a garden journal. Great idea. And I'll put all the advice here in the front. Any pros or cons to doing a digital journal versus paper? This is great.

Thanks for the soil test instructions. I'm going to give that a shot. And I'll give the cooperative extension a call, too. I've also noticed organic gardening workshops advertised at the food co-op, so I'll check into that. I think they might even be coordinated by the cooperative extension.

We have LOTS of worms... and turtles, frogs, rabbits and foxes. There's a woodland on the southeast side of our yard.

And about the microclimates, got it. Maybe now would be a good time to invest in a mini-weather station. And of course the mid-Atlantic region is very tricky, particularly on the coastal plain.

The neighbors are a dream. They have a garden plot, but I don't know what kind of gardening they do. I'll ask gently.

Any good websites for organic landscape planning?

Thanks again.

    Bookmark   July 16, 2010 at 9:14AM
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silverspring, our situtation sounds very similar. I am also redoing a blank slate right now. I have a lot of experience gardening, but each new site will make you feel like a novice. :)

"...rabbits and foxes. There's a woodland on the southeast side of our yard."

Devote some serious brain sweat to fencing. You probably also have moles, voles, mice, rats and other potential pests and dollars invested in fencing around the vegetable garden can save much grief and frustration later.

I like digital records, but even if you go digital don't skimp the physical notebook. A graph paper notebook with random notes can become a real friend, and a treat to leaf through on a cold winter evening while dreaming of spring.

    Bookmark   July 16, 2010 at 9:46AM
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dan_staley(5b/SS 2b AHS 6-7)

Devote some serious brain sweat to fencing.

Indeed. And hardware cloth under the key beds and bulbs to repel gophers. The money will be worth it amortized, as well as the enamel on the teeth staying around longer making lower dental bills.


    Bookmark   July 16, 2010 at 9:57AM
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Hardware mesh under the garden... ingenious and I never would have thought of that. Fencing, YES. That's the first thing we're doing. I know what we're doing around the yard, but I'll have to figure out what to use on the garden beds.

Maybe I'll chat up the folks at the farmer's market tomorrow, see what they do around here.

Graph paper - it's the little things. I would have bought plain.
Nicole, how long have you been in your new place?

    Bookmark   July 16, 2010 at 11:11AM
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Since the end of March. I am working and going to school, plus there was lots of work to be done inside, so my time is at a premium. I just did a basic in-the-ground garden plot with fencing this spring, and I was a wee bit late with the spring garden. Indoors is mostly done now.

I have a grand plan for the whole place, and have most everything identified. This fall I am planning to get the orchard started, some outdoor cleanup work done, and the hardscaping in front put in. If I have more time, I'll get the shrubs in the front done, too, since they'll be happier if I plant them in the fall... and after that there are a ton of other possibilities!

It's hard to believe it's time to start seed for the fall garden already, but fall and winter are my favorite times to garden.

    Bookmark   July 16, 2010 at 11:42AM
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Graph paper was mentioned above in regards to new-garden planting. Here's a link where you can make and print any graph paper you like.

Here is a link that might be useful: graph paper

    Bookmark   July 18, 2010 at 7:19AM
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Edible Landscaping, near charlottesville, will be a good plant source since they are close to you. For soil amendments American Plant in Bethesda has lots of organic mixes and other stuff, good people.

Maybe look into some of the layouts in Starter Vegetable Gardens by Barbara Pleasant. The organic veg gardens in the book start out simple and grow over time, getting bigger and more complicated over a 3-year period.

    Bookmark   July 18, 2010 at 1:42PM
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For organic gardening, definitely start now on the compost. Make as much as you can for next spring. There is no such thing as too much compost in your garden. It is the great equalizer. It loosens up clay soil. It holds moisture in sandy soil. It helps balance acidity and ph. It attracts worms. It feeds your plants slowly. It will be your best investment of all.

Holy cow I sound like a compost salesman! LOL

But most of all, feel free to ask for any help you might need, ok? Oh and have fun! That's the best advice. :)

Here is a link that might be useful: Common sense gardening advice

    Bookmark   July 19, 2010 at 12:26AM
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While compost, a wide variety of organic matter, is a good addition it too is part of the overall organic matter any soil usually needs. Make compost but since most of us cannot make enough compost to meet our needs plan on using other forms of organic matter, shredded leaves, straw, cover crops, etc. to get the level of organic matter in the soil to the level needed.

    Bookmark   July 19, 2010 at 6:15AM
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I just purchased the Charles Dowding "no-dig" book. Is anyone familiar with him? Is that the same as "no till"?

So far it all makes sense and I love it.

Here is a link that might be useful: Charles Dowding.

    Bookmark   July 26, 2010 at 6:13PM
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Looks interesting, but I would take what he has to offer with a grain of salt; he's gardening in England. You have different conditions, so you'll have to learn what works best where you are.

I am a no-till type. My potato bed gets majorly turned when I plant potatoes, but otherwise I just plant without turning the soil. I use compost and mulch and it works for me. The more I learn about gardening, the easier it gets; just put the right amount of the right things on top of the soil.

I need to do a better job of planting cover crops, otherwise it's about compost and mulch.

    Bookmark   July 26, 2010 at 7:52PM
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flora_uk(SW UK 8/9)

Silverspring - Charles Dowding works in Somerset, so not only is he in England he's in Southern England. It's just under an hour from where I live. My average December temp is 39f. Average August temp 61f. December has about 3 1/4 ins rain and August 2 1/4. So as you can see Dowding is gardening in a temperate climate very different from most places in the US. Furthermore, he took over an old farm which would have been worked and manured probably for centuries. His methods work very successfully for him but as idaho gardener says his methods may not be directly transferrable to your situation. Anyway - he's a good read and I hope you enjoy your book.

    Bookmark   July 27, 2010 at 9:35AM
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I could add OM every day for a lifetime and water would never sit for 2 hours in my soil. Other methods are required as well to maintain crops in droughty soils.

    Bookmark   July 27, 2010 at 10:08AM
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My Lake Michigan beach sand soil drains really well. When I dig that 1 foot square hole 1 foot deep and fill it with water and allow that to drain and then refill that hole with water it will drain in 15 minutes, but moisture is held in the soil by the organic matter and seldom do I need to water again for a week. You do not want water to stand for 2 hours, you want it absorhed into the soil, and organic matter will help hold that moisture where the plants can get to it.

    Bookmark   July 28, 2010 at 11:46AM
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kimmsr said something that's interesting to me; he waters once a week. I flood irrigate once a week. Most of my beds are 'raised' not by design but because I added so much stuff to them, so when I flood the yard, they don't get inundated. But the soil in the beds does get moist.

I keep the soil covered with mulch; straw covered with lots of grass clippings. When I first transplant plants, I water them, but once they are established, they are seldom watered. I have checked the soil to see if it's moist, and usually I can find moisture within three inches of the surface.

The plants seem to do fine being watered once a week. I only have trouble where I use just grass clippings. The grass clippings dissolve into the soil, so I need to reapply that mulch to keep the soil covered.

    Bookmark   July 28, 2010 at 3:20PM
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