May 25, 2013

Plant a Summer Garden.

Photo: Amy Cushing

I’ve been working at the art of gardening for about 15 years now.

The one thing that has held true through my many years of gardening practice is that I’m fairly good at failing.

In fact, I’m the only person I know whose managed to kill a cactus…and I’m from Arizona.

You’re probably wondering why an amateur, self-professed lousy gardener would attempt to dispense horticultural advice. Well, I’ve managed to pick up a few tips during my many tries and retries, and after several years of attempting to make my garden grow, I’ve finally had some success.

This season, at the urging of my four-year-old son, I mustered up the courage to start a vegetable garden and managed to produce some delicious homegrown organic zucchini. Hopefully, soon we’ll also have cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash and honeydew melons abounding (fingers crossed).

I’ve learned that two things are certain in the gardening world: it takes consistency and patience. Consistency in providing the plants what they need to thrive and the patience to let them do their magic.

Before you start any gardening project, you have to understand the lay of the land you wish to use. What kind of sun exposure does it get (part-shade, morning sun, afternoon shade, six or more hours of sunlight)? What is the terrain like (hilly, flat, raised beds, planters or pots)? What are the water needs (arid, plentiful)?

Photo: Amy Cushing

Next, you need to figure out what zone you live in. Understanding your zone helps you decide which plants will thrive in your area. For me, in Phoenix, I live in zone 9A. Because of the arid nature of the region, I have to take into account the water needs of the plants and choose those that require less irrigation. In terms of vegetable gardening, often plants that will thrive here are off-season since our summers are too hot for most typical summer vegetables.

Once you’ve determined the sun exposure of the land and the zone, you then have to decide how to deliver water to the area. I installed a timed drip system that automatically dispenses water to my garden. I also add extra water to the vegetable patch a few times a week. Well-designed irrigation systems are integral to feeding the plants while also conserving water. In drought areas like the one in which I live, it’s essential.

If an irrigation system isn’t an option, you can use a soaker hose or a bubbler attachment for your garden hose. If you choose these options, keep a timer close by so you don’t forget to shut off the water. Also, make sure all soaker hoses and garden hoses are labeled drinking-safe as some hoses may contain lead.

Of course, you can always use a good, ole’ fashioned water can. It’s best to water vegetables and most flowers closer to the root, as their leaves and blooms don’t take well to over spray.

Now you’re set to pick your plants. Again, choose plants acclimated to your region. It can also help to buy your plants or seedlings from a local nursery, as they usually purchase their plants from nearby growers (or grow them on-site). When plants are grown locally, they are more likely to thrive in your garden.

Make sure to lay a good foundation before transplanting. Till the targeted soil about three inches deep and fold in some organic planting soil. If you’re planting vegetables, sprinkle in some organic vegetable food to ensure the plants have what they need to root.

Once your plants have taken root, check them regularly to make sure they are receiving enough water and are not being eaten by pests. Fortunately for me, I haven’t had much of a pest problem in my yard (knock on dirt). I’ve planted some heavily-scented herbs, like rosemary, around the vegetable garden and it seems to be helping with the pest-control.

Speaking of herbs, if you’re at a loss with what to plant, choose an herb garden. Most herbs have similar soil, sun and watering needs and are easy to grow in pots. Lavender is simple to grow, smells exquisite and sprouts beautiful purple flowers. Plus, there’s nothing cooler than pulling delicious herbs, like basil or oregano, from your homegrown organic garden to use in your cooking.

If you have limited outdoor space or are an apartment dweller, container gardening is a great alternative.

Many vegetables, herbs, flowers and plants do well in containers. Some plants, like mint, are better grown in pots since they can be invasive and take over garden areas. As I mentioned before, fragrant herbs and flowers (like oregano or marigolds) can help ward off pests like mosquitoes, so you can enjoy the warm summer evenings without the barrage of bugs. Plant them near doorways and seating areas.

Once your garden or container plants are established, be sure to prune and fertilize as needed. Again, don’t overdo, let your plants do their thing—just every few weeks for pruning (unless there’s a weed problem) and every four to six weeks for fertilizer. I fertilize with the same organic vegetable plant food I use when planting.

If you’re finding yourself stuck anywhere along the way, there are useful resources online, like the National Gardening Association, as well as local gardening groups that can help answer questions. In Phoenix, Maricopa County offers a Master Gardener program in conjunction with the University of Arizona. Their website offers a helpful month-to-month gardening to-do list. And don’t forget the staff at your local nursery—I’ve found them always happy to help.

I hope these tips help you grow a lush garden space this summer. Being an amateur gardener, I welcome any comments or suggestions from you gardening pros. We novices could always use the encouragement!

So get outside this summer and create some beauty in your backyard. And be sure to take some time to enjoy it too.

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Ed: Bryonie Wise

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