A little knowledge goes a long way when planting a garden

by Dorothy Dobbie

Chances are you want to have some glowing flowers or a few tomatoes growing around your home, but you’re afraid to give it a try because you think you have a brown thumb. Take heart. Just like everything else, a little knowledge goes a long way and more knowledge goes even further. A few simple trips will get you started.


• What kind of soil should I use? If you are buying garden soil from a soil supplier, specify what you plan to use it for, i.e., a flower garden or a vegetable garden or for lawns. Most suppliers are knowledgeable and will send you an appropriate mix of topsoil, organics and sand or silt.

If you are the muscular type or on a tight budget and plan to dig your own garden, first check out the type of soil you have lurking beneath that grass. Is there much black topsoil (eight inches or more)? Or is it just thin layer over laying heavy clay or sand? If it’s clay based, you will need to add organic material, which could be something as simple as shredded newspaper, leaves, grass clippings, and so on. You could also add peat moss, but this needs to be renewed every year.

Dig whichever organic material you choose into the top six to eight inches of soil. You can also add some coarse sand or perlite for additional drainage. If the soil is mainly sandy, organics are again very important to give the soil some substance and allow it to hold onto water.

• What about potting soils? There are many potting mixes on the market, some of them fortified with fertilizer and water-retention gels or even mycorrhizae, a root-friendly bacteria. They are all fine to use, but they can dry out and be hard to rehydrate. I mix mine with good old soil, which helps retain moisture and adds weight to the container.

There is nothing wrong with using plain soil, but you probably should also add some perlite or other drainage material to ensure that the pot doesn’t get compacted and becomes dried out mud in mid-summer.

If you are using plain soil, adding organics— two parts peat to five parts soil would work. You may also want to include a handful of slow release fertilizer to cut down on fertilizing for the first half of the summer. Coir, dried coco husk, retains a lot of moisture. If you use it, add one part coir to seven parts potting mix.


• What about mulching? Mulching is done for several reasons: to conserve water, to add organics to the soil, to suppress weeds, for cosmetic reasons and to keep roots cool.

In hot, dry weather mulch can help a great deal to conserve moisture, but in a rainy season, it can contribute to fungal disease and soggy garden conditions.

Use your innate good sense to determine when to add mulch and when to pull it away. Never mulch too thickly — two to three inches is enough. You don’t want to promote a home for voles.

Avoid mulching too close to plant stems to prevent fungal disease and keep critters away from the plant.

• What kind of mulch should I use? Organic mulches will break down over time and help to condition your soil. Rocks, which are attractive, can’t do this. Neither will suppress weeds completely.

• Should I use a landscape cloth? Landscape cloth will shut down weeds for longer than mulch alone, but after a couple of years, soil will build up on top of the cloth and weeds will appear. (Granted, they are easier to pull from this medium than from the soil.)

On the downside, if you want to add perennials in the future, you will have to cut through the cloth to do this. You may also run into problems with perennials or shrubs that outgrow the hole in the cloth that was originally provided for them.


• What should I fertilize? Fertilize your potted annuals once a week with a water-soluble (powdered) fertilizer at half strength or every two weeks at full strength (look for the directions on the package). Assuming your grower sold you a well-rooted plant, a balanced fertilizer product, in which all three numbers are the same, will do just fine for most plants. 

If your soil is good, It is not essential to fertilize perennials although they might appreciate the occasional topping up. If you do fertilize your perennials, stop the first week of August to give them time to begin shutting down for winter.

Fertilizing at that time will keep them in a growth mode and unable to prepare their cells for the onslaught of frost to come. However, just before freeze up, when the plant is dormant, give perennials a good watering and, if you like, you can throw down some slow release fertilizer (the kind that comes in pellets) to help get them going in spring.  

• Can I over fertilize? Yes. You can burn your plants with too much fertilizer. Follow the directions for strength — generally one tablespoon of fertilizer per gallon of water — and never add fertilizer to a dry pot. If your container has dried out, water first, then wait awhile and water again with the fertilizer mixture.

You can also promote excessive leafy growth by adding too much fertilizer. This can be done at the expense of flowers, especially among perennials, but also for hardy annuals such as cosmos. And it can also attract those pesky aphids, which adore fresh green growth.

• What about compost or manure? Manure is a composted organic source of fertilizer. If well-aged, it will not burn plants and it adds traces of minerals that chemical fertilizers do not. So does compost — the amount and composition of the minerals will depend on what you composted — an art in itself. But most garden centres sell balanced manures and composts if you are unsure.

• What about the others?  There are all sorts of products on the market now, all promising wonderful things for your plants: worm gold (worm castings), sea weed, turkey trot, to mention just a few. Each does something special, but the novice doesn’t need to worry about this as you’ll add you elixirs once you gain experience. However, sea weed does help tomatoes become sweeter, if you want to start there.