Preparing Your Garden Soil for the Growing Season

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As soon as the ground can be worked, I typically do a simple hand test to see if the soil is ready for planting. I take a handful of soil and squeeze it tightly into a ball. If the soil breaks apart loosely, it is sufficient to start preparing for planting. If it remains in a ball, I will wait a week or so and try again. Hard, compacted soil will not allow your plants proper drainage, which can led to various plant diseases and stunted growth.

Every year, I send a soil sample to my local county extension office to see what type of amendments I need to add to my soil (in the past, I have experienced drainage problems due to heavy clay). I would suggest you send your sample in as early as possible so you can receive your results in a reasonable amount of time. You can also opt for a D.I.Y. soil testing kit. They should be available at your local home and garden store. The results of your test will let you know exactly what amendments you need (if any).

A few of the most common amendments are:

Humus

Building Sand

Perlite

Vermiculite

Compost

Sphagnum peat moss

Composted manure

I usually work amendments into the soil by digging with a garden fork (I love earth worms and I do want to hurt or disturb them). However, you do have the option of tilling, the above recommendations are optional, but your garden will thank you in the end by producing beautiful and healthy plants throughout the growing season.

 

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Five Most Notable Springtime Flowers and Shrubs

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Azalea – Rhododendron Ericaceae (Zones 2-9)

  • A favorite Spring shrub in southern gardens
  • Apply fertilizer and mulch in Spring after blooms fade
  • Dwarf plants can be 3 ft or less…Asian varieties can grow up to 40 ft
  • Hybrids are available in cold and heat-tolerant varieties
  • Evergreen and deciduous shrubs
  • Thrive in part sun/part shade
  • Need acidic, well drained loamy soil and moderate water
  • Have shallow roots – both the soil and leaves must be watered in the morning

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Camellia – (Camellia Theaceae) (Zones 6B-9B)

  • A second favorite Spring shrub in Southern gardens
  • Hybrids are available in cold and heat-tolerant varieties
  • Apply fertilizer and mulch in Spring after blooms fade
  • Evergreen
  • Thrives in part shade
  • Need acidic, well drained loamy soil and moderate water
  • Have shallow roots – both the soil and leaves must be watered in the morning
  • Prone to pest problems such as tea scales and fungal problems: Camellia petal blight and Camellia leaf gall. Bud drop is also common.

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Forsythia  – Forsythia x intermedia (Zones 5-8)

  • One of the earliest Spring blooming shrubs
  • A fast-growing shrub; can be grown as a bush or hedgerow
  • Flowers best in full sun
  • Grow in well-drained, organically rich soil
  • Water moderately as needed; mulching is recommended
  • Feed in early Spring with high phosphorous fertilizer
  • Prune vigorously immediately after the blooms are gone.

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Lilac – Syringa (Zones 3-7)

  • A favorite Spring blooming shrub for Northern gardeners
  • Heat tolerant hybrid varieties are available
  • Prefers full sun
  • Thrives in well drained, loamy, slightly acid to alkaline soil
  • Prune vigorously immediately after the blooms are gone
  • Apply fertilizer and mulch in Spring
  • Depending on the growing area, they can suffer from pest problems such as lilac borer and scales and fungal disease such as powdery mildew

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Weigela – Weigela (Zones 4-8)

  • Prefers moist, well-draining soil
  • Thrives in full sun
  • A fast growing, deciduous shrub
  • Prune and fertilize in later winter.
  • Apply mulch in Spring
  • Prefers moderate watering; drip irrigation recommended

 

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Geranium – Pelargonium (Zones 10-11)

  • Perfect for indoor hanging baskets and outdoor garden borders
  • In colder regions, can be dug up and brought indoors or grown as annuals
  • Water moderately and deeply as needed; avoid getting the leaves wet
  • Prefers moist, well-draining soil
  • Thrives in full sun
  • Fertilize lightly every 4-6 weeks
  • Deadhead spent blooms to promote continual flowering
  • Plant outdoors when threat of frost has passed (indoor plants should be in temps of 65-70 during the day and 55 at night)

