practical gardening-sources and skills-Part two-skills

March 22, 2024

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Note: The image that leads this article is the memorial garden at Christ Church, Oxford University. It memorializes the faculty and students lost in the “Great War.” World War I. It is a beautiful and poignant experience to visit it. On the walkway below your feet is a quotation from Bunyan’s “Pilgrim‘s Progress. Surrounding you are gardens representing the environment the scholars turned soldiers left behind.

A truly great garden should be unforgettable. This one certainly is! This is one of the two discussions about the knowledge and skills you need to make an unforgettable garden.

Part Two: Skills You Will Always Use

Part one of this discussion is devoted to the best sources of information I can find. It includes the places I go to over and over.

The best sources of information are where to start. However the best gardeners I know say that you are not a real gardener until you have killed some plants. So here is how to get dirty. I think that there are 5 steps to becoming a gardener. Here they are:

  • Read and watch
  • Talk
  • Practice
  • Experiment
  • Repeat

Read everything you can. Today we learn conveniently and visually. Watch the videos, in lots of cases it is easier to have someone show you how to do a job than it is to have it explained to you. However you learn best, do it. And keep doing it. A tomatoe is not just a tomatoe. New varieties every day, new tools and ideas every day. Keep learning.

Talk to gardeners, people who have made the mistakes so you don’t have to. Go to shows and lectures. Take garden tours. We have never wasted any time spent looking at someone else’s garden.

“Practice, practice, practice.” It is nice to see that someone can grow wonderful roses, but it is way better if you grow them in your own garden. There is not much that matches it!

Experiment-follow the rules of course. But if you have a little time, a little space, a little idea, try it out. Here’s an example. We lived in Central Florida, on the coast in zone 9b. We grew lovely Cameillas. We loved them.

We moved to South Florida, on the same coast but in zone 10b. Planting Cameillas was not something we would do here. We thought our old garden was as far south as these plants would grow.

Now we see that our local botanical garden is experimenting with Cameillas. Some in pots, some in the ground. Most look reasonably good. Then we volunteered at a garden tour. It was a beautiful waterside garden designed by one of the world’s most prominent designers of tropical gardens.

The last flower we expected to see was a Cameilla! The gardener who had maintained the place for many years just put one in. It looked great.

It just took a little imagination (and of course a little willingness to risk failure-not all experiments work.) So take a little risk now and then.

Repeat: Never quit! Just keep doing it.

About The Skills!

There are some garden skills, so valuable, so often needed that we should all know how to do them. I will continue to build this list of those most useful skills.

Remember, this is the reading step. Talk to other gardeners, they may teach you something I left out. Practice, you will get better every time. Experiment-who knows what you’ll figure out.

Acclimating Plants To New Environments

This is also called “Hardening Off” or “Sending Your Plant To Summer Camp”! In spring it sounds like a great idea to let the houseplants go outdoors for the summer. It is but there are caveats…

We don’t think of our houses as dark places but compared to outdoors, they are. This will affect the plants. In winter they are in a dormant state, in spring things are changing. If you take some time you will be pleased with your results.

When To Do It

Start this process about 2-4 weeks from your last expected frost date. How will I find this date? The link will take you to the NOAA website with weather map.

Allow about two weeks to complete the process. Put the plants outdoors in a shady spot during the day and bring them back at night. To a plant, after a season indoors even one hour of direct sun can create damage that will take weeks to correct.

Will this work for all plants? Not all, some tender tropical plants will not acclicimate to a temperate climate summer. African Violets, for example may not thrive outdoors. Some plants can hang from trees in summer. Orchids are very attractive this way.

What about food and water? Plants outdoors in summer will be in growth mode. They will require more of both.

How will we know how much is enough?


Too little water: look first to the leaves, they will wilt, a shiny plant will become dull.

Too much? The signs of too much water are these:

  • The Lower Leaves turn yellow
  • The plant looks stunted
  • The roots can rot or are stunted
  • The plant fails to grow


Plants require nutrition, but it is possible to over-fertilize and it does damage which is not unlike the damage done by lack of nutrition. Signs of too much fertilizer are:

  • Stunted Growth
  • The leaf margins can appear burned or dried
  • They can wither or turn yellow

If you think that your problem is too much fertilization you can wash run water through the plant in a sink.


Some houseplants will not survive in direct sun. Examples are Peace lily, Some philodendron, and Dieffenbachia.


If heavy winds are expected they can be severely damaging. Move plants to a sheltered spot.

Summer’s End

Know when to expect the first frost date of the fall and begin the process in reverse a few weeks before.

Good Garden Soil-What Is It?-Why Is It Imprtant? How Do I Get It?

Good Garden Soil, you will know it when you see it! It is rich in humus. That is what happens when organic material breaks down. It should be light in your hand, dark in color, and able to both hold moisture and permit water to drain. If you remember Goldilocks when you were little-good soil is the “perfect porridge”.

