By JOSE GERMAN
For Montclair Local
Jose German is a New Jersey environmental activist, Essex County certified master gardener and Montclair resident. He is the founder of the Northeast Earth Coalition, a nonprofit environmental organization.
Our previous article provided a few tips on improving the quality of your garden soil, working with, not against nature, and the benefits of the right plant for the right place. Whether you are dreaming of planting flowers or tomatoes — or something in between — you need to do a little research and some groundwork before you begin your project. Here are some steps in the process.
Assess your yard’s sunlight exposure.
If you are creating a vegetable garden, keep in mind that most veggies need at least eight hours of full sun every day. Depending on their types, flowers and other ornamental plants have different sunlight requirements. Before buying plants, search for the profiles of the plants and check how much light different parts of your yard get in the course of the day. Identify the areas that receive less daylight, and use these areas for shade or partial shade plants.
Know the quality and composition of your soil.
Most soil can be enriched with compost and will be fine for planting, but you need to determine how much organic material and mulch you will have to add to make it fertile. You can find ready-for-use organic soil at your local gardening center, as well as compost and other organic soil enhancements. If you are using your native soil, a soil test is advised, especially if you are planting vegetables. You can mail samples of your soil to Rutgers University Extension Program Lab. For additional information about soil tests, follow this link: njaes.rutgers.edu/soiltestinglab/. You can also contact the Master Gardeners of Essex County for horticultural information, at messex.org.
Decide between tilling and creating a raised bed.
If you don’t want to till and nourish the soil that you have or if you have physical limitations and would rather not be bending down low to garden, you can build a raised planting bed with non-treated wood. A raised bed has many advantages. If it is higher than 24 inches, it will deter rabbits. It will also allow you to work more comfortably and keep the garden organized. In addition, you can add lateral trellises to take advantage of vertical space, making your garden more productive.
Get some basic tools.
Before beginning your yard work, be sure that you have these essential garden tools on hand: shovel, spade, garden fork, soaking hose, hoe, hand weeder and a basket for moving mulch or soil around.
Designate your planting areas.
You need a basic plan before you plant your garden. Two 4-by-4-foot plots of land are a good start for a vegetable garden. For a flower garden, you need to decide on the location and shape of the flower beds. I highly recommend selecting a spot in the front or backyard you can see from inside the house.
Outsmart problem wildlife with the installation of a fence.
Fences are an important line of defense to protect your vegetables from hungry pests, but ornamental plants can also pique their appetites. If you build your fence before planting the garden, rabbits and other garden gourmands will never get the chance to eat your veggies or nibble on your favorite flowering plants.
Make a list of your veggie or flower preferences.
For a vegetable garden, think about what you like to eat and what you generally buy (or can’t buy) at a local farmers market. Keep in mind that when you are planting a vegetable garden you are planning your meals ahead. With flowers, make a list of the colors you love, their shapes and what you would like to see in a vase on your kitchen table. Keep in mind the seasonal sequence of blooming to plan your color scheme and make a great impression on neighbors and passers-by.
Make a seasonal plan.
Once you determine what will grow, what you like and what time of year certain plants will flourish, you need to create a schedule. It is important that you have plants for early, mid and late spring, as well as for summer and fall. Add some evergreens and plants with winter berries to keep the area looking lush in winter. If your tomato plants take months to reach full size, plant smaller vegetables nearby to make temporary use of the surrounding space in the meantime.
Finally, creating a garden has many advantages. Planting a vegetable garden can help you lower your grocery bills and improve the health of the family. Creating a flower garden, especially one with native plants, will be very beneficial for pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies. Most important, if you have kids, gardening is the perfect way to teach them about nature and healthy living.