Gardening is one of the best examples of the triumph of hope over experience. Yes, we made some mistakes. But the memories of last year’s stunted, wilted plants are somehow composted into the fertile substance of early spring dreams. Hope springs eternal.
When tempered with a bit of planning, the process of learning from past mistakes can bring the sweet smell of success. Now’s the time for that. Let’s start with a quick list of some of last year’s problems.
“My garden was always wet.”
Nearly all the herbs and vegetables you grow are not happy with eternally wet feet. Too much water or nearly constant dampness can push out the oxygen and other gases the roots need to grow. The garden pro’s rule-of-thumb is to water only after the top inch of soil dries out.
The root of the problem may not be what you are doing but where you are doing. Does your garden puddle during rain and threaten to turn into a swamp? Is your plot is in the path of drainage from elsewhere? For a chronically wet garden you have three choices:
- Cut back on your watering. Give the soil time to dry out.
- Create a raised bed to lift the plants out of soggy soil.
- Move the garden to a different spot where it won’t flood.
“All my plants looked weak and spindly.”
Herbs generally need at least 4-6 hours of direct sun for optimal growth. When they get less sunlight they may survive but they won’ be happy. Sunshine, after all, is their main source of energy. Here are some things you can do to provide more light:
- Cut back large shrubs or trees to let the sunshine in.
- If you’re growing herbs in containers, move them to a sunnier spot. Remember that a garden’s sun exposure changes as the seasons change.
- Take a moment and notice the four directions of the compass. Herbs generally grow best in North America on the south and east sides of homes. Definitely avoid growing them on the north side where they may never see sun.
- If you’re growing herbs indoors (not recommended, by the way) get a grow lamp to provide the sunlight they are missing.
“My plants kept flopping over.”
Herbs like dill and fennel are susceptible to damage from high winds or thunderstorms. Some plants like sweet peas and Malabar spinach depend on something to lean on as they grow. This is when a little support or protection will help.
- Where do most of the storms come from? Check the trees in the area. They all tend to bend in one direction away from the prevailing wind. If possible, plant more delicate things downwind of a fence or building.
- Got something growing that always flops over? