March 4, 2010

Gardening 101 Series

Part 1 of the series

DSC_0223Today we’ll talk a little about garden vocabulary. 

Annual—a plant that completes its life cycle in one year.  Examples—peas, tomatoes, zinnias.  Some perennial plants can be treated as annuals in colder zones. 

Biennial—a plant that completes its life cycle in two years.  The first year it will grow its leaves, stems and shoots.  Over the winter it will appear dormant.  The next year it will produce seeds and then die. Examples—parsley, hollyhocks, foxglove, Sweet William

Perennial—a plant that lives more than two years. Examples--Lenten Rose, Asparagus, Blueberries, Daylilies.

Why do you need to know these words? 

  • Many perennials need to be planted where they can expand and multiply.  If you do not give them room to grow, you’ll find that you will need to dig them up and separate them every few years.  Yet, you probably do not want to have a lot of empty space in your garden either.  Instead plant annuals, especially shallow growing annuals, nearby.  An example of this might be daylilies.  Daylilies, perennial plants, will form large clumps over the course of a few years.  Plant single daylilies at least 6 inches to a foot apart.  Plant annuals such as petunias in the empty space to offer color and interest until the daylilies can spread.  
  • DSC_9968 Perennials might not be as showy, in particular in the first year or two of growth.  Many perennials are in it for the long haul.  They want to form a relationship with you before they will show all of their bells and whistles.  Plants like peonies might take 3 years to flower.  Many other perennials may not have as big of blooms or might have a bloom that lasts only a small amount of time but the structure and texture that they offer your garden is well worth the investment.  I’ll use daylilies as another example.  While many species are rebloomers now, the actual flower of the daylily lasts only…you guessed it…one day.  They also aren’t a great cut flower because…you guessed again…the blooms only last one day.  Why plant them then?  Daylilies offer green growth very early in the year.  They stay green through until fall in most zones.  Therefore they can be used almost like a hedge for the taller varieties.  The smaller varieties are great at masking the dying growth of other plants—for this reason I plant them with my daffodils.  By the time the daffodil greenery is looking scraggly the daylily grass is bushing and ready to hide its fading neighbor.  Many perennials can be used to enhance the “bones” of your garden.  Look outside at the garden in the dead of winter and what do you see?  You see the structure, the “bones” of the garden.  Without a decent structure, you really do not have much of anything else.  (Other examples of structure enhancers—bird baths and feeders, terraces, trellises, trees, shrubs, pathways, stones, furniture)
  • DSC_9556 Perennials are great for the price conscious.  Now many folks who are reading this will say that they have a black thumb, and I’m not arguing that as a possibility.  Yet, most gardeners who plant perennials in the proper conditions (sun lovers in sunny spots, shade lovers in shady spots, ones that love wet feet/roots in wetter spots of your garden) will find that they do not require much care.  Less care equals less time spent working on that part of the garden and less money put into that part of the garden.  Many perennials multiply and can be separated and planted in other areas, meaning they will make little plant babies for you.  You can even share your extras with friends or fellow gardeners.  While the initial investment is higher for perennials you get a lot more bang for your buck.  I guess it all boils down to what kind of shopper you are.  I prefer to pay a little more and get quality.
  • Some annuals act like perennials.  Some annuals will set their own seed so readily that they will come up again in the spring in the same spot where you planted them last year.  An example of this in my herb bed is dill.  The dill seeds are abundant, and it is a pretty easy plant to grow from seed.  Therefore, I rarely have to replant it. Many wildflowers can also fit this description.
  • Perennials are more difficult to grow from seed.  They tend to be a little more finicky.  My friend Jennifer who is Mother Earth herself and has the greenest of thumbs has the best luck of anyone I’ve ever known to grow just about any perennial from seed.  Yet, I stick with buying almost all of my perennials.  Here is some more vocabulary for you.  Perennials come in different forms at the store or in the catalog—plants, bareroot (this means just what it sounds like, it comes as a bare root most of the time without any soil around it), tuber (example is a dahlia), corm (an example is an anemone), rhizome (an example is ginger or bearded iris), bulb (an example is a daffodil). 
  • Some perennials act like annuals when outside of their preferred climate zone.  If you plant a tropical loving plant in Vermont, you might as well treat it like an annual unless you plan on bringing it indoors when the weather cools.
  • DSC_1495 Many vegetables are annuals—consider saving their seeds for future use
  • Annuals are fun.  They are sort of the cotton candy of the garden world.  You know that the thrill will last only a little while, but they do not cost all that much and they are so pretty and sweet.  Some of my favorites are zinnias, cosmos, sunflowers, petunias, pansies, and just about any annual vegetable around. 

