" I really should have ___" must be my garden mantra. It's what I mutter to myself daily while strolling the green acres. I'm constantly reminded of good garden practices that I fail to follow through on. Maybe a public confession here, of what I know I should be doing, will shame me into action.
I love my garden enough to spend almost all my free time looking for new blooms, or watching leaves unfold, smelling the flowers or just dreaming of what to plant next. The one thing I don't do much of in the garden is WORK. Some of the basic good practices that should be second nature to me are the first things I ignore. Confession is said to be good for the soul. Maybe my confessions will remind you of work you need to do in your own garden.
I don't add enough organic bulk to the soil
As a young bride, I moved to a suburban yard that had barely been cultivated. I couldn't believe the growth boost I saw after adding the first few buckets of compost to a flowerbed. I could see and feel the difference in soil texture in that bed months later. Now I'm addicted to composting, but my large lot gulps down kitchen scraps and bags of leaves and then begs for more.
Unless you garden in a former peat bog or on previously virgin prairie soil, your plants would practically kill for more organic matter in the soil. Building the soil's organic content is an ongoing process, as organic matter also breaks down throughout the growing season. You can buy or make compost or you can use organic mulches that eventually break down. Get mass quantities and have a soil overhaul, or add smaller amounts whenever you can. Any added organic content benefits almost any soil by improving the fertility, pH, water holding and drainage characteristics.
I ignore problems
What degree of laziness keeps me from taking quick action when I see sick plants? Ignoring them only has two possible outcomes. Either insects or disease persist, and spread, in my garden, or I advertise my ineptness as a gardener. To a real pro, every yellow leaf is a neon sign blinking "Neglected!" I guess I want to think that a shriveled stem on a potted plant will "heal" like a minor scratch on my arm, and turn green again, but it just doesn't work that way.
Yellowed leaves, distorted stems or entire ailing specimens are a sign that something has gone wrong. The bad news is that damaged plant parts never get better looking even if that problem is corrected. The good news is that once you ease their suffering, most plants have an amazing ability to regenerate all the parts of a healthy complete plant. Observe suffering plants for any clues which help determine the cause of the affliction, then remove damaged parts. Prompt correction of problems lessens the plant's suffering and hastens its recovery.
I don't harvest all my ripe produce
How many pounds of produce have gone uneaten from my garden just because I wasn't ready to harvest it? In the disorganized meanderings that are my daily normal state, I'd go to the garden for one reason, notice a few ripe berries or perfect lettuce leaves, and leave them to pick later, only to forget them later. It just seems dowright wrong to waste good homegrown produce. Delaying (and forgetting) my harvests no doubt reduced the hoped-for benefits of planting all those tasty edibles in the first place.
A May to September rule might be "Don't go out to the vegetable garden without a small knife and a colander." Five spinach leaves? That's enough to stuff an extra healthy sandwich. A dozen zucchini ? Leave them on all the neighbor's doorsteps that night. (Only one perfect asparagus spear? Eat it right in the garden and don't tell anybody.) You are more likely to use garden gatherings when they are in the kitchen before mealtime, rather than down and dirty in the veggie patch. And if the occasional rotten cuke mysteriously "appears" in the crisper drawer, compost it and send the nutrients right back to the garden.
I pay almost as much attention to my plants as I do to my kids. Like my children, I bet my plants are hungrier than I imagine, and starving them is going to lead to poor growth. But I can't just fill my kitchen with Twinkies and Cokes; neither can I load my garden with random shots of horticultural junk food. Plants. like children, have nutritional needs for both major components (NPK analogous to proteins, fats, carbs) and minor nutrients (micronutrients and trace minerals as the "vitamins" of the garden). I need to educate myself about the needs of plants, and what is available in my garden. Then I need to plan a menu and go grocery shopping for my plants.
Fortunately, adding a variety of organic materials goes a long way in providing all the essential nutrients of plant growth over the long haul. Think of it this way: Plant material is the ultimate source of all compost, organic mulch, or manures that you might return to the garden. When you return these compounds to the garden they almost guarantee a supply of the bulding blocks of plant growth. "Organic" (meaning not chemically manufactured) fertilizers and amendments can do the same thing.
I get new plants on a whim without learning their needs
I was painfully reminded of the truth of this rule just the other day. There in my hand was a just plucked weedling that I too late recognized as a Cleome (Spider flower) seedling. Oh, the humanity, er, botany! I forgot I had planted the seed because that Cleome had been sown a year earlier. And I wasted a precious plot of flowerbed and suffered many fruitless searches last year for those Spider flower seedlings, all because I didn't know what the Cleome needed to sprout. By impulsively acquiring plants without doing any necessary background checks, I embark on a series of experiments in the garden. Experience can be a good teacher but it's lousy at time management and even worse with asset allocation.
Those gorgeous specimens at the nursery or in the catalog are at their peak, but what will they look like at other times of the year, and under the conditions they'll find in your garden? Making educated plant selections can prevent disappointment and save money. Unusual perennials may thrill experienced gardeners, yet sorely disappoint the novice with innocent misconceptions. With modern merchandising, a literal world of plant choices need to be carefully weeded through to find the ones that really meet our expectations. Some nursery owners or employees are very knowledgeable and honest about their stock, others aren't. Read before reaching for that gorgeous new flower, whether you turn to a book or to Dave's PlantFiles, or to a discussion forum. Most gardeners are more than happy to chat about their plants!
I don't prune properly
Again I've been guilty of humanizing my green children; pruning a tree limb seemed like cutting off a kid's arm. Persistant trial, and my fair share of error, has given me many chances to see the results of my pruning and learn what works. As I said earlier, most plants have an amazing ability to grow new parts when given half a chance. Still I hesitate to prune. I felt faint when I read instructions to reduce my new peach's canopy by almost half!
Pruning questions plague many gardeners. Don't let fear of hurting the plant keep you from pruning when it's needed. Good pruning can prevent injury or disease. Good pruning does not damage a plant, any more than a haircut damages you. Proper pruning is just a management technique that allows us to grow a wider variety of specimens, or that modifies a plants natural growth to acheive results more pleasing to the gardener or farmer. And if you can't keep up with the pruning needs of your landscape, you may need to admit that your specimens are not well chosen for their location.
Can I remember six rules?
Can I use six short rules to manage my disorganization, lack of time, or sheer laziness in the garden? We shall see. Maybe a cheat sheet will help, kept with my gardening tools. I could restate my goals this way:
Read about new plants
Build the soil
Prune if needed
Feed the plants
Harvest when ready
And once I really, (if I really) incorporate these principles into my practices, there are others I'll have to work on next!
About Sally G. Miller
I grew up playing in the Maryland woods, and would still do it often if life allowed! Graduate of University of Maryland, my degree is in Agriculture. Gardens and natural areas give me endless opportunity for learning and wonder. Naturally (pun intended) my garden style leans towards the casual, and my cultural methods towards organic. I like to try new plants, and have "some of everything" in my indoor and outdoor gardens. Thanks go to my parents for passing along their love of gardening and nature, and my husband and kids for being patient when I get lost in the garden.