By Jennifer McDonald, Mobile County Master Gardener |CoastalAlabamaGardening@gmail.com
One thing any experienced gardener can tell you is that one of the biggest secrets to success is experience itself. The only way to earn that valuable experience is to simply get out there and do it! And keep doing it.
It’s important for any gardener to accept that you’re going to make some mistakes along the way and, ideally, to approach it with a bit of patience and humor. I’ve made lots of mistakes, last decade as well as last week, and I’ll make plenty more through the years to come. Here are just a few mistakes that I’ve learned from personally:
Ignoring sun requirements: I hate to think of all the time I wasted trying to grow sun-loving flowering plants in the shady areas of my yard, wondering why they weren’t blooming and thriving. Of course, I’d seen the tags on the plants with the sun requirements, but I guess I figured it was more of a friendly suggestion. It turns out those sun requirements are actually pretty important!
Certain plants may be a bit more flexible than others, especially depending on the climate, and many strongly prefer to get their sun in the morning rather than in the afternoon. However, in general a flowering plant needing “full sun” (six hours a day) isn’t going to thrive in the shade, nor is a shade plant going to fare well out in the open where it gets sun all day.
In other words, it was a really bad idea to plant my first big vegetable garden between two oak trees that blocked the morning and afternoon sun. I saw that brief midday sun shining bright and thought, “Meh, that’s good enough.” I spent a frustrating year watering, adding amendments and wondering why my plants were puny and unproductive. The answer was so simple that it actually made me laugh. Oops.
Trying to grow plants that aren’t suited to our area: Most plants will do their best to try to survive in whatever conditions you give them, but there’s only so much stress they can take. Trying to grow a plant that was never meant to grow in our climate can be an uphill battle for an inexperienced gardener, and it can require far more work than native plants or plants otherwise suited to our local climate.
Many years ago I fell madly in love with the desert on a camping trip to the Southwest, and I ended up bringing home a pack of Joshua tree seeds, thinking I could create my own little desert oasis in my backyard. As it turns out, Mobile doesn’t quite have a desert-like climate. Ha! I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised a tree meant for dry summers was defeated by our rain and humidity. Oops.
Planting at the wrong time: Fortunately our climate can be pretty forgiving when it comes to planting times for many types of perennials and trees, but it’s especially important to plant your vegetables at the proper time to ensure production.
Although we are technically located in Hardiness Zone 8b, it’s important to note that often the planting times suggested on the back of your seed packs or almanacs are actually not ideal for the Mobile area. You can contact Mobile County Master Gardeners or the Mobile office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System for a copy of the “Plain Garden Planting Cycle,” a handy chart providing the best planting times for our local area. I have found the chart to be an invaluable resource for local vegetable gardening and a total game changer for me. Or … there’s an app for that. Check out SOW – A Planting Companion, created by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.
One of my biggest surprises was learning that in our area, cold weather plants like broccoli, cabbage and brussels sprouts should be sown in the windowsill in July and put in the ground in September in order to make the most of our mild winters.
I had been putting my broccoli in the ground in February, per the seed packet’s instructions for my zone, leaving it no time to produce tasty heads before the weather turned warm and the plant bolts. I thought I did everything right, but all I really got was a big bed of yellow flowers on tiny bitter heads. Oops.
Overwatering: Under-watering is a well-known issue, but over-watering can be just as stressful to plants, and can even kill them. Get to know your plants’ watering needs and be careful not to overdo it. Regular sprinklers are generally not recommended due to the increased risk of disease caused by overhead watering; instead, you should consider drip irrigation and other methods that focus on watering near the base of the plant.
But if you insist on using a sprinkler, take my advice and don’t accidentally leave it running all night and day. I knew it was bad when I heard a sloshing sound as soon as I stepped into my garden, and then I saw a little grape tomato floating sadly in a mud puddle beside my tomato plant. I ended up losing my entire bed of squash and corn due to root rot, not to mention the money I lost on the water bill. Oops.
Hopefully you can avoid a few of my biggest mistakes, but it’s pretty much a guarantee you’ll make plenty of your own along the way. It’s all part of the fun!
Gardening Events for Your Calendar
What: Annual Greenery Sale, Holiday Market and Art Bazaar
When: THIS WEEKEND! Dec. 6 and 7 (9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. Saturday)
Where: Mobile Botanical Gardens, 5151 Museum Drive
Don’t worry if you did not pre-order; there will be great selections for you!
What: 24th season of Magic Christmas in Lights at Bellingrath Gardens and Home
Set out in a walking tour of the gardens, which features 3 million lights and 15 scenes.
When: Nov. 29 through Dec 31 (5 to 9 p.m. nightly, except Christmas and New Year’s Day)
Where: 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore
More info: Go to bellingrath.org
What: Alabama Master Gardeners State Conference
When: March 30 – April 1, 2020
Current activity: Inviting sponsors and donors to participate
Contact: AMGA2020Mobile@gmail.com for information about sponsorships and donations for the conference.
Master Gardener Helpline: 877-252-4769, or send your gardening questions to email@example.com
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