In the beginning, it was Springtime, and you wanted your home to look beautiful. You landscaped with flowers and shrubs, and your yard looked wonderful for about two weeks. But then, they didn't do as well as you hoped. Some of your flowers died, others just look terrible. Why, you must have wondered? You could have sworn you did everything right! What went wrong? It must be your neighbor's advice or that nursery's fault! But alas, a beautiful garden that is easy care and breath-taking involves a little imagination, some planning, researching and some muscle.
So take heart...try envisioning that your plants have souls. They do, you know. I truly believe all living things have souls. Maybe not in a religious context, but in the web of life, a universal form of energy. Have you ever thrown out a flower or shrub that didn't do well and you thought it had died? You tossed it in a garbage can or into a compost heap. Days later, you are working in your compost pile or taking the trash to the curb, when you notice that this very plant that struggled in your garden with the proper water, correct sunlight, and attentive care you gave it, is wrestling to stay alive and is even producing leaves and blooms! That is the spirit of the soul. It amazes me every day that I witness this essence of universal power. Your garden will respond in kind if you are aware of what plants need and provide the proper essentials for a good beginning.
Knowing what does well in your area is as simple as going to your local nursery center or county Master Gardener Clinic. They can help you determine what plants to buy for your particular garden design or suggest some you don't know about. Looking at seed packets or plant catalogs can tell you the areas of the country that your plants are most comfortable in. The very latest plant books offer the heat indexes and freezing zones of plants, too. I live in Central Florida which is Zone 9A but Zone 9 in California and Zone 9 in Florida are different growing environments. Check with your local experts.
In my years of gardening, I have developed some rules of "Green Thumb" to grow by. Teresa's Rule of "Green Thumb" #1 is taking advice from neighbors can be very risky. I'm not trying to imply that your neighbors, who have lived there six months longer than you, don't have the answers. They may, just check it out before you do anything. Remember to ask yourself how much money do they have invested in my garden? And if it turns out they were wrong, will they fix it? I can't tell you the number of times I have heard people say, "Oh, my neighbor told me to use this...or do this" and I shudder at the helpful suggestion given. Understandably, everyone can make a mistake. I do, but get advice from someone who will be responsible for what they tell you. Most retail garden outlets and nurseries will back up what they advise you to do, if you follow their advice.
Another suggestion is to call on your Master Garden clinic operated by your county agricultural agency. The Master Garden program in each state gets all of its information from their state university. This worthwhile volunteer program is overseen by the county agricultural agent. Here in Lake County, Fl., the Master Gardener undergoes an interesting course on every aspect of growing plants in the local area. When she completes the course, the new Master Gardener volunteers her new found knowledge in a variety of ways. She has at hand the most current available data on plants, insects, and diseases. If you call, she will mail a brochure on the subject you asked about to your home at no charge. MG's love to give out the correct information on growing vegetables, citrus, flowers, trees, and shrubs! Better yet ... take the course!
Teresa's Rule of "Green Thumb" #2 is to proceed slowly and at your own pace. You don't have to complete your garden at one time. If you want, make it a simple project with stages that you can complete from season to season. Start with the basics. Good soil preparation is the first step. Invest in a pH meter kit if you will be doing a lot of gardening, especially vegetables. The pH meters are not expensive, under $5 dollars at most garden centers. There are usually 10 easy-to-use test strips in the kit and a booklet giving you the pH levels for over 400 flowers, shrubs, vegetables and trees. If you're just an occasional dirt digger or thinking of gardening for an income, then you can take a sample of your soil to your local county agricultural center and they will test it for a small fee usually under $5 dollars.
Once you have determined the acid content in your soil, you can follow the recommendations to prepare it for growing the particular plants you want. Adding organic amendments, such as topsoil, manure, peat moss, or organic mushroom compost is a must in Florida sandy soils. Working the enriching ingredients into the first six inches will enhance the nutrition in the soil, allow it to retain moisture easier and will help your plants use fertilizer more efficiently. Sandy soil, also called sugar sand here in Florida, has some mineral benefits in it, but leaches water and fertilizers rapidly. By adding organic materials, water and the fertilizer ions are absorbed by the amendments and will be there longer and when the plant needs them. This can be done on a yearly basis in early spring (late January for Central Florida) as a small project or as a major overhaul every three to four years.
Teresa's Rule of "Green Thumb" #3 is do not use a fast release type of fertilizer when you transplant plants. You can damage the roots of the plants by burning them. Think of your plants as going through a small trauma with the replanting. You need to open up the roots and maybe even cut them if they are growing in a root bound pot. The plant then is wounded and tries to heal itself. Now, fertilizers contain salt and in thinking about this, you would never put salt on a wound, would you? Use a slow release granular fertilizer. Slow release granules are fertilizers which are poly-coated and will shed their multiple layers with either water, temperatures or simple erosion. Most need only be applied once or twice a year. At the beginning, it looks a little more expensive but on the other hand, it is consistant and timely fertilizing for growing plants and saves you actual time and money by doing it less often with a more effective fertilizer. Nursery plants that you buy are grown in proper potting soil and by the time their roots have extended out, it will be the proper time to fertilize. When you notice new growth on the plants, you can be assured that your plants have adapted to their surroundings, and can be fertilized safely. Depending on the size of the plants, the season, sensible watering, and how much shock it goes through from transplanting, this could take anywhere from one week to a month. When using fertilizers, all you He-men out there... remember that more is not better! Follow instructions exactly so that you do not burn your plants. Consistency is one of the keys to growing a great garden. If you intend on using fresh manure as a fertilizer, incorporate it into your soil a few weeks ahead of time.
Investing research and time into your garden means a good start. Using nutritious soil, flowers and shrubs in the right locations and proper fertilizing methods will make your gardening chores that much easier. You will not have to water as much, weed as much, and your plants will thrive. Your neighbors will admire the fact that gardening seems to come very effortlessly to you. And remember to share your knowledge...of your county's Master Gardener program and the great information you get at your local nursery because that reminds me of Teresa's Rule Of "Green Thumb" #4: When your neighbors ask for advice on plants say, "That's a good question, let me tell you where I go for information..." Your neighbor will probably never hear or use the information you volunteer, free of charge, out of the goodness of your heart, correctly! Now you don't want to start your friendship off that way, do you?