Stephanie Hudak, columnist
One can certainly buy a plant, dig a hole, plop it in and have a great result, but gambling in Vegas might have better results. There are some basics that will help the new gardener and might remind the long-time gardener about how to have healthy, lush plants. It all starts with soil. Soil needs to have good drainage and air space for the plant roots to thrive – that is where the nutrients the plant needs come from. In our heavy, clay soil it usually requires some amendments. Sand, gravel, composted material all will either open the air space or add much needed nutrients. Compost is one of the best things you can do for your garden and the environment. Collect the food scraps from your kitchen, lawn clippings and leaf droppings in a pile or container – over time you will have the best natural fertilizer.
Another important aspect of that lush plant is to be sure it is healthy when you buy it. Don’t be shy about inspecting the plant. Do the leaves have a healthy color for the variety; are there any critters on the underside of the leaves; but more importantly check the roots. Too few roots means that your plant will have trouble surviving the elements. Too many roots is not a good thing either, especially if they are wound up tight in a circle. If you are not comfortable tipping the plant out of the pot, the nursery attendant can help you with this.
Watering is the next aspect of healthy plants. New plants need the most attention, especially trees and shrubs in their first year. Now here is the challenging part – too much water and too little water produce the same affect: dried/burned leaves. How to know the difference? Remember plants need their roots to live. If you take care of that soil part and make sure it drains wells you will avoid the overwatering part; adequate watering is based on what the plant is and how big. You don’t water a cactus the same way you do a large shade loving plant. Get to know your plants needs!!
Spacing is another important factor in growing any plant. We are back to “know your plants”. Learn how tall and wide the plant will get at maturity. Plants needs air circulation. Powdery mildew loves a crowd, and plant critters like aphids and whiteflies are thrilled with the hop, skip and jump to the next plant. One of the worst things homeowners do is plant a tree or large shrub next to the foundation of their homes. The roots will attack the foundation and the branches rub against the shingles of the roof. Check the mature of the height and width of the plant before putting it in the ground.
Now that we have the plants in the ground we need to mulch them. Which mulch? That is a personal choice, but do make sure it is at least 2-3 inches deep. Pine straw provides an acid content for those plants that need it. Bark will decompose and give you some soil breakdown. The most important thing to remember is to keep the mulch at least a few inches away from the base of trees and large shrubs as it encourages disease and critters to invade the plant. If you don’t choose a mulch, be careful when weed eating around trees. The bark is the life line for the nutrients. Too many cuts into it will stop that and provide an opening for insects and disease. Hug a tree!!
Containers!! The easiest of all things to grow “stuff” in. Yes, that is true, but they also need just a little bit of attention. Get the best soil, and not from the backyard. Heavy clay is not any plant’s friend. Box stores sell many options that have fertilizer and moisture beads in them. It just depends on how expensive you want that prized tomato you are growing. The container itself is really more of a consideration. A black container draws heat and cooks the roots; a too small container for the mature plant – yes, it cooks the roots too. Any container plant needs regular watering and fertilizing. When you water, it is good to use a diluted liquid fertilizer once a week to keep the plants thriving. Once again, you have to know your plant to know how to plant it, feed it and get it to thrive. There are countless books on these points and the internet is even better at giving good information…besides being free.
When you are considering what to plant in your garden give a lot of thought to native plants. They are easier to grow and the birds and bees are much happier with them. One of the best places to check out native plants is the Georgia Native Plant Society. Close to home is the State Botanical Garden in Athens….lots of inspiration there. Happy Gardening.