Gardening is a hobby I have enjoyed for most of my life. When it comes to hobbies, I can think of few others that serve the wellness of the whole individual. Gardening provides physical benefits of light aerobic activity, which is good for the body while also lowering stress and anxiety levels. Gardening also connects us with others, which in these times of stay-at-home orders, is so critical. Most gardeners have a family member that opened this pandora’s box for them, but we all have plants shared from friends or neighbors or have been on the giving or receiving end of bumper zucchini crops. Most importantly, gardening connects us with the natural world.
The stay-at-home orders as a result of the COVID-19 virus have at least allowed for many to have more time to spend in their gardens. In many cases, it has brought first-time gardeners into this wonderful pastime.
Whether you are planting your first seeds or have many seasons under your belt, these are some of the most important things to know to have many fruitful seasons in the garden.
1. It All Starts With the Soil. Soil is a living ecosystem where the plant is able to uptake macronutrients (Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium) and micronutrients (Calcium, Magnesium, Sulfur, and others) needed for plant growth. Liebig’s Law of the Minimum states that the scarcest resource dictates growth. Simply put, you can have a plant with enough sun, water, and soil with adequate nitrogen and phosphorous, but if potassium is too low for the plant’s requirements, growth will be limited. These soil nutrients can also be limited based on the soil pH. A great place to start is with a soil test through the UGA soil lab. At the time of this article our county office is closed to the public, but a soil test can be ordered online here: https://t.uga.edu/5Uj
Soil is both chemical as well as structural. Most native soils in our area are heavy clay, which tends to be poorly drained, meaning it stays wet. This is not ideal for most plants, from turf to tomatoes. To improve the structure in landscape beds and vegetable gardens, incorporate three inches of compost as deep as possible before planting. One-half inch of compost tilled in to a depth of 4-6 inches is recommended prior to seeding or sodding a new lawn.
2. Follow the Sun. Plants will have varying light requirements. Most vegetables (and turf) will need at least six hours of direct sunlight to thrive. Morning sun is always better as it is less intense and allows for foliage to dry from dew or overnight rain.
3. Watering. I’ve been in this job for over five years now, and I can’t think of one time I’ve had someone talk to me about a plant that died because of lack of water, houseplants excluded. Most of the time, it’s quite the opposite of the eager gardener turning the water on daily to their new landscape additions. Mature shrubs and trees with a good 3-4 inches of mulch are typically fine on rainwater most years, when dry an inch applied every ten days is usually sufficient. Turf will get by on deep watering half-inch or more every 5-7 days. Vegetable gardens need deep watering of one inch or more weekly to look their best. Watering early in the day, before 9 a.m, is the ideal time for all situations, and drip irrigation can help to reduce evaporation while improving plant health.
4. Mulch is the Canvas for Your Art. Fresh, clean mulch in my garden feels like a freshly painted room. Mulch is more about preventing weeds, conserving water, and improving soil conditions, but the tidiness factor is nice. Three to four inches of mulch around trees and shrubs is recommended as long as we leave six inches around the trunk mulch free.
Mastering these gardening fundamentals will increase your likelihood of success and hopefully allow for your current and future gardens to be a place of joy and comfort. Since most in-person Cherokee County Master Gardener and Extension gardening classes have been postponed for the foreseeable future, look for web-based lectures and updates on the UGA Extension Calendar, found here: extension.uga.edu/calendar.html.