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Impatiens – Impatiens Zones 10-11)

  • Perfect as border, bedding and container plants
  • Prefer moist, well draining soil
  • Not frost tolerant
  • Can suffer from various pest problems such as spider mites, caterpillars, aphids, root-knot nematodes and whiteflies
  • Common fungal problems are fungal leaf spot, gray mold and downy mildew
  • Thrives in part – full shade
  • Plant outdoors after threat of frost has passed
  • Use a slow release fertilizer in Spring and again in Summer

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Pansy – Viola tricolor var. hortensis (Zones 2-11)

  • Prefers partial or full sun
  • Perfect as border, bedding and container plants
  • Prefer moist, humus rich, well draining soil
  • Water moderately; do not let soil dry out
  • Fertilize lightly as needed
  • Deadhead spent blooms to promote continual flowering
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Petunias – Petunias (zones 6-10)

  • Perfect as border, bedding and container plants
  • Annual; not frost tolerant
  • Thrives in average, well draining soil
  • Prefers full sun
  • Use a slow release fertilizer during planting
  • Tolerates moderate watering

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Snapdragon – Antirrhinum (Zones 7-10)

  • Prefers full sun
  • Grown as annual in colder regions, but is a perennial
  • Thrives in well drained , organically rich soil
  • Taller varieties may need staking
  • Top stem clipping is needed to encourage uniform growth and continual flowering at planting
  • When planting, keep soil most for the first three weeks then taper of watering as needed; water from the bottom
  • Deadheading is needed and mulching

 

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Spring Garden To Do List

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Spring is almost upon us and I am eagerly and impatiently awaiting signs of nature’s bountiful beauty. Currently, I live in USDA Planting Zone 6B, so planting anything at this point would be inadvisable for me. However, I have begun sprucing up my garden a bit. I would like to share several helpful tips to aid you in preparing your garden for the upcoming growing season:

–  Clear up any fallen limbs, leaves and other plant material. Also remove dead suckers and  wood from shrubs and trees (I generally add them to my compost pile)

–  Prune and fertilize blackberry and raspberry shrubs with organic fertilizer or compost

–  Clean your house gutters (I have a rain barrel, so this aids in directing the water without  any hassles and prevents unwanted pest damage)

– Fertilize your lawn to encourage healthy growth and prevent weeds (I typically use cornmeal) and reseed any dead patches

– Fertilize evergreen and deciduous shrubs such as rhododendrons and roses

–  Divide perennials

–  Plant summer bulbs such as dahlias and gladiolus (after danger of frost)

–  Plant new trees and shrubs

–  Check your property for signs of pest damage such as mole or gopher holes

–  Thoroughly clean birdhouses and bird baths for new inhabitants

–  Vigorously clean all pots, planters and garden tools to remove dead debris and soil.

–   Prep your established planting areas by amending your soil with compost or other organic fertilizer and applying newspapers and mulch to established beds to discourage weed growth.

 

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Starting Seeds Indoors

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Growing your plants from seeds can be moderately difficult, but as any practiced gardener will tell you, “the satisfaction you receive from seeing something so tiny, grow into an actual plant, is a reward within itself.” Also, think of all the different variety of plants you can grow and of course, the money you will save by growing your own plants.

Depending on your growing area and seed type, there are some seeds that have to be started indoors. Please make sure you read your seed packets for accurate instructions. To sow your seeds, a sterile seed starting mix is recommended, however you can use a potting mix, which typically consists of perlite, vermiculite and peat moss. You will also need the following:

  • plastic cell trays or *pots and flats without drain holes
  • clear plastic domes or plastic bags
  • plant labels
  • a permanent marker
  • a watering container
  • a seed heating mat

Most seeds need darkness to germinate and should be covered but there are some that require direct light to germinate. These seeds should be pressed gently on top of your medium. I suggest bottom watering until the seeds have germinated and grown there first true leaves. This should prevent the seeds from being dislodged or tiny seedlings from being uprooted, but can also help prevent over-watering which promotes mold and “damping off” disease. Make sure you drain any excess water from the trays after watering plants.

