It can be daunting to start your own garden for the first time. It’s no fun to spend time and money and then have to worry about your plants withering away or getting overgrown by weeds. So let’s break down the four most important elements that you need for a flourishing garden — soil, sun, water and the plants themselves.
When starting your garden from scratch or when taking on a neglected garden, you want to first remove the weeds and enhance the soil. You can do some simple tests by rolling balls of moist soil to see if you have sandy soil (crumbles to the touch), clay soil (has a fine texture and will easily roll into a ball) or loamy soil (feels a little gritty but also smooth when you roll it, a bit sticky but also crumbles easily). The soil quality all gardeners aim for is loamy. Over time, you can achieve this as you work on your soil and improve its condition by incorporating compost and nutrients. If your soil is very sandy or clay-like, you can build raised beds and add some good quality topsoil and compost.
Knowing what your light levels are is important — no plant is going to survive in a deep, dark corner of the garden under other plants or in the shade of buildings. Stand where you are going to plant and look up at the sky. Track the path that the sun will take (check on it at several points during the day if you’re unsure) and see how many buildings, large trees and shrubs will block the sun. If you are assessing in spring, be sure to take into account the leaf canopy that may not have appeared on the trees yet.Got Peony Envy? Here’s How To Get Them Next Year
If you have an unobstructed view of the sky, or at least most of the sky is visible, you can look for full-sun plants (these require more than six hours of direct sun a day). If you only get morning or afternoon sun, look for part-sun plants (four-six hours of direct sun a day). If you get spotted shade from leafy trees look for part-shade plants (not more than four hours direct sun, preferably in the morning). Shade plants will still need some sun, either morning or afternoon for a few hours or dappled throughout the day.
The amount of water your plants need depends on what kind they are, the weather and the soil they’re planted in. If the weather is hot and/or windy, the plants will need to water your plants more often. When plants are young and haven’t developed large root systems yet, they are especially susceptible to drying out. Seedlings may need gentle watering every day. For established plants, a long, gentle soaking is the best way to reduce run off and allow the water to reach the roots.
If your soil is sandy, the water will run through it more quickly and so it will need watering more often. If it’s clay, it holds the water better, but takes it in slowly and so may run off the surface resulting in the need for frequent watering. If you have loamy soil, moisture will soak in and be held available for the roots, so plants will need less-frequent watering.
Choosing plants based on your growing zone
Another thing to know about your garden is what growing zone it’s in. The lower the number on the plant’s tag, the more cold tolerance it will have. But remember — the American zone system is different that the Canadian zone system. To put simply, in general, there is a one zone difference between the two. So when you look at American websites, books or plant tags, translate the zone listed to one number less. For example, if you are Canadian zone 5 on the U.S. system, you will be in zone 4 and if you buy a plant that says it is hardy to zone 6, it’s actually hardy to zone 5 in Canada. When you buy plants the safe bet is to purchase plants that are in your zone or a lower number so they can survive a rough winter. To find out your zone look here and also remember that you may have micro-zones in your garden where less cold tolerant plants will thrive (for example areas that are more sheltered near a building).
Sarah Nixon is an urban flower farmer and floral designer in Toronto. Since 2002 her flower company, My Luscious Backyard, has sustainably grown over 50 varieties of cut flowers in micro-farms across many residential yards in Toronto’s downtown west side.