How to start a garden
Gardening can be one of those traps akin to weight-loss resolutions made in the deepest dark of December: dream too big and you will never even begin. One’s first garden shouldn’t be a goal; it should be an experiment, the purpose of which should simply be to determine if you like to do it. The test should start small. in the form of a little island bed. It needn’t require much of an investment, and it probably won’t take much time to determine if you like to play in the dirt — or not. Whatever the result, with this method, the damage to your lawn will be minimal if you decide that gardening isn’t for you. At the very least, for all your efforts you may have a tree or shrub that you can take pride in having planted. The rest can revert back to grass.
If you fall in love with your little island bed, you can always expand it at a later date, or add other islands in your lawn.
Starting a garden can seem a daunting thing, especially to those who may be transplanted urbanites and suburbanites who have simply never experienced gardening before. And, too, is the feeling that one must do a whole lot of things before even setting in the first plants.
One of the oft suggested first steps is having one’s soil evaluated in a lab, determining its pH for one thing, and then amending the soil until that pH arrives at some supposedly perfect number, by adding a little of this, a little of that, and a whole lot of expensive stuff. Guess what? Here in New England, and especially on Block Island, we have acidic soil. Live with it. Skip the tests. Plant things that like acidic soil. (Hint: conifers, blueberries, native plants.)
To start a garden — not a vegetable one, that’s a bit more complicated — I’m talking about an island in your lawn, digging up some grass and creating a bed in the shape of your choice. It should be small — maybe a circular bed six feet across, or elongated to perhaps eight feet and four to five feet wide, tapering to the ends. Consider curving it into a kidney shape. Play around with a garden hose or rope to come up with a shape that complements the contours of your yard and home.
What you will need
As for tools, you really can get away with only three things: a garden shovel, a trowel and one of those cultivating things that looks like a claw with a handle. If you have access to a grub-axe, it can be helpful. A grub-axe, which looks like a pick-axe with one of the blades flattened and widened, allows you to cut under the sod in neat squares (you can move them to shore up bare or eroded areas) but like swinging a pick-axe, or a regular wood-chopping axe, it can be, well, back-breaking. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Once you have arrived at a shape, take that shovel or grub-axe and dig up the sod. Try to go deep enough to catch the roots. If the soil underneath the grass looks nice, shake the roots so the dirt falls back in the bed. If roots remain in the soil, try to get rid of as many as possible.
Once all the sod is removed, you are ready for the next step: evaluate your soil yourself. If it turns out to look like rich, dark topsoil, you have hit the jackpot. Here on Block Island though, chances are your soil will be sandy and gravelly, with lots of small rocks, or it will be quite the opposite — full of heavy clay. These need to be amended somewhat, and you can use many things. Peat moss is the easiest and probably the least expensive to obtain, unless you have homemade compost (and chances are you don’t if this is your first garden) or are willing to go out into a field and collect aged cow patties. Never use fresh manure.
Spread some of the peat moss/compost/manure over your bed and work it in with the cultivator. Use your judgment as to how much to add. If you want to plant things that require “rich” soil, you may need to add a lot. On the other hand, plants such as herbs may not require too much. And bear in mind that you can build up your soil over the years by using simple gardening techniques.
Now it’s time to plant something. If you didn’t have any particular design in mind, think of the way the American shopping mall is typically designed as a long space with three “anchor stores” — large showy department stores. In this case, consider making your anchors shrubs, or two shrubs and one tree. Start with small ones that will protect each other somewhat from the wind. Place perennials a few feet from these small shrubs, so the shrubs have room to grow. In the early years you can fill in with annual flowers as you wish. They won’t be needed when those shrubs mature.
Selecting your plants
When you select your plants, be sure to read the labels. Choose ones that are best suited for your soil type and sun/shade situation. Native plants can be far the easiest to grow, as they are already suited for our climate and soil types. Plus, native plants often provide food and shelter for the wildlife in the area.
Once you have planted, spread mulch, such as wood chips (you can get these for free from the town — there’s usually a pile in the back of the cemetery), or shredded bark from a garden center or nursery. Spread this about three inches thick. It will help with water retention and prevent the topsoil from blowing away. It does break down over time, but that process improves the quality of the soil.
Make sure to water your plants regularly for the first six weeks or so until they become established. After that, water only if it doesn’t rain at least once a week.
Most importantly, have fun.