We realize that many folks are novice gardeners or may have had difficulties with failed plantings in the past. Hey, even our most experienced green thumbs still accidentally kill plants…it happens. Gardening is always a bit of trial and error, but we’re here to try to minimize the errors and have lots of successes. While everyone has their own favorites with regard to brand and technique, there are some general tips that apply to gardening in our area that most of us can agree on. These tips apply to plantings in the ground; we will give you another list of tips for gardening in containers.
1. Soil Amendments
Untouched native soils have a certain level of natural compost on their surface and organic matter mixed in with the soil. Construction, however, removes lots of this and compacts the rest. Therefore, adding some organic matter back into the soil gives you many benefits. Whether you have a clay-based soil as much of central Maryland does or sandier soil towards the Bay or its tributaries, organic matter helps with moisture levels. In clay soils that means helping to create pores between the clay particles to aid in drainage; in sand, it does the opposite by helping bind together particles to minimize water loss through rapid drainage. For those curious as to how this works, this is how I was taught to think of it: imagine a jar filled with, say, peppercorns. They can compact fairly tightly and water will drain through them slowly. Now imagine you could turn the peppercorns into something larger, say, marbles. The bigger particles don’t fit together as snugly and more space is available for air and water to move down through the soil. This is what organic matter does – glues together some of the tiny clay particles into larger bits so water can drain better and oxygen can reach the roots. The best amendment is compost, but topsoil works too. Mix it with your existing soil when you plant to give the roots a good head start. Other benefits of organic matter include beneficial microbes (the “probiotics” of gardening), the ability to buffer (making it hard for things like acidity, nutrient levels and so forth to change too quickly and shock the roots) and the ability to “hold on” to more nutrients, which is especially important in sandier soils—this keeps the nutrients available for use by the plants and reduces the movement of fertilizer into ground water.
Covering the soil surface after you plant is important for several reasons – mainly to minimize drying of the soil around your new plant and also to discourage weeds, which sprout readily in the freshly-disturbed soil. Mulch can be anything from living groundcover plants (more color, less maintenance!), to bark or stone. Bark is preferred by many for the reason that it eventually breaks down, giving the soil more organic matter. Mulches that are shredded tend to be better for areas on slopes or with high water flow because they don’t wash away as easily as, say, pine bark, which is composed of bark chips. Pine bark doesn’t decay as quickly as shredded bark, though, so there is a trade-off. The type of mulch is otherwise up to you with regard to appearance. Putting a wide ring of mulch around a tree also lessens the chance that an errant string weeder (“weed-whacker”) or lawn mower damages the trunk. You want to keep the mulch no more than one to two inches deep, and several inches away from tree and shrub trunks, to avoid damaging the plant.
3. Watering supplies
All new plants need pampering with regard to watering checks. Older plants can be lower-maintenance because they are more established, but some watering supplies always make the job easier. Hand watering using a hose with a water wand and breaker gets the water down to the root and reduces your chance of washing the soil away. The wand is a pipe that screws onto the end of the hose, meaning you don’t have to stoop; the breaker (sometimes called a “rose”) screws onto the end of the wand and has many small holes, so the water comes out in a gentle stream. We always use wands with breakers when watering with hoses here at the garden center; along with a good set of pruners, a wand/breaker combination is essential to your gardening success.
Soaker hoses and tree-watering bags let you water thoroughly but in a more “hands-off” style since they soak the soil slowly. Sprinklers are useful if you don’t want to water by hand, but be sure to run them long enough to really soak the soil deeply. If you have just a small plot of annuals you put in every year, than a good watering can is probably all you need.
4. Starter Fertilizer
Not all fertilizers are created equal, but they are also created for different uses, and it’s important to best match the right fertilizer to the right use. Starter fertilizers are so named because they provide a minimal amount of nutrients to stimulate growth while not over-stressing the plant. Some also contain other minor nutrients to minimize the shock of being transplanted. The Espoma brand that we prefer also includes beneficial microbes (the “probiotics” mentioned above) which colonize the roots and aid in nutrient and water absorption. Organic fertilizers like Espoma products are available to the plant over a period of weeks or months, as the organic materials are decayed by soil bacteria. They work best in late Spring/Summer/Fall when the soil is warm enough for soil bacteria to be active.
by Miri Talabac, Woody Plant Buyer