While we take advantage of some downtime to garden in front of the fireplace during the cold season, it is a good time to make some resolutions to improve our garden as well as our well-being. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, moderate intensity activity, such as gardening, for 2.5 hours each week can reduce the risk of high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, stroke, colon cancer. , and premature death. Gardening is scientifically proven to help fight depression. It’s hard not to enjoy life when surrounded by flowers, vegetables and the resulting wildlife they attract. Substances in the soil promote endorphins in the brain to make us feel good, and yard work is much easier than running 10 miles to achieve the same effect. In addition to the health benefits, a garden increases the value of the property and saves money. You exercise, vitamin D from the sun, it’s therapeutic – pulling weeds helps burn off stress – so free therapy and you get tomatoes. The question is not “Why garden”? but “why not garden”? Here are some basic recommendations to get you started.
Have a plan. Now is the time to decide how you are going to move forward with the new gardening season. Going to the local garden center on a beautiful spring day without a plan can be an adventure, but having a plan in mind will save you time and money. A plan guides you through purchasing the right plants, the right size plants, and the right number of plants. It also helps keep you from coming home with a car full of pink and orange annuals that will only bloom for two weeks and look like weed the rest of the summer.
Build the ground. Good soil is the key to a good garden. Do a soil test if you haven’t had one recently and follow the directions. Some of the best things for improving your soil, no matter what type of soil you have, are compost and leaves. Add them early enough that they decompose before planting.
Mulch, mulch and more mulch. Use organic mulches such as cut leaves, untreated grass clippings, shredded bark and compost. Wait for your flowers and vegetables to grow well and add a 3 “or 4” layer of mulch around them to conserve moisture, smother weeds, improve soil fertility, nourish plants, and beautify your landscape. Don’t be pressured into buying cheap dyed mulch which is really ugly and can damage your plants. Dyed mulches are often made from old crushed pallets which may contain wood treated with chemicals such as arsenic. Artificial dyes seep into the soil and can damage plants and stain surrounding structures. It’s hard enough for plants to survive hot summers without surrounding them in black mulch which absorbs even more heat. Mulch can save up to 80% of your time and effort working in the garden. “You don’t spit in the wind, you don’t pull on Superman’s cloak, and you don’t skimp on that mulch” (Felder Rushing).
Plant some native plants. Native plants grow naturally well because they are adapted to native soils and climates. If you want native birds, pollinators, and butterflies in your garden, you need to have native plants that attract them and provide food, shelter, and nourishment for baby caterpillars.
Spend time in your garden. If you observe your plants often, you will notice that small problems arise and be able to intervene quickly to prevent major infestations of pests, insects or diseases from causing significant damage. It is much easier to prevent a problem or fix a minor problem than it is to try to fix major problems that have gone unnoticed and have become major problems.
Do not use pesticides. Use IPM – Integrated Pest Management. Let birds, butterflies, and beneficial insects take care of the insect control for you. Use a sharp spray from the hose, hand picking, or insecticidal soap, if you think nature needs a little help. Pesticides destroy all wildlife, including the good guys. If you kill all the bugs, there will be no food source for the wildlife. Healthy plants can take a bit of nibbling from the bad guys.
Plant the right plant in the right place. If you put the right plants in the right environment, they will grow and thrive. If a plant is recommended for shade or partial shade, you doom it to death quickly if you plant it on the west side of a structure where it will receive heat and sun. If a plant label says sun / partial shade, it will always be best in the partial shade of a tree or planting on the east side of other plants or structure in Oklahoma.
Place the plants where they have enough space to reach their maximum size without pruning them. Don’t plant a pancake myrtle that will eventually grow to 20 feet tall in the 4 foot space between your front door and the sidewalk, and don’t commit a “Pancake Slay” to try and keep it smaller. The mangled pancake myrtle that you see in every drive-through, doctor’s office, and commercial building are perfect examples of what a pancake myrtle should never look like.
Water abundantly and less often. The roots go where the moisture is, so water deeply and the roots will go deep. If you just sprinkle the top of the soil daily, the soil will dry out quickly in the hot Oklahoma winds, and the roots will cook in the summer sun.
Learn more about gardening. There are some great gardening books and magazines. Be sure to read a book on the ‘southern’ garden – we have our own unique weather conditions to deal with. Many plants that grow in the Northeast, where many gardening books are written, just don’t do well in Oklahoma because of the heat, humidity, and searing wind. Great reading material for southern gardeners: Southern Living Magazine.
Books: Passalong Plants (Steve Bender and Felder Rushing), Lasagna Gardening (Patricia Lanza), Resilient Plants for Southern Gardens (Felder Rushing), Slow Gardening (Felder Rushing), Best Garden Plants for Oklahoma (Steve Owens and Laura Peters) and Oklahoma Gardener’s Guide (Steve Dobbs).
OSU Cooperative Extension fact sheets: There’s information from Oklahoma State University on just about anything you could think of about landscaping, farming, and gardening. Here are some good ones to get started: HLA-6408 Landscape Maintenance Schedule
Drought Tolerant Plant Selections for Oklahoma E-1037
OK Proven Plant Selections for Oklahoma E-1052
Get to know other gardeners. Learn about gardening from other gardeners who know firsthand what grows best in your area. The best way to meet other gardeners is to enroll in a gardening course. A local gardening class will teach you what grows best in your area and how to grow it. Gardeners not only love gardening, but they love to share information and plants with others.
A new master gardener class will be held Thursday evenings at the OSU Institute just east of Southern Tech at 3210 Sam Noble Parkway from 5:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. January 27 through April 23. Register now at the OSU Extension Office by calling 580-223-6570. We look forward to seeing you in Master Gardening Class & Happy Gardening!