Whether you’ve never picked up a shovel or just need a refresher on getting your backyard garden up and running again, we’re here with tips from local experts.
The News & Observer chatted with two gardening experts at NC State Cooperative Extension, a North Carolina resource that connects experts to community members.
Lucy Bradley, the director of the Extension Master Gardener Program, and Jeana Myers, a horticulture expert who holds a PhD in soil science, offered tips for first-time gardeners hoping to transform their yards into a gardener’s paradise.
Bradley and Myers shared lots of written resources for first-time gardeners, which can be found at ces.ncsu.edu.
A key tip before diving in: “Start small. Create a beautiful, manageable space that you love rather than tackling the whole project, being unable to keep up with the weeds, unable to care for the new plants through their first year and unable to find any joy in the project,” Bradley said.
Here’s more on how to get started on your very own backyard garden just in time for spring in North Carolina.
How to start a backyard garden
▪ Know what you need: A good garden requires the basics: sunlight, water and space. Before you start making a shopping list, take inventory of what your backyard looks like right now. Where are the sunniest spots? Where will your plants have room to stretch and grow?
▪ How much sun?: The answer depends on what you’re growing, but vegetable gardens require a lot of it.
“First and foremost, you need a sunny location,” Myers said.. “For veggies, you’ll need full sun. We’re talking eight to 10 hours a day.”
▪ Start your shopping list: To tend to your garden well, you’ll need a few basic things. Here’s what Myers recommends.
A shovel: A round-tipped shovel works well.
A pick ax: This can help break up hard clay when digging out a garden bed, and it can come in useful for other tending needs.
A pitchfork: Opt for the small, straight-pronged ones. The ones with curved prongs aren’t as helpful for loosening soil.
A good pair of gloves: Your local gardening store should have a wide variety of different sizes and colors.
A watering can: Or a watering source, like a yard hose.
▪ Three necessities: There are three necessary ingredients to fill your backyard garden.
Soil: We’ll devote a later story to soil health. But for now, Myers recommends “buying a good quality potting mix” for containers and raised beds. For augmenting in-ground planting beds, Myers recommends going to a soil and mulch store and selecting a 50/50 blend of topsoil and compost, or just compost. “Plan on a 1 to 2-inch deep layer, not 5 or 6 inches,” she said. “You can add more of the 50/50, as it’s not as potent. Or some places sell what they call ‘soil conditioner,’ which is composted bark fines.“
Compost: You can buy compost, get it from your town (sometimes for free) or even make it yourself! (For a guide on backyard composting, visit newsobserver.com/news/local)
Mulch: Keeping your soil covered is key. You can buy mulch, or you can use straw, leaves, wood ships, cardboard or other protective materials.
▪ Think ahead: A common mistake is visiting your local nursery on a bright, sunny day and buying whatever looks good then and there, Bradley said. You’ll have to do your research ahead of time, figuring out which plants work best for your space and to achieve your goals.
Which tomatoes work best for your raised bed? Would you suffocate that squash plant in a too-small space? Get in touch with the experts (or, at least someone who’s been doing this a little while) to figure out which plants are best for what you’ve got.
Raised beds or in-ground plots?
There are pros and cons to both. Bradley, along with Don Boekelheide of North Carolina Community Garden Partners, wrote a helpful guide in 2017 to help you decide what would work best in your backyard.
▪ Raised beds: “Well-designed and constructed raised beds are attractive and make a positive first impression. Planters may make gardening less intimidating and easier for novice gardeners, and they may provide a more effective way to organize a garden overall,” Bradley and Boekelheide wrote.
If your backyard’s soil is contaminated or otherwise inadequate, or if your physical ability requires a garden higher than ground-level, raised beds can help. Plus, “planters tend to drain more quickly, require more frequent watering and warm up more quickly in the spring than in-ground beds,” they wrote.
There can be some drawbacks:
Material costs can add up quickly. And more raised beds mean more materials, so potentially already high costs can quickly multiply.
You’ll need to rely on purchased soil to fill them.
There’s less flexibility to relocate the planters.
If you use boards to form the raised bed, you’ll likely be stuck with a pretty rectangular shape, which can be restrictive.
▪ In-ground plots: These can be much cheaper, since you’re dealing with the space and soil you already have on your property, and more environmentally friendly. But beginner gardeners may struggle with soil stewardship.
(Note: You can get in touch with NC State Extensions’ Master Gardener Volunteers at any time with questions, both general and specific. Soil health is their most frequently asked question, Myers said. Information on getting in touch with these volunteers is at the end of this article.)