While we are on the subject of plants and their life cycles, when picking plants for your garden you need to pay attention to growth habits and whether or not the plant is a heavy feeder. 

A growth habit is a look at what the plant will be like when it reaches maturity.  How tall and wide will it grow?  Will it spread?   If you plant an oak tree 3 feet away from your front door, you’ll see what I mean about the importance of knowing your growth habits. 

When we first moved into our home, I was so excited to have a garden again.  I’d been away from gardening while I was in school, and frankly I was a little rusty.  I went to the garden center, filled my car with plants, and promptly planted them all in one bed.  They looked beautiful.  Now, any of you who are seasoned gardeners know where I went wrong—a brand new garden in early spring shouldn’t look beautiful.  It should look a little barren.  It should have plenty of space in between the plants to allow them to spread and “do their thing”.  By May I was ripping up plants and moving things around to give them room to grow.  What if I had done this in a vegetable garden?  When too many plants are crammed in one area, they do not fruit as abundantly and their plant structure is stunted.  Too many plants are competing for limited food, space, and water.  When a plant is given the space it needs to grow, it is much happier. 

As your garden ages, you’ll find that you have less and less soil exposed.  As a matter of fact, it is preferred to have very little soil exposed and to use mulches to help prevent soil erosion and run off.  You will have invested in more perennials so that you will be filling in the space with annuals.  Vegetables can be crammed together with other plants if, and only if, you pay attention to what they need.  For example, cover crops such as sweet alyssum offer nutrients to the soil and help reduce your need to weed.  They can be planted around most any vegetable.  Onions have a very shallow root system and aren’t a bit finicky.  They can be tucked into spots while other plants are maturing.  (Notice that in the top right corner of the lettuce photo you see leeks in their early stage of growth).

DSC_9910 Knowing what a plant needs involves knowing if it is a heavy feeder or not.  A plant that is a heavy feeder requires a lot from the soil.  It needs food and a lot of it.  Think about the plant in Little Shop of Horrors, only a little nicer.  Corn is a heavy feeder, so are tomatoes.  When you plant them, you’ll want to give them food (in the form of organic or home grown compost please).  You will want to be sure to rotate a plant that feeds the ground into their spot the next year, for example peas. 

Plant rotation is a great way to help reduce work and need for pesticides and increase your success rate. Different plants are susceptible to different pathogens and insects.  If you plant them in the same area year after year, those problems will build in the soil.  For this reason, plant/crop rotation is one of the basic tenets of organic farming.  If I started to get into all of the details of plant rotation and which plant families to rotate behind which other plant families it will make your head spin.  Heck, it makes my head spin and I’ve been studying this stuff for years!  A fantastic book if you’d like to learn more on plant rotation is Great Garden Companions by Sally Jean Cunningham.

Please feel free to e-mail me or add comments if you have any questions.  Like I’ve said before, I’m no expert—just trying to help encourage more of you to start gardening. 

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful! I really want to be successful in my gardening ventures but after last year (first attempt really) I felt like giving up! I need a little guidance and don't want to take the time to read a book. Your advice is already helping! I had plans to plant the same as last year. I'm thinking I was setting myself up for another disaster! I am following this series closely!