Tending the Garden
by Amy Thiel
“To forget how to tend the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves.” Gandhi
Does a garden just happen? In the cultivation of leaf, stem and flower a garden emerges. Season to season, year by year gardening grows an amazement, an appreciation of just how extraordinary a tiny sliver of earth and all that happens on it can be. In the long process of trial and error and great plans laid and gone awry, the journey of bountiful harvests and beautiful flowers, a sense of wonder awakens and you realize you are tending a garden.
For me, a garden is not just a place to grow things. Along with the tending of fruit trees, flowers, berries and vegetable, it gives me an opportunity to move and contemplate. A garden is full of surprises as well as solace. Hence, tending a garden not only improves the land it can improve the gardener. I think I’m a better person for having given serious time and thought to cultivating the soil and nurturing plants. I can wholeheartedly look at my time spent tending many a garden and basque in the delight it has given me. From deliberating on plant water needs and weeding schedules to mulching and rotation of crops, I have become entwined in the popular saga of gardening. Hopeful I have left the garden gate open just enough for you to be invited in, to tend your own sliver of earth. Now, let’s get to the nitty gritty.
You’ve done it! Celebratory high five yourself. Your garden is planted and beginning to grow… your seasonal journey has taken root (pun intended). Now it’s time for watering, staking, mulching and overall nurturing of the garden to continue. I’ve put a little together food for thought together to help ensure your garden is a huge success throughout the entire year. Also included are a few suggestions for extending your garden when the weather starts to turn cold.
Get to know your Soil
Feed the soil and the soil feeds the plants. Healthy soil promotes healthy plants that are more capable of resisting insect and disease problems. Soil has different constituents primarily clay, sand and loam, and of course there is also organic material and microorganisms.
Clay Soil: Add organic material such as compost or manure. Till or spade to help loosen the soil. Since clay soil absorbs water very slowly, water only as fast as the soil absorbs the water. Sandy soil: Add organic material to supplement sandy soil. Otherwise, the water can run through it so quickly that plants won’t be able to absorb it.
Loam Soil: The best kind of soil, it’s a combination of sand, silt and clay. Loam absorbs water readily and stores it for plants to use.
Feed the soil with plenty of compost and well-aged manure. Vermicompost, worm castings, is one of the best kinds of manure, my favorite. Red wiggler worms (Eisenia foetida) are responsible for this “organic plant food”, plus beneficial microbes, as many as 10,000 different kinds, that aid plant growth and help fight off disease. Compost pile material can decompose at different rates. Some materials may have degraded sufficiently to be put in the garden, while others have not. By sifting your compost you can put uncomposted materials back in the pile. Uncomposted material can actually require soil nutrients to decompose and take away from your plants. Thorough composting generates high temperatures for extended lengths of time, which also kills any pathogens in the material. Infected plant debris that has not undergone this process will reintroduce potential diseases into your garden. If you are not sure of the conditions of your compost pile, you should avoid using yard waste as mulch under sensitive plants and avoid including possibly infected debris in your pile.
Mulching, laying down organic materials, serves several purposes:
Improves soil retention of moisture.
Regulates soil temperature
Prevents soil from eroding
Reduces weed growth (must be 3 to 4-inches thick and reapplied to keep weeds down)
Almost any organic matter can be used as mulch material including hay, straw, leaves, paper, bark or grass clippings, pine needles and coffee grounds. Use a 1 to 2-inch protective layer of mulch on the soil surface above the root area. Mulch is best applied after soils have warmed; don’t do it too early otherwise you’ll delay the soil’s warming. Try not to mix the mulch into the soil until it has started to decompose.
