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If you are thinking about starting a garden and have had very little experience, there are steps you can take to be successful at your first attempt. Gardening isn’t difficult, but it does takes time and effort, as well as an eagerness to learn.

Start with a plan

What is your budget? Where do you want the garden? What are the dimensions of the garden? What do you want to grow? How much time will you have to work in the garden and maintain it, honestly? Will it be a raised bed in which you place good quality soilless mix or will it be in the existing soil? Existing soil should always be tested with a soil test to see what amendments are required. Our coastal sandy soils are often improved with the addition of organic matter. Is the existing soil well-drained? The most desirable soil is loam, a mixture of clay, sand and humus that is friable which means that a handful will clump when you squeeze it and yet crumbles readily when you poke the clump. If you don’t take the time to provide good quality well-drained soil, you are making gardening difficult.

If you are leaning towards a raised bed, keep the width to just three feet – an easy reach of the arm to plant and weed. A great long-term, cost-effective edging material is concrete block. Be sure to buy the concrete block caps to put on top of each block. The caps keep out the weeds and give you a nice place to sit while planting or weeding.

Learn about the plants you like

This is the discovery time. Read books and magazines, watch You Tube videos, ask a lot of questions. Do the plants you like grown in our coastal Zone 9A? If they do, what time of year do they grow? How much sunlight do they need? Are you going to use seed or purchase the plants? Seed is relatively inexpensive and good seed companies offer quality viable seed. If buying a packet from a store shelf, be sure the date isn’t expired. If buying small plants, be sure the roots are healthy and the plant is disease- and insect-free. Knock the plant out of the container. Roots should be fibrous and white and should not be wrapped around the bottom of the pot, an indication that the plant is root-bound. If the plant looks yellow, leggy, has spots on the leaves or any signs of insects, don’t buy it. Buy plants early in the season. Ask when shipments arrive. Plants just coming off the supply truck are usually healthy. If you don’t take the time to purchase healthy plants that grow in our climate, you are making gardening difficult.

Purchase good gardening

tools and apparel

You get what you pay for. Whether it’s a shovel, wheelbarrow, grub hoe or shuffle hoe (my favorite tool), spend the money for quality. Try different gardening gloves. I never have liked wearing gloves because I like to feel the soil in which I am planting. However, nails are so hard to clean and I now deliver fresh produce in my new job. Gloves are more of a necessity. I lean towards those that have a coated rubber palm and a stretch polyester shell that are durable, breathable and comfortable. Make sure they fit well.

Remember a good hat, suntan lotion, sunglasses and bug spray. As I’ve gotten older, I wear quick-dry long sleeve shirts and quick dry long pants. Also, there are times of the year that you will find me sporting an outdoor head net. And I wear waterproof trail shoes.

Feed, water and watch

Once you have created your garden space, purchased your plants, and tucked them into their new home, it’s time to shift into the maintenance phase. Hungry, thirsty plants are stressed. Stressed plants are susceptible to insect infestations and disease. That old saying of “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” – believe me, it’s true.

Soil should be consistently moist but never wet. The amount of additional water needed is dependent on the soil quality (Did you invest in making your soil environment desirable for root growth?), its water-holding capacity, and the air temperature and the amount of rainfall. Just stick your finger in the soil and see if it feels moist 6-inches below the surface. If not, water.

Plants require nutrition, just like you and like you, only use the elemental form (nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, iron, manganese, etc). Organic fertilizers improve the soil while allowing the slow release of nutrients; however, their breakdown by soil microbes into useable elements is dependent on soil temperature and soil moisture. Inorganic fertilizers provide basic elements readily available to the plant and can come in both fast release and slow release forms. Always follow the label. Too much of an inorganic fertilizer can lead to runoff and a waste of your money as it flows away from your garden into your neighbors. Try composting your yard and kitchen waste; there are many different ways to produce compost. Choose one that works for you.

Always be on guard for insect activity or disease. Vigilant gardening pays off.

Weed

Yes, it’s a necessary chore. Weeds are tenacious competitors of your plants for water, nutrient and space. Insects love to hide among the weeds. Pull a few every time you are out admiring your garden. But, keep weeding in perspective-after 40 years of gardening, I have NEVER had a completely weed free garden!

Try adding mulch to a depth of 2-4 inches. It keeps down the weeds, helps maintain an even soil temperature and reduces water loss.

Experiment

Try growing something unusual. Be the only one on your block growing Toy Choi, a dwarf Chinese cabbage or Bumble Bee tomatoes. Check out the latest award winning All-America selections or proven winners of perennials or annuals. Plant a kumquat, a golden rain tree, an old-time Confederate rose or sleepy hibiscus. Don’t know what they are? It’s a great time to look them up!

Has a plant failed you? Join the world of gardening. It’s just an opportunity to try another genus, species or variety.

Enjoy yourself.

It’s supposed to be fun.