Ready, set, grow: How to plan and plant your garden

  • 6 min to read
Ready, set, grow: How to plan and plant your garden

So you’ve been revving your engines to tackle your yard this growing season. And who can blame you? Home gardening has never looked so good before. You’ve got a little land, you’ve got a lot of ideas, but you don’t know where to start. We’ve got the answers. Here’s where your great expectations meet reality. Connecticut’s top-notch emerald-green thumbs guide you through the whole process and make gardening a cinch. From hopes and dreams to dirty deeds, we’ve got you covered. Let’s grow!

What you need to know about full sun, partial shade, and full shade

Before getting down to the nitty gritty, you need to consider one crucial factor: You need to look on the lighter side. No matter if you’ve got sun or not — you can grow a garden. But matching light levels with plants is a must to make or break your field of dreams. Assessing sun would seem to be a no-brainer, wouldn’t it? But nothing in nature is cut and dried. Light changes with the seasons and the time of day.

In the best of all worlds, you could clock the hours when a space receives sunlight and say, “Eight hours basking in sunbeams. Bingo! Full sun.” But wait! That sun assessment was made at what time of year? Are trees and shrubs standing nearby? Had those trees leafed out yet when you were looking for your shadow? Whether a site has full sun, partial shade, or full shade is dependent on many factors. Carl Galanter, perennial production lead horticulturist at Broken Arrow Nursery in Hamden, advises checking a location for its light throughout several seasons before planning a garden. You might come up with some essential enlightenment.

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What is full sun?

The short answer: 8-10 hours of sun daily. The long answer: If you have no obstructions whatsoever, your property probably enjoys full sun. You’re good to go for vegetables and to support most sun-worshipping flowers. Scarf up those plants that proclaim “Full Sun” on their label. But you can have too much of a good thing. Suppose you dwell on the Sound or beside one of Connecticut’s many bodies of water. The reflected sunlight can be brutal, sucking up the water from your containers and beds. Consider incorporating shade trees to prevent plants from frying, or plant on the north side of your home.

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What is partial shade?

The short answer: 3-6 hours of sun a day. The long answer: So you’ve got some trees on your lot. Seems like a clear case of partial shade. But according to Galanter, not all shade is created equal. “Is your shade from deciduous trees or evergreens?” Deciduous trees cast dappled shadows compared to the denser shade of evergreens. “Do you have morning sun, or afternoon sun?” is another question Galanter asks. Morning sun is cool while sunlight from noon onward is a hotter light. Unobstructed afternoon light might explain why plants labeled “Partial Shade” are burning.

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What is full shade?

The short answer: Less than 3 hours of sun daily. The long answer: Shade might not support the flower fest of your dreams, but many foliage plants bask in cool shade. Galanter suggests hostas, heucheras, tiarellas, lady’s mantle, epimediums, primroses and ferns. But don’t totally throw in the trowel for flowers. “You could grow a woodland garden,” Galanter suggests. Many woodland plants produce blossoms galore early in the season before trees leaf out. Consider gingers, Jack-in-the-pulpit, hellebores, bloodroot, bleeding hearts, and Dutchman’s breeches. And think on the bright side: You won’t be a slave to schlepping the hose. Shady gardens dry out less frequently.


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Getting to know your soil

Light levels are not the only factor standing between you and green acres. A few other little details should be considered, such as, what’s the underground story? Get in on the ground level. Literally, is the site level? That’s a biggie, especially if you’re growing plants that are thirsty — like vegetables. If the slope is gentle, you are probably good to go. If it’s steep, keep that in mind when deciding on a garden type. Consider planting moisture-loving plants at the bottom of the slope while positioning drought-tolerant performers at the crest of the hill. Plants with deep roots — such as ornamental grasses and blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) — can help prevent erosion.

But there’s more dirt you need to know before digging in. Get familiar with your soil as a starting point. You want to create a handshake between the garden of your dreams and the dirt beneath your feet. According to Dawn Pettinelli, UConn’s associate extension educator, being goal-oriented might save a whole lot of work. “If you’re planning a vegetable or flower garden, you will be removing rocks and carefully prepping the soil. If you’re just putting in groundcovers or a few shrubs, the site might not need so much prep.”

