story and photos by claire c. schuchman StepS toA GreAt GArden Second of a three part series garden with vibrant healthy plants is funda- mentally a beautiful place. Let’s take a look at three horticultural practices that lead to healthy plants. First is healthy soil; feed the soil and the soil will feed the plants. Second is good plant placement, or “right plant, right place.” Third is good watering practices. HealtHy Soil Our foremothers and forefathers were much better acquainted with their land than we are today. Instinctively, they understood the necessity of healthy soil and knew how to achieve it. This knowledge was passed down through the generations. As a teenager, I remember my mother carefully adding well-composted horse manure to her suburban vegetable garden. My Nana had a mysterious pile of discarded plant material in an out-of-the-way corner of her tiny urban garden. She threw in kitchen waste like broken egg shells for calcium, grass clippings high in nitrogen, along with brown autumn leaves for carbon. She often mixed it all up with a pitchfork, allowing air and water to penetrate the layers and aiding decomposition. Eventually, this mixture turned into black, sweet smelling compost—black gold to the gardener. She dug it back into her soil when she planted and even top-dressed around the existing plants. Each gardened for different results—my mother for veg- etables, my Nana for the beauty of flowers and shrubs. But they had soil building in common. They both knew that compost attracts beneficial organisms like worms and micro- organisms. These little “heroes” of the garden will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves by tunneling through the soil, dragging decaying carbon material from the compost with them, digesting it and leaving behind nitrogen-enriched soil. As they tunnel, they move the sand, silt and clay around Rich and moist, compost is one of the best things you can give your garden. Best of all, you can make it yourself. until eventually the soil has a healthy structure called “tilth.” Good tilth has tiny passages that allow air, water and nutrients to penetrate the surface and travel directly to the root zones of your plants. Yes, healthy soil is a must. RigHt plant, RigHt place Seems pretty reasonable, but haven’t we all seen a large shrub planted too close to the house, perhaps even entirely covering a window? Or, how about that cute little evergreen tree that is now 60 feet tall, planted four feet away from the corner of the house? Or the poor shrub mutilated by poor pruning? No good. So what does the gardener need to know about “right plant, right place?” First, plan for the mature size of the plant. Second, know your conditions. For instance, is your planting area in shade or sun? Is it moist or dry? What is the soil pH, and what is your agricultural zone? In Mt. Lebanon, ours is 6a. This means plants here need to be able to withstand tempera- tures to 10 degrees below zero. Plan to use plants that are well suited to the conditions of your garden. good wateRing pRacticeS It’s not enough to water often; you have to water smart. Your plants much prefer a deep soak once a week to a bunch of shallow sprinkles several times a week. In my experience, this is the single most mis- understood concept by the novice gardener. First, the water has to get to the root zone of the plant. Watering the foliage for 15 seconds is nice but does the plant practically no good. Much better to lay the end of the hose down on the ground with the open end right on top of the root zone, set the water on a slow steady stream and go away for an hour. And that’s just for a small shrub. As long as the water is penetrating the 38 mtl • may 2011 “Healthy Plants” _________________________ __________________________________________ Step Two __________________________________________ __________________________________________ __________________________________________ __________________________________________ __________________________________________ __________________________________________ __________________________________________ __________________________________________ __________________________________________ __________________________________________ __________________________________________ __________________________________________