How green is your thumb?

County Agent’s Corner

Can your “green thumb” produce this?

Can your “green thumb” produce this?

I hear all the time “I can’t grow anything; everything I touch dies.” Well, I guess everything dies in its own time so they are certainly right about that. However, when it comes to being successful growing plants, there are some basics that will improve your chances of success. All plants need water, sunlight, air (carbon dioxide and oxygen), and nutrients for proper growth. How much of these basic needs are required depends on the plant itself.

Vegetable gardens

Vegetable gardens need a minimum of six to eight hours of sunlight each day; more is better. Full sun is preferred if you have ground that is appropriate for a garden.

The site should have good drainage since most vegetable plants will not tolerate wet soils. The soil pH should be in the 5.8 to 6.5 range for vegetable crops. This allows plants to properly utilize any fertilizers applied and allows for maximum growth and yield potential.

Vegetable gardens need one-half to one inch of water per week during the growing season. Of course, small plants do not require the same amount of water as mature plants with a full fruit load do, so water accordingly. I would recommend utilizing drip irrigation rather than overhead. Drip irrigation will reduce your overall water usage (and water bill), reduce the incidence of disease in the garden, and you won’t be watering your weeds.

If you apply these basic principles of plant production you should be successful in producing vegetables and most other desirables in the garden such as flowers, herbs, and medicinal plants.

Landscape and fruit trees

There are some landscape and fruiting plants that have needs different from those listed above. For example, blueberries require a much lower soil pH. In order to grow and reach maximum yield they need a pH in the range of 4 to 5. If your pH is above 5.5, your blueberry plant will just sit there, so it’s very important to know the soil pH before you plant more acidic loving plants. Camellias, azaleas, and rhododendrons also perform best at a lower pH. Blueberries are also shallow rooted and may require frequent watering and benefit from the use of mulch.

When you walk into a hardwood forest, what plants do you see growing? Think about it. There is very little growing in the hardwood forest except plants that have adapted to reduced sunlight. Trees you may see include Red Maple and American Beech. These two trees have adapted to reduced light conditions. They are not growing very well, but they are there, ready to take off when one of the mature hardwood dies or gets blown down.

You may also see a few small oaks or hickories, but they’re not as adapted as the maple or beech. Oak leaf hydrangeas are another plant adapted to low light requirements. They fill the woods with bloom in June. Some of my favorite plants are our native spring ephemeral wildflowers. Plants such as Bloodroot, Twinleaf, Trillium, and a host of others emerge prior to our forest leafing out to collect sunlight reaching the forest floor in late winter/early spring. Many of them are blooming right now!

I had a professor once that said “sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees.” I didn’t get it at first, but after a while, I got it and begin to appreciate all the plants in the forest, especially my little friends. My point is, some plants will thrive and may even require low light conditions.

More on vegetable gardens

Several plant families are usually represented in the vegetable garden. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and Irish potatoes, all in the same family, are susceptible to many of the same insects and disease pathogens. They are fairly heavy feeders. This is important to know when rotating crops within the garden, and when it comes to fertilizing the garden.

Beans and peas are in the same family, but not in the tomato family. They are considered light feeders. If you apply equal amounts of fertilizer to the beans and peas as you do the tomatoes and potatoes, you are going to produce a really nice plant, but not many peas and beans.

It’s important to know how much and when to fertilize each crop, or area in the garden where certain plants are going to be grown. I would recommend putting out enough fertilizer prior to planting to cover the nutrient requirements of light to moderate feeders and then apply additional fertilizer at the appropriate time to the heavy feeders.

Corn will require the most fertilizer of any crop in the garden. If you don’t have a clue about how much to fertilize your garden or if your soil pH is correct, pull a soil sample. The soil report will tell you exactly how much to lime and give recommendations on how much fertilizer per foot of row to apply. It will take about a week to get your report back from the Soil Testing Lab at Auburn. Soil boxes and sheets with instructions on how to take a sample may be picked up at the Extension office at 415 5th Avenue East, Suite A, Oneonta.

Regardless, if you purchase a bag of 13-13-13 fertilizer, or a box of Miracle Grow, the amount of N, P, and K in the container (bag, box etc.) must be on the package. These numbers represent the percentage of each of these nutrients in the container, either by weight or by volume (for liquid fertilizers). Understanding plant nutrient requirements and providing the right amount of fertilizer is an important part of plant health, and you getting your new green thumb. Experienced gardeners are probably thinking “everybody knows this,” but then again, how many experienced gardeners do you know?

Extension will be hosting a Backyard Tomato Workshop on Thursday, April 18, at the Frank Green Building auditorium, 415 5th Avenue East, Oneonta. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m. and the program starts at 9 a.m. The fee is $20 which includes lunch and 10 tomato plants. Make checks payable to Blount County Extension. Seating is limited.

Dan Porch is County Extension Coordinator with the Blount County Extension Office. Dan lives in and loves Blount County and is available to answer your questions about conservation, agriculture, natural resources, and gardening. He can be reached at (205) 274-2129 or porchdw@aces.edu.