Planting a home garden — of vegetables, annuals, trees and shrubs or other perennials — need not require years of experience or even a green thumb.
Simply having the interest, some time and little patience will go a long way, says Linda Zukas, annuals manager and container designer at Churchill’s Garden Center in Exeter.
“If you’re not a veggie person and you start a veggie garden, you’re not going to love it, and it’s just going to become a chore,” Zukas said. “If you’re just starting out and you’re a flower person, start with a flower garden. If you’re a veggie person, start with a veggie garden.”
Zukas has an associate’s degree in horticulture from the University of New Hampshire and has been working at Churchill’s for 23 years.
She says one of the first things to determine when starting a garden from scratch is making sure the space you’ll be working with gets enough sunlight. She advises people to think ahead by three or four weeks and figure out if any nearby trees will block the sunlight once their leaves have filled in.
Another consideration is an existing lawn or other vegetation in the to-be garden area. Zukas says that the vegetation will need to be killed off. Stones should also be removed.
“As soon as you start chopping roots [or blades of grass], they will keep growing,” Zukas said. To get rid of existing vegetation, “you can use chemicals, or the more organic way would be laying down black plastic or layers of newspaper” over the vegetation.
The next step, according to both Zukas and Jeffrey Meulenbroek, co-owner of Studley Flower Gardens in Rochester, is to call or visit your local garden center. Garden center staff will be able to help you choose and stock up on soil, compost and other foundation materials you may need.
“Any local garden center can provide local knowledge, such as what [plants] work in your area and successful vegetable varieties and types of flowers and shrubs,” Meulenbroek said. “They are a source for local knowledge.”
Meulenbroek says that his early season plantings for annuals include pansies, violas and diascia. Annuals are seeded flowers or plants that germinate, flower and die within a single growing season. They are usually added to gardens for color. Meulenbroek works mostly with perennials, plants that live for more than one growing season. Perennials can handle a light frost, Meulenbroek said.
Some garden centers can test your soil for composition and pH level, said Ely Osborne of farm and garden center Osborne’s Agway, which has locations in Concord, Hooksett and Belmont. By testing a small soil sample, staff can determine whether your soil is sand- or clay-based and whether you will need to add lime, Osborne said. The addition of lime to the soil will increase the soil’s pH level, which may be necessary depending on how low the pH level is to start with (the lower the pH, the more acidic the soil is) and what you’re planning to plant.
“For some vegetables, the soil’s pH may be too high,” Osborne said. “Most vegetables [will thrive] with a soil pH around 6.0 to 6.5. … For tomatoes, it’s 7.0, which is [the pH level] that a lawn is perfect at. Asparagus is around 6.0 to 6.2.” It depends on the plants, and it’s not difficult to make your soil rich and appropriate to the plants’ needs with some extra material and attention, Osborne said.
Zukas agrees: “The basis of any good garden is good soil,” she said. “People hate putting money into the ground, but it’s really important.”
The process of preparing the soil — by shoveling, digging, overturning and mixing in fertilizer and other materials — is called tilling. Sandy soil, which gets more common as you move closer to the coast, might need topsoil, compost, green sand or cow manure added to it to make it richer and better able to hold on to nutrients. Alternately, clay-based soil is already dense and heavy and can be amended with gypsum, which will loosen it up and allow the nutrients to stay in the soil, Osborne said.
“Nutrients do not stay in sandy soil, [especially] nitrogen, which is essential; it sieves right out,” she said. “With clay-based soil, there is a run-off; nothing penetrates it.”
Zukas says that once the soil is balanced and loosened up, you may need to start watering right away. Between the lack of snow this past winter and the small amount of rain so far this spring, the ground is very dry. A maintenance schedule to prevent funguses should also be undertaken, Osborne added. She suggests asking garden center staff about copper dusting, sulfur and other fungicides. Side-dressing the base of plants with fertilizer — be it chicken manure or Miracle-Gro — once a month will also help keep your soil healthy, she said.
The next step is planning the garden’s layout, which depends on how much space you have to work with, say Zukas and Osborne. Garden centers can help with this planning and design as well, and some will send staff to homes for customized assistance.
Some questions Zukas suggests asking yourself: “How big do you want the garden to be and what kind of plant material do you want to grow? If you want a flower bed, is [the space] shady or sunny? Do you want a splash of color, or do you want flowers that will come back every year?
“You have to do a little research … and buy the right plants for the right location,” she said. You have to be realistic about the amount of space you have and what you are looking for, Zukas said.
Osborne says that some vegetables, such as lettuce and leafy greens, will do well with only partial sun, but most, especially tomatoes, need full sunlight.
Annuals and perennials are very much in need of sun or shade, says Osborne, whose husband and two brothers-in-law co-own Osborne’s Agway, which their parents opened 25 years ago. “All of those are labeled [with instructions specific to the plant], and staff can help with that.”
Every garden is different and should be based on the space you have and how you want to use it, says Meulenbroek, who grew up in the family business.
“It’s all about your interest and expressing your personality,” he said. “Think big dreams, try to see where you want to get the garden and break it down into some manageable projects.”
Zukas says that many people are going back to growing their own vegetables. Tomatoes remain a steadfast staple, though home gardeners are also branching out.
“People are trying different things,” Zukas said. “A lot of hot peppers and traditional peppers as well. … A lot of people are growing things for color, such as Swiss chard. People [are making their gardens] pretty and not just edible.”
She says trends are harder to spot when it comes to flowers. Some people prefer bright colors whereas others will come in looking for all-white flowers. It’s a personal thing, she said.
“There are so many new varieties out there, including trees and shrubs. There are new and exciting things. Some people are plant breeders that spend their life cross-pollinating and working on perfecting a certain color or species, or they find a new species in the wild and hybridize them. Ultimately, they bring them to the market,” she said.
For Meulenbroek, Zukas and Osborne, gardening is profession and passion. It’s an activity for people of all ages and gets people in touch with the earth, Meulenbroek says.
“People that are interested in gardening are pretty universally great people,” he said. “It’s also a great activity to do with kids. I have two daughters [ages 3 and 6], and I try to get them out in the garden as often as possible … to get them interested in watching things grow.”