Backyard Gardening

Backyard gardening offers so many benefits it’s hard to name them, but first is probably exercise. Gardening can provide exercise from the “easy-does-it” to a full workout, depending on how hard you want to work. The elderly can benefit from time spent gardening. Another benefit is simply an excuse to be out in the fresh air. Experts are quick to say both exercise and time spent outdoors can reduce stress, a common problem today.

There’s also the satisfaction of planting seeds and watching them grow. There’s something very satisfying about digging in the dirt and getting your hands dirty. Many youngsters enjoy gardening. Let them plant their own seeds and take care of them, and it should be something fun like melons or pumpkins. Gardening is a great teaching tool about nature’s cycle, as well as providing family time together. Don’t expect kids to do all the weeding in the family garden, as was the norm years ago when families depended on their gardens for food.

Last, but not least, gardening can provide food; a handful of tomatoes from a patio pot for a summertime treat, or food for the entire family. And, you can determine how your food plants are grown, for instance grown organically, without using chemicals. A backyard garden of flowers, vegetables, fruits and berries can add to the value of your home as well as the enjoyment of your backyard. Another benefit is the wildlife it will bring. Even a hard-worked, weeded, picked and cared-for garden will be visited by numerous birds and wildlife.

It’s important to have a plan for your backyard garden. Shown is the author’s plan for 2006.

Garden Planning   

Regardless of whether you wish to have a fully landscaped backyard with formal flower gardens, or a simple vegetable patch, the most important step is to form a plan. Make a rough scale drawing of your backyard and sketch out what you want. Do you want flower beds, shrubbery, fruit and nut trees, berries, a vegetable garden? How close is the water source? How big do you want your vegetable garden? Some of the answers may be in the topography and geographical location of your backyard. Plants have different requirements not only for sunlight, but also moisture and soil types. You can amend most soils, and you can provide irrigation or water, although the latter may be restricted in some locales. You can’t, however, ignore the light needs of plants. Shady plants won’t grow in the sun, nor sun-loving plants in the shade. For instance most vegetables require a full day of sun. Partial shading during a portion of the day can be tolerated, but full sun is best.


The soil must be properly fertilized and limed. Fertilizer is available in several different forms, including granular, water-soluble and organic.


Is your soil sandy, clay-based or extremely rocky? Most plants do best in a loose, loamy or friable soil. But don’t let this problem stop you. Our garden in located on a sloping, rocky Ozark hilltop with very little soil, and we often get kidded about growing more rocks than vegetables. We do, however, grow lots of food from our garden because we’ve spent a lot of time building up the soil with compost. A retaining wall on one side prevents the soil from washing down the hillside. The best soil amendment is horse manure added well before planting time. Adding organic matter in the form of peat moss, compost or decayed leaves will greatly help almost any soil.

All plants require some sort of fertilization. It’s a good idea to take a soil test to determine what fertilizer requirements are needed. Merely dig a sample of soil and take it to your local County Extension Service office. There is a fee for the test. The test information can provide a general guide for fertilizing, but it’s also important to match the fertilizer requirements to the plant. For instance a heavy feeding of nitrogen to potatoes makes them grow bushy leaves, but no potatoes. Most plants, however, do not require a lot of fertilizer. Bagged fertilizer comes with three elements nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and is sold with different strengths of each nutrient. A balanced fertilizer such as 8-8-8 or 10-10-10 is a good vegetable garden fertilizer, or you may prefer one with less nitrogen, such as 5-10-5 as a general purpose fertilizer. About five pounds per 100 square feet is considered adequate. Incidentally, a quart jar holds about 2 pounds of granular fertilizer. Apply 2-1/2 pounds before you till the soil, then till and add the other half, raking it into the upper inch or so of soil.

Some soils may also need additional organic matter, but regardless the garden or bed must be deeply tilled. 

Some plants, such as corn and beans require more nitrogen. Side-dressing corn with nitrogen when the plants are 2 inches high and then again when they begin to tassel adds to productivity. We usually spread about a quart of fertilizer per 100 foot row. Side-dress beans when they first bloom.

