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To get us focused on the beauty of simplicity in gardening, I'm going to use a garden variety phrase. I'm going to take it a bit out of context while aiming to relieve some of the stress-for-success many of us, from seasoned to beginner, can experience as we journey through life as a gardener. The phrase? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
While it's good to be informed about, and continually learning about, a subject, I have a tendency to approach everything new to me with the idea that I have to be fully educated on every potential stumbling block I may find in my path. If I don't keep it in check, it can not only sap all the joy from an activity, it can also prevent me from ever even getting started. Approaching gardening with the mindset of first being fully educated is a recipe for disaster. If you read 2 gardening books or 2 online articles about growing tomatoes, you'll understand what I mean. There are as many opinions on the "right" way to achieve success, whether it be to grow the biggest tomato or the biggest crop of tomatoes, as there are grains of sand in the Sahara Desert. Do I prune the plant to one main stem or let it flourish naturally? Will side dressing with Epsom salt help prevent blossom end rot or will it kill the beneficial soil fungi? Should I let the plants sprawl along the ground or should I stake them up?
To this wealth of opinions, add a stroll through the garden section of a home improvement store where the shelves are packed with amendments competing for your dollar. You can quickly become like a mother who sends her child down the sidewalk to school wearing a helmet, mouth guard, and knee and elbow pads because he might trip and fall along the way.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Remember it's an ounce of prevention, not a pound of prevention. The best way I know to avoid the stressful trap of over-mothering plants is to have an understanding of their basic needs and where to find solutions if (I stress the if) I run into a problem.
Most of the needs of plants can be broken down into 3 areas: food, water, and protection. While we can further nurture our plants with more specialized care in each of these areas and achieve extraordinary results, attention to the basics in these 3 areas will, in most cases, give us perfectly satisfactory results as we learn ways to improve our gardening skills.
Food: Understanding the nutritional needs of plants in general is helpful in wading through all the magic potions available for them. The 3 main nutrients (also called primary macronutrients) are nitrogen (for growth of sturdy stems and healthy foliage), phosphorus (for strong root growth and seed and flower production), and potassium (for fruit development and resistance to disease.) Those 3 numbers you see on fertilizer packages (5-10-5, for example) represent the percent, by weight, of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, respectively, in that supplement. There is an abundance of information, available both in books and on the internet, to help determine these needs for specific plants. Knowing these needs will help you in choosing basic fertilizers for your plants. Be sure to check out the organic fertilizers! Compare their ingredients to those of the synthetic fertilizers and decide which you think sound more like they belong in soil.
Supporting the nutritional needs of plants is made even easier if you start with good, healthy soil teeming with organic material and, thus, providing much of these needed nutrients naturally. You can read more about creating a healthier soil in my article Amending Garden Soil.
Water: Just like a human, a plant can get by, albeit in possibly less-than-perfect health, if not properly nourished. But it cannot survive long without water. It also cannot survive with too much water. While information can be easily found regarding the amount of water, in inches, a plant needs each week, you can keep plants properly watered by knowing whether the soil needs to be kept continually moist, if it should dry out between waterings, or if it requires more or less water during certain growth periods. Determining whether it's time to water is as easy as sticking your finger down in the soil near the plant and determining if it's waterlogged, just right, or too dry.
Protection: Some plants are susceptible to damage from frost, some to damage by the sun, some to damage from disease settled in the soil and spread to plants by overhead watering. We keep a variety of inexpensive materials on hand to protect our plants from potential damage from these elements.
In late winter, I begin saving gallon milk jugs (with the caps) for use in protecting tender plants from late spring frost, heavy spring rains, and hail. Cutting the bottom out of the jugs and, when frost or heavy rain is expected, placing them over the plant protects them from damage. The cap should be kept off if the weather is warm as the milk jug acts as a mini-greenhouse.
Mulching plants not only helps maintain moisture and even temperature in the soil, it also prevents rain or water from a hose from splashing diseases in the soil onto plant foliage. Our mulch of choice is straw, which we spread out in a pile to weather before spreading under our vegetable plants since white straw can reflect light onto plants and burn them.
Last, but not least, in the area of protection is frequent examination. Daily checks for undesirable changes in plant foliage or insects beginning to visit them is crucial to heading off excessive or fatal damage.
If you're growing a wide variety of plants, this may still seem like a lot of information to keep track of. I keep the basic information for the plants I'm growing on a simple chart in a plastic sleeve with my garden tools. Included on it is planting instructions, common fertilizing recommendations, the occasional human-induced problems I know I'm likely to forget about (did you know over fertilizing carrots can cause them to be hairy?) and each plant's water needs. On my computer I have a folder of bookmarked websites that provide information I've found useful for doctoring my plants should the need arise.
Before you spend a lot of time and money following all those suggestions that may or may not improve the health of your plants or the quality of your harvest, first spend some time learning what each plant's needs are and determine if the ingredients of the suggestion actually support those needs. As you experience problems in your garden, treatment for them can be added to your regiment. In the meantime, you can spend your extra time and money adding more plants to your garden!