Planting a garden seems like a natural: Just choose some plants or seeds, plunk them in the soil, and water now and then. What could be easier, right?
At least for me, it doesn’t always work that way, with morning glories that refuse to bloom despite lush foliage, tomato plants that display more tiny bugs than fruit — and don’t even get me started on strawberries and blueberries!
Starting a garden requires some thought and preparation that can make your gardening experience a lot more successful, local nursery managers suggest.
One common mistake is to start off too enthusiastically, said Cindy McMahan-James, co-owner of McMahan Nursery Inc. in Wapato.
“I’ve had people buy 30 packs of seeds,” she said. “Three months down the road, they have a big mess.” When planning a garden, start slowly, she recommends. Try one or two varieties of plants and if they’re successful, branch out to others.
It’s important to select the “right plants for the right exposures,” added Mitch Evans, co-owner of Verdant Yakima nursery. Does the label call for full sun or shade? “In Yakima, our ‘full sun’ may be a little different than what the label makers are expecting,” he pointed out.
Likewise, “shade” plants may be able to handle some sun,” agreed Serena Gillespie, manager of Cowiche Creek Nursery. “I think that when you’re looking at plants, it’s always good to talk to people at the nursery,” she said.
Geraniums, zinnias, petunias in containers and “calibrachoa” (a plant with small, round, petunia-like blooms) are among Gillespie’s recommendations for hardier plants to try. Evans adds hostas, shade grasses and roses in sunnier areas as other suggestions.
It’s easier to start with plants or plant starts than trying to use seeds, McMahan-James advised. She lists tomatoes, peppers and herbs among good choices to try.
You shouldn’t need a lot of equipment to start a garden — just a shovel or trowel, bucket or other container for weeds and old blooms, pruning shears and perhaps a rake will get you started.
Then, once you have selected the appropriate spot in the garden to start digging, there are a few other considerations, the experts note.
If the area just features “Yakima clay,” you may need some type of compost to help your plants thrive and retain moisture in the soil, Evans said.
Then, each plant has its own requirements for depth and space of planting, McMahan-James said. So, be sure to read the plant label and/or talk to a gardening expert.
Don’t plant too deep in the soil, Evans recommended. The top of the soil from the pot should be just a little higher than the soil level of the bed. Mulch can be added on top of that.
When your plants are settled in the ground, you can’t just sit back and expect them to put on a show — not without a little more help from you, nursery managers agree.
“The biggest mistake we’ve noticed over the years is not watering correctly,” said Gillespie. “Things dry out very quickly,” especially as the temperature climbs and the wind kicks up. It is also important to allow the water to go deep into the soil to be properly absorbed. In our area, overwatering is a less common issue, she said.
“You can pretty much plant all season,” concurred Evans. “You just need to pay more attention to your watering needs when it’s hotter.” Building a small berm, or mound of soil around a plant, may also help to retain moisture. Drip irrigation needs to be adjusted with the season.
Then, of course there is the challenge of pests — both the flying, crawling kinds and those beloved neighborhood pets who like to visit your garden all too frequently.
Planting a raised bed can help you access your plants more easily AND keep out animals, McMahan-James suggested. Including marigold and garlic plants near other plantings also helps to discourage critters. The internet offers information on making a garlic spray that can be used to ward off pests, as a fungicide or even to control blight (which can appear as a yellowing, browning or withering of leaves).
Gillespie and Evans also mentioned spraying a solution of a little dish soap and water on flowering plants and vegetables. Or, you could use a product called Neem oil, a vegetable oil made from the fruits and seeds of the Neem tree, if you don’t want to use the more commonly available pesticides on the market. Evans expressed hesitation about using Neem oil on food crops, however.
“Keeping the garden clean is the main thing,” McMahan-James maintains. Keep up with weeds. Use mulch or even cardboard to keep (especially) vegetables up off the dirt.
Fertilizing the garden is another consideration on which you may want to get plant-specific advice. Depending upon what you’re growing, there can be cautions about fertilizing too early, using too much fertilizer, not applying on especially hot days, the amount of water needed with fertilizer, or possibly even a recommendation for soil testing.
As time goes on in gardening, “you start learning,” Gillespie said.
“If you get discouraged, that’s not very profitable for your garden,” McMahan-James joked.
Just remember, she said, “It’s all for fun.”
Take heart that, in the words of Janet Kilburn Phillips, a California-based garden coach, “there are no gardening mistakes, only experiments.”