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The Basics of Gardening

Grayson Checking on the Garden

Our gardens reward us in many ways. Starting a new garden or maintaining an established one is an enjoyable task, providing gardeners with a healthy outdoor activity that beautifies our surroundings and enriches our souls.

Gardening is not as complex as a novice might think. Like any worthwhile pursuit, it requires learning the rules of the game and a commitment to apply those rules appropriately, at the appropriate time.  Bear in mind that we are writing in reference to our mid-Atlantic climate and garden practices.

Basic Plant Groups
Gardening starts with plants. Outdoor plants are sold in three broad categories: annuals, perennials and woody plants.

Annuals – are plants that can live outdoors for only one growing season. Although short-lived, annuals provide continuous color with the most consistent flower production. Most vegetables are annuals, and often tropical houseplants may be grown as annuals.

Perennials – are plants that have the potential to live two or more growing seasons in the garden. They are herbaceous (soft-tissued) or very tender woody plants, that are “root hardy.” Frequently the above-ground portions die off at the end of the growing season, leaving the below-ground portion to over-winter in a dormant state, with new growth emerging in spring.

Woody plants – are shrubs and trees, plants that are both root and top hardy and make wood every year. Deciduous woody plants lose their leaves at the end of the growing season and go into a dormant state. There are also evergreen woody plants, which retain leaves all year round. There are two types of evergreens, needle- bearing (pines, firs, spruces, etc.) and broadleaf (rhododendron, hollies, etc.).

To grow healthy plants, garden soils should be the right tilth (consistency), containing a certain proportion of clay, sand and organic materials and the appropriate soil acidity (pH) for the type of plants to be grown there. If the soils have been tended to with soil amendments, then they are more likely to support good, healthy plant growth.

Start out by having the soil tested. You can purchase a soil tester or soil test kit at Behnke’s and do the testing yourself, or we can provide a mailer for you to submit samples to the University of Delaware. Testing will give you a base line of what your soil has or does not have, and will tell you what you need to do to correct any problems noted. Soil tests analyze the nutrient levels in your test sample (phosphorus and potassium) and measure the pH.

To adjust the pH, the recommendation is to add lime to correct soil that is too acid or to add sulfur or iron sulfate to lower the pH if the soil is not acid enough.

Soil Amendments – Organic soil amendments (fine to medium-fine material derived from plant and animal sources) decay to enrich the soil’s humus component. Organic matter, whether it is leaf compost, garden compost, fine pine bark, peat moss, or cow manure, is essential for keeping the soil loose, retaining water and nutrients, aiding drainage and encouraging beneficial soil microorganisms.

Mulches are materials used to cover the surface of the garden beds. Most mulches are made of shredded or ground tree bark, nut shells, or composted materials. Mulches provide insulation from extreme cold or heat, maintain soil moisture at suitable levels and help to suppress weeds.

Try to maintain a maximum of a two-inch layer of mulch on top of the soil. Do not pile mulch too close to trunks, main stems or lower branches of trees or shrubs. This will cause moisture to build up, leading to rot or insect damage, and provide cover for voles which may strip the bark from your shrub or tree and girdle it (kill it).

Should you fertilize? Yes and no. Plants need fertilizer to grow and will take what they need from the soil. If the soil is naturally fertile, no added fertilizer is necessary. If the soil lacks one or more of the essential plant nutrients, then fertilizer should be added. To determine this, one can have the soil tested (see “Soils,” above).

You can choose from a wide variety of fertilizer types. Behnke Nurseries recommends organic fertilizers because they are derived from natural sources, slow-acting over an extended period of time and safe to use (will not burn). Chemical fertilizers are manufactured from petrochemicals, fast-acting and less expensive than organic fertilizers.

Most dry chemical fertilizers, especially those high in nitrogen, may burn plants if used in excess or not watered in properly. However, some chemical fertilizers are time-release in action. These products are more expensive, but will fertilize over a long period of time and will not burn as readily.

The timing of fertilizing depends largely on the type of plant. Fertilizers are not applied during the summer for most woody plants and lawns. (Two exceptions are roses and zoysia lawn grass which are fertilized in summer.)

The best time to fertilize trees and shrubs is after the leaves have dropped in fall until early in the spring, before active growth commences. Fertilizing trees and shrubs too early in the fall may interfere with the plant’s ability to adequately prepare for winter dormancy. Do not fertilize in winter as the fertilizer may wash from frozen soil into the storm sewer system.

Perennials should be fertilized in spring and early fall. However, perennials, as a rule, do not like to be over-fertilized. Use low concentrations of fertilizer on perennials, such as organics or diluted water-soluble chemical fertilizers.

Pruning is an option, not necessarily a requirement. Pruning a plant is a decision made when the gardener has a specific objective in mind. Pruning may alter the form of a plant in a desired way, such as a topiary or hedge. It may limit the growth pattern the plant would assume naturally without pruning. Pruning may encourage better flower or fruit production. Lastly, pruning helps to maintain the health of the plant by removing dead, damaged and diseased branches.

Whether you are a novice or an experienced gardener, you’ll need certain tools to accomplish specific tasks.

Shovel – Essential for digging. A good general-purpose shovel will do for most tasks. Choose from long-handled or “D-handled” models.

Garden Rake – Also called the “hard rake.” The rake has a row of short, steel teeth to clear and level a bed.

Leaf Rake – For raking leaves and maintaining the appearance of the garden. It is essential to have this when pruning or shearing to collect the plant materials removed from your trees and shrubs.

Forked Spade – For turning over soil and mixing in soil amendments. This is also important when dividing perennials or harvesting bulbs or potatoes.

Claw Cultivator – Indispensable for lightly cultivating around annuals and perennials to break up the soil crust and remove weed seedlings. It is also the perfect tool for freeing the roots of a rootbound potted plant before placing it in the planting hole.

Pruning Shears – For cutting branches, limbs or twigs. Hand pruners are primary. If you have large branches to cut, you move up to a lopper (pruner with long handles). For very large branches, use a pruning saw.

Fertilizer Spreader – For putting down any dry chemicals on lawns, a fertilizer spreader is a good investment. Whether you use a broadcast or drop type, the spreader puts down the right amount evenly over the lawn area.

Hose-end Sprayer – A must for applying water-soluble fertilizers or pesticides around the lawn, garden and trees.

Water Wand – When you hand-water your plants, this tool puts water where you want it with a spray that is gentle enough not to damage your plants.

Watering Can – An old garden tool that never loses its usefulness. Use it to water specific plants without dragging out the hose. Use it to mix small amounts of fertilizer and pesticide chemicals.

Gloves – Gardening can be hard on the hands. Always put on a good pair of garden gloves to protect your hands and to make gardening a pleasurable activity.

Hat – If you are out in the sun, please wear a hat. The negative effects of extended sun exposure on the skin is an important health concern and wearing a hat is more than just for comfort.

Computer – When you need an expert opinion, ask the professionals at Behnke Nurseries (Contact Us). And delve further into our blog for a cornucopia of horticultural information.

We are always happy to help you garden more successfully!

This article was updated August 2018.

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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