It never hurts to go back to the basics from time to time, and that’s what today’s episode is all about – the importance of the fundamentals of gardening. My guest, Daryl Beyers, is author of the just-released book on gardening basics – The New Gardener’s Handbook. Daryl earned a degree in landscape design, and you could say he learned gardening skills bit by bit “in the trenches” – as head gardener at estate gardens.
He went on to inherit the Fundamentals of Gardening course at the New York Botanical Garden. Developed by noted authority, Ralph Snodsmith, the course has been popular for years, and Daryl has enjoyed putting his stamp on it for the past decade.
Letting Go of Control
I like to say that gardening is part art and part science. As living things, plants are predisposed to grow and reproduce. It’s our job to be good stewards – to pay attention to their needs. When you understand the “why” behind how things work, you are equipped to make better decisions and garden without fear of failure.
Daryl used to feel that his mission as a gardener was to keep alive every plant in the landscape under his care. That’s a worthy goal, but it isn’t particularly realistic. As much as we would like to think we have everything under control, the natural world reminds us that we are not in charge.
I’ve learned to embrace that aspect of gardening. Some of our greatest opportunities to learn lie in those unexpected challenges or garden disappointments. Daryl has also made peace with the fact that loss in the garden is inevitable. He likes to remind others that it’s okay when something under our watch doesn’t make it through the season.
We certainly can’t control everything, but we can control our choices. When we base those on a solid understanding of basic principles, our gardens will be better for it.
The Fundamentals of Root Development
It is so easy to become so focused on the growth of foliage, flowers and fruit that we can lose sight of what is fundamental for supporting all that development – the roots. The growth above ground should be balanced with the growth below the surface. So although they aren’t the stars of the show, healthy plant root systems should be a top priority in your garden.
“The first year it sleeps. The second year it creeps. The third year it leaps.” That garden mantra is directly related to root development. During a plant’s first year, the roots are just settling into a new environment and can’t support much new top growth. By the third year after planting, a root system has developed and expanded enough to provide energy to allow the top growth to really take off.
Proper watering plays an important role in allowing the root system to remain healthy and expand through the first few critical years. In class and in his book, Daryl teaches a 3-year watering plan.
During the first 3-4 weeks, water often to keep soil near the plant’s root ball moist (but not overly saturated).
Root systems of mature plants reach out and down into the soil where they can find water during dry periods. New root systems are small and unable to reach much water on their own. That’s why water should be provided right at the base – near the roots. It’s also why new plants will require regular supplemental watering throughout the first season and especially during the hottest months of the year.
Plants transpire – lose moisture – through their foliage. The hotter and windier the conditions, the greater the plant’s rate of transpiration. So during the hottest months of the year, supplemental watering becomes even more important.
As the second season begins, roots have expanded somewhat, but they still need help. You can encourage them to spread out by watering outside of the plant’s drip line. The drip line is the furthest reach of a plant’s foliage – where water would drip off the end of branches. Watering just outside of that area encourages roots to stretch out to find the water source.
In the third year after planting, roots are able to reach some soil-bound water on their own, but you should plan to provide them with supplemental help during the hottest months of the year.
Don’t assume a plant is equipped to make it entirely on its own until the fourth season, and even then, severe drought conditions might require you to help some plants with an extra drink or two. The key is to pay attention and look for signs of drought stress.
The stress caused by hot – or extremely cold – weather should also guide your timing on when to plant a new tree or shrub.
Here in the Atlanta-area, the punishing heat of summer can be too much for new plants in spite of regular watering. On the other hand, winters here tend to remain warm enough that the soil doesn’t freeze. That’s why I recommend fall as the best time to plant for anyone living in a mild climate zone. Mild fall temperatures and dormancy through winter provide a gentler environment to allow new plant root systems to settle in and get going into spring. That way, they have the best head start before having to withstand summer heat.
Gardeners in cooler climates, like Daryl, have a harsh winter to contend with. So, spring is a great time to plant in those areas. Summer heat is milder, so plant roots can get settled in and mature a bit before punishing cold freezes the ground in the winter months.