One of the easiest methods of adding fertilizer is with a water-soluble fertilizer such as Miracle Gro Water Soluble All Purpose Plant Food. With an analysis of 15-30-15, it doesn’t burn plants and provides a good all purpose, easy-does-it fertilizer. We’ve used it for years in a number of ways. For tomatoes and peppers we run a soaker hose down the row, under mulch. We remove the sprinkler end of a Miracle Gro Garden Feeder and attach the feeder between the soaker hose and the feed hose. The canister is filled with a Miracle Gro product designed specifically for tomatoes and watered once a week, starting as soon as the first blossoms appear. Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and other plants that grow individually are treated by simply adding Miracle Gro to a watering can. This is also a great way to fertilize cucumbers, squash and zucchini (if you really want that much zucchini). We used the product a long time before the company came out with their Garden Feeder, but the feeder, hooked to a garden hose, works great for both fertilizing and watering long rows of vegetables, such as green beans, beets and peas. A number of other water-soluble garden fertilizers are now available. If you prefer, you can garden organically by adding organic fertilizer in the way of farmyard animal or poultry manures and compost. 

Probably the most overlooked yet most important factor in a productive garden is lime. Lime changes the pH or acidity of the soil. Adding lime makes the soil less acidic. Without the proper acid level, or pH, some plants can’t assimilate the nutrients provided in fertilizers. But again, it’s important to know the requirements of specific plants. Most vegetables do well in a soil that is lightly acidic, or with a pH of 6.4 to 6.8. A neutral acidic level is a pH of 7. In many parts of the country, soils are quite acidic and some plants, such as blueberries, azaleas and others, require acidic soils.


Space Issues

The next question: How much space do you have? If your garden is postage-stamp size, you might wish to forego corn as it takes a lot of space. You might also consider container gardening. These days a wide range of plants have been “designed” just for small or container gardens that can brighten a patio or deck and, with proper care, some of the vegetables can be very productive. This translates mostly into regular watering and fertilizing, but not over fertilizing. Specialized containers are also available that make container gardening easy. For instance the Gardener’s Supply Tomato Success Kit comes with a patented self-watering planter that eliminates the drowned and drought problems of container growing. The kit, claimed to grow 30 pounds of tomatoes in 3-1/2 feet, includes the container, a support cage, self-watering container mix and fertilizer.   


One method of growing more in less space is with raised beds. Since the soil in the beds is not compacted, it’s also easier to planet and care for. The author’s beds are made of 2×6’s and 2×4’s.

Even with lots of acres for a garden, we’ve gone to raised beds for many plants. Once established, raised beds make gardening much easier. With raised beds the soil isn’t compacted by walking on it, and the plants are higher so they’re easier to tend. Most gardens have more wasted space than growing space, with walking paths between rows of vegetables, and to provide the “proper” growing space for the vegetables. Raised beds allow growing more food in less space. You also don’t add soil amendment to the entire garden, only the beds. Mulch applied between and around the beds prevents weed problems. With a full-time woodworking shop, it’s not hard to get enough sawdust for mulch around the beds, and it’s easy to kneel on while working the beds. Other possibilities include wood chips, even sand or pea gravel. Onions, lettuce, spinach, radishes and carrots are the most common plants in our raised beds. Potatoes also do well in raised beds, because the soil is never walked on and the softer soils are more conducive to raising spuds. Our beds consist of pressure-treated 2-by-6’s fastened together with screws to create 4-by-6-foot beds. Beds can also be built of naturally resistant woods such as redwood, cedar or of landscape timbers or railroad ties.

Another consideration is how much time you realistically want to or can afford to spend gardening. It’s easy to plant more than you are able to care for properly. I’m the world’s worst at that. In the past we’ve had as many as three gardens, and then had to work like a slave to keep them up, even when the fish were biting like crazy. Some plants also take a great deal more time than others. For instance, strawberries are great tasting, fun to grow, and you can grow better quality than you can buy, but they do require a great deal of work. Tomatoes take some effort, but once established they’re easy to grow. Peas require more effort than green beans, and beets more effort than beans because they must be thinned for a good crop. If flowers are your main interest, roses take a lot of work, petunias very little, and a cut-flower garden is the easiest. We plant a row of marigolds, zinnias, balsam, coreopsis and other flowers alongside our vegetable garden and they add color inside and out. Once established, perennial flowers are the easiest because you don’t have to plant them each spring.

It’s important to match the varieties to your garden needs, space and time. Sweet corn is a favorite, but does take more space.

