Gardening 101

Plants give us food, oxygen, medicine, industrial tools, flowers, and a sense of beauty, purpose, peace, and serenity. If you have ever felt sad when a plant died, or curious to know the name of that perennial ground cover that smells like mint, (it’s probably Mint), or if you are addicted to Farmville, or if you have ever put seeds in the ground just to see what happens, then…

CONGRATULATIONS!!! You are a gardener! Here is your trowel and shears, and now, get busy, because this world needs more gardeners!

Is it really that simple? Yes… and no. Yes in that all gardening requires is that one want to do it. But no, because, there is a steep learning curve, and as of yet, no one knows exactly where the curve ends. In gardening, there is more that remains unknown than known. So don’t be daunted by the challenge of what you do not know. This challenge will never really go away, because the more you learn, the more you will see how much more learning needs to be done. The most important thing is that one wants to garden. The second most important thing is that one know a few gardening short-cuts. 

We live in a generation fortunate enough to have the internet at our disposal, and this tool can provide almost instant access to just about any aspect of knowledge in humanity’s cosmos. So, if you have questions about something, look for an answer somewhere in the internet, place’s like DavesGarden.com or aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/. Apply some scrutiny to the details because the internet doesn’t always tell the truth (although I don’t know many gardeners that lie about gardening). 

Of course, you could always talk to a fellow gardener or visit local nurseries to ask for help. Gardeners are often eager to help. And you can build a substantial gardening reference library by visiting discount or used book stores. No need to get another diploma. You have your trowel and shears, and you want to do it. Now, you need a garden.

Most plants require four fundamental elements: Sun, Soil, Water,and Air. Most garden problems and garden failures stem from a problem with one or more of these four elements. So, when it comes to the garden environment, pay close attention to these four things.

1- Sun- how much Sun does the area get? A full day? Half a day? Is it morning sun only, or afternoon only? Is it filtered light? Deep shade? You may not want to put a plant with big floppy round leaves in all day sun, unless it has an ample supply of water. This is because the leaf surface will lose water faster and could potentially burn out during a summer heat wave. Likewise, a plant with long slender leaves may not grow well under deep shade. The smaller leaf surface is less efficient at collecting light in shaded areas. So, study the way the sunlight moves through a potential garden site as this will help you narrow down the choices of plants, and even limit any potential gardening failures, and this is always good for the gardening self-esteem. 

2- Soil- It is common to hear the word “competition” bantered about as the driving force of progress. This is something Darwin’s infamous Theory, Ayn Rand, and the Free Market economy have in common (rim shot please, no?). But gardeners understand that cooperation is the real driving force of success. The evidence is in the dirt. A good soil is itself a living ecosystem of fungi, bacteria, insects, worms, organic (carbon-based) matter, water, air, and roots. A good soil involves all of these pieces working together to make good soil, and when one or more pieces cease to function properly, the soil begins to “die”. The best way to maintain a good soil is with compost, because this is how plants and animals take care of the forest when no human is there to mess things up. Compost is the dead organic material in various stages of decomposition that releases nutrients into the soil so the plants can grow. 

If you don’t have a compost pile, I highly suggest making one. In the meantime, you can buy compost at most gardening centers with a vested interest in helping other gardeners. To make a compost pile, simply collect dried leaves, pulled weeds, and vegetable kitchen scraps and place them in a pile with other dirt, ash from the fireplace, and shredded newspapers. One can dress this up with wood or metal fencing, or if you don’t mind your compost looking like a grave, leave it open. Be proud, enjoy it for what it is: life through cooperation. Rotate it every once in a while, and add some water if it gets dusty. Wait 6-12 months, and then apply to spent soil or areas of erosion. The trees will like it too. The thing to remember is to keep your soil alive, and it will return the favor by keeping you and your garden in a healthy sate of mind.

3- Water- Plants like water, but they don’t like too much water. The best way to water plants is to follow the lead of nature. Water deeply, and allow the soil to dry somewhat. By doing this, you are allowing air to follow behind the water as it falls deeper into the ground. The roots of the plants will follow the water into the soil too, and over time, a deeper, stronger root system will develope. If you water by hand, focus the water toward the base of the plant and especially the soil around it, and avoid spraying the leaves too much. Consistently damp leaves can lead to fungal problems which can spread rapidly, so when the leaves do get wet, encourage them to dry as much as possible. Too little water can kill a plant, but so can too much water, and often, over watering will kill the plant faster. 

I like to wait until the plant tells me it needs water before I provide a deep watering. The plant will tell me this by drooping it’s leaves. If the leaves start to shrivel, then the plant has reached the next stage in its thirst, and water should be applied as soon as possible. Often, a plant will adapt to drought by allowing leaves to turn brown and fall off. When this happens, the plant has reached extreme-stage water conservation mode, and will thus quickly turn ugly in order to save itself. Often they will recover soon after they receive the next deep watering. 

If you find that your favorite plant has died, and the soil is wet, and come to think of it, you gave it enough water, odds are, it died because you drowned it. Don’t take it personally, we’ve all done it. Just add that check to your scorecard of learned experiences, and move forward, because even though plants like water, they also like…

4- Air- Plants need to breath, both through the leaves and the roots. This is why over-watering can be so detrimental to the health of the plant. In addition to slowing down the movement of air across the plant, an excess of water in the soil (and air) can cause all kinds of fungal problems like root rot, powdery mildew, and leaf spot. So, in addition to sunlight, soil, and water, pay attention to the air. Water deeply and less frequently. Trim or prune your plants to optimize growth and airflow across the plant. Alter sprinkler heads so that more water is focused toward the ground and less into the air. Thin out dense leaves so that they can dry out faster. Often, this will reduce fungal and insect infestations, while allowing the presence of air and beneficial insects to help maintain balance. 

There will be a test next week, and a paper due next friday. No, not really, but using a notebook or journal to document what you do in the garden is highly advantageous. You will appreciate this more over time. 

Now, you have your trowel, shears, some handy short cuts, and the will to do it (and hopefully a notebook). So what are you waiting for? Thanks for being a gardener, and don’t give up, because gardening is a gift that quite possibly has no end.

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