Some perennial seeds need cold treatment, or stratifying, to aid with dormancy. Basically, mimicking the natural winter to spring growing cycle. You can provide this stage but using your refrigerator for a short period of time.

Make sure you label all of your trays/containers for identification. Pre-moisten the mix before adding it to your trays/pots.  Once the medium and seeds have been added, your containers should then be covered with a clear plastic dome or inside a clear plastic bag and placed on a reliable heating source such as a seed heating mat. The medium should be moist, but not wet. During the germination period; check daily.

Remove plastic covering as soon as the seeds sprout. Remember, tiny seedlings have to be water daily but not over-watered. There are numerous ways to provide your newly emerged seedlings with light such as a sunny, south facing window sill or grow lights. However, my preferred method is lighting provided by fluorescent bulbs which are cool white tubes attached to an overhanging light fixture. This will promote tough stems and prevent leggy seedlings. About 12 to 16 hours of lighting will be needed and the plants should be placed two inches below the lights.

As your plants grow larger, less water is required and you may have to pot up some of your vigorous growing plants.   A diluted mixture of liquid fertilizer such as compost tea or seaweed/fish emulsion may be needed after your have potted up.

Before you place your seedlings outdoor, they have to be hardened off over a period of two weeks. Simply place them outside it a shaded, sheltered spot each day for an hour and bring them back indoors. Each day gradually increase their outdoor time until the two weeks is up. Do not water them during this time unless needed. On planting day, make sure the weather is mild and overcast and plant in the morning. Make sure you mulch your plants to prevent weeds and retain water. Vegetable and herb plants benefit from organic mulches such as compost, shredded leaves and grass clippings and flowers thrive well in bark mulch.

  • Standard sized pots for starting seeds and a larger size to pot up seedlings if needed
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Five Notable Organic Gardening Methods

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Photo: Via Pinterest

Keyhole Gardening was introduced in Africa by the Consortium for Southern Africa Food Security Emergency (C-SAFE) to help ailing and frail Africans grow their own produce with minimum effort by means of a specialized raised bed. The bed, which is waist high and in the shape of a keyhole, allows for standing and leaning for long periods and is built using stacked rocks, bricks, wood or pieces of concrete. A compost bin is placed in the center of the bed and as material breaks down, the resulting composted nutrients are added to the soil. The gardening principle is to grow produce with little water on top of a bed of compost which provides a steady supply of nutrients to the plants.

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Photo: Via Pinterest

Hügelkultur (a German word for hill mound) is a growing method that is believed to have originated from Eastern Europe thousands of years ago. Widely utilized in permaculture enthusiasts, it is based on the concept of natural occurring decomposition of plant material in forests; ergo fallen trees, branches and other plant material which over time has decayed and created a healthy bio mass of rich hummus. The process of layered debris is continuous thus creating an organic, lush, green ecosystem teaming with beneficial life. Overall, this method will not only create healthy, growing plants due to the constant source of warming compost, it benefits the environment as a whole. When creating beds in the home garden, the beginning layering ratio from top to bottom, would comprise of logs, branches, large twigs, dead leaves, straw, hay, grass clippings, green leaves, compost and topsoil.

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The French Intensive Gardening method was re-established in a two acre garden plot just outside of Paris in the late 1800’s. The purpose was to grow an abundance of vegetables year round in a several mid-sized growing beds for the home and markets. Generally, a wide bed (5ft in width) is dug approximately 12 inches in depth. The soil from this bed is placed to the side.  At the bottom of the trench, the soil is turned another 12 inches and then loosened with a sturdy garden fork and 1/3 yard of compost added. An additional bed is dug utilizing this same technique. After this is done, put the reserved soil from the first bed is placed back into the trench and mixed with 1/2 yard of compost (or manure).  Narrow foot paths no more than 6 inches should be added between the beds to control the plants growing process thermally. The methodology is to create wide and higher elevated beds to increase root stimulation and to employ close quarter plantings to increase yields and weed retention.