Insect Integration
Another benefit is the wildlife it will bring. For example, honey bees can be attracted to your backyard by providing them with a variety of flowers and plants to pollinate. This could be a great teaching tool about nature’s cycle, as kids would get to observe how honey bees pollinate flowers and plants while also learning about their significant role in our ecosystem. Honey bees can add to the enjoyment of your backyard, with their busy yet calming nature subtly reinforcing the interconnectedness of life. Even the most diligently tended and cared-for garden will attract a variety of birds, wildlife, and honey bees.

Seeds & Plants

With your garden planned, the next step is to acquire seeds or plants. These days with mega stores and the big home-building stores, plus growing numbers of greenhouses and garden centers selling plants and seeds, we have a virtual multitude of plants, as well as seeds to choose from. And, there are the mail-order seed companies. When the first seed catalogs arrive in our mailbox the first week of January, they’re immediately perused for seeds.

Although many of the more common seeds and plants are available locally, we have some old favorites that are not available other than from specific seed companies.

Next, decide whether you want seeds, plants or a combination. Some seeds are more difficult to start than others. You may be better off starting with plants, for instance some varieties of sweet peppers. Some flowers, such as impatiens and begonias, are extremely small and require more skill in starting. However, tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli and others are easy even for a beginner. Onions are best planted as sets or plants, rather than seeds. Some plants, planted in volume, such as corn or beans, are purchased as seed.

Seed starting, however, can be fun and allow you to grow plants that might not be available otherwise. In addition to the seeds, a number of seed-starting tools or “kits” are available from sources such as Burpee, Henry Field’s, Gurney’s and other mail-order seed companies as well as from Gardener’s Supply Company. Most of the kits feature separate cells for plants, a clear plastic “greenhouse” cover, and utilize wicking or capillary watering that prevent overwatering. Seed-starting mixes are also readily available. In addition to the starting kits, a bottom-heat warming mat can jump-start your seeds. The best method of starting is under a fluorescent or plant-growing light.

We start a large number of seeds planted in rows in hand-made wooden flats. We place soft rope in the bottom of the flats and place the rope ends in fruit jars to provide a homemade wick water system. We fill the flats with purchased seed-starting mix and water it well. We use a thin wooden slat to press indentations in row form in the flat. Once the seeds are dropped in, we cover them as per the seed-packet information and place a piece of kitchen plastic over the top of the flat. A light and bottom heat warming pad provides quick and easy seed starting. Regardless of the tools used, it’s important to follow the seed-starting instructions from the seed packet before planting outside, as well as to the depth the seeds should be planted. If you have planted seeds in rows in flats, they do better if they’re thinned or even transplanted into individual cells once two leaves have formed. If planting in cells, remove all but one plant from each cell.

Starting your own seeds can be fun, an economical method for large numbers of plants and a way of obtaining varieties that are not available locally.


The next step is to determine the planting date for the varieties you’ve selected, and for that you should know the last frost date for your area. Some varieties, such as peas and spinach, do best when planted in cold weather and they can be planted about six weeks before the last frost. Potatoes, onions, radishes and lettuce should be planted about a month before the last frost. Cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower plants can be transplanted about a month before the frost, but you may have to cover them in severe frosts. The tender plants, such as tomatoes, peppers, corn, beans, squash and cucumbers, should not be planted until several weeks after the last frost.

Any plants started from seed, whether at home or purchased, should be well hardened before setting out in the garden. Place outside in a shady spot, and out of the wind, for an hour the first day and then gradually increase the time and sun allowance until the plant is well hardened. Water each plant well when transplanting.

The continuing biggest problem with gardening is weeds. They are inevitable and constant. Early cultivation around plants can cut down on weed problems, but mulching with old hay, straw, bark chips, sawdust and other organic materials can help in the war against weeds. Use at least a 2-inch-thick layer. The mulch also keeps the soil cooler in hot weather and helps preserve moisture.

When you bite into a home-grown juicy tomato, or a sweet, delicious ear of corn, or place a bouquet of cut flowers from your garden on the table, you’ll appreciate all your sweat and hard work. And, your body will probably thank you as well.

Backyard gardening can not only be a great deal of fun, it’s also healthful exercise, stress reducing and you can produce your own great tasting food.

Flowers are a favorite with many gardeners, and beautiful flower beds can add to the enjoyment of your backyard, as well as enhance the value of your property.

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