Archive for Sunday, March 15, 1998


March 15, 1998


Get those green thumbs in shape with a review of the rules of the game.

The latest winter snowstorm notwithstanding, gardeners stand ready in the wings, eager for their chance to return to the outdoors.

We know that a few more weeks filled with cold, windy days and several more frosty nights are all that stand between us and our gardens. We patiently await our chance to work the soil and plant our flowers.

Now, while the seeds we sowed a few weeks ago are thriving indoors and the weather outside is much too uncertain, is a great time to review sound gardening practices that will keep our thumbs green and our gardens beautiful.

Know your site: All garden sites are not created equal. Some are shady, others are sunny. The lucky ones have a wonderful mixture of both. Even the type of shade and sun varies. Some shade is deep with no direct sunlight reaching the plants. A garden with light shade has a fair amount of sun or reflected light illuminating it. For other gardens the presence of dappled shade enhances the overall effect. Sunny sites range from those hotly baking against a southern exposure or near a cemented patio to ones where the effect of the sun is less harsh and less intense.

Some garden sites are protected from the raw elements of nature by large trees, home and garden structures or the natural contours of the land. Others have no shield and are openly exposed, allowing the flowers to be battered about the wind, rain, snow and roaming animals.

Examine your garden site: Is it flat, sloped or multi-leveled? Is it narrow or wide? Dry or naturally boggy? For your thumb to look its greenest, take advantage of the natural flow and position of your garden site.

Know your limits: The long anticipation for the growing season sometimes causes us to exaggerate our energy supply in early spring. Planting beds larger than we can realistically tend becomes frustrating as the season wears on and our enthusiasm wears off. A small well maintained flower bed makes a better display than a large unkempt one.

Create a healthy soil: Our excitement to get started too often prods us to skip this step, so critical to plant health. Yet, nothing we do in the garden may be as important as giving our plants the benefit of a healthy soil in which to grow. Since we are not blessed with naturally healthy soil in this area, we must amend it to make it so.

The addition of organic matter such as peat moss, compost or manure greatly helps to improve soil structure and allows plant roots to get the oxygen required for their health. It also permits better soil drainage and discourages the growth of many anaerobic organisms that are harmful to plants. Contrary to popular practice, adding sand to our clay soil only worsens the problem. Rather than creating a healthy soil, the addition of sand forms a cement-like soil suffocating the roots.

Soil provides anchorage for our plants as well as nutrients, water and oxygen. Plant roots, immersed in a healthy soil, are vital for plant survival. Spend some time and effort to create a healthy soil. Skimping on this element of the garden is a definite green thumbs down.

Choose plants wisely: Knowing what our winters and our summers are like, the gardener with a green thumb selects plants that are tolerant of our temperature extremes. Plants that are well-adapted to our hardiness zone will grow best in our gardens. Likewise, cultivars that are drought- and heat-tolerant are wise choices, as are those labeled as disease-resistant. I look for plants identified as ones that ``thrive in poor soil.'' This is not to undermine the importance of creating a healthy soil, yet, I'll take every bit of help offered.

Select healthy plants: Look for plants with healthy, dark green leaves and sturdy stems. Plants with many flower buds promise a much longer bloom time than those already in full flower. Avoid the temptation to get plants with fully opened flowers. Sometimes, though, selecting plants in full flower is desired especially to be assured of getting a specific color or if you need immediate color in the garden for a special occasion.

Beware of plants whose roots have become tangled, encircling the inside of the container. They probably have outgrown their space and may not be as healthy as smaller plants. If you do get plants with overcrowded roots, separate the roots during planting to encourage the development of new roots.

Diminish competition: All the plants in our gardens, including grass, trees, shrubs, vegetables and flowers compete for the nutrients in the soil. Make sure there is enough to go around for all of them to survive.

With a limited supply of nutrients, water and oxygen available for our plants, let's not aggravate it by allowing weeds to grow. Remove them and other undesirable plants, like volunteer tree and flower seedlings, on a regular basis

Plants also all need adequate air circulation. Flower stakes, trellises and pruning all help to increase air circulation. Placing plants too closely together not only creates a competition for life sustaining nutrients, it promotes certain plant diseases. Eliminating competition in the garden is a definite green thumbs up.

Keep your garden clean: Check your garden on a weekly basis. Remove unwanted competitors and debris from the flower beds. Inspect plants, especially those that are susceptible to pests or diseases. Treating symptoms early will avoid the problem from escalating later.

Keeping the garden clean does not have to be done solely by the gardener. Encourage natural pest controllers such as birds, snakes, frogs, toads and beneficial insects into your garden. Take advantage of their appetite.

Beware of wonderful claims: The words ``spreads rapidly,'' ``fast growing'' and ``seeds readily'' found in plant descriptions may be code words for invasive. Such plants may take over your garden space if left unchecked.

Likewise, if you know the bloom times of plants, you won't be fooled by illustrations of garden schemes that show tulips blooming right beside mums. Nor will you be tricked into believing the plant you buy will be the same size as pictured, usually a mature plant.

Follow the rules: Mother Nature follows the rules; we should too. No sense rushing the season. The last frost date for our area is mid-May. So, unless you are prepared to take action if a late frost blankets the area, plant at the proper time.

Water and fertilize plants correctly. Avoid wetting the foliage of plants that do not tolerate wet leaves. Early morning watering generally allows leaves to dry before nightfall and prevents the growth of foliar diseases.

The use of fertilizer may provide valuable nutrients to plants, yet overfertilizing may cause the plant to produce a lot of foliage while sacrificing blooms. Remember, adding fertilizer does not improve soil structure.

When you follow the rules, you give plants what they like. If they like sun, plant them in sunny spots. If they like shade, give them shade. If they need a certain spacing between one another, provide it. Forcing plants to grow under conditions where they must struggle to survive creates problems.

Ignore the rules: My final suggestion for showing off your green thumb is to experiment and be creative in your garden. Have fun and enjoy it.

--Carol Boncella is education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. You can send e-mail to her at gardenspot

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