▪ A combination of both: You can combine both methods, which is a popular way to backyard garden: “Many community gardens have both planter boxes and in-ground plots. Planter boxes are excellent for gardeners who want smaller areas or who need easy access. In-ground gardens are better for gardeners who need more space. By combining the two approaches, a garden can have the best of both worlds,” they wrote.
For Bradley and Boekelheide’s full guide — which also includes information about soil health, mulch materials and composting techniques — visit content.ces.ncsu.edu.
When to start planting your backyard garden
▪ Start digging in the spring: If you have clay soil in your backyard, spring is the perfect time to start digging it up.
“Spring is the best time to dig a garden bed because it’s the easiest time due to soil moisture,” Myers said. “Our soil doesn’t freeze too often here, but it can be overly wet in the winter which makes it heavy. And if clay, very sticky.” If you start digging when it’s very cold or very hot, you’ll probably have to involve your pick ax.
▪ What’s double digging?: Double digging loosens and enriches your soil for planting. Create a deep bed (about two feet deep), then add an inch or two compost to the base. Re-fill the bed with the soil you excavated while mixing in additional compost as you go.
“Once you dig it up once, you don’t have to do it every year,” Myers said. “You just have to worry about adding compost and mulch.”
▪ If you’re starting from seeds: You should identify the last frost date, which will likely be the first or second week of April, Bradley said. For a full guide to growing from seeds, visit content.ces.ncsu.edu.
▪ If you’re transplanting: If you don’t plant your seeds directly in your garden, you’ll either have planted the seeds in a separate container or bought a small plant from your nursery. You’ll then have to get them in your garden.
“For vegetables, once it’s springtime and you find these beautiful veggies at your local nursery you’re ready to go,” Myers said. But make sure you’re following a crops chart for the best timing to plant. For gardeners in and around the Triangle, she recommends NC State Extension’s Central NC Planting Calendar: content.ces.ncsu.edu.
Tips for backyard garden success
Here’s what Bradley says will set you up for success:
▪ First, live with the land: Get familiar with what you’ve got. What kind of soil do you have? Where is the sun the brightest? How can you maximize space?
“Note the traffic patterns, the timing of sunlight and shadows. Contemplate what you want to do in the yard,” she said.
▪ Mulch everything: Don’t discount the importance of mulch. Keep the soil covered.
“This prevents weeds, conserves water and breaks down to release nutrients and improve the soil,” she said.
▪ Create a master plan: Implement your plan one manageable step at a time. Don’t overwork yourself, which can commonly lead to failure.
▪ Follow the six steps to a successful landscape: Here are the six steps, but visit NC State Extension Service’s detailed guide for more info: content.ces.ncsu.edu.
Develop a base plan and site inventory.
Conduct a site survey to identify environmental factors.
Identify activities and uses for landscape.
Locate and develop use areas.
Install the landscape.
Don’t make these common gardening mistakes
Here’s what Bradley said can set you up to fail:
▪ Not planning ahead: “Starting without a plan, seeing a pretty plant at the nursery and buying it without thought to where it will go, or how it will meet the garden goals,” she said.
▪ Avoiding garden diversity: Create a plant collection of many different types of plants, she said. Don’t create a cohesive design with repetition.
▪ Thinking seasonally: Don’t buy everything at one time and don’t buy based on what was blooming the day of purchase, she said. “This results in three seasons with no interest.”
Instead, use local guides to see how you can create a garden with year-round interest. You can get more information about this at content.ces.ncsu.edu.
▪ Trying to do it all at once: “It is difficult to care for all the plants through their first year,” she said. “Frequently, some die.” Start with a manageable garden. Once you get more experience, you’ll know what more you can take on with success.
How to contact NC State Extension Master Gardener Volunteers
▪ Need help? NC State Extension’s Garden Help Directory can help you contact the best person for your needs. For more information, visit emgv.ces.ncsu.edu/need-gardening-help.
▪ To find your local program, visit emgv.ces.ncsu.edu/find-your-local-program.
▪ Almost all of your initial gardening questions can be answered via the NC Extension Gardener Handbook. Find the handbook at content.ces.ncsu.edu/extension-gardener-handbook.
Here are some NC State Extension guides that can be especially helpful at the beginning:
▪ If you’re interested in connecting with gardeners local to your area, you can visit the NC Community Garden Partners’ Garden Directory at nccgp.org/garden-directory.
Questions about backyard gardening?
Do you have questions about your backyard garden? Any stories you’d like to see about gardening topics? Tell us here! Or email firstname.lastname@example.org.