How does your garden grow? Some tips

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Ruth Kling

To my mind, a garden is a space — no matter how small —that lets one enjoy some greenery and a bit of the natural world.

Whether you maintain a large garden by yourself, nurture a few pots on a balcony, or pay someone else to take care of your yard, here are some basic tools that will help you create and keep your own green space.

There are three main areas to know about gardening: weather, soil and watering.


By weather, I mean the first and last frost dates. Knowing approximately when the first and last frosts occur in your area allows you to plant at the correct time of year.

Tomato plants may be available at your local big box garden center in April, but they shouldn’t be planted until at least mid-May. Contact your local Cooperative Extension for more information on frost zones and which one you live in. Most of us here in the D.C. metro area are in zone 7a.

To find the Cooperative Extension office closest to you visit the following websites: In D.C.,; in Maryland,; in Virginia,


In this area we have mostly acidic clay soil. You can get a soil test kit from your local Cooperative Extension and test for acidity and also for nutrients that may be lacking.

I resolutely intend to test my soil every year, but typically get caught up with other things, so I just use a lot of compost and manure to compensate. That seems to work for just about everything.

But do as I say, not as I do, if you want really spectacular flowers and vegetables. For example, I think that if I knew what micronutrients I was missing for my peas, they would be in better shape. Container gardening is easier because you have complete control over the soil content.


It is obvious that you will need to water your plants at some point. What is not always obvious is the porosity of soil, or the draining ability of pots.

Clay soil does not drain well, and many plants need well-drained soil. This can be achieved with compost and and/or sand. You can tell poorly draining soil because water pools on top for a few minutes.

Good drainage is even more important for containers, where plant roots can sit in water, rot and die off in a relatively short amount of time. Make sure containers have holes in the bottom, and do not use saucers under outdoor plants. Water collects there and rots the roots.

Another hint about water is that you need easy access to water to grow plants. I have a sunny corner of my yard that I used as a vegetable garden last year. It would have been perfect, but it was very far away from the one and only water spigot. I had to drag a heavy hose out there every day. This year, the vegetables are much closer in two smaller raised beds.

The fourth knowledge set could be the most important. Be honest with yourself. Knowledge of yourself, your own energy level, the amount of time and patience you have for gardening, and your budget are also keys to having an enjoyable gardening experience.

Suggested reading list

For any outside garden larger than a few pots, I suggest the book The Garden Primer: Second Edition by Barbara Damrosch, an excellent basic resource for gardeners.

For urban and suburban vegetable gardeners, even for small areas, read I Garden: Urban Style by Reggie Solomon and Mike Nolan.

For gardening in this area, I suggest The Virginia Gardener’s Companion by Donna Williamson. Her advice is useful for the entire D.C. metro area and up into Baltimore, since much of Virginia and Maryland share the same frost zones.

Ruth Kling blogs about gardening in the Washington area at For gardening questions, contact her at