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Planting time is the most exciting stage in the production of a garden, which is why the site preparation stage is so often given no more attention than the assembly instructions for a new gas barbecue. This is unfortunate in both cases, because, while it is true that great things have been accomplished by those who ride the crest of the wave of enthusiasm, it is equally true that a lot of people end up making a disastrous mess of things.
Successful gardens - the ones around your neighbourhood that aren't a disastrous mess - have benefited from some attention to the fundamental principles of gardening. Even the most eccentric of them is based firmly on a foundation of horticultural good sense.
The very first thing that you should decide is 'what sort of garden do I want?'. Take a long, hard look (with a big mug of tea) at your property, and decide what it is that you want to do. The nice thing about gardening is that you can always make changes later - the plants aren't glued into the ground, after all. But it is important that a garden should be based on a specific idea. Otherwise, what you end up with will be a jumble.
Your theme could be 'my whimsical jumble garden', of course; there is nothing wrong with jumbles, as long as that is what you intend.
Sometime during your second or third mug of tea, you will have to make a serious appraisal of how accommodating you think your property will be.
Climate - What is the climate like where you live? Will it allow you to grow the plants you will need to achieve your garden theme? Does the micro-climate of your property offer any advantages?
Contour - Does your property slope or have any hills or gullies that will affect your chances of success?
Light - How much light will your garden get? Do you get your ration of sunlight in the morning or in the afternoon? Are there any trees near enough to create shade as they mature?
Soil - What type of soil do you have? Is drainage likely to be a problem? Is it too acidic for some plants, or too calcarious for others?
You should also be realistic about the needs of other family members, particularly children and pets. Your garden should be a place of peace, somewhere to recharge your batteries after an exhausting day. The last thing you need is a family squabble over who trampled your pæonies. Some thought should also be given to how your neighbours are likely to react, especially if your theme is 'the monkey-puzzle jungle'.
It is a good idea to call your local public utilities provider or municipal planning department, in order to determine whether or not there are any pipes, cables, or other surprises lying beneath your soil. Discovering something by accident may prove costly.
Once you have decided what sort of garden you want, and have determined that it is safe to dig, it is time to put the tea down and get to work.
The first step is to map out your garden, marking the location of trees, flower beds, and any ornamental features. If there is a lawn already on your property, the easiest way of doing this is to paint the turf with a bright-coloured field marker. These are available in aerosol cans, specifically designed to be held inverted. You can experiment with the shape of flower beds by laying some garden hose on the ground and using it as an outline for the paint. You can also use field marker paint on bare soil, but the lines tend not to last very long. Powdered chalk or agricultural lime is perfect for this situation, producing bright white lines that are easy to erase if you happen to change your mind.
Take a few steps back, and inspect your design. The view from an upstairs window, or even a fork in a tree, offers a great perspective to make a critical assessment of your garden plan, before committing yourself to any actual digging.
When you are completely satisfied that the layout is as it should be, it is time to roll up your sleeves, spit on your palms, and get to work. It is possible, of course, to take a shortcut straight to the planting stage, and ignore a lot of the heavy work. This is tempting but, if you steel yourself to the prospect of raising a little sweat (and the odd blister) now, you will be glad that you did later on. It is far easier to remedy any deficiences in your soil before the plants go into the ground than it would be to work around them.
If your garden is intended to be planted with annual plants, the need for a lot of preparatory work is less crucial than it would be for long-term residents, such as herbaceous perennials, trees, and shrubs. But even annual beds pay returns based on the amount of your original investment of energy and enthusiasm.
Ideally, the time to add amendments to your soil is in the Autumn, so that the frost has a chance to work its magic before you begin to plant in the following Spring. This is important if you are adding manure, which can burn plant roots if it is too raw. Bacteria in the soil must be given the opportunity to process the nitrogen compounds in the manure into forms which are safe for your plants. Excess nitrogen and salts should also leach away before Spring planting begins. Any manure or compost material that you add immediately before planting should be thoroughly decomposed. Good compost has a light texture and almost no smell. If it stinks, don't use it!
If you have any concerns about the chemical composition of your soil or its pH, you should consider sending a sample for analysis. Many universities offer this as a free service or one with a nominal fee. Alternatively, government agricultural departments often provide soil analyses. Whichever you choose, take small samples, using clean tools, from several locations in your garden; mix them together; and send a small amount in a plastic bag away for testing.
The objective of digging over your garden is to improve the tilthe of your soil and provide a healthy environment for your plants' roots, one that drains well but is retentive of moisture, is free of weeds, and full of nutrients. This is a much easier proposition if you do it before there are any plants to worry about disturbing.
Once again, Winter can be an ally if you till your new flower beds in the Autumn. The affects of freezing and thawing, and the heaving caused by frost, will break up big clumps of soil and improve conditions remarkably before you return to work in the Spring. The tool of choice for this operation is a spading fork, otherwise known simply as a garden fork. These generally have short handles and four flat tines with pointed tips. They enable gardeners to turn over the soil quickly and break it up. They are not as efficient as a good spade for producing a fine tilthe, but that isn't a concern in the Autumn.
