Getting back to the basics of plant care

In the middle of winter most of us are inside only dreaming of what our garden will be once the temperatures warm up. As active gardeners we spend the winter months taking care of our houseplants, reading garden magazines, flipping through mail-order seed catalogs and planning for our garden in the New Year.

As all of your plans come together, it is important to remember the basic elements your plants need to not only survive but add beauty your yard and home. By keeping in mind a few simple rules of plant care as you layout your garden for the New Year you can have a successful growing season.

Plants need only a few key elements to grow, stay healthy and look their best.

Air in the soil

Perhaps one of the most important factors in plant growth is the amount of air in the soil. Plants need air. The roots of a plant take in air the same way we do. They take in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Deprived of air, roots or portions of roots die of suffocation.

If roots of a plant are deprived of air your plant is in danger. There are a few ways roots can become deprived of air.

  • In heavy garden soils, the space between soil particles (the pore space) is very small. When water is applied to the soil, it drives out the air by filling small pore spaces. The plant in such a situation wilts, and the unwary gardener waters some more, killing the plant with kindness.
  • After a hard rain, soil may crust over, this causes the air supply to the roots to be partially cut off.
  • When you walk across your grass, the top layer of soil is compacted, depriving the roots of their full requirement for air, and possibly killing your lawn.

Water supply is a careful balance

As every gardener knows, many plants have remarkable recovery powers from neglect in watering. Many flower-producing annuals respond to water stress by flowering more profusely. To the annual plant a dry spell is a signal to get busy with the business of flowering and seed setting before it dies of drought.

In your vegetable garden, any miscalculation or lack of water will be seen in the crops you yield. These vegetable and fruit producing plants need water in order to survive and deliver you with a harvest you and your family can enjoy. Each plant can be different, so if you are uncertain on the watering requirements for any plant reference a gardening guide or plant encyclopedia to assist you in determining what is right for your garden.

Help your plant stay healthy

Plants need nutrients to stay healthy. The daily nutrient requirements for a plant are small but the amount should be available when the plant needs it.

The best way to ensure your plants have the proper nutrients is to feed them. Plant nutrient requirements vary so check the product labels to see what is best for your specific plant type. The plant food package label should indicate the percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium they contain. There are many formulas, 4-12-4, 5-10-10, 6-20-10 and so on but the listings are always in the same order, with the nitrogen first.

If you forget to feed your plants, some may respond by yellowing leaves, they serve as a reminder to the forgetful gardener that it is time to feed your plants again. A carefully measured feeding should help your plant look better. However, with a fast-growing short-season vegetable, lack of nutrients will result in reduced yields and the quality of the vegetable.

Protect your plants

Once you have located the perfect location in the garden bed for your plants, and you have planted them the last step is protecting them. Mulch is a great way to give your plants a little added protection throughout the season. Mulch can act as a barrier in your fight against weeds. It will help keep them out of your garden bed, and from stealing precious water and nutrients from your plants. Applying mulch will protect your plant roots, in the top few inches of soil, from excessively high temperatures, keeping them cool and shaded. When the weather is just the opposite, mulch can help your garden bed conserve moisture and prevent splashing from heavy rains.