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The Deep Mulch Gardening method was made popular by gardening expert Ruth Stout in the 1960’s, offers a low maintenance-no work philosophy. Garden beds are covered in large amounts of hay, straw, leaves, pine needles, sawdust and vegetable waste periodically to create a barrier to deter weeds and enriching existing soil underneath as it gradually decomposes. When starting a new bed, it is recommended to mulch at least 8 inches thick over a planting area. The mulch would need to be reapplied generously as needed. It would take a few years to obtain nutrient rich soil but once established, can generate copious amounts of produce with little effort. However, you can plant directly in the bed. Just brush aside the mulch until you see soil and then plant your seed or seedlings.

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The Lasagna Gardening movement was conceived by Patricia Lanza and is a method of layering compostable material on top of a planting area to form a large mound which, over time, will decompose into viable and loamy soil and compost. The material normally used for layering is wet newspapers, peat moss, sand, compost, grass clippings, shredded leaves and wood ash. This natural act of decomposition mimics the evolution life on forest floors.

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Tips for The Beginning Gardener

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Are you new at gardening? Starting a new garden as a beginner can seem intimidating. However, with the right resources and a bit of patience, starting a garden can be quite rewarding. As any established gardener can tell you, “it’s all about trial and error

Here are a few helpful tips to help get you started on creating the garden that is right for you:

Garden site/pre-planning – Before you plan anything, take a look around your property to see where you want to place your garden keeping in mind, most plants need optimal conditions to thrive. Be observant by watching the planned space throughout the day to make sure your proposed area receives adequate light exposure (typically from 6 to 8 hours). Your garden will benefit greatly from a nearby water source and basic gardening tools to start with such as a spade; garden fork; soaking hose; hoe; hand weeder; and a basket for moving around mulch or soil.

Garden Types/Supplies – There are many type of gardens, however most beginner gardeners start with easy-to-grow vegetables, herbs and annuals such as lettuce, beans, beets, radishes, carrots, cucumbers, peas, basil, dill,  cilantro, parsley,  thyme, sunflowers, zinnias, marigold, pansies, impatiens, , snapdragons,  cosmos, morning glory and blanket flowers.  Most plants of these plants can easily be grown from seeds by sowing them directly in the soil. Garden catalogs offer large assortments of either seeds or you can opt for established plants from a garden center to save time. Make sure you obtain seeds or plants from reliable sources if you purchase online. If you purchase plants from a garden center, make sure you buy healthy plants by checking the leaves and soil for pests are disease. Make sure you following the planting, fertilizing needs and growing instructions carefully on the plant tags.

Garden Resources – Find out what the planting zone is for your area.  Certain plants need to be grown in certain seasons depending on the weather. Also, another great source would be your local county extension office that can provide you with information about what varieties grow best in your area, growing guides, info about pests and diseases and help hot lines run by master gardeners. They also provide soil testing established from various parts of your garden for a nominal fee. The results show you what amendments are needed.

Garden Beds – Clear your new planting area if it is covered by sod. The easiest method is to smother your proposed site with 6-8 sheets of newspapers or cardboard. Then add a 3 inch layer of potting soil, compost and topsoil. It will take about 4 months for the area is ready for planting.  Make sure you turn the soil with a spading fork to loosen the soil while adding organic compost. Make sure the soil is properly drained before doing so; not to wet or too dry.

I have included links to help you to create the right garden for you.

This invaluable map provides plant hardiness zones to aid you in determining what plants grow best in your area.

http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/

This site provides fact sheets, growing guides and images for various plant types grown in the US.

https://plants.usda.gov/java/factSheet

Because pollinators are a necessary part of any garden, this site will provide information about beneficial pollinators and growing guides for plants that help feed, house and protect them.

http://www.pollinator.org/

 

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Garden Variety Wishes You a Happy Father’s Day!

A vase of cut lilies. Photo courtesy of Longfield Gardens, a leading U.S. supplier of flower bulbs.

A vase of cut lilies. Photo courtesy of Longfield Gardens, a leading U.S. supplier of flower bulbs.

On this day of observance and appreciation, Garden Variety would like to wish a very Happy Father’s Day to the men who represent the best of fatherhood, paternal bonding and positive influences in the lives of others.

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