Monday, March 23, 2009

How to Start A Garden

So, after the composting fiasco I decided to do a little research before I took any further steps on my garden. How in the world do you start a garden from scratch? I assumed that you don't just start haphazardly throwing seeds and bulbs in the ground, but beyond that I had no idea. I put this question to the wise gardeners at Garden Stew and did some further poking around, and I think I've come up with a general plan.

The first thing to do is to assess your soil conditions. This makes sense because -- along with the degree of sun and shade you have in your garden -- the quality and nature of your soil will largely decide which plants will grow best in your yard. Plus, if you know what nutrients your soil is lacking, you'll know the proper type of fertilizer or soil amendment to buy. I was recommended to buy a soil test kit and take samples of the soil in various spots in my yard. A good soil test kit tests for:

  • pH - this is the level of acidity in soil. If the acidity is too high or too low, your plants won't be able to absorb the nutrients in your soil.
  • Nitrogen - this gas is necessary for strong growth of stems, stalks and leaves. Too much nitrogen will cause the stalks, stems and leaves to grow too rapidly and will slow down flower and seed formation; too little renders plants at greater risk of disease or infection.
  • Phosphorous - the proper amount stimulates root formation and speeds up maturation.
  • Potassium - again, a balanced amount of potassium stimulates root formation. Too much will result in delayed plant maturity.
A really good soil test will also include a comprehensive list the ideal soil balance for hundreds of flowers, plants and trees. I haven't begun looking for a soil test kit yet, so I don't know how common the inclusion of a list like this is in France.

The next step is to assess the sun and shade patterns for your yard. As you might expect, this means that you need to take note of where in your garden the sunlight hits (and to what degree and for how long), and where there is shade (taking note of how much). Obviously, this is key in determining which plants will flourish. For more information on how to figure out the sun and shade patterns of your yard, check out this link. It goes into more detail on the subject than I would have thought possible - talking about observing the differing length of shadows and whatnot -- but in a totally accessible way.

Once you've tested your soil and assessed the sun and shade patterns, it's time to draw up a plan of the space you've allotted for your garden and consider which flower, trees, and plants you want. Of course, this also means that you'll need to do some research on which plants are right for your soil and climate. For hints, peep into your neighbor's garden (his garden, not his windows), and ask at your local gardening store.

In terms of thinking about what type of garden you want, here is something seasoned gardeners asked me that I didn't expect: What kind of "theme" do you want for your garden? This really stumped me, as I never really thought of the average house garden as having a theme beyond vegetable, organic, or - for the really intense gardener - Japanese. But taking a look around gardening forums, I see that themes are big things for gardeners. Stuff like "butterfly gardens," "water gardens," "shade gardens," "hummingbird gardens" and so forth. I was really amazed at the creativity people display. Who knew?

I thought I wasn't really into themes, until I saw one gardening forum that was all about "fragrant gardens." I really liked that idea: imaging walking in your garden and being struck, not only by the colors of the flowers, but by a host of wonderful fragrances. Mmmmm. So, maybe I'll aim for that.

Of course, when I asked my husband what he thought the theme should be, he said something like, “view blockage.” It’s true that we don’t want anyone to be able to stare into our garden from the second story of their home, and there’s a really ugly house across the street that we’d rather not see, but come on! Here am I thinking of tumbling, fragrant flowers, and there he is thinking of large, view-blocking trees. No thought whatsoever to sun-and-shade patterns and how that will affect the rest of the garden! I think we’re going to have a serious talk before planning gets underway.

Anyway, these three/four steps are, I think, a good way to start a garden when you're beginning with nothing as we are.

We're off to the house this weekend - it's been two weeks and I'm very interested to see how our compost heap is going! (Despite having had too much wood ash.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Spring at Last, Spring at Last....

...thank God Almighty, it's Spring at last! Of course, no one knows how long it'll stick around. Some years it hangs around for a few weeks, reverts to winter for a month, jumps to summer for a few days, then moves on to late fall. Just have to enjoy it while it's here.

Even though I have no experience with gardening in the ground, I do have a good seven year's experience gardening in pots on a balcony. Every year our balcony explodes into color with stunning marigolds, double impatients, roses, pansies, clematis, jasmine and - naturally - red and pink geraniums, which are practically required if you have a balcony in Paris.

Some of these flowers and plants survive the winter -- we haven't had to re-pot our geraniums, for example, for the past four years -- but inevitably, every Spring we have five or six pots to fill and we head down to the "flower district" to check out this year's hot blooms. (When I say, "head down to the 'flower district' I mean that literally; we happen to live smack in the middle of it. We can see the sidewalk displays at the while sitting on our living room sofa, which is pretty cool -- gives the illusion of living near a park.)

Anyway, I was heading home this afternoon and all the gardening boutiques had their flowers outside. They were absolutely dazzling in the sun. I don't know who wouldn't have smiled at the sight of them, but it wasn' me. Automatically, I began thinking about which flowers we'd put on the balcony this year. And then it hit me: I don't have to limit myself to balcony flowers...I can actually consider the cherry trees and raspberry bushes and the host of seed packets and bulbs that are on display too!

Happy day!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Wrong Way to Compost

Well. I've only been working on the yard for one weekend and already I've made several mistakes. All of them having to do with composting.

This may sound strange, but I've always wanted to have a compost pile. I read about them in books as a kid, and while (as a city kid) I didn't know exactly what it was, the idea of it appealed to me. It sounded so nature-loving and sensible. City life being what it is (gardenless), I forgot all about composting until a few years ago when my mother-in-law stopped me from throwing some organic matter in the trash, saying: "Oh, can you throw that in the container over there? It's for the compost." I felt ridiculously proud and "of the earth" as I carried my eggshells or whatever it was to the compost container. From then on, I vowed to have a compost pile for my own garden.

