Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Start Your Own Garden

VT Magazine:
Virginia Tech experts offered some guidance for people interested in starting their own backyard or patio garden:

"It's very easy to get overwhelmed," cautioned Dorn. "Gardens are a lot of work. You put a lot of time and energy into it, especially when you're first starting out."

For those thinking of starting a garden, fall, not spring, can be a great time to start your plan, according to Dorn. "Start with a soil test," she said. "November is a great time to test your soil because soil-testing facilities don't have as much demand." If you find you need to adjust the soil's pH level, applying lime or sulfur in the fall will give you six months for the changes to occur.

In December, January, and February, seed catalogs come out, and it's time to make a garden plan. Do your homework: Find out which plants grow well in the region, plan crop rotation, and look for cultivars that will provide insect and disease resistance. Then in the spring, you'll be starting out on the right foot.

Growers considering container gardening should buy patio or bush varieties of plants. Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and squash can be grown in containers, along with greens like lettuce, spinach, kale, and many herbs, such as basil. Hanging baskets are also an option.

Most of all, don't be afraid of failure. "If there's one thing I always say, it's that if it's worth doing, it's worth doing poorly the first time," said Salatin. "At the end of the day, it's a skill that's worth learning. Don't expect a bumper crop the first time."

Over time, gardeners learn to tell when a plant has sufficient fertilizer, said Joyce Latimer, professor of horticulture. "Gardeners know when a plant is happy. There's this green vibrancy. When a plant is not fertilized enough, it starts to look unhappy, with yellowing or lower-leaf death."

"It's not as complicated as people make it," Latimer said. "Always follow the guidelines. More is not better. In many cases, more is harmful." You can also buy controlled-release fertilizers so you don't have to remember to do it once a month.

State Master Gardener Coordinator Dave Close cautioned against adding nitrogen-based fertilizer when a plant is close to producing fruit or ready to harvest. Adding fertilizer promotes root and leaf growth, and at this stage, the focus should be on fruit production. For backyard gardens, too, excess fertilizer can lead to runoff of phosphorous and nitrogen, polluting waterways.

Experts also urge novice gardeners to keep in mind that their plants will likely be easily accessible to pets and children. Generally, limit contact with treated plants until the application has dried. Read the product labels for specific warnings.

Close also had some advice about pesticides. "The less pesticide you have to use, whether organic or conventional, the better it is, from a financial or environmental standpoint. It means that things are healthy on their own without additional help. You should just use [these products] as a last resort."

Dorn offered a rule of thumb for determining if a plant needs to be watered. "One method of determining if your plants have enough water is to lift the pot, to know what it feels like when it's fully watered. If it's light the next time you lift it, you know you need to water it. If you can't lift [the container], stick your fingers down in the soil, but that's only a reasonable guess because the surface will dry more quickly and the roots are deeper."

Plants should be watered before they reach the wilting point. "If you don't keep plants evenly watered, you can run into nutrition and plant health issues."

If gardeners want to ensure a bountiful harvest, watering plants consistently is the best bet.

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