In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
January, 2011
Regional Report

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Nourish vegetables for thrifty growth and great taste, not size alone.

Is Bigger Always Better?

Prizes are given for the biggest vegetables grown, but does size indicate quality of the produce or the gardener? If you seek that first place prize for tomato growing at a local nursery, maybe so. For best taste and nutrition, not so much.

Thrifty Growth Explained
In fact, plants grow most efficiently when grown just short of lush, and that translates equally to shrubs with more flowers and better edibles.The goal of wise horticulture and smart gardening is "thrifty" growth; that is, growth that proceeds steadily at a rate consistent with established expectations for the particular plant. For example, purple top turnips should be ready to harvest about eight weeks (55 days) after they sprout. That is our expectation, based on experience. Turnips should reach 24 inches tall with edible roots 3 inches long in that time frame. If the seeds sprout and do not steadily progress or wildly overproduce, something is amiss that the gardener can put right. The photo that accompanies this column shows a pair of huge turnips, each 10 inches across and weighing more than 4 pounds. The fact that few greens are left atop the roots tells you that the greens were picked several times before this turnip was pulled out. It's been in the ground much longer than eight weeks and fertilized heavily to keep more greens coming. The impressive-looking result is a starchy old root vegetable better suited for Stone Soup than creamed turnips.

Getting Thrifty Growth
The concept of thrifty growth applies to all plant types and explains why, although their growth patterns are very different, all plant care is based on the same basic principles. The first is sun. Planted where just too much or too little sunlight is available, any species will be challenged. Some will adapt, but sadly, like a hydrangea that wilts every afternoon as the sun bakes it yet continues to bloom. Vegetables and fruits need eight hours of sunlight or more to grow at their best, and inadequate sunlight shows in the plants. They display weak, spindly growth, pale leaf color, few if any flowers or fruit and very slow, unthrifty growth.

The second essential principle of thrifty plant growth is water availability and moderation. Lack of or inundation by water can kill plants or severely slow their growth. Trees and shrubs that grow too slowly for their species can be weak-wooded and stunted. Vegetables that grow too slowly because of water issues may be nonexistent, tasteless or bitter. Cucumber vines, for example, will taste bitter if the vines are allowed to wilt between waterings. Tomatoes picked in the days following heavy rains taste diluted and may split because too much water came to them too fast.

Healthy Plant Nutrition
Fertile soil with appropriate drainage for the plant in question is the third essential growing principle. It is the third condition that can sustain or delay thrifty growth. If you never fertilize anything, don't even turn the mulch under as it rots, plants may reflect that fact. They will grow slowly, if at all, with small leaves and short stems. Flowers and fruit may be incomplete or absent. At the other extreme, plants that are overfertilized grow too fast and can be stressed and short-lived. Our efforts to get a fruit tree to perform sooner than it should or to have a thick lawn may backfire and produce less of either in the long run. The classic case of overdoing nitrogen fertilizer shows when tomato plants produce only big, green leaves despite plenty of water and sunlight. Flowers can be suppressed by too much nitrogen, which also contributes to the spread of fungus diseases in lawn grass. Determine the fertility needs of the plants you are growing and meet, but do not exceed them, to promote thrifty growth and avoid gargantuan mistakes.


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