Watering your garden is a good thing. However, you don’t need to be a soil scientist to know how to water properly. Different soil types have different watering needs. And since many diseases need water to spread, how you go about it makes a big difference. Many pathogens in the soil and air need water to move, grow, and reproduce. To avoid giving these diseases an environment they love, choose watering methods that limit moisture on a plant’s foliage. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation accomplish this. This can save up to 60% of the water used by sprinkler systems and will ensure that your plants are watered without getting their leaves wet which will help prevent disease problems. Overhead sprinkling is the least desirable option. If you choose this method, however, water at a time when the leaves will dry quickly but the roots still have time to absorb the moisture before it evaporates. If you are watering by hand, hold the leaves out of the way as you water the roots. Loosen the soil around plants so it can quickly absorb water and nutrients. Although it’s a simple fact that plants need water, watering itself can be a little tricky until you know your soil. Consistent watering will produce the best results. You’ll know if you’ve over watered if mold or moss is growing on the top of your soil. Another dead giveaway is plants with wilting( due to suffocated roots), yellowing or dead leaf margins. Too little water has a different set of symptoms: wilting of plants, brown or dead leaves, stunted growth. If you’re watering newly planted seeds, be careful to gently sprinkle water on them. Don’t use a torrent from a hose or a bucket that has enough force to mistakenly wash away seeds.
Fertilizer is less of a concern when you have healthy well fed soil. You may wish to initially do a soil test for nutrients to know what your starting with. A few favorites are fish hydrolysate, seaweed, worm casting, and rock phosphate. Care taken when fertilizing plants is essential to prevent burned roots. Proper fertility makes plants more able to handle stress from drought, cold, heat and “bugs”.
Insect damage to plants is much more than cosmetic. Viruses and bacteria often can only enter a plant through some sort of opening, and bug damage provides that. Some insects actually act as a transport for viruses, spreading them from one plant to the next. Observing plants regularly is key to keeping insect pests at bay. Watering constantly and proper fertility are also primary to a healthy balance of bugs. Over fertilization can cause an insect influx just as deficiencies. If a critical threshold if insect infestation is realize there are several organic multipurpose insecticides to try. Neem, insecticidal soap, orange oil and grapefruit seed extract are some.
Here are a few more tips to keep your garden green and growing to its fullest potential:
Weeds are a problem in and of themselves, but they also harbor insects and disease. If you weed regularly, particularly at the beginning of the growing season, it should be relatively easy to keep weeds at bay.
Take Out your Dead
Get rid of rotting or dead vegetation such as leaves, pulled weeds and plant stalks. Dying vegetable matter can be a haven for pests.
Disinfect Your Tools
Keep diseases out of your garden by routinely disinfecting your tools. This is doubly important if your tools come in contact with diseased plant parts.
Many plants benefit from supports such as trellises, stakes, A-frames and tepees. They keep fruit and flower from touching the ground and also can be a nice structural addition.
It’s Never Too Early to Start
After you’ve harvested your plants and cleared the debris from your garden, leave the soil bare for a few days and then cultivate in order to prepare for next year’s garden.
(Prolong the finale, Get a jump start)
By using materials as simple as a plastic tarp or as elaborate as a fully-automated greenhouse, many gardeners are working around the weather and getting the most out of their garden. Cold frames are an easy solution. In fact, for some more moderate climates they can make gardening a year-round activity. Row covers are simply cover plants with insulating material and keep them from freezing. They can be used in the spring to help start plants sooner or in the fall, to keep them going. Row covers can be made from poly- sheeting or what’s known as “floating row” cover material. something as simple as a wire arch — so you can cover your plants with the plastic sheeting, but air can still circulate. Cloches are like individual greenhouses for plants. There are a lot of ready-made choices available and come in glass, paper or plastic form.
About Amy Thiel
Amy spent her formative years growing up on a farm in Lubbock, Texas. She graduated from Texas Tech with a degree in Horticulture and then went back to obtain her Masters in Agriculture with an emphasis on food production. After graduating from college Amy worked in the Horticulture industry in various capacities including floral, landscape design and farmed for ten years. Currently she is the “Chief Operations Hacker and Head of Business Development” at CrossFit Central Downtown. In her spare time Amy enjoys being with her family, researching a myriad of topics, seeking out new information, and expanding her knowledge base. She is our resident expert and scholar for all things plant-based, research-based and natural.