Gardening 101- the basics

Not able to attend the Gardening 101 session at the Stratford Public Library? Here is a summary of the presentation.

Before you begin: What type of garden do you envision?

  • What will be planted? Flowers, vegetables, shrubs, herbs, or a combo?
  • Who will use the space?- Friends, family, kids, pets?
  • Purpose of garden?- privacy, relaxing, growing food, increasing curb appeal of your property, playing games?
  • What is your budget?
  • How much time and energy do you wish to spend on your garden?


  • It’s addictive
  • Easiest to start small and pace yourself and have fun

Other considerations

  • Light levels; existing beds; lawns; trees, areas which do not drain well
  • Location of a/c unit, garage, driveway, paths, doors into your home, steps, deck, patio, water taps, downspouts, fences, composters. These aspects are called “hardscape” and usually cannot be moved
  • Access to area – can you easily bring in soil, pavers, plants, etc

What type of garden do you envision?

  • Raised beds? These can be built or purchased. Use non-treated wood, and make them any height you like. Remember you need to be able to reach all part of the bed. Advantages: you can add good quality soil and compost; the raised height can save your back and knees; you can build it anywhere you want it; the soil will warm in spring earlier and drain well
  • Formal evergreens?
  • Water feature?
  • Cottage style (informal)?
  • Container gardening? Balcony? You can plant almost anything in a container – vegetables, flowers, herbs – as long as the container has drainage
  • Foodscaping? (Incorporating edibles in a traditional landscape)

Anything is possible in your garden. The library is full of books and magazines to guide you. Then there’s the internet…… whew! It’s overwhelming. Remember that the garden is for your enjoyment and it can be changed. We have all made mistakes in our gardens. That’s how we learn.

Budget Stretchers

  • Buy tools at yard sales, thrift stores. Often older items are better quality than new
  • Source plants from local sales: churches, horticultural society. Plants will be acclimated to our zone
  • Where ever you buy, check that the plant is healthy without weeds
  • Ask your friends – gardeners LOVE to share plants


Generally falls into one of three categories: sand, clay, loam. However, most is a mix of the 3. Here is a link to an excellent article:

  • Soil is a living organism: bacteria, nematodes, earthworms, protozoa, etc – a complete ecosystem which recycles leaves, plant matter, dead animals and insects and animal droppings. Therefore, don’t dig too much. Don’t tidy up too much. Air and water make up 50% of healthy soil so roots can move easily through it.
  • Soil contains bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi, algae, and other kinds of fungi all in a beautiful balance. They are VITAL to soil health, moving nutrients to the plants and breaking down materials so that plants can use them.
  • These systems do not like chemical fertilizers – the blue stuff, esp. Use compost, manure
  • Top dressing: see the vocabulary below
  • Avoid treading on beds because this compacts the soil, making it difficult for water and air to penetrate. Avoid pesticides and herbicides. Insects are your friends – vital for pollination.

How to build a bed

  • Turning sods. This is simply digging up your lawn, turning the sods over, and planting. This is hard work, the grass always seems to come back and weeds like dandelions don’t mind a bit – they’ll be back before you get into the house for lunch (almost). But, don’t waste that grass and earth, try
  • Lasagna Gardening, also known as sheet composting. Choose an area where you want a flower/veggie bed. This may be a lawn, or a weedy neglected bed. You can outline it with a garden hose, sand, flour, bamboo poles- anything at all. Trim the vegetation as short as possible. Leave the clippings. They are full of nitrogen. Water the area thoroughly. Cover the wet area with multiple layers of newspapers, cardboard, or both. Water gain. The paper will break down, but suppress weeds too. On top of the paper, you can add green material such as grass clippings, kitchen scraps (no meat, fat or dairy). You can top it off with manure, topsoil or compost. If you do this in autumn, it should be ready for planting in spring. You can do it at any time of year, however, and simply dig a hole through the layers and put in your plants.There are many methods of lasagne gardening. You can find one that suits your budget.
  • Solarizing is similar to the above, and can be used in an area of weeds or invasive plants. It involves spreading plastic, landscape fabric, old carpet, tarps or cardboard over an area and leaving it to starve the area underneath of sun, air and water. The solarising material will need to be removed after you have peeked to make sure everything is dead. Clear plastic work best (6 to 8 weeks) because it cooks the vegetation.