Springtime digging is a little more demanding. At this time, you are actually preparing the soil for imminent planting or seeding. The objective now should be, not only to break up and aerate the soil, but to leave a fine smooth surface. To do this you will need a good quality spade and a garden rake. Many gardeners rely on mechanical tillers to turn over the soil. These do a good job of breaking up the soil to a depth of six or eight inches, but they are unable to work the soil deeply. There is also the temptation to chug up and down your garden, leaving the soil finer and smoother with each pass, until the structure of the soil has been ruined. The objective shouldn't be to turn the soil into powder. Till it once and rake it.
Double digging is a grueling task that will leave you crippled, blistered, and gasping for breath, but it's worth it1. There is no better way (unfortunately) to produce top quality soil.
Begin by digging a trench about one foot wide and as deep as the blade of your spade.
Set the excavated soil aside in a neat pile.
Turn over the soil in the bottom of the trench, adding compost and a sprinkle of bone meal to encourage rooting.
Move ahead one foot, turning the surface soil over into the existng trench.
Repeat the process, moving in one foot increments to the end of the flower bed.
Fill the last trench with the soil taken out in step one.
A variant of this technique involves digging a trench to double depth, and completely inverting the subsequent trenches, so that the the bottom soil is on the top at the end of the process. This is only suitable for replenishing soil that has been worked for some time, as the subsoil is normally not very good stuff for planting in.
The best source of plants for new gardens is the old gardens of old gardeners, who will usually prove to be as valuable for their knowledge and experience as for their stock of plants. Trading plants or cuttings is a time-honoured way of sharing your garden's bounty and comparing notes with fellow gardeners. And plants that come with a story attached are always more valuable than those which were bought at the nursery.
When the local supply of free stuff has been exhausted, however, it's time to shop at a reputable nursery. Always buy from garden centres or, better yet, specialist growers. Discount stores and supermarkets often offer plants at low prices, but the quality is usually suspect - who knows where the plants came from? Discount mail order suppliers are to be avoided like the plague. Their catalogues are full of heavily tinted photographs of plants with names invented for a gullible public. Don't support them; they don't deserve it. On the other hand, there a lot of reputable growers who specialize in filling orders by post; and, in the age of plastic money and the Internet, this is a great way to come by some unusual plants.
Never take plants from the wild, as many are endangered in their native habitats. Besides, it is not very nice to rob others of the pleasure of seeing plants in the wild for the sake of your private collection.
Never, ever take plants from public gardens or parks.
This is stealing... the worst kind of stealing, because gardeners should live on a higher ethical plane. A special corner of Hell is reserved for people who steal from public gardens, not to mention the hell on earth if the gardener catches you. Visit your public gardens, and talk with the gardeners there. You may learn a thing or two; and many gardeners are happy to let you take a cutting if you have the good manners to ask.
You can save quite a lot of money by buying bare root plants for early Spring planting. These are sold in their dormant state, and should go into the ground as quickly as possible. Soak the roots before planting, and dip them in a thin slurry of mud to prevent them from drying out.
All other plants should be removed from their pots before planting. Tip them over and tap the bottom and sides of the pots to loosen the root mass, and then let the plant fall free. Never pull plants out of their pots by the stems... that's like being pulled out of your seat by the throat. You wouldn't like it; and neither do the plants.
Some unscrupulous landscape contractors have the habit of not removing plants from their fibre pots before they go into the ground. Their rationale is that the fibre pots will soon rot away anyway. The problem with this shortcut is that the pressed fibre material will act as a wick, drawing moisture away from the roots, if any of it is allowed to show above the surface of the soil. It is much better to remove the pot, or at least to cut back the rim so that nothing shows above ground.
Planting depth should generally be no deeper than the surface of the soil in the pot. There are exceptions, such as Pelargoniums, tree pæonies (pæonia suffruticosa), and some fruit trees, all of which prefer to be planted slightly deeper, but this is a good rule of thumb. Test the depth of planting holes for large plants with a rake handle to ensure that the plants will sit at the same depth in your garden as they did in the nursery. Trees sold in burlap (hessian) wraps should be planted with the wrap intact to keep disturbance of the root ball to an absolute minimum. Once the tree is positioned in the hole, the wrap should be untied and carefully tucked into the bottom of the hole, where it will eventually rot away. Large tree, which are sold in wire baskets, also should be planted before the basket is cut and tucked into the bottom of the hole.
The need to stake trees has been overstated. The weight of the average tree's root ball is normally adequate to ensure that the tree remains upright. On the other hand, trees are often injured by guy wires that are left on for too long. This is a common problem with conifers. In general terms, it is best not to stake trees unless their roots are unable to provide enough support, or unless the site is windy. The way trees rock back and forth under average garden conditions may actually stimulate the growth of roots, enabling your trees to adjust to their new surroundings faster than trees which have been staked.