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Following is useful information to help you plan your garden.


Sun is so crucial to a bountiful harvest that to decide where to locate your garden, you must consider sun first. Ideally, for most vegetables, you need a site that gets at least 6 hours of sun per day during the peak growing season in your area. If possible, during the spring and fall before you plant, watch the sunlight in the area where you want to locate the garden, and adjust your planting plans accordingly. For example, many popular herbs and vegetables, such as basil, need lots of sun to produce healthy and abundant harvests. Lettuces and other plants grown for their greens and not for their flowers or fruits grow better in areas that get more shade, so you should take note of the patterns of shade in your yard, too.


If the shade in your garden comes from nearby trees and shrubs, your vegetable plants will be competing for water, nutrients and light. Tree roots extend slightly beyond the "drip line", the outer foliage reach of the tree. If possible, keep your garden out of the root zone of surrounding plantings. If this isn't possible, just give everything extra water and fertilizer.

Air and Water

Plant roots need air and water. Waterlogged soils are low in air, which is why soil drainage is an important consideration in choosing a garden site. Heavy clay soils are usually not as well drained as sandy ones. Puddles of water on the soil surface after a rain indicate poor drainage. One way to check your garden soil's drainage is to dig a hole about 10 inches deep and fill it with water. Let the water drain, then fill the hole again the following day and clock how long it takes for the water to drain away. If water remains in the hole more than 8 to 10 hours after the second filling, your soil drainage needs improvement.

You can amend soil, of course, to improve air circulation and water flow, but the conditions at the site may defeat your best efforts, so choose your garden location carefully.


Loam is what all gardeners long for. A compromise between sand and clay, loam has good aeration and drainage, holds adequate moisture for plant growth, and retains nutrients well. If you don't have loamy soil in your garden, don't despair. There are ways to improve less-than-ideal soils.

You can't change the texture of the soil you have, but you can influence another important characteristic - it's structure. Organic matter added to the soil helps improve soil structure. It breaks down to form humus (partly or thoroughly decomposed vegetable matter). Adding organic matter to a poorly drained soil that is high in clay will improve aeration and drainage; if added to a sandy soil the water-holding capacity of the soil will increase.


When you add manure, leaves, or grass clippings to your soil, microorganisms break them down, making the nutrients they contain available to the plant roots and creating humus. There are two major groups of soil microorganisms: fungi and bacteria.

Fungi work on soil to keep the decay process going under the warm, dry conditions that are unsuitable for the fussier bacteria.

Though the primary role of fungi and some soil bacteria is to break down organic matter, other bacteria help make nitrogen available to plant roots. The result of the first stage of the breakdown by the general decomposers is ammonium nitrogen.

When moisture and temperatures are suitable, bacteria convert the ammonium nitrogen into nitrate nitrogen, the form of nitrogen that most plants use. These bacteria are somewhat active when the soil temperature is as low as 30° to 40° F, but don't reach peak activity until it hits the 80° to 90° F range.

That's one reason plants need warm soil to grow well. It is also why adding manure, blood meal, and other organic sources of nitrogen to cold soils in early spring may not give plants enough of the nitrate nitrogen they need. For early crops, use a readily available chemical fertilizer that has nitrogen already in the nitrate form.

Soil pH

If the pH (soil acidity or alkalinity) is not within a suitable range, plants cannot take up nutrients such as phosphorus and potassium even if they are present in the soil in high amounts. On the other hand, the solubility of certain minerals such as manganese may increase to toxic levels if the soil pH is too low.

Keeping soil pH in the 6.0 to 7.5 range not only keeps nutrients available to most plants, but also provides a suitable environment for bacteria and fungi. A soil pH of 6.8 is ideal for many vegetables, but don't worry if your soil is in the 6.0 to 7.5 range.

In general, if your soil is too acidic, add lime; if it is too alkaline, add sulfur. A soil test kit from a garden center is the best way to determine your particular soil pH; test results usually prescribe the amounts of lime or sulfur needed to adjust the pH of different soil types.

Check soil pH and adjust if necessary; test for major nutrients, and fertilize according to the results, then add organic matter such as manure. (If there is still a growth problem, micronutrient testing is the next step).

Plant Nutrients

Plants also need nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in relatively large quantities. Plants take these three elements, call macronutrients, from the soil. If they are not abundant in the soil, they can be supplied by using fertilizers.

Nitrogen (N) is responsible for the healthy, green color of your plants. Plants with a deficiency of nitrogen show a yellowing of older leaves first, along with a general slowdown in growth. A plant with too much nitrogen will have lots of soft, dark green foliage, an undeveloped root system, and reduced flowering and fruiting.

Phosphorus (P) is associated with good root growth, increased disease resistance, and fruit and seed formation. Plants lacking in phosphorus are stunted, with dark green foliage, followed by reddening of the stems and leaves. As with nitrogen, the symptoms appear on the older leaves first. Sources for phosphorus include soil minerals, organic matter, inorganic fertilizers such as rock phosphate, and organic fertilizers such as bone meal. Mix phosphorus-containing fertilizers into the soil before planting, rather than sprinkling them on the surface.

Potassium (K) promotes vigorous growth and disease resistance. The first sign of a deficiency is a slowdown in growth; more severe deficiency shows up as browning of the leaf edges. Soil minerals provide potassium, as do organic matter and inorganic fertilizers such as potassium sulfate, rock sand, and granite dust.

Calcium, magnesium, and sulfur are secondary nutrients. They are needed in substantial quantities, but not to the same extent as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Most alkaline soils are naturally well supplied with these elements.

Micronutrients include iron, manganese, copper, boron, molybdenum, chlorine, and zinc. Plants need these elements in extremely small amounts.


When you buy a commercial fertilizer, its analysis is listed on the label with three numbers. The first number indicates the percentage of nitrogen (N), the second, the percentage of phosphorus (P), and the third, the percentage of potassium (K). A fertilizer with an analysis of 5-10-10 contains 5 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorus, and 10 percent potash. The remaining material is generally filler.

A fertilizer containing a balanced supply of the three major nutrients, such as 5-10-10 or 10-19-10, is called a complete fertilizer. Bone meal has an analysis of 4-12-0. It's a good source of phosphorus but won't provide any potassium.

Creating a stunning vegetable garden that provides an abundance of healthy, great-tasting food for your menus and a colorful mix of plants to please all your other senses can be easier than you may have thought. With your gardening skills and some of the tips offered here, you can move beyond the basics to gardening with joy and panache.

Written by The National Gardening Association

Good Earth, Inc.
Marketing Department
P.O. Box 290
Lancaster, NY 14086
Tel: 716-684-8111
Fax: 716-684-3722

, Good Earth, Inc.