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Gardening Basics

Gardening is one of life’s basic pleasures.

Learn how to successfully grow healthy plants, organically or conventionally, in daunting Idaho conditions. 

Knowing your soil, water and nutrient needs, how to divide and protect your plants, how to add organic material to the soil will help your plants thrive.

Gardening enriches life, adds beauty to our homes, brings a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, provides a healthy form of leisure and relaxation, and/or puts the unequaled quality of home-grown produce on our table.

Tools are essential for establishing and caring for a garden. They are necessary for soil preparation, planting, cultivation, manicuring plants, irrigation, applications of fertilizers and pesticides, and in some cases harvesting. The type of equipment needed depends on a number of factors, including the garden size, physical abilities of the gardener, time dedicated to gardening and budget.

There are many tools, both hand-operated and power-driven, available to assist both novice and seasoned gardeners. The most commonly used tools include hoes, shovels, trowels, all of which come in several forms for different applications. There are also spading forks, tillers, shredders, pruning shears, loppers, tillers and other specialized tools. Once you have a little gardening experience you will be better able to decide which tools fit your personal tastes, situation and objectives.

The Idaho Master Gardener Handbook, chapter 6 (PDF) discusses tool selection and care with illustrations.

Dr. Leonard Perry, University of Vermont, describes his preferences when using garden hand tools.

Soil Preparation

Proper soil preparation will provide your plants with most of their basic nutritional needs.

Ideal Soil:

  • Deep
  • Friable
  • Well-drained
  • High in organic matter

Good soil will promote seed germination and optimal growth of plants.

Soil care includes:

  • Proper tillage
  • Adding amendments
  • Proper fertilization
  • Proper irrigation

More about Soils:

Soil Preparation Basics (PDF)

Master Gardener Handbook Chapter 5 (PDF) 

How to Prepare a Garden:  Soil Prep Video


Composting is a natural biological process that degrades a diverse mixture of ingredients such as leaves, grass, plant material, etc. into a soil-like material called compost.

Nutrients can be recycled by adding compost back to the soil.

Composting is a natural process that we can help along and use for our benefit.

Gardeners who compost their own landscaping and food scraps can follow a few simple guidelines. You do not need to worry about complex formulas, chemical equations or studying microorganisms.

For more information on composting

Fertilizing is important to maintain healthy growth and acceptable appearance. Under natural forest conditions, dead leaves, needles and twigs break down to provide a fresh resource of minerals for plants to use. Landscapes don’t have this natural fertilization and need nutrients added back to the soil.

Understanding basic plant nutrition and fertilizer application principles will help you choose a good fertilizer for your needs.

The primary macronutrients

  • ·nitrogen (N)
  • phosphorus (P)
  • potassium (K)

**Add more of these to the soil.

The secondary macronutrients

  • calcium (Ca)
  • magnesium (Mg)
  • sulfur (S)

**Fertilizing with these nutrients is not always needed.

Micronutrients are needed in only very small quantities. 

  • boron (B)
  • copper (Cu)
  • iron (Fe)
  • chloride (Cl)
  • manganese (Mn)
  • molybdenum (Mo)
  • zinc (Zn)

**high pH soils of southern Idaho often do not have enough S, Fe, Zn and Mn.

Picking the right fertilizers

  • Use the historical recommendations found in many garden publications or the results of a soil test.
  • The most reliable way is a soil test.  
  • Your county Extension educator can provide instructions for taking a soil sample and ordering the test.

Look at the nutrient content or grade of the fertilizers. If the fertilizer grade is listed as 10-10-5, the fertilizer contains 10% nitrogen (first number), 10 % phosphorus (second number), and 5% potassium. If there is a fourth number, it is the percentage of sulfur. The numbers on a fertilizer package are always in the same order, nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium.

Using Soil Tests Results for Garden Fertilization (PDF)

Other excellent fertilizer guides:

Organic materials can take the place of inorganic fertilizers in the garden. Common forms include:

  • blood meal
  • bone meal
  • cottonseed meal
  • sewage sludge
  • composts
  • manures

These fertilizers are usually relatively low in nutrient content compared with conventional formulations and sometimes relatively large quantities need to be applied.

Fertilizing in a landscape is complicated -different plants have different nutrient requirements.

Use of Pesticides in the Home Landscape

Pesticides can be an effective tool when used appropriately and only as needed.  Always read the label.

See the Integrated Pest Management page for more information.


Recommended publications:

Idaho Master Gardener Handbook Chapter 9:  Using Pesticides Safely (PDF)

Pesticides for the Home Garden and How to Use Them (PDF)

Citizen’s Guide to Pest Control and Pesticide Safety EPA

Organic Gardening

Organic vegetable gardening promotes and enhances natural diversity and biological cycles. Rather than relying on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, organic gardening is based on making the garden self-sufficient and sustainable, using mechanical and natural alternatives to chemicals.

See Integrated Pest Management page for more information.

 Idaho Master Gardener Handbook Chapter 25:  Organic Gardening (PDF)

How to Reduce Bee Poisoning from pesticides (PDF)

Reading and Understanding Pesticide lables (PDF)

Watering a landscape or garden is not simple.

Many factors affect water needs:

  • Climate
  • Water availability
  • Weather
  • Topography
  • Plant type
  • Soil type
  • Irrigation system type

Many homeowners end up over-watering, wasting their money and precious natural resources.

Watering Home Lawns and Landscapes (PDF)

4 Steps to save water and have a healthier lawn (PDF)

Small Farms Irrigation Management, Utah State University

Hardy Plants for Waterwise Landscapes, Washington State University

University of Idaho Extension

Physical Address:
E. J. Iddings Agricultural Science Laboratory, Room 52
606 S Rayburn St.
Moscow, ID

Mailing Address:
University of Idaho Extension
875 Perimeter Drive MS 2338
Moscow, ID 83844-2338

Phone: 208-885-5883

Fax: 208-885-6654


Google Maps

Barbara Petty