By Cody Craddock
NC Cooperative Extension
Growing a garden is an extremely rewarding experience that anyone can do at home and end up with great produce. Personally, I have always had a garden even when I was a child. I grew produce and set up a produce stand at the edge of my yard to sell produce from my garden. However, gardening is sometimes difficult and people get discouraged because their plants, no matter how hard they try, always seem to fail. Well, hopefully this article will touch on some of the more common things gardeners experience in Piedmont.
A pitfall is the way people manage their water in a garden. Some people tend to overwater, while others tend to submerge their plants. It doesn’t matter who you are, but better water management will help your garden. Let’s talk about when to water and how often, how to water plants and why it all matters.
First, let’s establish the right time to water. The ideal soil has about 50% of the pores filled with water and the other 50% filled with air. Think of soil “pores” as the space between soil particles that makes it fluffy. If you dig to a depth of 2 inches or remove the mulch around a plant and the soil is moist, but not soaked, you have enough water. Giving these plants more water will only fill the air pores with water that is not beneficial to the plant. Next, think about the last time it rained. If it has been a long time since a rain. you probably need to water. If we’ve had rain recently, your soil is probably still damp and your plants no longer need water. Finally, if you are going to be watering plants, the best time to water them is early in the morning. This allows the water you apply to soak in before it evaporates. Although it’s best to water in the morning to reduce water loss through evaporation, if your plants show obvious signs of wilting by midday, don’t withhold water just to wait until morning.
Another watering practice that people often overlook is knowing where to put the water. If you can avoid wetting a plant’s foliage, it will help control disease. Remember, water the soil, not the plant. Disease-prone plants like tomatoes, peppers, and cucurbits don’t fare very well once a disease has set in on the plant.
Diseases raise another important point with gardening, and that is crop rotation. Regardless of the size of your garden, rotating what is grown on the ground from year to year will help at least somewhat to reduce the incidence of disease. This is because different crops belong to different plant families. Within a plant family, there are many diseases that can affect different plants. For example, cucumbers are part of the Cucurbitaceae family which also includes squash, watermelon and more. Diseases that affect cucumbers can also affect other plants in this family, such as watermelon. Rotating the soil used to grow cucurbits with other plants like corn or beans reduces disease pathogens by breaking their cycles. Crop rotation is often overlooked in home gardens, but can have great results.
Another reason gardeners may struggle is the condition of their soil. Soil sampling can help you understand what your garden needs, in terms of nutrients, so you can fertilize or lime as needed. The results you get will tell you exactly what you need to put in your soil to make fertility perfect. Soil with a pH that is too high or too low will cause problems with plant nutrient uptake because the soil chemistry makes it difficult to extract nutrients. Using soil testing services will allow you to get your perfect soil with minimal inputs. If you need test boxes, you can come to our office to get some for free.
Finally, I would like to write about the importance of multiple plantings. Short-lived plants like squash can be planted several times per season. Squash plants will look sick and rough at the end of their useful life. Once the squash has been harvested from this plant, instead of keeping it in the garden, it is best to tear it up and replant it because another squash plant has time to endure in that spot. This is often called intensive planting or succession planting and is common among experienced gardeners. Longer-lived plants like tomatoes can even be planted sequentially provided you start them from seed and transplant them into the garden. Successive planting takes a bit of work on your part, but can end up causing produce to keep flowing from your garden all season long.
If you try and still fail, don’t be discouraged. There is the chance next year to try again and maybe learn something from this season. However, if you find yourself without enough produce from your garden over the course of a season, the best place to buy it is the Salisbury-Rowan Farmer’s Market, which opens every Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon.
Cody Craddock is an Agricultural/Natural Resources Officer with Rowan County Extension.