I think the true gardener is a lover of his flowers, not a critic of them.
I think the true gardener is the reverent servant of Nature, not her truculent, wife-beating master.
I think the true gardener, the older he grows, should more and more develop a humble, grateful and uncertain spirit.
Reginald Farrer, In a Yorkshire Garden, 1909

Sunday, March 4, 2012

What I learned

No pets, no poop
I wanted to title this post 'basic tips for happy gardening' but decided not to. 'Tips' would sound like an expert giving advice. But since I am way off being someone who are able to advice others, I thought I could pen down what I have learned in my limited experience based on the spirit of sharing.

When I started, one of the first places I visited was the local plant nurseries. Its a great place to get acquainted with the different varieties of plants, to observe their characters and to learn a few things from the staffs there. I tried to locate and visit as many nurseries as possible to check the prices, of course, but more importantly to see what's available since not all nurseries carry the same kind of plants. Some may focus more on flowering plants, some on fruit trees and some others on small decorative and herb plants.

Have you ever brought home a nice potted plant after spending time combing through the various species available and choosing the best one only to see it wilt away and eventually die off? Or the hard time figuring what type of soil to use for the different plants that you have collected? Or when to use ceramic pots and plastic pots?

I remember buying a few different colors of dianthus from a nursery and transfered them onto the ground but after a few weeks, they wilted and died. There are no guarantee that plants that looked so tempting and nice in a nursery will remain at its optimum when brought back to a home garden. Its common for people to buy plants based on the external appearance and then expect them to remain pretty and nice all the time. But plants are a living thing and changes in the environment can either enhance or adversely affect a plant's growth.

Here's a list of things I have learned over time:
  1. Not all nurseries display the proper/scientific names of the plants they sell. In fact, most don't. But I found a nursery that do and I was able to relate the plants to their names. Back home, I will search the web to learn more about the characteristics of the plants that interest me. Its important to know your plants so that its growth is maintained at its optimum. Some plants are called 'hardies' because they can thrive in any/poor conditions but some can be very sensitive and they will show you their displeasure rather quickly. So having the knowledge will at least help you to ensure your money is well spent.
  2. I use to ignore the important role of soil. I use to think that as long as there is soil and water, the plant will do fine. True for some but not for all. If you have a chance to visit your local nursery, observe the type of soil used in the pots. You will notice that some are more reddish in color - higher content of red soil, some are dark black color containing burnt chips or compost, some are mulched with coco-coir/peat to retain higher level of moisture, etc. Depending on the plants, soil content can be light and loose for fast drainage to prevent root rot or can be densed and heavy to hold water. I have found that composted soil is a safe bet but some plants may require mixing it up with cocopeat and black soil.
  3. The best configuration is to mix composted soil with vermicast. It is an excellent product to use when preparing potted soil. Since vermicast is based on micro-organisms, one need not worry about N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorous, potash) levels. The problem with using NPK fertilizers is the risk of overdosing the plant, causing the leaves to turn yellowish brown and die off.  
  4. I still use NPK type fertilizer from time to time but after my painful lessons of seeing the leaves dying off, I now use them in much smaller quantities. Organic fertilizer is definitely the way to go.
  5. Avoid fertilizers that attract ants. One of the cheapest fertilizer used my many nurseries (at least in my area) is chicken dung (in tablet form). But I found this to attract ants. Ants is a big headache as I have seen them affecting the growth of my plants by building their nest inside the potted soil.
  6. To get rid of ants in potted plants, sprinkle some ant bait powder (in small quantity). It really works. Its more effective if you can identify the nest and sprinkle near it and let the soil dry as much as possible so that the powder will not easily dissolve and the ants can carry them all the way into their nest.
  7. If the ants come back after a while, you will need to find out the source of the problem. I have learned that ants are attracted to mealy bugs. The bugs releases a sweet scent which attracts the ants and in the process protects the bugs. Unless you get rid of the bugs, the ants will continue to come.
  8. Be watchful of nuisance pests. There are many types and different regions will have different kinds but the most common ones are the mealy bugs, aphids, thrips, white fly, scales, serpentine leaf miner, ants and grasshoppers. Scales will attack the leaves and the branches. On branches, they can camouflage themselves pretty well. Had me fooled in the beginning but I wised up. Organic insecticides such as neem oil and white oil can help but also predatory insects like ladybugs, dragonflies, praying mantis, lacewings, frogs, birds and bees. Butterflies for me unfortunately is more of a pest as the eggs that they lay on new shoots will turn into caterpillars and they will start munching your leaves away.
  9. I have avoided the use of chemical insecticides as they will not only destroy pests but drive predatory insects away too. The effect of chemical insecticides I believe are quicker but its definitely not good for the leaves and fruits that you will consume later. The best way, and I have been practising this, is to manually remove those pests with your fingers and hands. It can be a tedious process but once things are brought under control, it gets easier.
  10. I would pick off leaves that turn brownish at the tips or wilt or fall off. Better not to leave the leaves inside the pot to prevent fungus/bacteria infection to the soil. Also, look out for leaves that have snake-like patterns which is caused by the serpentine leaf miner. Immediately pluck the infected leave off and dispose it.
  11. I found that quite a number of plants especially herbs or small plants can be propagated through stem cutting. Its quicker than growing from seeds I would think and useful if seeds are not easily available. And its one effective way to share plants with others. After all, when plants grow too big or tall, we need to trim them down. It would be a waste to throw the stems away.
  12. I use two different kinds of containers - ceramic pot and plastic pot. I read that plastic pots contain water better than ceramic pots. But for me, I use plastic pots for easy carrying or moving the pots around. For bigger plants, plants that are exposed to direct sunlight and plants that I don't foresee changing pots that often, I would go for ceramic pots. Plastic pots tend to give way over time when exposed to direct sunlight. Well, price is another factor. With large size pots, ceramic ones are way cheaper than plastic ones.
So, here are the 12 things I learned but I am sure there are plenty more. Please share with me what you have learned in your gardening experience.

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