By: Dave Egbert
Garden Column Contributor
Ever notice there are things you do around the garden that come so naturally to you that it is hard to remember that others might not have the same effective habits that make you such a good gardener? Or conversely, do you wonder why some gardeners seem to have such Green Thumbs while yours seems to be brown?
I find that success often comes down not only to natural ability or education but also to having effective habits that make sure that you can manage the typical garden chores of watering or pest control. Plus a good gardener has an understanding of the process of Nature and the changing of the weather and seasons. But not everyone has the time or energy to observe the weather over time or knows about how roots spread and grow so more experienced gardeners are often eager to share our knowledge. Here are some of my effective garden habits:
New plants: It is always exciting to bring how a new plant from the garden center. It may be in bloom and practically bursting out of the pot ready to grow. Before I set that new plant in the ground I do these things. First, I always water a new plant as soon as I get it home. You would be surprised how dry a plant from the nursery or store can be.
Second, I look it up on a good reference garden guide such as the New Sunset Western Garden Book. That way I will know what this new plant needs to thrive. Does it prefer sun or shade? How big will it grow? Does it need special care or drainage? Once I know what the new plant needs, I can choose the perfect spot in the garden to see it prosper.
Further, once I know what the new plant likes I take care to introduce it to the hot sun slowly. Many new plants may have been grown and held in shady conditions before you got it. Just like that first trip to the lake, you don’t want to get sunburned! Neither does your plant, so give it a day or two in part shade before you put it out in the full hot sun.
Planting in summer: Hot summer weather can be really stressful, l if not downright fatal to garden plants. New plants often dry out much faster than the surrounding soil and must struggle to root out while pumping moisture to leaves and flowers. Dry soil is the most common killer of plants in the hot months of June to September. Before planting a new specimen out, I soak the rootball in a bucket of water. I submerge the pot completely into a bucket, until it drops to the bottom and the air bubbles stop. This makes sure that the rootball is thoroughly wet and forces out any pockets of air in the soil. I also will fill the hole with water and allow it to soak in. Then I set the plant in place and make sure to water it thoroughly. A dose of liquid plant food, like MiracleGro applied according directions about once a week or so will give your new plant the strength to root out and thrive.
Water first, then plant: I never set out new plantings until I have a way to irrigate them. The road to dead gardens is paved with good intentions to drag a hose out to the new plants. But I can assure you it never happens. You end up too tired at the end of the day or forget before you rush off to work. Take the time to install the drippers or sprinklers with a timer FIRST and then the new plants will take off instead of languish, thirsty in the heat. Set up a drip irrigation system before you plant.
Calendar gardening: It can be hard to know when to do chores in the garden but remembering to water or feed is as easy as reading the calendar. Most liquid or organic plants foods should be applied on a regular basis such as weekly or monthly, so why not just choose a day and stick to it? In my own garden, I use a liquid fertilizer on the pots and bedding once a week, every Wednesday. Since it happens on the same day each week, it is easy to remember and I end up with beautiful strong plants bursting with color. For trees and shrubs, set a sprinkler or drip timer to run every other day in summer. And mark your calendar to remind you to turn on the system in spring and off for winter.
Pest Watch: Pests can sneak up on the most diligent gardener. But you can start looking for them in the most relaxing way. I always start my day with a stroll through the garden in the morning before work. Early in the morning the garden looks great! The plants are flush with moisture, dripping with dew and birds are singing. All of the new flowers open as the sun comes up and it is a great way to enjoy that morning cup of coffee before you have to run off to work. If you take the same route through the beds, you will often spot problems developing, such as aphids on roses or gophers in the lawn, before they get out of hand. Then you can deal with the issue before it becomes a huge problem. I use the “Rule of Thumb”. That means if you see a pest problem right away, you can probably deal with it with a well-placed thumb to crush the offending pest instead of having to wage full scale chemical warfare a few weeks later.
Don’t impulse buy: A trip to the garden center can be overwhelming. But if you go in with a plan for what you are looking for you will make better choices. If you are looking for a shrub for under the front window, you will want to look for shrubs that grow less than 3ft tall and wide, instead of getting distracted by some flashy flowers on the sale table.
Buy Small: I choose smaller plants that have not been forced into bloom. Smaller plants will have more time to adapt to your garden because they have smaller foliage to root ratios. A full grown specimen is probably used to being coddled at the garden center and will need extra attention to keep it growing at home. Plus smaller plants will have strong actively growing roots that have not been damaged by spending months in nursery containers. They tend to take off in the garden quicker and cost less. You can get 6 seedling perennials for the same price as one specimen in bloom. Stretch your dollar and grow strong plants at the same time.
Grow your soil: if you want a good garden, build your soil. The soil is a living organism that processes and returns nutrients to your plants using microorganisms and beneficial insects like earthworms. You can key into the soil food web if you use organic mulches. I apply a thick layer of organic mulch around all of my plants. The mulch, which can be manure, compost, chopped leaves, or any other organic material, should be laid on thickly to about 3 to 6 inches deep. The mulch will help regulate soil temperature and conserve moisture all while slowly feeding the soil web. Renew mulches with new material in spring and fall at least.
The New Sunset Western Garden Book, 2012 edition is currently available at garden centers and bookstores. Learn more at www.sunset.com
Questions/Comments Please contact Dave Egbert via firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit www.firesafegarden.com for more tips and ideas for your garden. ■