Next, take a soil sample. It’s a simple process of scooping up some soil, tucking it into a bag, and sending it to a soil lab. For a modest fee, UConn’s Cooperative Extension will test your soil, send you a report, and offer recommendations. Easy as that! Pettinelli is one of the soil scientists reviewing soil samples at the New Haven office and she offers these suggestions:

Beat the rush. She receives 200-300 soil samples daily from the end of March to mid-May. In other words, there’s a backlog during rush season. For a quicker response, aim for any other time of year. Whenever the ground is not frozen, you can take a soil sample.

Dig several samples and mix them together in your bag. “You want a representative sample,” Pettinelli advises. If the area is small, 3-6 samples should give the scientists a good profile. A larger garden might warrant 6-12 samples.

Dig in deep. For lawn, scooping down only 4 inches will suffice for your sample. For flowers or vegetables, go down 6 inches into the soil. For trees, 8 inches is ideal.

Tell the scientists what you are growing for focused recommendations of amendments for each targeted crop. Label each sample. If you want to grow organically, say so when sending your sample. The recommendations will be tailored to your request.

You can save a hunk of money on fertilizers and amendments by taking advantage of the testing service and purchasing only fertilizers that you need. Plus, testing is a safety precaution. Pettinelli warns that some sites in Connecticut have elevated lead levels — and testing for lead is included in the standard profile. About 20 percent of the samples she tests have lead levels, especially in urban areas. This is something you might want to know, especially before planting food crops.

Finally, it’s time to dig in. Often, prepping a site includes sod removal. If you are tackling a small patch, digging by hand and shaking excess earth back into the land is the easiest solution. If you’re tackling a larger chunk, try laying cardboard, landscape fabric or some other weed barrier to smother whatever is growing beneath. If you go that route, a season might come and go before the site is ready.

Armed with your recommendations, amend the soil as necessary. When should this be done? Pettinelli urges thinking ahead. Some amendments — such as lime — take time to work their magic and might best be applied the autumn before planting.

The trend nowadays is to skip the rototiller and go for minimal soil disruption. Not only can tilling spell doom for beneficial soil bacteria, but it also brings weed seeds to the surface where they are more apt to sprout. Cultivate as minimally as possible. Basically, you just want to get the soil ready to receive whatever you want to grow — you don’t want to wrestle your soil to the ground.


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A step-by-step guide to planting, from spade to long-term growth

John O’Brien of O’Brien’s Nursery in Granby refuses to make a guesstimate on the number of plants he’s installed into his 5 acres of gardens. But clearly, he’s dug his fair share of holes. And judging from the lush green scene, his success rate is impressive. His first advice for newcomers: Ask questions and heed advice because it’s really mostly about matching the right plant with the right place. But before it can perform, that plant needs to be tucked into its new home. Get out your spades, because here comes O’Brien’s step-by-step formula for inserting any plant — perennial, shrub, tree or whatever — into the Good Earth.

Dig a hole as deep as the root ball of your plant, but twice as wide. Why? Because roots grow horizontally and loosened soil will ease their transition into their new home.

Set the removed soil beside the hole, loosen the rootball of the plant, tease out some roots, and position it in the hole. Go level with perennials. When planting trees, position the transplant so the flare where the stem meets the soil line is 1 inch above the surrounding soil level. Burying a plant too deeply can spell disaster.

Mix equal quantities of compost into the soil pile beside the hole. Optional: Add 1 tablespoon of water retention granules. Mix this combination together.

Fill around the plant with your beefed-up mix and firm in by punching the soil down with your fist to eliminate air pockets. Do not add soil on top of the rootball.

Water the plant into its new location pronto by applying at least a gallon of water — if water begins to flow away, water gradually.

Play the good host and continue watering the new transplant for the rest of the season. If temperatures are over 80 degrees, water three times a week. If temperatures are under 80 degrees, twice a week will do the trick.

Monitor for water continually for the first year. In the second year, water in a drought. The key to success will be keeping those newbies hydrated. After their acclimation period, your new transplant should be good to go except in severe weather situations.

Feel enabled? Armed with a sturdy trowel and prompted by the experience of our experts, you should be ready to take some long strides toward creating a greener Connecticut one property at a time. Get growing!