HACKENSACK -- Matching the right plants to the right soil nutrient balance has always been a key to successful gardening.
Mary Parrish, master gardener, provided some tips at a Cass County Extension Service program last week on better gardening. She suggested some novel and some traditional ways to fertilize gardens to reach that perfect balance.
Soils can vary in nutrient values within short distances. So, she recommended first having soils tested for existing values, then adding according to the types of plants you plan to use.
Humus, that rotting leaf layer found in woodlands, can benefit any garden. It also can be generated from an aged mulch pile. It provides that mysterious "moist, well drained soil" recommended for many plants, Parrish said.
Adding organic matter to soil draws worms, who draw birds, who eat bugs in your garden, she said.
Stinging nettles are rich in nutrients and can be tilled into any soil to enrich it, she said. If the nettles sting you, onion, sorrel or rhubarb leaves relieve the sting.
"Litter Green" brand kitty litter is recommended as a rich nutrient source as well, she said, though that brand is difficult to find in this area.
Used kitty liter of any brand can eliminate mold from a garden, she said.
Coffee grounds add acid to the soils and can diminish maggots from radish rows, she said.
Wood ashes add potassium, but should not be over-used, she said. Sawdust and wood chips provide surface mulch and rot eventually into humus, but should not be used without aging, because they will rob soil of nitrogen when fresh, Parrish said.
Manure also should be aged before using. Fresh manure can burn plants and spread weed seeds. In a one- to two-year aging process, the heat in the manure will burn out weed seeds and not your plants, she said.
Cow, sheep and hog manure are what people think of most often, but "worm casings," those little black lumps worms leave on top the soil after a rain, now are recognized as rich in nutrients. If you don't care to scrape the worm droppings from your yard, you can now purchase "worm casings" in stores, Parrish said.
Lime raises the Ph value in soil. Sulfur lowers it. Bone meal adds phosphorus. Blood meal adds nitrogen and repels rodents, though pepper should be added to avoid attracting neighborhood dogs to blood or bone meal in your garden, Parrish said.
Egg shells or powdered dry milk will add calcium to soils and prevent blossom rot in tomatoes, she said.
Once the garden is well fed, the next greatest concern is repelling pests. Parrish recommends planting flowers in vegetable gardens to help repel pests.
Nasturtiums, for example, will repel aphids, she said.
Tilling shallowly and often will eliminate annual weeds. For perennial weeds, Parrish recommends spraying Round-up close to the plant, using Preen or Miracle Grow with weed killer.
Slugs can be repelled by laying a ring of wood ashes, half-inch thick sand, crushed egg shells, grapefruit rinds or copper wire around plants. Acid kills slugs, she said. Beer traps or cutting a pop bottle and placing yeast inside to create a trap also work, she added.
Vinegar and water spray can take care of mealy bugs. Basil repels aphids and mosquitoes. Pennyroyal and fleabane or garlic also can repel mosquitoes, she said.
Spider mites can be eliminated by spraying from a batch of five gallons water, three and one half cups wheat flour and a half cup buttermilk, she said.
If you have a small enough garden, applying one drop of mineral oil at the top of each corn ear will eliminate worms and corn bores, she said. If you have 40 acres, this will be too much.
To keep deer out of your garden, Parrish recommended Repellex or Tree Guard or an electric fence. Deer generally will go over, under or through a standard, non-electrified fence, she said.
Cool weather plants grow best mulched with straw to keep the soil cooler. Warm weather plants can be mulched with black plastic to retain heat, she said.
Rocks should not be used for mulch around plants, because they retain cold in cool weather and heat during hot weather and exaggerate extremes, she said.
When planting cabbage or tomatoes, Parrish recommended pinching off lower leaves and planting deeply to encourage more roots. If planting from seeds, plant in a deep container and add soil as the plant grows to develop deep roots, she said.
The more roots, the bigger the plants will grow, she said. Water heavily, she added.
Vining plants, however, should not have lower leaves removed, she said.
When planting tomatoes in the garden, Parrish recommended placing bone meal and 1 teaspoon of Epsom salts in each hole. Laying banana peels around tomato plants will add potassium to the soil.
Planting dead fish in each hole also will help tomatoes. Laying corn cobs in the bottom of tomato plant holes will keep moisture available to them, she said, because tomatoes should not be allowed to dry out.
Tomatoes and roses should be treated with fungal spray, because both are prone to contracting fungus unless they are in an extremely well ventilated area, she said.
These and green peppers are warm weather plants and benefit from dark plastic mulch. Parrish said even a dark garbage bag will work. Green peppers should be planted in a separate area from hot peppers, so they do not pick up the hot pepper spicing.
Geraniums like to be crowded and dry. Watering geranium tops will lead to flower rot, she said. If geraniums kept over winter turn black, they have contracted a disease and should be thrown out immediately, she said.
On bulb plants, Parrish recommended purchasing the largest bulbs you can afford, because bloom size directly correlates with bulb size. They should be fertilized heavily with bone meal through the summer, she said, to ensure blooming the next year.
If the dying bulb leaves look unsightly, bend then down and pin to the soil, letting other plants grow above them, she suggested. Bulb plant leaves should not be cut after blooming season, because they assimilate nutrients for the next year until they have totally died down, she said.
Similarly, onions with the largest tops will produce the largest onions, she said.
Clematis flowering vine is a plant Parrish recommended as hardy. It likes its feet in shade and its head in sun, she said, adding it will grow over anything in addition to a trellis.
One cup of wood ashes should be applied to clematis each spring and a general fertilizer added two or three times a summer. Don't cut away dead vines until after the plant starts growing again the next spring, she recommended.
All plants have a lifespan, Parrish said, so plan to propagate your favorite plants through their seeds, bulbs or traveling roots over time.
Most plants die from alternating freezing and thawing, she said.
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