In the Garden:
Lower South
January, 2012
Regional Report

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Starting off right can help ensure your efforts will result in a beautiful landscape or a productive garden.

Make a Smart Start in 2012

I am not a big fan of New Year's resolutions, although most of us have used the transition to a new year as a starting point for making a change. Yet any point in the year is a good time to resolve to do things better, and this is certainly true when it comes to landscaping and gardening.

Being cooped up indoors has a way of building up our gardening enthusiasm to a fevered pitch. The arrival of all those horticulturally provocative seed catalogs only adds fuel to the fire. The first sign of milder weather and the arrival of new plants in garden centers is like the opening of the gates at the Kentucky Derby as we gardeners bolt out the door to dig, plant and basically enjoy the wonderful outdoors in our landscapes and gardens.

They say hindsight is better than foresight and I agree. So drawing on some hindsight, I'll suggest a few ways to get off to a smart start and make 2012 a year of fruitful endeavors.

Start With Super Soil
Nothing makes as big a difference in the performance of a fruit, vegetable, or landscape plant as the quality of the soil. While it's certainly more fun to buy plants, products, and gardening gadgets, your best return on your money are the dollars you spend on improving your soil. That may mean bringing in a quality growing mix to fill raised beds in an area with shallow soil, poor drainage, or other soil issues. It may mean just mixing in compost and pulling the soil up into raised beds.

Set yourself up for success by starting with a well-drained soil with a pH suitable to the plants you are growing and a balanced nutrient content. It's the best way to green up your thumb!

Select Adapted Plants
This seems obvious, but we gardeners are often drawn to plants that are not for our area. We can stretch a plant's zone or preferred area of the country a little by taking special measures such as adjusting pH or protecting from cold or heat. The best results come from planting what is best adapted to our part of the country.

Consider the chilling requirements of fruit trees, the heat and cold limits of landscape perennials and woody ornamentals, and the pH preferences and soil drainage requirements of any plant you grow.

Choose the Best Location
Not all parts of our landscape offer the same growing conditions. Soil drainage, protection from winter cold or summer heat, and sunlight exposure are among the variables. I have seen too many roses put where the gardener wanted to see a rose but where the sunlight was lacking, resulting in a bad case of BDD (Blossom Deficit Disorder). There are exceptions, of course, but as a general guide, if it has blooms or fruit, it needs lots of sun. I wish we could "wish" blooms onto roses or fruit onto tomatoes and peach trees, but alas we can't.

The opposite is also true. Some plants need protection from too much sun. Often a plant does best with morning sun rather than late afternoon sun.

Step Back and Consider
I can get rather myopic when planting things. That is to say, I see the plant in its beauty but not necessarily how it will fit in to the overall setting. While I despise the rules often imposed on garden design, and while there is a place for specimen plants, it remains a fact that we see our landscapes from some distance.

Consider what you want when you view an area from a window of your home or from the street or across the yard. One very pretty little plant may be lost in the area around it once we step back. Consider the plant's ultimate size. Most shrubs and trees look too far apart when planted but soon grow to reveal a very different situation, at which time it is too late to easily fix the mistake. Consider the various seasons. Spring is the easy season. How will the overall planting look in summer or fall or winter?

Plant On Time
Often timing can make a huge impact on success. Our Lower South winters are rather mild, and springtime weather doesn't last long. Summer heat will challenge a new shrub or tree's chances of survival, so the earlier you plant the more time it has to extend its roots in preparation for hot and dry conditions. It is a good idea to build a circular berm of soil around a new woody ornamental or fruit plant to help you provide a deep soaking right where the roots are concentrated during the first critical summer season. If your soil is very heavy clay and you live in an area that usually receives a lot of rain be prepared to open up part of the berm to prevent having standing water for long periods of time.

Likewise our vegetables and flowers have their ideal planting windows. Tomatoes need to go in ASAP as soon as frost is reasonably unlikely in order to give them time to bloom and set fruit before it is too hot. Annual flowers are typically adapted to cool or warm conditions, and some are biennials that are best seeded in the fall for a spring bloom season. I always cringe when I see folks purchasing tomato plants in April or petunias being planted in October.


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