Your Gardening Woes Solved
Master Gardeners from across the country offer solutions to the most common gardening problems
Editor’s note: This is the third of the three articles by Rashelle Brown that we are featuring in April about the many benefits of gardening. The first is "Gardening Helps You Grow — At Any Age," and the second is "You CAN Have a Green Thumb."
Is your garden plagued by drought, disease or pesky pests? Are your leafy greens shot through with holes? Have your rose bushes failed to survive the winter — again? Are your ornamental conifers brown on just one side? Does your vegetable plot look anemic compared to your neighbor's?
There are as many garden woes as there are gardeners and plants, it seems. Were we to address them all, this article could stretch on for hundreds of pages. The good news, though, is that implementing a few well-tested best practices can help you prevent or manage the most common ones: pests of all kinds, disease, nutrient deficiencies and the impact of extreme weather.
Hearty soil is your first and most important line of defense against all manner of garden woes.
We learned of these best practices in talking with four Master Gardeners, each from a different part of the country. Here are the experts:
Nancy Jean Knauss, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is the Master Gardener Coordinator at Penn State University.
Signe Danler is a longtime Master Gardner and an instructor for Oregon State University's Master Gardener Online program.
Jennifer Knutson is a Master Gardener in northern Minnesota's Crow Wing County.
Sam Thompson is a Master Gardener in the arid mountain climate of Sandoval County, New Mexico.
It All Starts With Soil
Healthy soil is your first and most important line of defense against all manner of garden woes. To that end, making and applying compost is all the rage with gardeners these days, and for good reason: it's one of the best ways to introduce nutrients and microorganisms that can improve the health of your soil.
Making your own high-quality compost can be tricky, but we found this handy guide, complete with a four-minute video, courtesy of the University of Maryland Extension.
Apart from it being tricky to make and taking a long time, there can be another downside to compost, too.
"A lot of gardeners just add more and more organic matter year after year, and that can cause certain nutrient levels to be excessive," Knauss said, and excessive nutrient levels can cause as many problems as inadequate levels.
For example, in doing research for this article, we learned that too much nitrogen can cause your tomato plants to have lush leaf growth but a sparse crop of smaller-than-usual tomatoes.
That's why, Knauss said, "The one thing we always recommend for everyone is to get a soil test." She added that while at-home kits are better than nothing, sending a sample in to your local university extension office will yield a more accurate and comprehensive report on your soil's pH and key nutrient levels.
Find out how and where to do this by simply typing "soil test [your county and state] extension" into a search engine.
Think Before You Plant
"Roses are the most popular flowering plant in the world, but if you ask northern gardeners, they don't grow them because they have so much trouble with them," Knutson said. Then she promptly rattled off half a dozen varieties she and other northern gardeners are successfully growing.
"There are so many roses now that are hardy to Zone 3 or even Zone 2, I can't imagine why anyone in a northern climate would try to grow tea roses," she said. But then she told me of a method I could use, if I really wanted to.
Over 1,000 miles away, in Corrales, New Mexico, the desert mountain climate presents different challenges for Thompson, who specializes in growing tomatoes.
"The heat and high UV levels are really a challenge for the plants," she said. "I grow them under shade cloth, and I have better luck with smaller varieties, like salad and cherry tomatoes."
Summertime drought is also a problem in Oregon, where, Danler says, "For at least three months, and that's getting longer with climate change, we get no rain from the sky."
Plant selection and placement are key. "Group plants according to their water needs," she advised. "And choose native ornamentals and drought-tolerant varieties of vegetables."
The message for those living in harsh climates is to take heart: If there's a particular flower or vegetable you love, chances are varieties suitable to your climate exist, so it's imperative to stick with those.
Diversify Your Plants
Plant diversity is another key to gardening success. Look at how a forest grows, with trees, bushes, flowers and food all mingled in the same area. There's something essential going on there, Danler explained.
"What attracts and keeps natural predators is a variety of places where they can live year round," she said, noting that these natural predators — birds, ladybugs and a host of others — are your best weapon against the pests that would feast on your flora. And these beneficial creatures are just one part of a universal system for dealing with pests Danler described, known as Integrated Pest Management.
Thompson pointed out another benefit of diversity: planting a number of different varieties of each vegetable is a great hedge against a total crop loss due to weather events, pests or disease.
Use Mulch — The Right Kind, And Not Too Much
One thing you'll never see in nature is bare earth. "Short of pouring poison on the ground," Danler said, "bare earth is the worst thing you can do in your garden." One of the best things you can do? Mulch.
According to both Thompson and Danler, mulch is essential for keeping moisture in the soil during their dry growing seasons. "But you've got to use the right kind," Danler said.
If you've got specific gardening questions, it's easy to connect with a Master Gardener in your area.
She ranted against using bark mulch, which actually repels water, and especially bark dust, which can become compacted and act as an impenetrable barrier around your thirsty plants, shrubs and trees. Instead, opt for wood chips, preferably from an arborist, so that there is some green leafy matter mixed in with the woody bits.
Fallen tree leaves are also great. "It's so illogical," Danler said. "The trees spend all that energy making leaves, they fall, then people spend all that energy raking and bagging them up just to throw them away. Then they go spend good money on mulch that's bad for their soil."
Knauss also warned against over-mulching. "Some people just do it automatically every spring, and that can cause as many issues as not using mulch at all."
She advised being especially careful with your trees and shrubs. "You should remove the old mulch when you add new. Excessive mulch increases opportunities for burrowing insects and also raises the soil level around trees and shrubs. That can cover the root flare and lead to the demise of the tree," Knauss explained.
For Persistent, Perplexing Problems, Ask the Pros
We've only scratched the surface here when it comes to garden woes and their solutions, but the takeaway is this: There is a wealth of science-based, problem-solving information out there, and you need only connect with the Master Gardeners in your area to access it. These dedicated volunteers are highly knowledgeable and eager to help.
"There are a lot of old wives tales out there," Knauss cautioned, "but Master Gardeners are professionals who know how to follow best practices, trained by university specialists and educators that have the most up-to-date research on soil health and management."
What's more, when you connect with this network, you form a symbiotic relationship: you receive the specific information you're looking for, and you act as a valuable source of information on emerging problems in your local area, like new pests, invasive plants, and changing climates.
I live in northern Minnesota, and in the short time I spent talking with Knutson, I learned the names of six rose varieties hardy to -40F; that I need to be taking the white plastic protectors off of my fruit tree trunks in the spring; there are a dozen types of vegetables I should be starting indoors now; and if I want to grow arbor vitae, I'd better wrap them in burlap over the winter to prevent the south-facing side from dying and turning brown.
If you've got specific gardening questions, it's easy to connect with a Master Gardener in your area. Here's a website that can point you in the right direction. When you do, you'll be taking a big step toward transforming your garden woes into garden wows.