2010-04-15 / News

Your most important gardening tools

The Island Garden
By Roger Marshall

Most beginning gardeners rarely figure out the two most important tools for a gardener to have. They’re not soil and water, but observation and feel – your eyes and fingers.

You need to inspect your plants, whether you have one or thousands. You need to touch them and more importantly, touch the soil – especially with container plants. You also need to feel the temperature around the plants.

When looking at your plants, look to see how they are enjoying where you put them. Are they growing? Are the leaves green or are they yellow? Are the leaves normal or have they curled? Are the plants standing tall or are they wilted? Are there any insects or insect eggs on them? Have any leaves turned yellow or worse, turned brown?

Look to see if flower buds have started yet. If you see flower buds on potatoes, for example, it is a sign that the plant is maturing and you need to hill up around the plant to cover the developing potatoes. If you see flower buds on tomatoes, you can pollinate by gently squeezing the flower. Or, if insects are not present, for eggplants and peppers, you may have to take a tiny paintbrush and paint each flower to ensure good pollination. In fact, if you are growing indoors and insects are not present, you should pollinate by hand.

It also doesn’t hurt to knock a plant out of its pot and check the roots. If the roots are going around the bottom of the pot, the plant is root bound and it’s time to transplant. Container plants should be checked this way at least once a year.

For container plants, it’s important to push a finger into the soil now and then. If the soil is dry, you need to water. If it is wet, don’t water. If you can’t get your finger into the soil of a container plant, check the roots to see if it is root bound.

Use your finger to check the warmth of the soil before you plant seeds. For good seed germination, soil should be above 60 degrees. In most cases, outdoor soil doesn’t get over 60 degrees around here until the middle of June, but gardeners eager to get a jump on the season sow seeds when soil temperatures are in the mid to upper forties and then they wonder why they don’t get good germination and lots of plants.

I’ve found that you can increase your yields and get a longer growing season by starting seeds in a warm area and transplanting them. There are very few plants that cannot be transplanted. Root crops such as carrots, parsnips, turnips and beets are difficult to transplant, but almost all other plants can be moved, which means that seed starting can be done anywhere and at any time. For example, I have germinated spinach and lettuce in the middle of January in my growing area and moved the plants to the greenhouse to get fresh vegetables by mid-March.

However, mid-winter gardening does not work if your plants are germinated in a cool place. If your growing temperatures are below 50 degrees, you may not get good germination and your plants may not grow.

In fact, you may be surprised to see grey mold – botrytis – on the plant stems. If you find botrytis, you might as well throw the plants out unless you catch it early, move the plants to a warmer area and keep them a little drier.

So, instead of going out and buying a whole pile of garden tools, arm yourself with good powers of observation and a sense of touch. Learn what your plants should look like and what plants with disease or ailments look like.

When you use these tools – which don’t cost anything – you will become a better gardener.

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