Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Second Mistake: No Clue About The Garden!

This is the second in a series of articles on common gardening mistakes. The second mistake is beginning without enough information about your garden site. In this article I'll give you a list of basic things to learn.
Gardening should be pleasant and satisfying. To be sure, there is a lot of pleasure in gardening activity, but much of the satisfaction comes from success. Ask yourself, "Self. Would you continue gardening if you never tasted success?" My self would say, "No!", and I bet yours would, too.

Many would-be gardeners are clueless, lacking basic information about their craft. Sometimes you can stumble across success in gardening. But you're more likely to do well if you are equipped with some knowledge. Fortunately, gardening information is readily available and easy to obtain. Whats more, learning is fun and satisfying in itself.

You will improve your knowledge and gardening skills if you learn a few of the following things about your garden:

Soil type

Though there are many soil types, there are only four general types that you really need to know.
  • Rock
  • Sand
  • Clay
  • Humus
These four soil types in different combinations and of various origins determine the porosity and nutrients of your soil. As with most things, too much of any is a bad thing. You need to know your soil type. Most often, it is quite obvious. But if you are unsure or need to know more, your nearby Cooperative Extension Service is a great resource. With the help of soil samples and maps, they can assist you. Believe it or not, several different soil types may exist on the same property. Its helpful to know them all, especially if there is any chance that you might be planting in them. There is not much you can do to radically change your soil type, but you can usually improve it by adding appropriate materials. Your Cooperative Extension Agent can make recommendations.

Soil moisture

Water is essential to life. Even cacti need some of it. So it's availability is important to everything. Soil moisture can be influenced by soil type, the location of water sources ranging from rivers to downspouts, by low-lying areas as different as valleys and mere depressions, and rainfall.

Even the water table is important. The water table is the depth below the soil surface where more abundant water may be found. For some, this may be fairly near the surface. If the water table is too near the surface, some plants will not grow well because their roots won't grow into the water.

Several years ago I decided to plant an acre of dwarf espaliered apple trees. Fruit tree size is affected by the rootstock to which the upper portion is grafted. Espaliered plants are grown on a trellis or against a wall. Mine were to be trellised. I knew that the water table was an important factor, so I obtained a bit of help from the Natural Resourses Conservation Service to locate it. My planting site was on a very slight hill. We drilled at the bottom of the hill and discovered that the water table was about 3' below the surface. Safe enough, I thought. But I was wrong. The trees at the bottom of the slope never did do well. Eventually I ended the project.

You may be able to manage soil moisture. But at what cost? Rainfall can not be managed. So you must consider water availability very carefully and choose your plants wisely.

Soil pH

Soil pH refers to the level of acidity or alkalinity of the water in your soil. Plants function best within a pH range. For some plants the range may be wide; for others it may be comparatively narrow. Soil pH can also influence the growth of diseases and the availability of nutrients. Your Cooperative Extension Service can also help you determine this for a nominal fee.

Various tests can be made on your garden soil. They can even test your potting soil. A routine test usually includes pH, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and manganese levels. Other possible tests may include boron, soluble salts, organic matter and nitrate levels. The routine test is usually sufficient, but I often request a test for organic matter.

The procedure may vary from state to state, but in Georgia, one can obtain a small soil sample bag from the County Extension Service Office. The bag is printed with sampling instructions. One simply prints one's name and address on the bag, checks off the requested tests, indicates the type of plant one intends to grow, inserts the soil sample in the bag, and returns it to the office. The sample is sent to a state lab. Within a few weeks, the results are returned along with recommendations for improvement. A pH level of 7 is neutral. Anything below 7 is acid. The lower the number, the more acid it is. Anything above 7 is more alkaline.

Climate zone

After years of data collection, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has delineated various climate zones throughout the country based upon average low winter and high summer temperatures. Knowing which zone you live in can go a long way in determining which plants could survive in your area. You can learn about your climate zone by going to the USDA Web Site and looking at their map.
The mere fact that a plant is known to do well in a range of USDA climate zones that happens to include yours is no guarantee that it will perform well for you. There are too many other variable factors. Nevertheless, this is important information for you to know.

Sun exposure

Is it shady or not? You would think this to be fairly obvious, not requiring much research. But it does require a bit of observation and thought because conditions change. The sun is positioned higher in the sky during summer. It rises later and sets earlier in winter. Deciduous trees lose their leaves. Small trees grow. So, what was in shade earlier may be exposed to bright sunlight later. These things you must know.

Since high school, I've kept a few orchids as a hobby. For a few years a bathroom has provided an ideal environment because it has a large window and the humidity is high. Recently I was dissatisfied with their progress and thought a bit more light might help to induce bloom. So I moved a few to a table sheltered on a covered side porch. It was shady all day long; so I thought. But late afternoon summer sunlight reached all the way to the table and burned a few of my plants. Aggravated but determined, I spied a large birch tree that provided shade all day; so I thought. But spaces between the leaves allowed spots of sunlight to peep through just long enough to burn spots on some of my orchid leaves. Determined to avoid future damage, I moved them under a camellia shrub and strategically placed a few pots of banana plants to block early morning sun. But now I'm not so sure the orchids weren't better off in my bathroom. I could have avoided damage to my Phalaenopsis if I had been more observant earlier.

Plant descriptions will usually say something like, "Full sun to partial shade", or "Prefers light shade." What does that mean? Think of it like this: "full sun" means full exposure to sunlight from sunrise to sunset. "Partial shade" means some shade during the day, but that is so variable as to be practically meaningless UNLESS you observe a site and take notes. My orchids on the porch were in partial shade, i.e. shade until 6:00pm, but when the sun finally reached them it scorched them.

When considering "partial shade", you've got to observe how much shade, when during the day, and for how long. Don't forget to take into account the intensity of the sunlight when it does come around.
"Light shade" means just that all day long.

Reflected light is also an important consideration. For plants requiring shade, it can provide just enough exposure to be of benefit.

Other things you should know

Though they may seem minor, there are some other things you should learn. Among them are wind and chemical exposure.

Wind exposure can affect the stability of your plants, i.e. blow them down. It can affect soil moisture, i.e. dry it out faster. It can help prevent frost damage by not allowing it to settle on your plants. Take note of it.
Chemical exposure is usually in the form of pollution. It can be obvious to the extreme, or hidden and insidious.

When I was a little kid, my family occasionally traveled through a town named Copperhill, TN. Copperhill was the home of a copper mining industry which produced a lot of air, soil and water pollution. Consequently the nearby hills were barren and eroded. This was an example of the obvious and extreme.

Hidden chemical pollution can be from something that was dropped, spilled, washed, leached or misapplied. It may not be easy to determine. The best thing is to be handle with care.

Whether your garden is large or small, a bit of basic information will enable you to enjoy your gardening experience and taste sweet success, and I want you to have it. Begin today learning about your garden space by following the steps I've already mentioned. I'll continue to provide or help you find the information you need. Not only that, but there is a lot that I can learn from you. So please contact me with your questions and your comments. And of course, I invite you to add your comments to this blog. Enjoy!

Are you ready to shop? Be sure to visit goGardenNow.com and have fun!

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