Smart Gardening Starts Now

Metro Health and MSU Extension present ‘Gardening 101’


Produce pays off with Smart Gardening/
Produce pays off with Smart Gardening.

Any one who’s tried it knows that the beauty of gardening is seeing your hard work pay off with a bounty of colorful blooms or freshjanice_limbaugh vegetables for the dinner table. Whether your green thumb is seasoned or just slightly tinted, a successful growing season starts now with Smart Gardening.

What’s so smart about Smart Gardening as compared to ordinary gardening?

“Balance!” says Rebecca Finneran, a 28-year horticulture educator with the Michigan State University Extension program.

“We create so many of our own problems with too much or too little watering, using too many chemicals and not understanding our soil.

“What’s smart is understanding what does the plant needs and then try to adjust our behaviors so that it fits with the plant’s – that’s Smart Gardening,” Finneran told a room full of local gardeners at a free “Gardening 101′ seminar hosted by Live Healthy at the Metro Health Conference Center.

It’s a ‘ground-breaking’ idea that the MSU Extension team put into action about three years ago, educating the public on how to be environmentally savvy when planning, preparing and maintaining your vegetable garden. Smart Gardening, explains Finneran, “has long been a hallmark of what  we do [at MSU]. We help people connect with the real world of horticulture and to do that in an environmentally healthy way to save time, money and energy.”

One of the first steps in successful gardening is testing your soil before planting.
One of the first steps in successful gardening is testing your soil before planting.

The ‘Gardening 101’ seminars run about an hour and half. During that time, participants get an overview of Smart Gardening techniques such as preparing the soil, how to reduce the chemical input of both fertilizers and pesticides, how to determine the size and location of the garden, deciding what variety of plants to grow and the best way to water it all. And because vegetable gardens are as unique as the individual gardener, there and many creative options to consider when planning it out.

Yet before any plans are drawn, soil tilled or seeds planted, Finneran’s first words to the wise gardeners is to be realistic. For the new gardener, she suggests starting small.

“Too many times gardeners get over excited at the start of the season and plant too much. Then by July, what happens? You want to go on vacation but who’ll take care of the garden? It’s too hot, there’s too many mosquitoes and taking care of a garden is just dreadful. So you let it go. Then you’re ashamed of it.”

She suggests considering sharing a common gardening space with neighbors, community groups or coworkers.

This container garden proves good enough to eat.
This container garden proves good enough to eat.

“I did this with a group of my coworkers. We wanted a little vegetable garden at work. So we each worked one lunch hour per week, about 30 minute five days a week. And guess what?” Finneran asked the crowd. “Many hands made light work! We had a nice crop of vegetables every day for lunch.”

Although she is an ornamental horticulturist with a background in landscape design, Finneran grew up with a farm background and had vegetable gardens all her life. As a result and over time, she creates vegetable gardens that look like masterpieces!

“Vegetable gardens can be useful and beautiful. I think that’s an important thing to consider. There’s no reason we can’t enjoy our vegetable gardens regardless of their size and usefulness. How you plan it out is something to think about,” she suggests.


With creative planning, vegetable gardens can be as beautiful as they are useful.
With creative planning, vegetable gardens can be as beautiful as they are useful.

When it comes to having a successful garden, it’s all about location! First and foremost, Finneran says, is to consider the accessibility to a water source. “You won’t want to be lugging 90 feet of house across the yard on a 90 degree day,” she points out. With that said, your garden location may be as close as your patio or deck. Whether you’re picking fresh vegetables from a garden out in the yard or a patio container, it’s still rewarding.  Here are some tips to consider when choosing a ‘smart site’ for your garden:

* Convenient your home and close to a water source.

* Where the soil is good and free from toxins.

* Sunny, level spot (eight to 10 hours of sunlight depending on the vegetable).

*Avoid north-facing slopes and low areas.

*Stay away from trees and shrubs.

“We really miscalculate this one a lot,” Finneran points out. “Where’s the neighbor’s tree going to be casting its shadow by August?” She suggests to consider the garden’s location over the course of time.

“Think about it and then plant early harvest plants in the areas where shade will dominate from August on. Plant your later harvest plants on garden’s edge where there’s more sunlight on a daily basis,” she says.

Don’t Guess – Soil Test!

Tools for the job: a spading fork (pictured here), hoe, trowel, wheelbarrow, cultivator, classic bucket and a rain gauge of any kind.
Tools for the job: a spading fork (pictured here), hoe, trowel, wheelbarrow, cultivator, classic bucket and a rain gauge of any kind.

There’s more to having healthy soil than earthworms. In fact, it’s mostly about things we cannot see. Understanding how these components all work together is known as soil biology and it’s considered the new frontier of science and the gardening world.

“Have you ever hear of the term soil biology?” Finneran asks. “We hardly every think of soil as being a living, breathing thing. It’s either sand, silt or clay and you walk around on it. But in fact there are billions of micro-organisms that live in your soil. The way they live together is they consume each other and eat the organic matter. They are the ones responsible for releasing the nutrients that the plants need.

“These micro-organisms have an amazing, living, reciprocity with the plant root to allow it to have the nutrients that it needs to live. So if there is a reduced living component, plants are not going to do so well.”

White roots are healthy. "Look for plants relatively compact and robust without a bloom," says Finneran.
White roots are healthy. “Look for plants relatively compact and robust without a bloom,” says Finneran.

Before the first seed is planted, Finneran encourages getting the soil analyzed by the Michigan State University Extension to determine the nutrients needed in your garden as well as the pH and organic content of the soil. Soil test kits can be purchased online at the MSU Extension Bookstore (search for E3154), or your local MSU Extension office. The kits come with a postage-paid mailer and a re-closable plastic bag to fill with a soil sample. The postage-paid mailer can be placed in  your mailbox for pick up and sent to MSU for analysis. The results take up to two weeks and will tell you what amendments to make and in what proportions to add for the best results in the vegetable garden.  A Smart Garden starts with a healthy soil and to achieve that:

*Add organic matter to your soil every year.

*Only add the recommended amounts of fertilizer based on the soil test results. Over application of phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizers is a known contaminant of surface and ground water.

*Prepare your garden soil for planting by tilling (lightly) to break apart aggregates and mix in organic matter. “The less manipulation, the better,” says Finneran.

MSU Extension offers the community a wealth of free information on horticulture. For more information on Smart Gardening, including helpful articles, videos, classes and events, visit For more information on other topics, or to contact an expert in your area visit or call the toll free hotline Monday through Friday 9:00 a.m. to noon and 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. at 1-888-678-3463.