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Starting a garden in the spring can bring loads of rewards throughout the gardening season, but can be intimidating for the urban dweller without loads of experience under his belt. Along with the fruits of labor come battles with rain, drought, disease and pests.
As National Garden Week (April 10 to 16) wraps up, use these tips from Ron Wolford, horticulturist with the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension, to enjoy your gardening efforts and keep stress to a minimum.
1. Improve your soil.
“The foundation of your garden is your soil,” Wolford says. “Loose, fertile, well-drained soil will make your gardening experience a good one.”
When starting a new garden plot, have your soil tested. Many cooperative extensions have soil test labs, and if not, they may be able to refer you to lab in your area. A basic soil test costs $15 to $20 and will tell you if you need to improve the nutrient levels of your soil.
If you live in an area with heavy clay soils, add a 2- to 4-inch layer of organic matter, and till it into your garden 6 to 8 inches deep. Continue to test your soil every three to five years.
2. Choose a good garden location.
Choose a site for your garden as far away from trees and shrubs as possible to avoid competition from their root systems for water and nutrients. Select a site close to a water source and with adequate sunlight. Most vegetables and flowers need six to eight hours of full sunlight for best growth.
3. Water your garden properly.
“Vegetables and flowers need at least 1 inch of water per week,” Wolford says. “Buy a rain gauge to check rainfall amounts in the garden. Water the soil to a depth of at least 6 to 8 inches.”
For best results, water the base of the plant. Wetting the foliage can invite disease. Use soaker hoses instead of overhead sprinklers for watering, but if you must use overhead sprinklers, try to water early enough in the day to allow plants to dry before nightfall. Avoid watering during the hottest part of the day, though, as you are apt to lose up to 50 percent of the moisture during this time.
4. Buy disease-resistant plant varieties.
This is the best way to control disease, Wolford says. Verticillium and fusarium wilt are two major diseases that attack tomatoes.
“Tomato varieties like Celebrity and Better Boy have a built-in resistance to these diseases,” he says. “Some annuals and perennials have a built-in resistance to powdery mildew.”
Also avoid working in the garden when plants are wet because diseases thrive in wet conditions. Proper spacing of plants will allow good air circulation around plants, allowing them to dry quickly after watering or rain.
5. Control pests with integrated-pest-management techniques.
“Try to avoid using insecticides in the garden,” Wolford says. “If you must use them, use only as needed. Some insecticides will kill bees. Bees are needed for pollination in order for fruit production to occur. Identify the insect before you use insecticides or any alternative treatment.”
Many cooperative extension offices will help with pest identification. Monitor your garden on a daily basis for pests, as they can increase rapidly. Don’t forget to check under the leaves. To avoid future pest problems, clean up your garden at the end of the growing season. Many pests will overwinter in debris left in the garden.
6. Start a compost pile.
Composting helps improve the soil fertility; saves water by retaining moisture in the soil and reducing water runoff; and makes use of organic waste, reducing air and water pollution from refuse trucks and runoff and extending the life of our landfills.
“Composting is nature’s way of recycling and is the key to healthy soil and a healthy environment,” Wolford says. “It is a satisfying way to turn your fruit, vegetable and yard trimmings into a dark, crumbly, sweet-smelling soil conditioner, and it saves you money by replacing store-bought soil conditioners.”
Check with your local municipality about any composting regulations before starting a composting project.
7. Use mulches.
“Mulches conserve moisture, prevent weed growth and help to maintain even soil temperatures,”
During the growing season, spread a 2- to 4-inch layer of organic mulch around plants after the soil has warmed up in the spring. Be prepared to replenish the mulch during the growing season, as it will gradually decompose. Organic mulches can be turned into the soil at the end of the growing season.
Plastic mulch can be used for warm-loving plants like tomato, pepper, pumpkin, cucumber and sweet potato. Soil temperatures under black plastic mulch will be 10 degrees F higher than bare soil. Organic mulches applied around perennials in late fall after the ground has frozen will help to prevent freezing and thawing, which can expose roots to cold temperatures.
8. Do garden research.
Get to know your plants before using hard-earned dollars to purchase them. Checking out the growing requirements and potential insect and disease problems of plants before you purchase them can save you a lot of headaches. Use your local library, cooperative extension and the Internet as resources for gardening information.
9. Learn from gardening challenges.
Keep in mind that all gardens have challenges. Running into them doesn’t make you a gardening failure—the key is to learn from the challenges and to persevere in the garden.
Among his gardening challenges over the years, Wolford started a 1,000-square-foot garden at the Cook County Jail near Chicago in 1991. That July brought a 9-inch rainfall, flooding the garden.
“People were swimming in low spots on the Dan Ryan Expressway,” he recalls. “Many people were skeptical that the garden would survive. We replanted and had a small harvest. Today, we will be starting our 19th year at the Cook County Jail garden, which has recently added a greenhouse and now grows vegetables on 15,000 square feet of land.”