The moral of this story is to adjust planting time based on the climate in which you grow. Think about which period of the year is the most challenging, and allow your plants as much time as possible between planting and when they will be subjected to those harsh conditions.
The Fundamentals of Providing Nutrients
Do you have any established plants in your landscape that just don’t seem to be thriving? The problem may be related to another gardening fundamental – soil health and fertility.
Soil plays a sometimes undervalued but pivotal role in the success of your plants. It’s the environment that determines whether plant roots can thrive or will stagnate. Adding organic amendments – like compost and shredded leaves – at least once each year will improve the fertility and texture of soil, so plant roots – and the plants they support – will have what they need for growth and production.
If you haven’t been providing those regular amendments, you might need to give things a little bit of a jumpstart with organic fertilizer.
Like me, Daryl avoids using synthetic fertilizer products. Although the nutrients in synthetics and organics are the same at a molecular level, synthetic products come with some serious risks.
Less is always more when it comes to fertilizer. The dosage instructions on the package should be followed carefully, and that is especially true with synthetic products. Otherwise, you risk damaging plants, and the excess nutrients are likely to leach into waterways. I encourage you to check out my podcast and my blog post discussing the “why” behind how synthetic and organic fertilizers work.
If you’re ever in doubt about whether a fertilizer product is organic or synthetic, check the 3 ratio numbers on the package. Organic fertilizers tend to provide a lower nutrient dosage. The ratio numbers are typically under 10. If a product indicates a ratio like 20-15-10, those higher numbers are the first indication that the product is synthetic.
Daryl likes to put the lower nutrient ratio of organic fertilizer to work in a 3-month jumpstart program for any lackluster plants in the landscape under his care. As soon as the soil is workable in early spring, he applies organic fertilizer to the soil surface near the plant’s root zone. He repeats the application two more times – about 4 weeks apart.
The organic nutrients provide the plant the boost it needs to begin to thrive again. If the soil is particularly unhealthy, plants might benefit from two or three seasons of this spring fertilizer jumpstart. Just be sure not to overdo it. Observe the response of your plants before you take action. Too much of a good thing can definitely be too much when it comes to fertilizer.
Meanwhile, you can build soil health for the long term with compost and other organic materials. Those are the good things you can be generous within the garden.
These days, there is a lot of misinformation out there, and it can lead good gardeners in the wrong direction. At best, it certainly can – and does – create a lot of confusion. I see it in my Facebook group thread all the time – well-meaning gardeners sharing bad information.
When you understand the fundamentals, you can see through the hype and the gimmicks to know what to do and what to avoid. The fundamentals empower you to know when it’s okay to experiment with a new approach or how to learn from a mistake. Understanding the “why” frees you from what I like to call paralysis by analysis.
If you’re in the area, I encourage you to check out the New York Botanical Garden’s class with Daryl. Even if you’ve been gardening for years, a refresher on the fundamentals can be a game-changer.
I created a gardening fundamentals online course to help gardeners who aren’t able to attend a class like Daryl’s or who prefer the flexibility of online learning on their own schedule (and at their own pace). I have to admit that I was surprised to see the first class of students last spring ranging from new beginners to master gardeners and even some professional horticulturists. I’m happy to report that they all loved it – proving that you never know too much to revisit the fundamentals.
The students have also told me they love having access to the course information forever, so they can go back and revisit it as they prepare for this season – and the next and the next. I’ll be opening up registration to new students around mid-March, so you can check out details (and positive feedback) now and sign up to be notified when enrollment is open.
You can also check out Daryl’s book and be sure to listen to our conversation by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title. I think you’ll enjoy it. This conversation also left me curious. How do you like to learn? Do you prefer books, classes, online resources, or hands-on experience? I’d love for you to share your thoughts in the Comment section below.
Links & Resources
joegardener Online Academy: Gardening Fundamentals – My online course diving deep on the fundamentals for a bountiful garden! Registration opens again soon – so don’t miss out.