Why is it important? The soil is your plant’s dinner plate. Yes, plants need sun and they need water. The soil, however is where the nutrients come from. You can have good soil and an unhealthy plant, if you neglect sun and water. But you can do everything else right and if the soil is not nutritient rich, you cannot succeed growing plants. It’s that simple.

Your soil can be improved. This article will describe for you the different kinds of soil; sand, silt, clay, and how to recognize each one and how to amend them to make them healthy.

Soil Types and How to Improve It.

Soil Testing

What It Can Do For Us – What Testing Includes

A pH less than 7 is Acidic and above is Alkaline (also called basic). Most cultivated plants prefer about 6.5. The pH level needs to be in the correct range for the plants to take up nutrients.

The test will also measure potassium an phosphorous because your plants require both of these nutrients in rather large amounts.

Next, the test will measure for nutrients hour at are needed but in much smaller quantities. These include iron, manganese, and zinc. Enriching the soil with organic matter will ensure enough of these.

Your Desired Result

Here is the really important part. You will know that your soil has what your plants need to thrive and you will feed your plants without any excess of nutrients and fertilizers. You will be doing the earth a big favor.

How To Get The Test Done

There are two ways to do this. You can buy a test kit and perform the measurements yourself or use a professional testing lab.

State Agricultural Colleges provide no or low-cost testing through your local County Extension service. Here is how to find yours. These lab tests are designed for the soil in your local area.

The home tests are not localized and of course most of us are not laboratory professionals. My confidence would go to the professional lab. In the home test you mix soil and water and match the outcomes to color charts. I found this difficult. “Is it beige, is it peach.”

Take The Soil Samples

Your responsibility, no matter where you go for the testing is to take reasonable random samples. Here is how:

Each garden purpose area gets its own sample. Take one set of samples from the ornamental beds, one from vegetable areas, one from the turf areas.

Take several samples from each section. Mix them together in equal quantities, removing sticks, mulch, stones or hard lumps. Put together a bag for each garden section and label it. One for turf, one for vegetables etc. Follow the lab instructions regarding the samples. Normally you will be expected to produce about a cup for each.

Do not take samples from spots with unusual history. For example the place where you fill the fertilizer spreader, a place which has held construction equipment will negatively affect accuracy.

Send the sample off with the appropriate forms. Your answer should take about two weeks and is delivered in the form of a report. The reports are detailed, take some time to understand them. If you have trouble, usually someone from your Extension office will help you.

When Should I Take Samples?

The optimal time is several months before planting season because some ammendments take time to fully be absorped by the soil. Lime additions, if recommended can take as much as 6 months to be fully absorbed.

Perfection is often the enemy of well done, however. When you start your garden when you really want to know. Test the soil then. No garden was ever ruined by its owner knowing too much!

What Is In The Lab’s Report?

The lab report is detailed, it will tell you what was found and gives you recommendations to follow in order to maximize the nutritional value of your soil. Here is a sample report from the University of Georgia.


Follow what your learned about ammending your soil, use your County Extension Service if you need advice. Repeat the tests periodically or if you make a significant change such as changing the purpose of a garden area.

Under normal circumstance, retesting should take place about every three years. If significant changes were recommended you may prefer to retest in one year.

Right Plant Right Place

This is a skill worth practicing. It will make your life more comfortable in the garden, save money, and reduce problems and use of chemicals because plants are not healthy.

Read The Label On The Pot

At the garden center, read the label carefully. Check the plant’s need for sun, soil and nutrients. Does it require pruning and when? Can you accommodate these requirements?

Learn Companion Planting

Identify the plant’s best companions. Companion planting is placing different plants in proximity for various benefits. These include pest control. pollination, attracting beneficial insects or simply conserving space.

Here are two examples

This is the story of the Sweet Alyssum and the Hoverfly. Sweet Alyssum is a small, creeping plant with a lovely scent and tiny nectar-filled blossoms. The Hoverfly is a tiny insect that loves the nectar. Its offspring, however, have different tastes. They are carnivores and live on Aphids. As Aphids are a hated garden pest, this is a very cozy relationship for us gardeners. So we plant Sweet Alyssum near any plant that has a problem with aphids. That’s companion planting.

The second is about growing Culinary Herbs. These are useful, small herbs many of which grow well together. Some are good companions because they thrive in the same conditions.

Chive, Mint, Chervil, Coriander, and Vietnamese Coriander all thrive on plenty of water. Conversely, Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, and Oregano need dry conditions.

Some do not work together. Consider the effect that Dill and Carrots have together. Dill attracts the Carrot fly, damaging Carrots, the plants can cross-pollinate which can create a poor-tasting hybrid.

If you would like more information on growing culinary herbs, read on. Each one will lead you to a detailed report on specific herbs.