I’m still amazed by seeds and all the potential they have inside … from the acorn comes the mighty oak, right? All seeds need is the proper environmental conditions and off they grow. But if it’s so simple, how is it that things can go so terribly awry when we garden? Sometimes we overdo it and end up creating more problems than we bargained for. Too much of any one thing, even a good thing, usually ends up backfiring.

Healthy plants

Buy only healthy plant material to avoid plant problems.

Photo Credit: Lee Ivy


A layer of mulch can dress up the most drab-looking bed, as well as keep weeds at bay!

Photo Credit: Lee Ivy

Till and amend soil

After spreading lime and fertilizer, till it 6-8 inches deep so the nutrients will be more available to the plant roots.

Photo Credit: Lee Ivy

Like many things in life, gardening isn’t an exact science. But by applying a few basic gardening principles – seven to be exact – we can do our plants and ourselves a world of good:

  • First off, you’ve got to start with healthy plants. Select insect-, disease- and weed-free plants. If you chose only healthy selections, you’re less likely to battle pest or disease problems in the future. Don’t be shy when shopping for plants! Be like me and carefully pull those plants out of their pots to inspect the root systems right there in the garden center. Hey, I figure I’m buying the whole plant, not just the top. I need to know what I’m getting. (FYI, generally speaking, that means skip the discount rack!)
  • Watering is the second most basic step to caring for plants. Once plants are established, natural rains should provide enough water for most. But when it gets consistently dry, we’ve got to help out some of our more sensitive plants – especially those that are newly planted. As a general rule of thumb, applying 1 inch of water (5 gallons per square yard of surface area, or 620 gallons per 1,000 square feet) once a week on established plants and turf is what’s recommended. Watering deeply once a week is much better for plants than short, frequent waterings. Deeper watering equals deeper rooting, and that means you get plants with healthier root systems!
  • Lime and fertilizer are also important, but only add these amendments based on the recommendations of a soil test. Indiscriminately putting out these products can do more harm than good. Lime increases soil pH, so if your pH is already within in the range for the plant you’re growing, additional lime can really throw things out of whack. The same is true for fertilizer. Most of us have the mentality that “more is better,” so we over-apply these amendments to make things grow faster – and wind up wasting money and harming our plants. Yes, a soil sample may cost, but you’ll save in the long run when you’re not buying and applying amendments you don’t need – and not having to replace plants.
  • A good layer of mulch goes a long way in the plant world. Mulching, after pruning, is one of my favorite garden chores! It sounds crazy, but there’s nothing like slinging a shovelful of mulch to the ground. I can’t help but think of the headache I’m saving myself later by adding this important element to my landscape. A 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch conserves moisture and blocks sunlight from the beds. Without light, weed seeds can’t germinate and become a problem. Word to the wise: Remember to keep mulch several inches away from the crown of plants.
  • Let’s talk about soil. Whether you’ve got clay or sandy soil, adding organic matter like compost will improve it. If you add organic matter to a sandy soil, it’ll enhance its water-holding capability. If you add it to clay soil, the organic matter will increase the soil’s drainage. The key is to incorporate approximately 2-3 inches of organic matter into the soil. Spreading it on top won’t have the same effect. Another word of advice – don’t add sand to clay or you’ll get what’s affectionately referred to as “brick,” and brick is not a good medium for growing plants!
  • We can’t forget to talk about pesticides. My husband teases me that I love to follow rules. For the most part, he’s right. It’s just my nature. So the do’s and don’ts of pesticide use are right up my alley. If you’re using pesticides, one of the big rules is to use them at the right time and in the right place. To avoid misusing a pesticide, just carefully read and follow the product label—the label is the law. Not only can misuse of pesticides lead to fines, following the instructions for proper application is critical to the successful control of pests in the landscape. Be sure the product you wish to use has two things on the label: 1) The plant you wish to spray and 2) the insect or disease you wish to control. Unless both of these pieces of information appear on the label, it’s not only illegal to apply, but it probably won’t work – and might even harm your plants.
  • We can’t have a list of basic gardening principles without including plant problems – every gardener’s nightmare. When plants begin to die, we generally freak out! Then, we usually do one of two things: water or fertilize. Sometimes we even do both. Neither of these practices is necessarily bad, but without properly identifying the plant’s problem, you may be doing more harm than good. Water and fertilizer (the lack of or overuse of) are often the very source of many plant problems. So instead of just applying these, do a little investigative work to figure out what’s wrong. The last thing you want to do is drown your plants with water instead of fighting an insect infestation!

While it would be great if we could just let nature take its course with our gardens like it does with so many acorns, we have to remember our gardens need our help. Sometimes we get caught up in reading tags and searching websites for every plant’s specific needs, trying to do the best we can. If you can retain that information, that’s fabulous! If not, just understanding these seven gardening basics will carry you a long way toward a green thumb and a colorful garden.