NEW MARKET, Va. (AP) -- Relocating can mean some educational spadework for gardeners -- especially after a cross-continent move.
Departing Alaska for Virginia, in our case, amounted to more than hefting boxes and saying goodbyes. It also meant cultivating new suppliers, adapting to a different growing season and taking the pulse of our new property.
My partner and I bought seven mostly wooded acres in the history- and agriculture-rich Shenandoah Valley. To be precise, we bought a log home on the side of a mountain overlooking the valley.
While previous owners had scattered a few roses about, there were no vegetables or perennials to build around when we arrived in September.
So back to square one: Get to know the land.
Notice how it drains after a steady rain. Mark the sun's path to determine if shade drapes your proposed garden site. Read the soil's chemistry.
Consider the microclimate. Will an extra few hundred feet in elevation make a difference in soil temperature? What about the direction the property faces?
The Internet can help determine your new U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone.
We left Zone 3 in the Anchorage area and landed in Zone 6 at New Market. That climatic variance could mean the difference in hardiness, for example, between choosing an ornamental Siberian crabapple tree or a Japanese maple, according to the USDA.
Alaska's short growing season is enriched by 20 or more hours of summer daylight. Gardeners in the Matanuska Valley regularly produce 100-pound-plus cabbages, disease-free potatoes, sweet-tasting carrots and snap peas. They truck most of their vegetables to neighboring Anchorage, to be sold at farmer's markets or in stores.
The Shenandoah Valley also is known for its quality produce. It wasn't dubbed ''the Breadbasket of the Confederacy'' without reason. The climate here is more forgiving. Vegetables and flowers can be more casual in the time they take to mature.
Here, as elsewhere, help is only a telephone call or a visit away. Seek out fellow gardeners, commercial greenhouses or the nearest county extension agent for advice.
Bobby Clark is the Virginia Cooperative Extension agent for crop and soil sciences at Woodstock. That makes him the resident dirt doctor for Shenandoah and four neighboring counties.
Clark suggests that first-time gardeners take soil samples before doing anything else. Determine if the soil is predominantly acidic, alkaline, neutral or rock. Determine also if it needs any nutrients.
''It's so easy to over-apply lime or fertilizer and get things out of whack,'' Clark says. ''That throws the pH off. Learn what your soil needs before adding anything to it.''
The pH scale runs from 1 (very acidic) to 14 (very alkaline). Plants can be comfortable buried among a host of pH numbers, but generally do best in the middle ranges around 6 and 7.
Buy an inexpensive test kit for at-home use or send your packaged soil to a nearby public university. Virginia Tech's testing lab at Blacksburg will be grading our boxed samples for a minimal fee.
Determine local planting dates and sketch a garden design.
Answer a few ''how much'' questions. In our first summer here, how much vegetable garden do we want? How much should we put in flowers? How much yard should we rip up and how many trees should we drop to get things going? How much do we want to spend? Like generations of hard-scrabble farmers before us, we're learning that mountain living can make you property rich but dirt poor. There isn't much topsoil, which narrows our options.
Should we turn more sod, plant in containers or raised beds or build a garden greenhouse?
Each has its disadvantages. Ordering up garden soil and mulch for an Olympic-sized garden that may not produce well would be an expensive mistake.
Raised beds can be a haul if you opt later to shift things around. Greenhouse growing can be pricey. Containers may limit the variety of things you want to grow.
So we'll be doing some information gathering before putting down roots this spring. That, along with perusing the seed books, with an eye toward varieties recommended for our new plant hardiness zone.
On the Net:
U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone: http://www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone/
Virginia Cooperative Extension: http://www.ext.vt.edu/resources
EDITOR'S NOTE: Dean Fosdick retired in May after 23 years with The Associated Press, 15 of those as Alaska bureau chief. He has covered, among other things, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, volcanoes, galloping glaciers and harvesting 100-pound-plus cabbages.
End advance for Thursday, Feb. 21, and thereafter
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