Assess the sun exposure of the garden plots
Different plants have different light requirements. A full-sun plant will under perform and under produce in a shady location, and intense sunlight can damage or burn shade-loving plants. Take note of how many hours of direct sunlight each location in your garden gets during a day. Six hours or more is suitable for full-sun plants, between three and six hours is considered either partial sun or partial shade and less than three hours of direct sun is considered full shade. Dappled sun means that the plants prefer their filtered, as if they were under the canopy of other plants.
Make practical choices about the size of the garden
It is very easy to get excited in the spring and overplant, but keep in mind that a small garden tended to all season will out produce a large garden that is abandoned halfway through summer. Gardening takes both time and effort, and is more suitable for a long-distance mentality than a sprinting one.
It is also often desirable to plant a variety of vegetables in a garden, since some plants (such as squash) can be very prolific and there are only so many ways to prepare the harvest from a bumper crop. If, in the fall, there is an excess of harvest from one kind of vegetable, trading with other gardeners or giving to relatives, friends and local food banks are all possible venues to disperse a surplus without waste.
Prepare the location of your garden
Hopefully the majority of last year’s garden debris was cleaned up and moved to the compost pile at last season’s harvest, but if it was not, clean the area before planting. One reason to compost the leftover material in the fall is to allow time for it to be ready for the following spring. This was a standard procedure in Roman and Greek farming, and common practice in early American farming. To prevent unwanted weed growth, the area can be watered enough to sprout the offending seeds and then allowed to dry out enough to kill weed sprouts, or covered with a tarp or mulch in advance to retard weed growth.
Improve the soil if needed
Soil tests can give information about possible deficiencies. Nitrogen is often boosted with compost or herbivore manure and then supplemented throughout the season with fertilizer. Rock phosphate is a common long-acting phosphorus source, and potassium levels can be improved with potash or langbeinite. Home test kits are available, or samples can be sent out for analysis (many college agricultural extension programs will do it for under $10, and the results include a recommendation of amendments to correct any deficiencies).
Select suitable plants or seeds
Find out which plants do well in your garden zone, and what they need to do well in your area. Plant labels, the Internet, local garden clubs and neighboring gardens are all sources to consult. Since hopefully the tender spring starts will end in harvested produce, select plants where the harvest will be enjoyed. Personally, I have a taste for freshly harvested tomatoes, so I select varieties that either I know I like from previous years or from those similar to my favorites—with an new variety or two mixed in so I can keep an eye out for new favorites.
For container planting, use a quality potting mix
If purchasing a potting soil, check the ingredients and inspect the product before purchasing. Compost is the primary component of many homemade potting mixes.
In many places in the United States, green waste made of lawn and garden trimmings is picked up from homeowners for a fee before it taken to a facility, converted into compost and sold back to the American consumer as compost for another fee. This process is profitable for the garbage men and compost facility, but not very carbon efficient or budget conscious. Garden debris is a resource that can be made into valuable compost without incurring shipping costs or middleman mark ups.
For a simple homemade potting soil base, use one to two parts compost, one part coir and one part perlite. To this base, you can add mix amendments like seed, bone, blood or kelp meals—which will release their nutrients and fertilize the plants. Composting is simple enough to do at home, and the compost resulting from last year’s garden debris can be made into this year’s garden potting mix.
Find out the frost dates in your area and plan accordingly
In many areas, to maximize the growing season, seeds can be started indoors under the sort of lights used for indoor gardens or in cold frames. T5 lighting is well-suited for starting seeds with a minimum of fuss. A simple cold frame can be made with a wooden box covered with a glass panel or covered with a clear plastic tarp. Find the last frost date for your area and count backward to find when to start the seeds. For example, if the last frost date for your garden is in April and the recommendation is to start the seeds four weeks before planting, they should be started in March. This can be particularly important when trying to get the most out of a short natural growing seasons.
Harden plants before moving outdoors
Plants started indoors should be hardened by gradually exposing them to outdoor conditions. This is done by moving them to less sheltered locations in steps or by introducing them to the new location for first a few—and then several hours—a day over a period of a week or so. Plants moved immediately from a sheltered indoor environment to the harsher conditions outdoors might suffer from shock, possibly stalling or killing the plant; so, a gentler introduction to the new environment makes the transition easier and less stressful.
Make a plan for watering
Gardens need water to grow, and there are several options available. While a watering can is suitable for a small container garden, it is often too labor intensive for larger gardens. A simple drip irrigation system can be connected to an existing sprinkler system, or supplied by a garden hose. Since drip systems disperse water at a low rate over a longer period of time, the soil has time to absorb a higher percentage of the moisture, thus reducing runoff waste.
Take photos and enjoy the journey
Once the garden is planted, and ready for the growth of summer, take “before” photos to compare with the “during” photos of summer and the “after” photos of harvest. Not only will they serve as keepsakes of the pleasant memories of your garden, but they can serve as reminders of what worked and what didn’t in following seasons.
Remember, every journey starts with a single step—and a well-prepared spring start can get you off on the right foot.