Garden Talk for Novices
As the weather begins to warm up, many of us have our gardens on our mind. But for many, this is an unfamiliar territory. With the recent trends of eating organic, many people are picking up shovels and planting gardens in their yard for the first time. To a rookie, this may seem like a daunting task, and with so many different terms and phrases being thrown around on the internet, in magazines and at the greenhouse, it can be very overwhelming.
So here’s a guide to the gardening basics to help those rookies decipher what everyone is talking about, and to refresh the rest of us after the long winter.
Annuals: One of the most important terms in gardening, the word annuals describes a category of plants that will grow and thrive during the summer, but cannot survive our harsh winters. These plants have a life cycle of one growing season here in the Midwest and need to be bought new each spring. Some of the most popular annuals include geraniums, petunias, alyssum, snapdragons and impatiens.
Perennials: Generally speaking, if your plant is not an annual, it is a perennial. This means that these plants will dependably return year after year. While they may not be evergreen, meaning that they stay green throughout the winter, they will shoot up new growth each spring. Some popular perennials in our area include salvia, Russian sage, daylilies, hostas and coral bells.
Zone 5: This is an important term for anyone planting perennials in their yard. There are 13 climate zones for gardening, and zone 5 is the one we are located in. So when shopping for perennials, be sure you purchase plants that say they can tolerate Zone 5 or less (Zones 1-5 can grow here). Any plants that say zone 6 may come back, but it cannot be guaranteed.
Drainage: Believe it or not, sitting in too much water is just as bad as not watering a plant at all. Drainage is an important part in anywhere you plant, both in containers and in the ground. If you have an area of your yard that water just sits in, you will need to find plants that survive better in very moist soil or ponds. On the other hand, if water runs through soil too quickly, it is considered well-drained and stays on the drier side. There are many perennials that prefer this type of soil so be sure to look at their plant tags when purchasing. (Need help reading plant tags? Stay tuned for next week's blog)
There is a way to test your soil’s drainage. Dig a hole about 18 inches deep and 6 inches wide. Fill it with water. Wait until the water has totally drained out and fill it again. Now watch to see how quickly the water drains out. Ideal soil should drain at about 2 inches per hour. If it drains faster, that means you will need to look for plants that don’t mind drier soil. If it drains slower, you will need plants that prefer moist soil. You can also add various amendments to your soil to combat any drainage issues.
Soil Amendments: These are various materials that you can add to your soil to help with drainage, add nutrients and make your soil a healthier environment for plants to grow. Mushroom compost, cow manure, peat moss and sand are all examples of amendments you can add to rocky, clay-like or poorly drained soil. Other amendments are granular, slow-release fertilizers that you can mix in with the soil as you plant. When using these at the time of planting, it is best to use an organic or a milder fertilizer, because using fertilizer on young roots can actually burn them and kill the plant.
Mulch: Everyone pretty much knows what mulch is, the final layer of shredded hardwood or bark chips that you put around plants on top of the soil. This isn’t just for appearance, however. Mulch helps keep the weeds down, keep soil cool and maintain soil moisture. In the fall, right before the freeze, it is recommended to use mulch to help protect the roots from the cold, especially with newly planted perennials.
Dead-heading or Pruning: When a salesperson tells you to be sure to dead-head your flowers to keep them blooming, they are referring to taking off the spent flowers. After flowers bloom, they go to seed and their job is done. To help the plant keep blooming, pop off these flower heads that are done flowering. With each plant the spent flower head is different, so be sure to ask about your plant when you purchase it.
Pruning is similar to dead-heading, but also entails cutting back dead branches and shaping the plant to a desired look. Many times to do this, especially with larger plants, roses and shrubs, using garden pruners or shears is recommended.
Fertilizer Numbers: On any fertilizer you purchase, there are three numbers on the package that look something like 20-20-20 or 10-54-10. These numbers are a guide to how this fertilizer should be used and on what plants. The first number listed is Nitrogen. This is nutrient helps plants grow and keeps them green. Phosphorus (P) percentage is the middle number. This primary nutrient encourages rooting, blooming and fruit production. The last number is Potassium, which helps plants to resist disease and aids in hardiness. So depending on the type of plant you have, picking a fertilizer with a higher number in that area of need can help the plant thrive all season long. If you don’t necessarily have one area you want to focus on, there are great general fertilizers that will have numbers like 20-20-20.
Potting Soil vs. Top Soil: Potting soil is a lightweight soil that is used for containers. Its consistency helps with drainage in the pot and it is lighter weight in case you need to move the container. Potting mix is similar to potting soil, but often contains fertilizer and moisture control pellets. The moisture control pellets help retain some water so that you don’t necessarily have to water as much.
Top soil is a denser, heavier soil that is just basic black dirt that you would add to your garden each year to help keep the soil fresh or when planting a tree.
For any additional questions you may have, feel free to contact us and we will do our best to help get you started towards your gardening goals.