Dishing The Dirt - FA(Garden)Q

Monday Morning Blog

Novice gardeners seem to be really struggling with their gardens this year.

I don't know if it's the troubling times we're living in or if this new generation of gardeners is just more perfection minded but here's the questions they ask us most often:


I buy healthy looking plants but before I get a chance to get them into the ground, they dry out, shrivel up and die. Help!

Commercially, seeds are jump started under controlled conditions in a sterile potting medium with high levels of fertilizer. The water they're given is often filtered and purified.

The plants grow well but once all the mega nutrients are used up, there's nothing left to nourish them. "Dead" soil becomes rock hard and doesn't hold water. Without food and water, the plant dies. Like a puppy mill, mass produced plants are cranked out fast.

Here's what to do:
Get your beds ready before you buy plants so you can put them in within a couple of days of purchase.

If you've already bought plants but there'll be a delay in planting, take the plants out of their containers and tuck them into a large, holding container or bed filled with a mix of compost and garden soil. Keep them watered.

Chlorinated water is hard on plants but it takes a week for plants to get used to any new water even if it's not chlorinated. Your plants may droop for a few days but should perk up after they've gotten used to your water.

Garden soil, by the way, will naturally filter out chlorine but for potted plants, fill a container with your chlorinated tap water and let it sit at room temperature about an hour before use so the chlorine can dissipate.

Everyone says I should use compost and not synthetic fertilizers like Miracle Grow. What's wrong with Miracle Grow?

Just like humans, plants are what they eat. Think of synthetic fertilizers as fast food and organic matter as slow food.

Fast food will jump start your annuals with lots of show-y color. By the end of the season, the plants will be exhausted and all played out but since they're annuals, you don't expect another season.

Slow food produces strong, healthier plants that will grow more slowly but will produce better in the long run and do better under adverse conditions like drought. Healthier plants are less subject to disease, too.

Cost is another factor. Synthetic fertilizers are very expensive. Organic matter is free or very low cost.

My perennials never seem to make it through the winter even though I cover them. Do I have a black thumb instead of a green one?

You're choosing the wrong plants. Pick perennials with a temperature tolerance to least minus ten degrees.

Our temperature here in the Piedmont usually dips below zero for a few days each winter and that's just enough to kill a plant that's only tolerant to zero.

I desperately want a rose garden but bugs, black spot and hard clay soil are driving me crazy!

Get yourself a Knock Out Rose.

Knock out roses are a new, gorgeous, shrub type rose that comes in red and several shades of pink. No bugs. No black spot and they love our clay soil.

I didn't believe it when a gardening pal cued me in but after years of struggling with roses, I thought I'd give them one more chance before throwing in the trowel. I now have a lush garden full of roses and you will, too!

I know horse manure should be aged before use but how do you know when it's ready?

Horse manure is ready to use when the dry apples (round manure droppings are called "apples") have disintegrated into a crumbly mass.

I'd like to recycle the plastic pots that nursery plants come in and use them to start seeds but I've heard that you shouldn't re-use pots because you might spread disease. Is that true?

This is a myth that must have been started by flower pot manufacturers so they could sell more pots.

There's no reason why pots can't be reused. It's economical and will keep tons of trash out of the land fill.

While it's true that putting a healthy plant into a pot that held a diseased plant will probably spread the disease, if the pot is washed there should be no problem.

Here's how:
Remove the plant. Use the garden hose to rinse out the container (no soap required) then leave it in the sunshine until it dries (at least five minutes - longer is OK). Sunshine is natural disinfectant and fungicide.

I'm looking for a good looking, inexpensive way to label my plants in the garden. Those plastic plant markers are priced right but they look ugly. Nice looking markers are very expensive. Got any ideas?

Get a package of wood shims. A shim is a thin piece of wood that's narrow at one end and slightly wider at the other. Write the name of the plant on the thicker end using a water proof marker and stick the thinner end into the ground.

Shims are inexpensive so at the end of the season you can compost them but frugal folk can wash them off and save them for the following year. Shims are readily available at hardware stores or any where lumber is sold.

People say tilling the ground is environmentally wrong and destroys the soil structure but my ground is so rock hard that I can't get a shovel into it. Is it wrong to use a tiller?

Many people swear by tillers for tough, hard ground - especially our clay.

A small, easy to handle tiller (like Mantis by Troy Built) runs about $350 and is a much better choice than the large, old fashioned tillers that require lots of muscle.

But even with rock hard soil, you can do a lot of wonderful gardening by simply building a bed on top of the hard ground instead of trying to dig it up. Here's how:

Lay some flattened card board boxes, newspaper or even straw flakes over the area you want to plant. (No need to actually build a raised bed planter but you can if you want to.) Put a couple of inches of organic matter (like aged leaves, grass clippings and/or compost) on top. Cover that with a couple of inches of top soil. Repeat organic matter layer then top soil layer. Voila! You're ready to plant.

In the fall, top the bed with a couple of inches of compost. Add more in the spring. Keep adding leaves, grass clippings and compost spring and fall.

Over time, your bed will settle and earth worms will start to work their magic. Eventually, the hard clay underneath it all will be soft and gorgeous but by then your garden will be so beautiful you'll have forgotten all about the clay.

Should you use a tiller?
Take a look at you garden. Decide what will work best for you and how much you're able to spend.


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