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Old 11-18-2005, 07:35 AM
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Very Good Article…Must Read for Gardeners

Nipping Common Gardening Mistakes in the Bud

By Jerry M. Parsons

Some people are born with a green thumb—they need only pick up a watering can to make their gardens teem with brilliant flowers and vegetables. To the rest of us, gardening comes less naturally. And for some people, it’s a complete and utter mystery. But growing productive, vivacious plants doesn’t have to be hard. Following these simple guidelines can turn even the most fumbling gardener into a veritable Farmer John.

Avoid over-watering

Watering is one of the most confusing and misunderstood gardening chores. Over-watering encourages shallow root systems, makes plants more susceptible to disease, and wastes water. Roots in waterlogged soil cannot breathe; as a result, plants wilt, turn yellow, rot, and die.

Follow a few simple rules of thumb to ensure your lawn and garden get the water they need. One of the worst mistakes people make is sprinkling plants a little each day. It is best to water infrequently, only when plants need it. Use your index finger as a moisture meter. If the soil is cool to the touch, hold off watering. If it is talcum-powder dry, the time is right.

Water in the early morning to avoid excess evaporation. Wet the soil several inches deep to encourage deep rooting and drought tolerance, and try not to get water on plant leaves, which encourages mildew and other problems.

Fertilize with caution

Proper fertilizing creates healthy plants capable of resisting pests and environmental stresses, but too much of a good thing causes problems for the plant as well as for the gardener. Too much fertilizer causes excessive new growth, making a plant more susceptible to disease. Excessive growth requires more water and more mowing or pruning. Taken to an extreme, over-application of a fertilizer can burn tender plants.

Your best protection? Test your soil for nutrients first, then apply only the nutrients plants need. Read labels and follow the recommended application. Gardeners who use chemical fertilizers must follow directions especially carefully to avoid burn. And pass up that weed-and-feed mixture in very early spring. Your real grass is still dormant, so you’re only feeding the weeds.

Know thine enemy

Many gardeners lose the battle with plant pests because they incorrectly diagnose plant problems. Before you choose a weapon, you must know who the enemy is. Put your detective skills to work to determine if your garden problem is caused by an insect, a disease, or an environmental factor.

Insects harm plants by chewing, feeding internally, or piercing and sucking. Fungi, viruses, bacteria, and nematodes cause pathogenic diseases. Poorly adapted plants can be stressed by environmental factors such as poor soil preparation or conditions, too much or too little water or sunlight, too many or too few nutrients, and too much heat. Be methodical in examining the damaged plant, research some typical plant problems, and use common sense.

Use pesticides wisely

A wise gardener knows an insect-free landscape is impossible. The goal is to control the bad insects and encourage the good ones. Too many pesticides can upset the balance of nature and begin a vicious cycle that requires more and more pesticides. Quick action on a small pest problem can keep it from turning into a large one. Identify the pest and use an appropriate pesticide. Mix exactly according to directions (twice as much is not a good idea), and use care in applying and storing pesticides. It’s also not a bad idea to explore integrated pest management and other alternatives to pesticides.

Don’t fight Mother Nature

A smart gardener learns to appreciate what grows well in his or her backyard and doesn’t fight Mother Nature.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) divides North America into several plant hardiness zones according to climate, rainfall, soil type, and temperature. Before you plant, identify your plant hardiness zone. Then research what trees, shrubs, perennials, vegetables, and fruits are recommended for your zone.

State universities, together with the USDA and county governments, maintain regional extension offices to educate the public about applied sciences, such as horticulture. Your county extension office is a good place to start, and the information is free. To locate an office near you, contact your State Cooperative Extension office, or check the county government listings of your local phone directory under Cooperative Extension or Extension Agent.

Also consider contacting the Master Gardener in your area. Master Gardeners are people in your community who volunteer to teach their neighbors about horticulture through the local cooperative extension office.

Other sources include avid gardeners in your neighborhood and publications written specifically for your area. Knowledgeable landscape designers and retail nurseries also offer advice, but steer clear of those who plant or sell mainly what customers request and not necessarily what’s suited to local growing conditions.

Plant judiciously

Planting the right plant in the wrong place can be just as detrimental as trying to grow plants poorly adapted for your zone. When placing a plant, consider its mature size and its need for sunlight or shade. A plant encyclopedia provides this kind of detail about most garden plants.

Even with information readily available, many gardeners flunk this test. Just look at oak trees planted under utility lines or too close to buildings, or a vegetable garden located in a shady part of the yard. Trying to grow vegetables in less than full sun (or impatiens in full sun) is asking for failure.

The proper time to plant is equally important, especially when growing vegetables. Not only must you know which are warm-weather crops and which are cool-weather ones, but you also must consider location. Gardeners who wish to grow cool-weather vegetables in the fall must know how long it takes the crop to mature and count backward from the first expected frost.

Your local extension office is a good source of information on planting times and appropriate varieties, as are gardening publications specific to your area. To locate an office near you, contact your State Cooperative Extension office, or check the county government listings of your local phone directory under Cooperative Extension or Extension Agent.

Timing is also one of the keys to successful landscape plants. Plant woody shrubs, trees, and ground covers in the fall or winter. Landscape plants planted during the spring and summer are more prone to environmental stresses.

Amend soil, and mulch with abandon

No matter what the soil type, most successful gardening depends on amending the soil. Healthy soil that is alive with nutrients and microorganisms produces healthy plants that have few problems. Prepare beds for planting by eliminating weeds, tilling the soil, adding organic matter, and aerating compacted soil.

You can never use too much mulch. This simple layer of organic or inorganic material on top of the soil can work wonders. It helps the soil retain moisture, moderates soil temperature, keeps down weed populations, and makes the weeds that do appear easier to remove by hand.

Organic mulches such as shredded bark, pine needles, or composted leaves are cheap. A 2- to 4-inch layer of organic materials applied twice a year is recommended for most garden and landscape plants. Another benefit: When the mulch decomposes, it can be turned in the garden soil to further improve soil structure.

Keep an eye to the future

Wise gardeners take a long-term approach to planting. Those that seek short-term solutions often come up short. Need shade in a treeless yard? Do you choose a tree known for its quick growth but short life or one that grows more slowly and will outlive your children? The best choice is the slower-growing, quality tree.

Need to fill an empty flowerbed? Resist the urge to pack it full, remembering that most plants grow quickly. If they’re too crowded, they’ll compete for food, water, and sunlight, making them more prone to insect and disease problems. A shrub or small tree you plant close to your home may look fine now, but in three years it may need constant trimming to stay manageable.

Train yourself to plant with a vision of how things will look in five years. You’ll save yourself money (small plants cost less and grow fast), time, and frustration in the long run.

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Old 11-18-2005, 05:28 PM
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