URBANA, Ill. - It’s always a good idea to have a plan before you start digging up your yard, said a University of Illinois horticulture educator.
“Sometimes a location seems like the perfect site for a garden until you start digging and find the soil is like concrete,” said Chris Enroth. “Or you start growing and realize the water supply is way out of reach. Now you’re hauling buckets of water!”
Enroth suggested four basic items that will help in having a more successful garden next season.
Soil - A very common item that is overlooked by many beginner and experienced gardeners alike is soil health and fertility, he said. Most homeowners rely solely on store-bought fertilizers for their plants’ nutrition with little worry about soil health or the actual nutrient composition of their soil.
So how do we give our soil a checkup?
“If you are serious about growing good vegetables, you need to know the nutrient composition and basic properties of your soil,” Enroth explained. “A soil test is a way to find that out. Collect samples of soil from your proposed gardening sites, mix them together and bag them up to be sent to a nearby soil testing laboratory. If you would like to compare two different garden locations, in the same manner take samples from each location, but do not mix one with the other.Therefore, you can compare the results when you get them back from the lab. Also make sure to specify to the soil lab you are a home vegetable gardener and would like the results tailored to your needs.”
Sun - Most of the summer vegetables we know and love to eat require at least six hours of sunlight per day. That means the garden needs a full-sun location. “Plants feed themselves through photosynthesis, and each plant leaf is a food factory,” Enroth said. “By restricting the amount of light, you lessen the amount of sugars the plant can make for itself, and it will be unable to perform to its optimum capabilities.
“Provided you meet the full-sun minimum of six hours, afternoon shade can be beneficial. Shade late in the day offers a good spot to work during hot summer afternoons, and some of your veggies do like a bit of respite from the sun during the hottest part of the day, especially for gardeners in southern Illinois,” he added.
Water Supply - Hauling water in 90 plus degree weather is hard work. Therefore, you should site your garden so that you don’t have to. Don’t make the mistakes many other gardeners have made. Many vegetable gardeners think that they can supplement with buckets of water, but unless you have a bucket brigade, Enroth said most plants are only watered enough to barely keep them alive.
“Ideally you want some form of permanent irrigation system. I highly recommend some type of drip or soaker hose system. Drip irrigation works great to minimize water lost to evaporation and applies water very slowly so runoff does not occur. Plus, drip irrigation takes a lot of the guesswork out of watering,” Enroth said.
“If possible, investigate harvested water options. By using water harvested in an above- or below-ground cistern, you can save yourself some backache and lower your own potable water usage. Rain barrels are a great notion, but you would need a lot of water storage for a large vegetable garden,” he said.
Tools - Gardening can be a lot like cooking; they both require tools, and companies are out there to sell all kinds of gadgets. “Don’t get suckered by gimmicks,” Enroth warned.
Tools that are popular in the garden include:
- A sharp shovel – A sharp blade on the end of your shovel is critical to easy digging. Once you have your blade sharpened, you will keep up the habit every year.
- A pair of pruners – “When I’m outside gardening, my pruners are always in a sheath attached to my belt, notably because I always seem to tear my plants apart when picking their fruit or leaves. Pruners account for a clean cut,” Enroth said.
- A collinear hoe – This is used for cultivating weeds or slicing them off at the soil line. A collinear hoe is not a digging hoe; it is a hoe that can be used while standing upright and using a sweeping motion to cultivate small weeds. Have a file on hand to keep this blade sharp after use.
- A soil knife (trowel) – “If you are planting a lot of smaller transplants and your soil is relatively friable, I prefer to use a soil knife” Enroth explained. “It is a pointed blade with a handle. Simply stab the soil, pull it back, drop in the transplant, and remove the knife and firm up the soil around the new plant.”
- A bucket – Good for storing and moving tools, gathering up plant material, harvesting the fruits of your labor and sitting. Make sure to label which bucket is for harvested vegetables and which one is for carrying manure to the compost pile.
- A good wheelbarrow – “You never know when you will need to move something heavy to the other side of the yard. And a sturdy wheelbarrow can come in mighty handy. There are also several different types of garden carts on the market that may make maneuvering around the garden a little easier,” Enroth said.