By Bob Dailey: Master Gardener
Gardening comes down to this; smelling the sweetness of good soil, watching the plants seeded with one’s own hands grow and produce, getting dirty without guilt, and enjoying the peace and serenity of raising a garden.
Many enthusiastic new gardeners sometimes rush in with the idea that just putting a seed or seedling in the ground is all that one has to do. Then, having little success, they lose their eagerness. Getting plants to grow is an adventure, but it’s also a craft, with some basic tried and true principles.
Keep it manageable.
Those seed catalogues and nurseries offer tantalizing pictures of great gardens, and interesting plants, delectable-looking fruit. Don’t underestimate the lure of those catalogues for veteran gardeners as well. It’s not unusual to see a seasoned gardener drive off from a plant sale with a back seat and trunk loaded with plants that they have absolutely no idea of where to put them. For beginners though, it’s a mistake to overdo. It can lead quickly to burnout and disappointment. Instead, beginners should start small. Planting a few favorite vegetables or flowers builds confidence and usually results in success. As skills increase, so will the size of the garden.
Prepare the soil.
Everyone has heard the old adage: don’t put a $10 plant in a $1 hole. Good soil is the key to beautiful and productive plants. Plants require a number of nutrients. In addition, they also require billions of micro-organisms to help make those nutrients available. Good soil has is fluffy. It allows air and water to penetrate into it. It has a large amount of organic matter. Adding compost and organic fertilizer are probably the two most important soil additives.
Enough light for the right plant.
Vegetables need at least eight hours of sunlight. But some flowering or ornamentals need much less. Most plants and seeds come with some basic sun instructions. Usually they will say “full sun,” or “partial shade.” Here is a more specific guide for those terms.
- Full Sun – at least 8 hours of direct sunlight each day.
- Partial Sun – at least 6 hours of direct sunlight each day.
- Partial shade – At least 4 hours of direct sunlight each day.
- Full shade – less than 2 hours of direct sunlight each day.
Use the right amount of fertilizer.
High nitrogen fertilizers green up plants really fast, but they can delay ripening. For most plants, a slow-release, low-nitrogen fertilizer works well. Gardeners also know to go easy on manure. Non-composted manure is high in salts, and can actually harm plants. Following directions on fertilizer packages is advisable. Gardeners know that the tendency to think “if a gallon of fertilizer is good, then two gallons must be better.” That’s a good way to travel down the road of plant destruction.
Water adequately, but not too much.
Of course, plants need water. But knowing the right amount of water each plant requires is important. Different vegetables and ornamentals require different amounts of water. Most plants like a deep watering about twice a week. Watering too much causes shallow root systems and weak plants that have lower tolerance to insects and disease.
It’s important to check soil moisture. Many gardeners just poke a finger into the soil. If there’s moisture down there, they know it right away, and refrain from watering. Squeamish gardeners use a soil moisture meter, available at most hardware stores and nurseries.
Give the plants room to grow.
New gardeners tend to crowd plants next to each other, and then face disappointment when none of the plants grow as expected. Instead, envisioning the size of the plant when mature gives the gardener some estimate of how to plant. Members of the Brassica family (cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower) need about two square feet per plant. A Copper Canyon daisy, bought as a tiny potted plant, can grow into a shrub five feet tall and five feet wide.
Although it always breaks a gardeners heart to do so, thinning plants is also necessary. Carrots two inches apart will not grow into large carrots. A pair of scissors, snipping every other plant after they emerge, and then again every other plant when they reach a few inches high, ensures a healthy crop.
Remember to weed.
Weeds compete with other plants for nutrients and water. Unfortunately, they also grow faster than the desired plants. Weed killer is a sure way to poison the environment. The old adage that “the most important thing in the garden is your shadow,” stands true for weeds. Keeping a close watch on weeds and getting them out of the garden is necessary.
Many confuse “compost” and “mulch.” They are not the same thing. Compost is decomposed organic matter full of beneficial micro-organisms that work wonders on the soil. Mulch, on the other hand is organic matter that has not decomposed. Mulch keeps the soil at a fairly constant temperature, helps the soil retain moisture, discourages weeds and insects, and will eventually decompose and become compost.
Time to plant.
Planting times are important. Putting tomatoes seedlings in the ground in December is probably not a good idea. But planting them in July is also a bad idea. Plenty of information is available about plants – both ornamental and vegetables on the web. A great site is Texas A&M Extension, which not only has a list of plants and how to care for them, but also has a database for plants which do well in different areas of the state (http://wildlife.tamu.edu/know-your-plants/). Another great site is Texas Earthkind, which also provides a very deep, interactive database of native and adapted plants for each specific county in Texas (http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/earthkind/plantselector/).
For many Montgomery County residents, gardening has become an important pastime. Vegetable gardeners know they can grow delicious and nutritious food. Ornamental gardeners can create beautiful tapestries as their thumbs grow greener.
Don’t forget the Montgomery County Master Gardener – Fall Herb and Vegetable Sale and Open Garden Days happening October 24th at 9020 Airport Road in Conroe. We start at 9:00 am. through noon. For questions, give us a call at (936)539-7824, or visit www.mcmga.com.