As you take time this winter to reflect on what went well and what didn’t this past year, don’t forget to think about your garden. You may have grown the most interesting garden of your life in 2017, but did you struggle with insects or diseases? Maybe you would like to spend less money on your gardening habit. Or, maybe you want to find ways for your garden to improve the natural environment. If this sounds like you, why not make a few gardening resolutions in 2018? There are endless garden goals to be made each year, I am proposing a few straight-forward “smart gardening” practices that can curb some common garden challenges.
- Resolve to take soil samples and send them in for testing. This one is so simple yet frequently overlooked when spring gets busy. Soil test reports provide information on soil pH, which has a strong effect on a plant’s ability to take in nutrients. The test report provides nutrient levels in the soil and gives recommendations for adding lime, adjusting soil pH, and selecting fertilizers. Better yet, soil test reports are generated based on the actual plants you intend to grow, removing the guess work involved in deciding how much lime and fertilizer to apply. Perhaps the best part, this service is offered for free April – November through the N.C. Department of Agriculture, and costs only $4 the rest of the year. Because it can take months for lime to alter soil pH, fall is a great time to sample soil and apply lime according to the recommendation.
Soil test kits include boxes for the soil, the appropriate form, and instructions on how to take a sample. They are available at the N.C. Cooperative Extension- Caldwell County Center and at the Caldwell Soil and Water Conservation District, both located at 120 Hospital Ave NE, Lenoir. Getting the soil right is critical to successful plant growth. We can be tempted to apply the same amount to lime and fertilizer each year to the same spot, but this can be detrimental to the growing conditions and the environment. If you resolve one thing in 2018, let it be to test your soil!
- Resolve to select plants wisely. Maybe you’re planting a new hedge or you want a tree with spring flowers. Everyone tells you the best tree for a tall hedge is the Leyland cypress. For spring flowers, plant a Bradford pear. But, did you know that Leyland cypress trees are susceptible to a number of foliar diseases that may require spraying a fungicide regularly? Did you know that Bradford pear’s branch structure is weak and limbs break off easily during storms? Bradford pears are a cultivar of callery pear, and when close to other callery pear cultivars, their cross-pollination can cause the trees to produce fruit with viable seeds. Birds eat the fruit and deposit seeds. The resulting saplings possess the same desirable qualities of Bradford pears- that is, they can grow in different soil types and they grow rapidly. However, these traits allow them to outpace some native species and take over their habitat, reducing habitat available for native wildlife.
Fortunately, there are good alternatives. For hedges, certain hollies or arborvitae are less susceptible to disease than Leyland cypress. For white flowers, consider the serviceberry, white dogwood, or a native white fringetree. Like many native plants, they are susceptible to fewer diseases and they can contribute habitat for native wildlife. Researching and selecting suitable alternatives will lead to longer-lasting landscapes that require less maintenance. This will save time and hassle in the long run. Cooperative Extension publications from North Carolina and surrounding southeastern states recommend appropriate plants for many different purposes.
- Resolve to observe cultural recommendations. Think of this as setting yourself up for success. In the world of managing plant pests, ‘cultural’ recommendations include practices like proper plant spacing or selecting an appropriate plant for a given site. These are your first line of defense against disease and insect pests. Observing them will help your plants thrive.
For example, you can reduce the incidence of foliar diseases on plants by watering in the morning so that leaves have time to dry out during the day. Avoid planting disease-prone plants too close to one another or in an area that has poor air circulation. Similarly, don’t place a plant that needs well-drained soil in an area that stays wet. Don’t plant a shade-loving plant in a sunny spot If your tree had a blight last year, rake the fallen leaves up and dispose of them to reduce next years’ infection. If you are planting vegetables in an area with lots of weeds, consider starting your vegetables indoors and transplanting them into the garden to get ahead of the weeds. Rotate vegetables by plant family to reduce disease and pest transfer. Destroy weeds that harbor problematic pests. Knowing what these practices are requires research. But by doing this initial work, you reduce time spent controlling pests and the amount of pesticide used.
- Resolve to create habitat for pollinators. Bees, butterflies, beetles, and even birds are critical to our food supply and the persistence of many flowering plants. Plant a native wildflower mix or a new shrub that supports honeybees. By hosting pollinators, you will improve productivity in your vegetable garden and you will be providing a service to these valuable species. Fellow Extension agent Debbie Roos has a website with resources on the how-to’s of pollinator conservation and recommended plants. Visit her website at: https://growingsmallfarms.ces.ncsu.edu/growingsmallfarms-pollinatorconservation/
- Resolve to conserve water. To conserve water, apply mulches when appropriate. Consider straw mulch, plastic mulch, or landscape fabric in the vegetable garden. Pine straw or hardwood mulch may be more appropriate for landscaped areas. Mulches also help control weeds. Consider installing drip irrigation in your landscape or vegetable garden. Drip irrigation delivers water directly to plant roots and reduces water lost to other areas or evaporation. Using drip irrigation prevents soil from splashing on leaves, so it can reduce the spread of foliar disease. With drip irrigation, you’ll use less water and spend less time watering. Maybe even consider installing a rain barrel. Rain barrels capture water from a surface, which can then be used to water garden plants.
There is no bad time to adopt these resolutions, and no need to feel guilty if you don’t keep each one. But, by adhering to a few principles, your garden can become more productive and your wallet will thank you. As you begin your research, remember that N.C. Cooperative Extension is here to help. Come visit the Caldwell County Center Monday-Friday 8 a.m. -5 p.m. at 120 Hospital Ave NE in Lenoir, or give us a call at 828-757-1290. Make 2018 your best garden year yet!