When I first began, I suppose I had this idea that gardening was the same everywhere… you dug up some dirt, put in seeds, fertilized and pulled some weeds, then enjoyed a harvest. A little naive (or maybe just hopeful), I now know that there is more to making a garden work in your specific neck of the woods.

This is part of our Gardening 101 series, where we’re covering a lot of basics, and I certainly don’t want to complicate things. But I do want to see you succeed in gardening (no matter what scale you do it on) and that entails a few considerations that each gardener has to make about their own little plot of earth.

For those just starting out, take only the most basic of concepts from this post and use them as a general guideline. Simple lessons like season length, frost dates and soil type will go far for you.

For those a little further down the road, you may want to dig in deeper, really taking into consideration all of the things mentioned in this post and ensure that you are maximizing your garden’s potential.

What to Consider as You Plan Your Garden

Consider your season length.

There is no magic number that you need to come up with, but rather a general idea of when you can begin to grow things and when the season really winds down. Knowing your frost dates (see below) will help to give you a good idea of this. For me, in the West Coast, my season is generally from about March to October, although obviously some crops will grow only in the warmer months, and some only in the cooler.

Consider your frost dates.

These are the average dates of the last winter frost in the springtime, and of the first frost in the fall/winter. Canadians, find your frost dates here. Americans, this is a good general frost date reference, but use this one if you don’t live in a major city or urban area.

Consider your best planting dates.

Based on the average temperatures in your local area, there are times that are more ideal than others to plant specific crops. For example, lettuce is ideally planted between April 12-May 3 where I live, although it may be planted a little earlier (with a risk of frost, low germination rates or slow growth) or a bit later (with a risk of it bolting in the late spring/early summer heat). This site will give you some general ideas of the best dates for planting where you live (just keep in mind that these are guidelines, not set-in-stone rules).

Consider your overall climate.

Is it hot and humid?  You might need to focus on growing during your slightly cooler spring and fall seasons, avoiding the peak of summer. Maybe it’s more like mine and the summers are only mildly hot, with lots of sporadic rain and clouds mixed in. You may struggle with growing hot weather or long season crops, but you can likely have a fairly extended growing season overall. Perhaps you live farther north and have generally cool and damp summers. You might need to focus purely on cooler weather crops, or even think about using a greenhouse or hoop house to warm things up a bit.

Consider your gardening zone.

There are 11 garden “zones”, ranging from a 1 (arctic or extremely cold) to 11 (tropical). You can quickly find your own garden zone by locating here. Though I don’t use my zone information often, sometimes in books or articles you will find zones being referenced, in regards to particular plants that thrive in different zones, or tips for gardening in your zone. They also come in handy in gardening forums, where gardeners can compare methods and results with one another and knowing whether you are in a similar zone will help you to relate what you are learning to your own gardening experience.

Consider your particular “micro-climate”.

By this I simply mean your yard. Do you have spots that are sunnier or shadier, warmer or cooler? Sometimes there are protected areas in a yard that always stay 5 degrees warmer than other areas, or a strip along one side of the house where snow never falls, etc. This can help you plan how to use your garden space, especially when it comes to planting perennials like asparagus or rhubarb, as well as fruit trees.

Consider your soil.

There are three main types of soil: sandy, loamy, and clay. Most soils are a mixture of 2 or 3 types, and it can be helpful to know the ratios of your own soil. Try this jar test to see what kind of soil you have (it’s near the bottom of the page). It can also be helpful to know your soil’s pH, as well as it’s nutrient content. Most garden centers carry simple and inexpensive tests to help you get a better feel for what your soil is like.

Putting It All Together

If you’re new to gardening, your head may be spinning just a bit. Let me demystify all of this technical talk and give you 3 easy steps to putting this information together as you plan your garden:

1. Find your local frost dates and know your general growing season.

The basic rule is to start planting after your last spring frost (with exceptions, see #2 below) and plan for your crops to finish up before the first fall frost. Look on your garden seed packets or seedling tags to know how many days they take to grow, and count forwards or backwards from your dates to help you determine what needs to be in/out of the ground at what time. Buying seeds that suit your gardening situation will also help you to ensure success.

2. Use the general “best planting dates” as a guideline.

When you’re first starting out, these planting dates will really help you to keep on track. Make yourself a simple chart like this one so that you have a planting schedule.

3. Figure out what type of soil you have and decide on one way that you will love on your soil this season.

The jar test is quick and easy, and knowing that bit of information will help you to determine what your garden most needs to facilitate better growth. If you have clay-ish soil as I do, adding lots of composted manure or mixing in peat moss will really help to lighten it up for better root growth and easier digging and weeding. If you have a really sandy soil, adding organic matter will help it to hold moisture better, so think backyard compost.

Learn From Others

The absolute best way to grow according to where you live is to talk to those who are both local and knowledgeable.

  • Compare notes with other gardening friends, especially those more experienced than yourself.
  • Befriend the older generation, and learn from the gardening wisdom that they love to pass down.
  • Try joining an online gardening forum, and find others who live in your garden zone or local area- swap tips, seed variety favorites, etc.
  • Buy books that are suited to where you live. This year I got the book Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades (perfect for gardeners in Oregon, Washington and BC, Canada). It is so immensely helpful to learn from someone who experiences the same growing conditions and challenges that I do. Find a book written by somewhere who understands gardening where you live!

How do you garden successfully in your unique location? For those just starting out, what questions or issues do you have? Share them and perhaps I or other readers can help troubleshoot or offer suggestions!

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