Getting Started in the Garden this Season

Here are some timely tips for getting started in the garden this year. Some are recycled, but they're pretty useful nonetheless:

What do you plan to snip and start - Take a look around the garden, and make a list of plants from which to harvest spring cuttings. In year's past I've been so busy in the garden I've forgotten about taking cuttings. If I'd had a note on the fridge with my wish list, there'd be more azaleas (rhododendrons and hydrangeas) in my front yard today. When you do get around to taking cuttings, forget the rooting compound. Use cinnamon instead. It works great for me.

Should you test your soil (yes) - While you're gathering up dead wood and getting your landscape in order, take the time to have a soil test done, or do one yourself. Knowing is better than guessing. I wrote a previous post about traditional and low cost testing options: How to Test Your Soil 

Save those seeds - If you plant from seed, it doesn't take long to accumulate a stash. Some (but not all) of those seeds will be viable. Although fragile specimens like stevia will lose viability quickly, fun and hardy herbs like basil can stay viable for a number of seasons.

Seed sprouts on paper toweling
I have two recommendations here: 1) Instead of wasting a lot of potting soil on seeds that won't germinate, start questionable seeds between sheets of moist paper toweling with cellophane on top to hold in moisture. Transplant sprouted seeds with the help of a pair of craft tweezers. 2) Check this list for a better idea of which herbs have the best chance of performing: Seed Longevity List

Rate herbs by project - The herbs you plant in the next couple of months will have a big impact on the types of projects you'll be able to complete this summer and fall. Choosing wish list projects today will help you decide of you'd prefer lavender (to make wands and sachets) or a stand of relaxing of sleepy time herbs for soothing teas (passionflower, valerian, lemon balm, catnip and chamomile). A large rosemary harvest will make for great culinary wreaths, while aloe vera is a convenient and effective first aid herb for minor burns and bug bites.

You probably can't keep every plant on your list, but knowing that you absolutely want to make your own stevia syrup (or chive flower vinegar) will certainly get you started.

Plant back to front - I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to rearrange plants after they were happily in the ground. One of the biggest mistakes I made as a beginning herb gardener was to midjudge how tall a plant would grow. This put me in the unhappy position of having small herbs behind taller ones. This often blocked sunlight to smaller specimens and made them harder to maintain (and enjoy).

Check the recommendations for the herb seeds and plants you purchase. They're published on the backs of seed packets and definitely worth the printing costs. You can also perform a general web search on the herb's scientific name. There are thousands of cultivars out there that require slightly different growing conditions. Make a small template showing where you want to plant your herbs based on their: height, spread, sun, water and soil requirements.

Think micro-climate - Every garden is made up of micro-climates that provide slightly different accommodations for plants. Taking advantage of the extra water by a downspout, a slightly warmer temperature near a sheltering wall or less wind by a back fence could make a big difference to a plant that's marginal for your area. Just take a little extra time to plan your placements. You'll be glad you did.  

Start preparing for bug patrol now - Start eliminating the threat of insect attack before June rolls around and you're elbow deep in Japanese beetles, earwigs and aphids. Preemptive measures include companion planting, choosing plant varieties that are naturally insect resistant and adding weapons like nematodes, milky spore, beneficial insects (like lady bugs) or traps to your landscape:

Companion Planting Herbs
What You Need to Know About Getting Rid of Japanese Beetles
Battling Earwigs in the Garden
Save your scraps - Even if you don't keep a compost bin, you can still take advantage of kitchen bounty in the garden. I mentioned this in an Odds-and-Ends post last spring, but it bears repeating. The following kitchen scraps will enhance the soil in your garden. Some gardeners add these amendments to their planting holes and then cover them with an inch of earth before adding the plants. As the ingredients decompose, they release nutrients into the soil, making them available to plant roots. It isn't a good idea to overdo it, but I've used all these in small amounts for specific plants:

  • Banana peels - potassium (blended into a slurry and added to a newly dug hole)
  • Egg shells - calcium (ground up in a coffee grinder)
  • Coffee grounds - nitrogen
  • Hardwood ash - calcium and lime (for more alkaline soil)
  • Epsom salt - magnesium (dissolve and sprayed on plants - 2 tbsp. to a gallon of water every couple of weeks)

That's it for helpful hints this week.

Japanese Beetle Photo - JapaneseBeetlesWiki.jpg By D. Gordon E. Robertson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. When you say to spray epsom salts on your plants, do you mean around the base, or actually on the leaves?

    1. Hi Amanda,

      That would be directly on the leaves.

      For more information, you can find interesting articles about gardening with Epsom salt at:

      The National Garden Associations Site:

      and The Epsom Salt Council:

  2. Sara, would it be beneficial to add the above kitchen scraps into our kitchen garden now in the fall. Most of our tomato and other vegetable plants will be finishing up soon. I didn't know if it would do any good to add the scraps once we removed all the plants and other debris.

    1. Adding these ingredients any time is okay. They modify soil chemistry, so it's a good idea to understand what soil deficits you have now to make sure you're adding the ingredients your garden needs.


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