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 Ten tips for starting and maintaining a new garden

Starting a new garden is a fun and exciting experience.

Many people look at spring as the season for growth and decide to start a garden in their yard. But before you let visions of a home-based farmer's market or flower stand cloud your vision you should take a few things into consideration. Gardening is a lot of work, and if you've never gardened before you'll want to step back and do some planning before you jump right in. Below are 10 tips for first-time gardeners.

Take Baby Steps

Nobody puts on a swimming suit for the first time and jumps into an Olympic pool to win a gold medal. First you learn to get in the water, then you learn how to float, then swim, and finally you can start working on technique. Gardening is similar in that you have to start with the basics before you can turn your hobby into a career as a horticulturist. Start small with a manageable sized garden that doesn't require too much manual labor up front. If you have an unused flower bed or planter that is perfect for your first year. Alternatively if you want to start a small container garden a few plants will do. Use this small garden to learn the basics and get a feel for how much work will be involved, and next year you can expand.

Pick Your Garden's Home

Your garden needs a place to live and grow. While it might seem convenient to just throw seeds in a flower bed and see what happens, it's better to do some research on the plants you'd like to grow. Find out how much water and sunlight they need, how tall they grow, how much space they will need, and so on. Once you know the specifications of the plants you want to grow you'll be better able to choose a suitable site. Most plants, especially vegetables, need about six hours of sunlight per day, so be sure to choose a spot that receives a good amount of sunlight.

Check Your Soil Quality

Many first-time gardeners think that dirt is dirt. However, if your plants could talk they would tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. The quality of your soil is extremely important. At a minimum you should pick up a home soil testing kit that will tell you the pH level of your soil. The pH level simply refers to how alkaline or acidic your soil is. Most plants like soil that is between 6.2 and 6.8, but some are pickier. Also, check to see what the texture of your soil is. Is it rocky? Is it sandy? Sandy loam is the ideal soil texture, but you can always add garden soil or compost to improve the soil quality where you are planting your vegetables or flowers.

Prepare the Garden Bed

Preparing the garden bed is an extremely important part of the process. It can be very difficult, and it's nobody's favorite part of gardening. However, there are ways to make it easier. For instance, instead of digging up grass, you can simply layer eight to 10 layers of newspaper over the area you want to garden on, wet it down, and then add six to eight inches of soil on top of it. The newspaper will smother whatever grass and weeds are under it, will eventually decompose and become part of the soil, and saves you a lot of time and manual labor. Try to make sure your garden bed has even and loose soil for easy planting.

Taking Your Pick

Now comes the fun part: choosing what you want to grow. Picking out seeds is always exciting, but it's easy to get carried away, too. Start out with one or two crops that you really love if you're vegetable gardening. If you're planting flowers pick out a few of your favorites. Either way you'll have something you enjoy, and after you see how it goes you can expand the following spring. You will also want to decide whether you want to purchase starts, or plants in containers that have already sprouted and started growing, or if you want to start your plants from seeds. Ask the professionals at your local nursery about which option is best for the crops or flowers you've chosen.

Planting

Once you choose what you want to plant and you have the seeds or the starts it's time to put them in the ground. Pay close attention to how the seed packet or plant tag suggests you plant your garden's first additions. Of particular concern is plant depth, or how deep you should plant your vegetable or flower. Seeds are always planted closer to the surface than plants that have already started growing. Don't get the seeds too deep or they may rot before they get a chance to get to the surface, but don't plant them too shallow or they could get washed away.

Mulch

Springtime usually evokes a lot of talk about mulching, whether it's worth the additional cost, and if it's really necessary. However, most of the time mulch pays dividends. Not only can it keep your garden clean and free (or mostly free) of weeds, but certain mulch types can also help keep certain pests away and act as an extra layer of protection for your plants. It helps to cool the soil, and can keep water down with your plants' roots.

Keep Track

Label your plants by using stakes in the ground so you know which is which. After you plant a variety of crops, especially if you have more than a few, it can be difficult to keep track of them all. If you purchased starts you should already have a tag or label that you can simply put in the ground where you planted each item. If you purchased seeds it's easy enough to make your own labels. You can purchase a waterproof marker and small wooden tabs made for garden labeling and write the names of each flower or plant on the markers. Then simply put the markers in the ground like a stake in the middle of, or off to the side of, your plants. Keep records of when you planted your various plants and when they are expected to mature, and journal what you do each day so you know what works and what doesn't. This will help you when you go to plant your next garden.

Maintenance

You will learn about garden maintenance and what works for your particular area and plants the more you garden. However, pay attention to the following tasks.

·         Weeding - Get the weeds out of your garden as soon as possible. However, if you start your plants form seeds make sure you aren't pulling up a sprouting plant. Give your plants some time to grow and see what they look like when they sprout. Then you'll know what to pull and what to leave.

·         Deadheading - This is particularly important for flowers. Deadheading simply means removing the spent blossoms of your plant so more can grow.

·         Watering - Watering is extremely important. Try to keep your soil moist as continuously as possible. You don't need to drown your plants, but do not let them get drought stressed or they will not recover fully.

Enjoy Your Garden

Yes, enjoying your garden is a step in the process of creating and maintaining a garden. You might think that gardeners would be most inclined to literally stop and smell the roses. However, gardening can often become something of a second job. No matter how much you love it, you can get so involved with the pruning, weeding, watering, and picking that you forget to simply sit back and enjoy the bounty of your labors. Enjoy your new garden and show it off to your friends and family.

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