Plants grow quite happily without human intervention all over the planet, but if you want to cultivate certain plants in a home landscape, you'll want to know the basics about what plants need. First, take a look at your yard and get a sense of its environment. Next, think about the materials you might need to bring in to encourage healthy plant growth and the tools you'll need to care for the plants.
Environmental Requirements for Plant Growth
All plants have the same basic requirements: sunlight, water, oxygen, the right temperature, and nutrients. Not all plants need these in the same quantities. Some prefer dappled shade to full sun, and some like it hot, while others thrive in cooler climes. Some gobble up nutrients from the soil, while some prefer to sip their food slowly. But no plant can grow and thrive without these elements.
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Plants require sun to photosynthesize, which is how they manufacture food. Take a look around your yard. If you are planning a vegetable garden, find a spot that gets full sun (six hours a day). If you are planting ornamentals, they have different sun preferences, although most require a lot of sun. Do you have a south-facing wall or fence? If so, this is where your heat-tolerant plants should be located. Conversely, find shade-tolerant plants to place in the shadow of a north-facing wall.
All plants need moisture, so make sure you have a good source of water outside. Plant cells are mostly composed of water, and water is also critical to photosynthesis since it transports nutrients from the soil up into the plant. Plants also require oxygen, which is used in cellular respiration.
The right temperature is another need. Plants sold at nurseries generally have tags that identify the climate in which they do best; this is usually defined using USDA hardiness zones. The U.S. is divided into various zones that equate to average minimum annual winter temperatures. The lower the number, the colder the temperature. For example, Hawaii is usually zones 10 to 12 depending on the elevation, while Vermont clocks in at zones 3 to 4.
Finally, plants need nutrients. Which nutrients they need the most depends on the individual plant. Plants get most nutrients from the soil or added soil amendments. These include what are called the "macro" nutrients NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, respectively) as well as the seven micronutrients: boron, zinc, manganese, iron, copper, molybdenum, and chlorine. Much of these are already in the soil, but a soil test is useful so you know exactly what your soil contains. Ask your local university extension office for guidance about where to get a soil test.
Tools and Materials
Gardeners love their tools, and many gardening groups and websites are devoted to their favorite tool. If you are putting in a garden for the first time, the minimum set of tools you will need includes a shovel, rake, hoe, and spade. A wheelbarrow is handy for transporting heavy bags or compost. A sprayer is useful for applying foliar fertilizer or herbicide/pesticide sprays. Clippers or pruners are a necessity in most gardens so you can clip off flowers, harvest tomatoes, or control flowering vines. You will, of course, need a hose; attach a nozzle or sprayer at the end to make watering easier. Be sure to keep your tools clean and well sharpened.
Finally, you'll need some supplies, mostly soil amendments such as compost, mulch, or fertilizers but also materials like plant stakes, pots, seed-starting trays, plant labels, or twine.
For tips and tricks while you learn about gardening, a great resource will be the master gardeners in your area. This is a program offered by your state's university extension service.