General tips to make you a better gardener

Since this is my last column, I thought I would go back to my previous advice of the basics, and give you a cross section of ideas that may make you a better gardener, and your garden more successful. Secrets to a great, successful garden are always good soil, proper watering, appropriate and timely feeding, and selecting native plants or ones that will grow well in our climate.

Soil, soil, soil --- the key ingredient of a great garden. Here in Tennessee, for the most part, we’re not blessed with great loam soil, especially those who have had their lot stripped of topsoil. However, we face the task to modify what nature, or builders, have given us, and hopefully, end up with a yard or garden to be proud.

Always have your soil tested. This is like getting a prognosis of your own health from your physician. It’s the most important thing you can do, both for your health and your garden. Call your agricultural extension agent for a kit, or you can pick one up from them. If your soil composition is wrong, you’re plants will know the difference and not flourish --- which results in small vegetables (or none) and small blooms (or none). It’s a cheap investment --- do it now. Get one kit for the yard where you have grass, and another for your flower and vegetable patches. The agency will give you individual advice on improving each. Think of it as a medical co-payment on your garden’s health. After your soil pH is stable, another test is not normally necessary for three years.

If you get the soil right, then the next task is to determine how to nourish the soil you have. We eat (hopefully healthy) and take vitamins, and our soil requires the same degree of nutrients. All living creatures are the same. They need food, water and care.

What’s to eat? Well, it depends upon the prognosis of the soil test. Nitrogen, potassium, or phosphorus --- oh, yummy.

For the most part, think natural fertilizers, since artificial chemicals will build up and eventually create a problem for your soil, due to the salts. In our age, garden centers sell chemicals, not horse manure. Chemical fertilizers are fine for lawns, and I use them always. However vegetable gardens are better served using a more natural feeding such as bone meal, dried manure, and liquid natural fertilizers. We are what we eat; gardens are no different.

Do you know the number one cause of plant death? Over watering! -- And the number two cause? Under watering. Over watering can starve plant roots of oxygen and drown it-- usually fatally. Watering must be done correctly to maintain a healthy plant and provide vigor over its life. However, over watering will interfere with root growth and either slow the growth of the plant or kill it. Everything in moderation.

Generally, plants need an inch of moisture per week. However, this depends upon temperature, wind and relativity humidity. When watering, put down ¾-1 inch at a time to prevent shallow root growth caused by frequent, shallow watering. New plants need additional moisture, so twice a week watering during the first month is advised. Shrubs and small trees should receive supplemental watering for the first two months. If using a sprinkler hose, laying down a shallow dish will help you measure the water.

If the fire ants haven’t found you, you can now select the plants that will do best in your East Tennessee environment.

Assuming that you have these pesky, skin-burning-biting creatures, use ‘Amdro’ to defeat them, but don’t use around your vegetable plants. They will disappear and go deep into the ground at the first sign of a freeze, so you may have to wait until next spring to treat them.

Make carefully planned plant selections and understand their requirements for shade, temperature, moisture and care.

Most of the time, nurseries tend to carry the best plants to use, but not always. Ask other gardeners for advice or call your agricultural extension agent. Consider color and size for flowers, while vegetables should be selected based on how much you will use and your own taste preferences.

Avoid invasive plants or be aware of their growth characteristics. Some plants, once in the ground, are difficult to eliminate if you decide to do so. I made that mistake years ago when I planted some wintergreen. It spread like wildfire, and took me quite a while to eliminate it. Today, I keep it safely fenced in a pot.

Plant native species and drought tolerant ones when possible. Plants native to Tennessee will almost always be superior to others planted.

During the winter season, it’s the perfect opportunity to learn more about gardening through books, magazines, and attending specialized gardening courses. One of my favorite times is in the late winter, when I get the seed and plant catalogs to dream on.

A final word. Have fun with gardening. It’s one of the great pleasures of life.

Bob Howerter is a master gardener and a resident of Blount County.

© 2006 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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