A New Spring ... A New Beginning
By Donna Lane
When the tomato harvest is lousy or rabbits decimate their plants, gardeners the world over become philosophers saying: “There’s always next year.” We have to, because gardening is an exercise in hope. And learning.
Last year, the tomato harvests were lousy in most Norwood gardens and the proliferation of rabbits plagued many of us, myself included. The baby bunnies were especially troublesome for me, eating all of the tender dahlia foliage making flowering season very late (or nonexistent for some varieties). Well, next year is here! And there are a lot of things that can be done both to deter the rabbits and to help boost our vegetable and flower harvests.
Many of our problems can be prevented by promoting plant health. It starts with the soil. Yes, you’ve probably heard it a million times, but it’s that important! Cultivating healthy soil is the foundation of growing healthy plants. Roots flourish in healthy soil; they are able to find and use the nutrients they need which helps the plant grow strong.
When grown in poor, compacted soil that’s low in nutrients, plants are stressed by nutrient deficiencies making them targets of insects and diseases. If, however, the soil is fertile, well-drained, and teeming with microbes, it greatly enhances the success of whatever it is you are growing.
What are microbes? Microbes are the tiny living things that are found all around us that live in water, soil and in the air.
Healthy soil is an intricate mix of organic matter, water, air, microorganisms, tiny rock particles, insects, bacteria, fungi, and other organisms. The more organic matter you provide to your soil, the more robust it will be and the better able it is to combat plant pathogens (disease-causing agents).
Adding organic matter is the single most important thing you can do for your soil. Over time, it improves soil structure which, in turn, improves its ability to absorb and release water and air – both essential to plant growth. Everyone knows that water is needed for a plant to live. But, too much water can also kill a plant. The roots of a plant are what absorb the nutrients in the soil necessary for plant growth. If there is too much water, the roots will rot and die. Simultaneously, aboveground the plant is susceptible to mold and mildew which can also contribute to its demise.
Some plants are better able to live in a wet environment; others are better adapted to very dry or well-drained conditions. Our local soil conditions play an important role on what plants we can grow in our gardens. Unless you plan to grow aquatic plants or succulents, your best bet is to provide well-drained conditions for your plants.
Soil pH is also important. It affects the availability of nutrients that the roots can pull into a plant, directly affecting the health of the plant. For example, rhododendrons and blueberries do best in a more acidic soil (low pH) while other plants do better in a more neutral or higher pH. In Norwood gardens, most vegetables and flowers will grow well between 6.5 and 6.8 pH. Certain nutrients in the soil become unavailable to the plant if the soil is too acidic (below 5.0) or too alkaline (above 8.0). Neutral pH is 7.0.
You can do simple pH tests yourself, but if you have not had a professional soil test that includes assessment of your soil’s nutrient and toxic heavy metals content, I recommend you do so. [Go to http://www.ag.umass.edu/services/soil-plant-nutrient-testing-laboratory for information and instruction on collecting and sending soil samples.] Use the results of the test to guide you to bring your soil into balance.
Adding high quality compost to your soil is a simple way to build soil quality each season. By improving the structure, nutrient content and moisture-holding capacity of the soil, compost encourages healthy, balanced populations of soil organisms.
Making compost is relatively easy and there are numerous videos on the Internet to guide you through the process. For those of us with large gardens, it can be hard to make enough compost for all of our gardening needs, but it’s a good idea to make our own compost if we can. However, if you don’t have enough area in your backyard to make a compost pile, the Town of Norwood provides free compost to residents at the recycling facility on Winter Street. Compost is also available for sale in bags or bulk at most garden centers.
There are many things that contribute to having a successful garden, but it all begins with the soil. You can also help yourself by selecting plants that are not prone to disease or beacons to insects. And with today’s climate problems, you can help the environment by planting more native plants that will feed the bees, butterflies, birds, and other species that enhance our lives.