Drawing a garden plan

You may find it helpful to draw up a garden plan.

  • Take pictures
  • Measure
  • Make a wish list, set a budget for this season
  • Decide what you’ll do this season: border beside driveway? Foundation shrubs? Beds to enjoy from the deck? Tomatoes and beans? Containers? Don’t over do it, or you’ll become frustrated because you cannot do it all. A garden is always a work in progress.
  • Draw out your area, dream the dream and imagine areas for sitting, playing, growing, dining.
  • Use a garden hose or long extension cord to map out a bed. This will help you to envision it.

Keep records of where and when you have planted things, especially seeds. Retain your receipts for shrubs and trees. A reputable garden centre will guarantee them for at least a year.

Mulch, mulch, mulch

Mulch of straw, wood chips (not the dyed ones) on your beds will help suppress weeds.

Gardening Vocabulary   (just a few)

Compost rotted organic matter, absorbent and humus-rich, added to soil to improve its structure, water-retention, fertility

Hardscape elements of a garden which are not changeable, or at least very difficult to change: fence, path, sculpture, water feature, deck, arbour, wall, patio, etc

Hardiness zone expresses cold tolerance of plants, based on lowest mean temperature of coldest months, average climatic conditions and plant survival data. Stratford is in Zone 5. Plants rated from 1 to 5 should live here over winter. Plants from zones 6 and higher are too tender for this area, and will not live through the winter. E.g. fuschia

Hardening off the process of acclimatizing plants to morerigorous conditions by gradually increasing exposure to lower temps. Usually done for plants raised indoors which will be planted outside.

Humus similar to compost, but further rotted so that it resembles rich, dark, fine-grained soil

Lasagna gardening method of building a garden bed by laying layers of cardboard and/or newspaper over an existing surface (like a lawn) and covering it with organic matter and/or soil. There are many ways to do this.

Loam soil of excellent quality. See humus (above). Same as topsoil

Manure animal waste used to amend soil

Mulch covering placed on top of soil to reduce evaporation, insulate against cold or heat, reduce weeds. Can be straw, wood shavings, leaf mold, stones, sheets of plastic

Softscaping contrasted to hardscaping – this refers to plants: perennials which return year after year; annuals, which last 1 season;  woody plants which are shrubs, trees and perennials with woody stems; biennial ia a plant that flowers and seeds in its second season following germination. Foxgloves are an example

Soil amending ongoing process of soil improvement, primarily by adding organic matter such as leaves, well-rotted manure, compost

Top-dressing spreading compost, fertilizer, manure on top of a garden bed or lawn. There is no digging or tilling. Nutrients are pulled into the earth by wind, water, earth wormsand other soil-dwelling organisms

No-till gardening uses top-dressing techniques to garden without disturbing the soil or existing plants. See top-dressing

Plant Suggestions: easy to grow

Perennials for sun

Asters, bee balm, tickseed, daylily, black eyed susan, phlox, blazing star, cone flower

Perennials for shade

Bleeding heart, hosta, fern, wild ginger, sweet cicely, lungwort, lady’s mantle, astilbe, hydrangea

Easy veggies

Radish, carrots,-kid friendly

Lettuce- kid friendly

Green beans both bush type and pole-kids really like to play inside of the teepee inside the poles

Tomatoes, bell peppers and cucumbers

Easiest Herbs to grow in a container or garden :

  • Mint-Perennial- keep in a container as planting in the garden the little devils  are hard to contain
  • Chives-Perennial
  • Parsley-Biennial
  • Rosemary-Perennial zones 7-10-container only
  • Basil-annual
  • Thyme-Perennial

Light levels

  • 6+ hours = full sun (many vegetables need 8 to 10 hours per day)
  • 4 to 6 hours = part sun
  • 4 hours also can mean part shade, or more hours, but dappled sun
  • Less than 4 hours = shade

Useful websites

Submitted by Leslye Glover