7 ways to get your garden off to a good start

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Starting your own garden shouldn't be intimidating. Once you have a game plan, the overwhelmed feeling goes away, and it actually becomes a lot of fun. And the payoff comes not only in a sense of accomplishment, but in color, beauty, food for the table and even curb appeal.

What to plant? The answer is simple - plant what you like. To figure out what that might be, your first order of business should be embarking on a fact-finding mission: Flip through gardening books and magazines with lots of color glossies, and take your camera on a field trip to public gardens, arboretums and local nurseries.

When reading plant tags and catalog descriptions, keep in mind that we're gardening in zone 7 here on Long Island. Any perennials, shrubs or trees you select need to be suited for our climate. Perennials zoned for warmer climes (indicated by zones with numbers higher than 7) will not survive the winters and should be regarded as annuals.

Also note the sunlight and pH requirements of each plant, and be sure your garden meets them. An inexpensive pH soil test has the potential to save you lots of money and disappointment in the long run. Test kits are sold at most major nurseries, and the Cornell Cooperative Extension (631-727-7850 in Suffolk; 516-228-0426 in Nassau) will test it for you and recommend amendments for a small fee.

With that preliminary work out of the way, here are seven steps to get your garden off to a great start this year:

CREATE A CLEAN CANVAS

For existing beds : Clean up debris from last year's annuals. Perennials that should be cut back in the spring include ornamental grasses, echinacea, black-eyed Susan, aster, astilbe, balloon flower, butterfly weed, campanula, heuchera, delphinium, dianthus, foxglove, globe thistle, hosta, joe pye weed, lamb's ear, lupine, Russian sage, sedum and coreopsis.

For new beds : Outline desired beds and borders with spray paint, white flour or a loose garden hose. If the bed will replace lawn, use the edge of a garden spade to define the area, and sever the grass within from the grass outside the area. Then, use the spade to lift up the grass, taking care to get the roots, which extend 4 inches below the soil line. You can roll up the sod and reuse it in an area that needs grass, compost it or set it upside down (root side up) where you could use some fill.

ENRICH

For existing beds : Layer compost over soil around plants, and add a handful or two to new planting holes. As soon as new growth appears on perennials, apply a slow-release organic fertilizer according to package directions.

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For new beds : Till the soil to a depth of 6 to 10 inches. Layer 2 to 3 inches of compost on the surface, and incorporate it well. Also mix in a slow-release fertilizer at the rate recommended on the package.

>> How to make compost, step-by-step

CONTROL WEEDS

Don't let weeds go to seed; pull them early and often. Weeds can be pulled most easily from damp soil, so time your weeding for after a rainfall or break out the hose. Your diligence in the first year will pay off for years to come. Adjusting the soil pH also will go a long way toward reducing the weed population.

PLANT AND DIVIDE

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Plant annuals and perennials, taking care to space them according to plant tag recommendations to accommodate their mature sizes. Crowding plants might give you the instant gratification you crave, but it will encourage mold and mildew diseases and, for perennials, lead to division and transplanting chores sooner than necessary. In general, perennials take three years to reach maturity, true to the adage: The first year they sleep; the second, they creep; the third, they leap!

>> See photos of 8 new garden plants for '09 >> New annuals to plant

Many perennials should be divided every three years, before they start looking shabby or become crowded. Generally, perennials that bloom in summer and fall should be divided in spring, and those that flower during spring should be divided in September. Spring also is the best time to divide ornamental grasses. Hostas are tough and can handle division in spring, summer or fall.

PLANT VEGETABLE AND HERB GARDENS

Edibles are the new black in the gardening world, but don't grow your own because it's chic. Do it because it's healthy, economical and good for the planet since it reduces your carbon footprint.

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It's especially important to know your soil's pH before planting food crops to ensure nutrients from the soil and amendments will be absorbed by the plants. Most vegetables require levels between 6.2 and 6.8 in order to thrive; herbs prefer 7.0. Test the soil, and add lime or sulfur if necessary. Till a generous helping of compost into the top 6 to 8 inches of soil and, for vegetables, apply organic fertilizer at the rate recommended on the package. Herbs don't require fertilizer amendments.

>> Great vegetables to grow this year

LAWNS

The best time to renovate and seed the lawn is from late August to mid-September, but if you need to fill in some bare spots now, you can. Seed once a week, and water twice a day until you're happy. You should add lime if indicated by a pH test (ideally, the range should be 6.3 to 6.8), but don't fertilize until Memorial Day.

Sharpen your mower blade, and set it to 3 inches. Begin mowing when grass is more than 3 inches tall, never cutting more than a third of the current height at one time. Photosynthesis, or food production, occurs in grass blades. So cutting the grass too short can lead to root starvation, which can result in a thin, weed-riddled lawn. And be sure to remove the mower bag: Allowing grass clippings to remain on the lawn is easier on the back and a boon to the turf. As the grass breaks down, it returns nitrogen to the soil. It's like getting fertilizer for free.

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>>Photos: How to care for your lawn during summer

MULCH

Applying mulch around plants isn't merely aesthetic. Mulch retains moisture, which means less watering. It smothers weeds and maintains an even soil temperature, which is good for plant roots. There are many mulch materials available, including shredded bark, wood chips, salt hay, gravel, pebbles, geotextile fabrics and black polyethylene film. Your taste, budget and needs should guide your choice. Black polyethylene is often used under gravel walkways to block weeds, while geotextile fabrics can be used in new vegetable beds (cut slits to insert plants), and organic materials like bark and wood chips decompose over time to enrich the soil.

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