Before ever putting shovel to soil, there are a few things that need to be done when starting a garden. Determining the quality of your soil and the amount of sun and rain that is received will help in deciding which plants can be purchased and planted.

Soil Testing

Each plant likes a certain PH, soil type, and nutrients. A soil test will let you know what you need to do to improve the soil in your garden. The 3 major components in fertilizer are nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. If your soil is lacking in any of these they will need to be added. Soil PH is on a scale of 1 – 10 and the scale will determine whether you have acidic soil, neutral soil, or alkaline soil. The soil test will also help you to figure out how much organic material is in your soil. Organic material is important for water retention and drainage.

Sun and Shade

The amount of sunlight your garden receives is also important to know. Some plants like a lot of sunlight and some like shade. A good way to determine just how much sunlight different areas of your property receive is to hang out in your yard and time the sunlight in various areas. If you're planning to put a flower garden at the side of your house, it may receive less (or more) sun than a bed in the middle of your yard.

The number of hours of sun an area will receive will also vary by the time of year. In early spring and late fall when the leaves are off the trees a shady area might get quite a bit of sunlight. That means a shady garden might actually be able to consider planting spring flowering bulbs, and get some flowers.


All plants require some water. The trick is figuring out whether or not your plant of choice likes cactus amounts of water or cattail amount of water. A cactus can be planted in a swamp…but it would die. Rainwater is tricky business. If you plant under the overhang of a house, that area will not receive much water. The middle of the yard might get lots of water. This is something that you may know from observation, but there are always tricky areas that won't behave as you'd expect.

Soil Types

There are 3 main types of soil. Clay soil is high in nutrients, low in organic material, and compacts easily. Sandy soil is low in nutrients, low in organic material, and drains fast. Loamy soil is a nice mixture of clay, sand, and organic material. The goal of most gardeners is to have nice, rich, and loose loamy soil. The problem is that most gardeners don't have that type of soil to start with. Adding lots and lots and lots or organic material clay or sandy soils will improve them. Did I mention it takes a lot? Mulch and compost are great ways to improve soil.

Gee all this gardening and no garden. That doesn't seem quite right. I've screwed up enough gardens in my time to know that it's easier to figure out what you have before you start digging up the lawn. Once you get these basics of gardening down it's time to start cultivating, picking out plants, and planting.