Q: I would like to plant a garden and maybe some flowering bushes. I tried a garden years ago, but it was a flop. Nothing grew very well. What would you say is the biggest mistake people commonly make?

A: I think it would be not honestly assessing the garden. You have to select plants that meet your environment and, if that is not possible, change your conditions to fit the plants.

A real soil test, like the one from the University of Minnesota (soiltest.cfans.umn.edu/testing-services/lawn-garden) should be done on a regular basis. You may want to do it every year on a vegetable garden or one that you are heavily amending. Every three years is usually enough for lawns or areas that haven’t had any issues. Many people (myself included) have initially not wanted to spend the few minutes of collection time and the $17 analysis fee, but instead spend lots more time and money applying the wrong fertilizer, which can really hurt the plants. The test will tell you what nutrients are in your soil and what, if anything, you should add.

The test also tells you the soil’s pH. Some plants like acid soil. Many of us in the Duluth area have alkaline soil. It can be adjusted with additives, but soil tends to go back to its native state, so you may have to apply amendments every year (another reason for a test). Selecting plants that are happy with your native soil makes things a lot cheaper and easier long term.

Home soil test kits look like they could be good substitutes, but most aren’t very accurate. They also don’t tell you how to amend the soil.

The second part of assessing is to honestly (not optimistically) evaluate the location. A garden in a shady spot will never do well with most fruits and vegetables. Leafy greens, like lettuce and spinach, can grow in a lightly shaded area, but unless you have full sun (six or more hours a day), you won’t do well with tomatoes, peppers or many other popular crops. Poorly drained areas need to be repaired, unless plants that are happy in wet areas are selected. Make sure you have a way to water the garden.

The last part is assessing the amount of time and energy you realistically will have for maintenance for the entire season. Starting small is usually a good idea. It is better to have a well-tended smaller garden with lots of ideas on how to improve it next year than to be overwhelmed by a too-big one.

Written by U of M Extension Master Gardeners in St. Louis County. Send questions to features@duluthnews.com.