Lawn and Garden

Maintaining a Garden

By Gary Rapking, WVU Extension Service Upshur County agriculture agent

Once a garden has been established, three essential components are necessary for the growth and development of the plants. These needs are:

  • water
  • sunlight
  • nutrients

Watering

The water needs are usually provided by rainfall. Rainfall needs to be monitored. Most garden plants will perform well if they receive approximately 1 to 2 inches of water each week. A gardener can invest in an inexpensive rain gauge. A coffee can and a ruler can also be a simple but effective way to measure rainfall.

The gardener has several options for adding water or assisting the garden to better utilize the rainfall that is available.

  • Mulches, including grass clippings, newspaper, or even plastic, will help to retain soil moisture.
  • Gardeners should also consider some form of irrigation or watering method. There usually will be periods during the growing season when rainfall alone will not support plant growth.
  • Watering is very important for gardens grown on raised beds or in containers. It is usually better to choose a watering system that does not apply water over plant leaves. Watering over the plant can create disease problems. Spraying water over the plants is also an inefficient means of providing water to the roots of the plant. Watering systems that apply water near the root system usually work best.
  • For small gardens, container gardens, or patio gardens, there are several low-cost ways of adding water. Some gardeners are using 2 liter soft drink bottles with an inexpensive spike or tip. These can be inserted into the soil next to the plant roots. The tip is designed to release water very slowly in a manner similar to a drip irrigation system.
  • Larger gardens could benefit from soaker hoses or a drip irrigation system.
  • Drip irrigation uses special plastic tubing that can be placed in the row next to the plant. The tubing has small holes that release the water very slowly and efficiently to the roots of the plants. The gardener can use well water, caught rainwater, or municipal water as sources. Most garden supply outlets can supply the needed components for a small drip irrigation system.

Nutrient Needs

The gardener needs to supply adequate nutrients for the plants to grow successfully. The major nutrients needed are nitrogen, phosphate, and potash. These nutrients can be provided by inorganic or organic fertilizers. These nutrients are listed on a bag of fertilizer. For example, a fertilizer bag that has the numbers 10-10-10 on it will have 10% nitrogen, 10% phosphate, and 10% potash. The rest of the bag will contain a non-nutrient ingredient. A 50-pound bag of 10-10-10 would contain 5 pounds of nitrogen (10% of the 50 pounds).

Always follow recommendations of your soil analysis when applying fertilizer. Fertilizer can be evenly spread by hand over the garden. This is usually referred to as broadcasting. Fertilizer can also be placed in the rows where the plants will be grown and then worked into the soil. Minor nutrients are also needed for plant growth, but usually these will be available in the soil.

Fertilizers can be bought as a mixed fertilizer, which would include at least two kinds of nutrients. Single-nutrient fertilizers are also available. An example would be one with the numbers 33-0-0. These numbers would indicate that the bag contains only nitrogen fertilizer.

Composting

Composting can be a valuable way to add nutrients to the soil. It also will improve the quality of the soil. Compost can be made by stacking organic material in layers.

The principal process involves the layering of organic material. It is best to layer lawn clippings, scraps of fruits and vegetables, and similar products followed by a layer of materials such as leaves, straw, or shredded newspaper. The compost pile will need to be turned or mixed regularly. Water will also need to be added, but care needs to be taken not to overwater. It is important to remember that the compost pile is not a place for the organic matter to rot. When composting is done properly, it creates an environment where the organic matter interacts in a process that ultimately produces valuable compost.

Composting is best done in a container. Some gardeners build a compost bin from lumber (do not use treated lumber). As a note of caution: Do not use grass clippings from yards that have been recently treated with herbicides or other chemicals.

Mulches

Mulches are important in controlling weeds. Weeds are one of the greatest challenges a gardener will encounter. It is likely most garden failures are caused by inadequate weed control. Mulches can create a barrier that will prevent weed seeds from receiving sunlight and therefore the weeds are unable to grow.

Several materials can be used for mulching. Mulch materials include grass clippings, newspaper, straw, and plastic. It is important to make certain the mulch is creating a sufficient barrier between the sunlight and the weed seed. When mulching crops that are being started from seed, you may find it may be necessary to wait until the desirable seeds have sprouted. This will ensure the mulch does not smother the crop.

Caution needs to be used when using lawn clippings as mulch. Make certain that herbicides have not recently been applied to the lawn that is the source of the clippings.

Pruning Tomatoes

One of the joys of home gardening is being able to choose the crops to grow. Tomatoes are almost always included in a garden plot. Tomatoes are not difficult to grow, but beginning gardeners often have some questions. One question relates to the pruning or suckering of tomatoes. It is not always necessary to prune a tomato plant. When the plants are supported properly and there is adequate room for growth, tomatoes can be left unpruned.

There are two types of tomatoes: determinate and indeterminate.

Determinate tomatoes are sometimes referred to as “bush” type tomatoes. When buying the tomato seed or plant, the gardener needs to know they type of plant purchased. Determinate varieties should not need to be pruned. These varieties will never grow very large and excess foliage is not a problem.

Indeterminate tomatoes can grow quite large and dense. Some gardeners do choose to prune indeterminate varieties. Tomatoes form new growth in the crotch of the main stem and branches of the plant. Removing this new growth is the usual form of pruning. Some growers will prune the lower branching of the plant. Pruning is done to increase the size of the tomatoes. It can also reduce some disease problems.

If space is limited, it may be more important to prune. Pruning can be done throughout the growing season. The gardener can also choose to prune lightly, removing just a few of the new growth branches. If a gardener encounters disease problems, all diseased material should be prune away.

Conventional and Organic Gardening

In recent years, there has been increased interest in organic food. Organic food is produced without the aid of synthetic chemicals and fertilizers. Conventional gardeners will use synthetic chemicals and fertilizers when necessary. Both methods of gardening, when done properly, are considered safe gardening methods.

Organic gardening does not mean that no pesticides or fertilizers are used. It means that the source of these materials will come from an organic product.

Growing a garden conventionally or organically is a personal choice. Organic gardeners may have greater difficulty controlling some insect and disease problems. Both gardening methods can be efficient and productive.

Gardening Tips

An electric fence around the garden can greatly reduce the damage caused by deer, groundhogs, raccoons, and rabbits.

Gardeners may want to grow day-neutral strawberries in a container on a porch or patio. The strawberries are a great ornamental and the fruit should produce throughout most of the growing season.