Fast forward to last weekend, when I decided that the very first thing I'd do for my garden was to make a compost pile. And here's how I did it: I gathered up all organic matter we used over the weekend (cucumber peelings, wood ash, eggshells, etc.), and dumped it all in a corner of our yard. And walked away all smug. Done.

It was only when I got home and actually did some research on composting that I learned, welp, there's a bit more to composting than that. Here are 8 tips for any beginning gardeners out there who want to start a compost pile and don't know how. Don't do these things.

1. Don't just throw any amount of organic material together and think you've got a good compost pile going.

Compost piles need to be balanced between "brown" organic material (such as dead leaves, twigs, manure, nutshells, hay) and "green" (vegetable peelings, grass clippings, fruit scraps, coffee grounds) organic material. A mix is needed because the different materials provide different crucial gases: "brown" provides carbon, while "green" supplies nitrogen. There appears to be some debate over which proportions are best, but a 1:1 ratio of green/brown seems to be considered reasonable.

I think my pile was almost entirely green, unless you count the wood ash, which I used entirely too much of (see "Don't #7").

2. Don't heap your greens and browns together randomly.

In building a good compost pile, you need to layer, layer, layer! Green and brown organic matter should be piled in alternate layers, with an occasional shovel of garden soil to add bacteria (which is necessary to help it all decomposed faster). Each layer should be moistened - a dry heap won't decompose very well - and when all done, the heap should be "comparable to the wetness of a wrung-out sponge." Top off the compost pile with garden soil, manure or finished compost.

3. Don't make your compost heap too small.

The ideal size for a starting heap is a 3x3x3 foot pile. This minimum ensures that it will produce enough heat during decomposition to sterilize the compost and hasten the decomposition process. If you don't have organic material to make a 3-ft. cube, just top off layers you do have with about six-inches of soil, and continue layering when you have more materials until you reach the 3-ft. cubed ideal.

My compost pile was about a foot tall. And it should go without saying that it didn't top it off with anything. Oops - my bad.

4. Don't leave your compost pile unturned.

Oxygen is necessary to the decomposition process. And to supply the pile with oxygen, you must turn the compost pile so that all the material at the edges are brought to the center of the pile. Turning the compost once a week will help speed decomposition and lessen odors.

As I said, I just dumped the stuff in the yard and left it.(God, this is getting really embarrassing.) Fortunately, I also read that, if starting a new pile, you should wait 2-3 weeks before turning it as it will allow the center of the pile to "heat up" and break down the materials. Whew.

5. Don't put your compost in a location that's too sunny or too shady.

Hah! This one I got right just by the luck of the draw. I put my compost in a semi-shaded location (just behind the barn) which is exactly what you're supposed to do. Putting it in a sunny location will dry it out too much; a too-shady place might result in your pile being too wet (which sucks because the necessary organisms can't survive when the compost is soggy). You should also make sure your compost isn't too close to a tree (check!) as the tree roots might grow into it.

6. Don't hesitate to add cardboard to your compost pile

My husband added a cardboard box (formerly containing a six-pack of beer) to the compost pile. At the last minute, I took it out. It just looked too big sitting there. Of course, I get home and read that cardboard is great for composting. It adds carbon to the pile (a "brown"! ) and if it's corrugated or still in box form (like egg cartons, for example), the oxygen trapped in the folds and corners will help the decomposition process. The beer box would have been perfect...

7. Don't add too much wood ash.

From what I've read, a small amount of wood ash is good for compost, but if you add too much it will absorb the nitrogen in the pile and render the pile too alkaline to break down the materials properly.

My compost pile was probably 70% wood ash. Sigh.

8. Don't add meat, whole eggs, dairy products, sawdust and fatty materials to your compost.

Somehow I managed to not add any of these things to my compost pile, but since I was talking about the wrong way to compost, I figured my list would not be complete without mentioning this. Don't compost these things as some will slow decomposition, some will attract rodents, and some are just...bad. Just don't do it.

So, there's my list for any beginners out there. If any experienced gardeners have more tips on how to build a compost pile, I'd love to hear them. I think it's pretty obvious that I need all the help I can get!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

So Very Green

Before I go any further, let me show you what this totally green gardener is up against. Here are a few pictures of my "garden" as of yesterday:

It's got potential to be something special, right? Too bad it's in the hands of a complete novice.

This yard is a part of our beautiful country house in northern Burgundy (France), which we've been restoring for the past 4 years (see my blog Really Old House). Because the house was such a disaster when we bought it, we haven't focused at all on developing the garden.

But now... it's time.

When we first bought the house, I imagined so many things for our future garden. The yard is about 1500 square meters (16,154 square feet) of space, so we have lots of room to work with. Right away, I decided that I wanted a trellis entwined with fragrant wisteria arching over the columns that led to the entrance of the backyard. I also envisioned yellow and crimson roses snaking their way up the iron railings of the staircase at the back door. I saw myself picking blueberries and raspberries from my own bushes, a wicker basket dangling from my arm, and I saw a luscious cherry blossom tree making a dainty pink blanket of flowers by the stone wall surrounding the property. And, naturally, there'd be a vegetable garden.

Now that it comes down it, though, I don't know if any of this is practicable. Can a blueberry bush survive the moody weather of central France? Will the pH balance of our soil support a vegetable garden? How close can a cherry blossom tree - or any tree - be to our wall without its roots eventually dislodging the stones? What kind of beautiful flowers, plants and trees exist that would be perfect for our area that I haven't even thought of?

At any rate, we're a long way from dealing with those issues. Our immediate goal is to find someone to level the yard and get rid of all those awful tractor tracks. But in the meantime, I want to learn all that I can so when the time comes, I can get my garden off to the right start.