Alabama Extension Master Gardeners Coordinator Offers Tips for Beginning Gardeners
Kerry Smith, coordinator of the Alabama Extension Master Gardeners, discusses tips for beginning gardeners, increasing gardening as food prices rise, plant health and how to have a garden even if space is limited. Smith also serves as coordinator of Extension’s Home Grounds team and outreach administrator for Auburn University’s Department of Horticulture.
Q: For beginner gardeners, what should be the first step?
Kerry Smith: Never guess, soil test. There are seven main soil types in Alabama. Within each of these regions, a wide variation in soil characteristics can exist. Taking the example of a residential landscape or a park, soils near structures, paved surfaces, or in pathways with daily foot traffic are often more compacted, lacking air space. The quality, or health, of the soil reflects the nature of the soil (piedmont, coastal plain, limestone valley, etc.) and its past history.
Any soil can be improved by adding compost. Uncomposted plant debris can also be used, such as pine straw or shredded brown leaves. Use them to modify new planting beds or as fresh mulch in older beds. Composted plant debris adds several benefits to the root zone – increased water holding capacity, air spaces for roots to breathe, and better retention of soil nutrients that plants need. Learn more about soil testing and soil health on our Alabama Extension website.
Q: Are more people planting fruits and vegetables as food prices rise in grocery stores?
Black-smith: We think so. Even before the pandemic, interest in home food production was on the rise. When the proverbial COVID shutdown forced everyone to stay home for several months, this trend seemed to intensify. The extension workers’ phones were ringing non-stop and the e-mail boxes were flooded with questions from new gardeners. Garden centers could not keep plants, seeds and related products in stock. At the same time, the number of food insecure families has also increased.
We answered. A conversation between Jefferson County Extension master gardeners Laura Kezar, Cathy O’Sheal and Mindy Bodenhamer and their extension agent, Bethany O’Rear, was the start. They looked at basic garden questions and common failures of beginning gardeners. Then they thought, “If we teach people to cultivate a productive garden, maybe they will share their wealth. The philanthropic addition was made and a new extension program, Grow More, Give More, began.
Q: Tell us about some interesting gardening information that might be unknown to most gardeners, whether experienced or novice.
Black-smith: Plant health starts underground. Healthy soil should contain approximately 50% mineral and organic components (sand, silt, clay and organic matter) and 50% pore space for water and air. The mineral and organic components (living, dead, and composted carbon-based organisms) form a strong structure to anchor plant roots, a healthy environment for soil microbes to thrive, and a storehouse for essential soil nutrients. The other half, the porous space, provides air circulation and a reservoir of water. Healthy soil equals healthy roots, and healthy roots lead to healthy plants.
Q: If a person does not have garden space for a garden, what are the other options?
Black-smith: Build a raised bed or grow your plants in containers. There are many materials used to build a raised bed – think scrap lumber or concrete blocks. Any gallon container is the perfect place to plant a few daylilies or happy pansies. Keep in mind that larger plants will need larger containers. Larger plants have more roots than smaller plants. I recommend a container size of at least five gallons for growing a tomato plant. Be sure to use potting soil and not original soil. Potting mixes flow best in the confined space of container gardens. I also think container gardening is a great entry point for beginners. It’s a small area, takes less time to manage, and can often fit almost anywhere. Get creative and start a new garden today.
This story originally appeared on the Auburn University website.