Recently, a friend of mine and his wife purchased their first home in Montgomery County, Maryland. Although he is not a gardener, his wife enjoys cooking and could not wait to have a home so she could have the space for a culinary garden. Because it is winter, my housewarming gift was a promise to deliver a dozen herbs and vegetables next year when the weather warms up. I like to grow them from seed and always have enough to share. The other part of my housewarming gift was this: a dozen items to consider before digging up the lawn and installing garden beds.
◊ Sunlight: Throughout the year, watch the sun move across the sky; know what parts of the garden are in full sun, or receive morning sun and afternoon shade, or receive winter sun under a deciduous tree.
◊ Drainage: Watch the way the water runs (or not) on your property when it rains. Find the outside spigots and the main water shut off valve. Get a hose that is long enough to reach the garden beds and get a sprinkler, a watering wand, and watering can. In the winter, look at how fast the snow melts, possible salt damage patterns, and if the neighborhood kids sled in your backyard.
◊ Existing Plants: Identify the plants/shrubs/trees that currently exist on the property and learn if they are annuals, perennials, conifers, or deciduous shrubs and trees. Likewise, know the difference between a weed and a great perennial that is coming up in the spring. Know whether you have invasive English ivy or poison ivy.
◊ Wind Patterns: Find out if you have shelter from winds or how storms may affect your property. Look for dry air from the dryer vent and increased air circulation from the AC unit.
◊ Soil: Get a soil test of the area where you intend to plant by contacting the local extension office for bags and laboratories. Typically, soil in this area has a high level of clay and soil around a house may be compacted.
◊ Family Needs: Determine the style & color of the house and the style of garden you want. List needs such as a place to entertain adults, a place for kids to play, and/or a vegetable garden. Watch the foot traffic that your family favors. Sometimes the developer does not do this justice and you need to re-align the paths and sidewalk. Also, look for ways to soften the lines, it is best to create curves and soften the developer’s harsh angles.
◊ Resources: Visit the public gardens and nurseries during the four seasons. Find out the best prices and sources for plants, mulch, tools, etc. Find out if there is a local gardening club to join, check out the local gardening books from the library, and/or subscribe to the local gardening newsletter, Pegplant’s Post Gardening Newsletter. Identify the local extension agent and, if interested, find out about the Master Gardener program.
◊ Existing Animals: Watch your property at different times of the day to see if there are deer, foxes, rabbits, dogs, cats, etc. Deer and rabbits present challenges for gardeners but sometimes dogs and cats are helpful in scaring away the deer and rabbits. Determine if existing fencing is yours or neighbors and if tall enough to keep out animals such as deer. If fencing is needed, contact the local extension agent for suggestions on recommended heights.
◊ Lawn: Identify the type of grass you have, some are dormant in the winter. Find out if the previous owners used a service and what type of chemicals/fertilizer they applied to the grass. Decide if you will be cutting the grass or hiring a service because if it is a service, the staff may not be able to distinguish a weed from a great perennial plant. Determine how much lawn you want to keep and how much to dig up and create beds for gardens/vegetables. Determine if there are exposed tree roots to trip up little kids or slopes that can be filled to level out the land.
◊ Records: Keep records of what you buy and where you buy it so you know where you can get the best deals. Take photos throughout the year. Know your homeowner association rules. If you plant, keep records of what you plant; if you fertilize, keep records of what you fertilized, with what type of fertilizer and when. Measure the property, create a map, make copies and overlay water flow, sunlight, plants, etc.
◊ Tools: Make an inventory of tools that either came with the house or that will have to be purchased, including the tool shed to house them. Determine if the hose is long enough to water the plants, if there is a trowel, shovel, sprinkler, etc. Sometimes it is best to spend the first year searching for the best deal on tools, accessories, and containers while getting to know the layout of your yard before planting in the ground.
◊ Weather: Learn your USDA Plant Hardiness zone, which would be zone 6 or 7 in the Washington DC metropolitan area. Learn last and first average frost dates, which are usually Mother’s Day and Halloween. Download a weather app on your phone or buy an outside thermometer. From now you, you will be watching the weather!
I encouraged my friend to take advantage of every opportunity to learn about gardening. In the DC metro area there are many classes, lectures, and workshops. Every month, this website, pegplant, provides gardening events — between 50 to 100 events per month. Many of them are free and now many are virtual. Gardening is a life-long, learning experience.