In my experience, three out of five humans need the close company of plants in order to live happy lives. Though the majority of us may be hard-wired to garden, we are not born knowing how to do it. There is much to learn, and taking up gardening during the information age brings unique challenges, as newbies are bombarded with ideas, tricks and products that often promise far more than they deliver.
Time for an update on tips for new gardeners based on the way people garden now. Shall we start with containers?
1. Succeed With Container Growing
Containers make it possible to garden anywhere, from a small balcony to a petite patio. But containers come with a care commitment, because plants with restricted root space need more from their keepers in terms of watering, feeding, and overall support. Many beginners assume that containers are easy because they are small, but the opposite is true. With few exceptions, plants grow best when their roots can spread out in soil 10 degrees cooler than air temperatures, which may not happen in containers.
Plastic pots are a bit more forgiving compared to fabric bags, and require less water, but all containers must be filled to within 2 inches (5 cm) of the top. Otherwise, the edges of the container cast shade on the plants. Container-grown plants can always benefit from a bit more root space.
Many of the most popular vegetables eventually need very large containers. In addition to stunting growth, too-small containers are prone to falling over when they become light and dry. I do grow a few veggies and herbs in containers, ever hopeful that they will thrive in pots on my deck. Half the time I bail and move the plants to the garden because they are unhappy, or because the pots get too big to handle.
2. Prevent Overcrowding
Seedlings require thinning to expand their available root space and improve access to light. Lettuce, beets, radishes, and carrots often require aggressive thinning to reach their full potential, which is hard to do when you’ve waited so long to have healthy seedlings. Grin and bear it.
You may also need to pinch off premature fruits. Under stressful conditions, many seedlings will rush to flower as soon as they can, sometimes setting fruit while they are still quite small. With seedlings that spent time rootbound in containers, the first little cucumbers or peppers should be pinched off to help the plant channel energy to new growth. Use scissors to make a clean cut. To steel you for the task, consider that until most vegetables have a high leaf-to-fruit ratio, any fruits they produce may be lacking in flavor and nutrition.
3. Keep Plants Well Fed
Rather than digging a garden and amending native soil, many gardeners fill raised beds with a long and variable list of soils, composts, and other amendments that come in bags. But is it any good? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. New soils, whether dug into native soil or created for beds, take a while to settle in and respond to organic methods. Meanwhile, new gardeners need a balanced organic fertilizer that can be mixed into the plants’ root zones on an as-needed basis.
The most popular organic fertilizer in the US, GardenTone, has an NPK analysis of 3-4-4, representing roughly equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, plus a long list of micronutrients. Organic fertilizers break down slowly, especially in cool soil, and heavy feeders like broccoli and sweet corn often benefit from additional nitrogen. Here’s an important tip for new gardeners: Be careful when using fish emulsion, bone meal or blood meal, which often attract the interest of hungry animals.
4. Mulch at the Right Time
Mulch brings a long list of benefits to the garden, except in spring. When soil is mulched before it has warmed and dried a bit, the mulch becomes a haven for slugs and snails, and may provide cover for cutworms and earwigs. To avoid potential problems, start stockpiling mulch in spring, but wait until early summer, after a thorough weeding, to spread it in the garden.
5. Make Spraying a Last Resort
Early on I learned that it was a bad idea to spray lettuce with insecticidal soap just because I saw a few aphids. The crop never stopped tasting of soap! Lesson learned that you should never spray anything but water on plants you will soon eat raw.
I have since become a big believer in physical removal of insect pests or diseased plant parts. Hand picking of insects can be highly effective, whether you are brushing away aphids with a dry paintbrush or collecting potato beetles in soapy water. Similarly, pruning out low-growing tomato leaves spotted with early blight slows the spread of the disease without weakening the plants.
Should you wish to use an organic insecticide, follow label directions and test the product on a few leaves before applying to a whole plant.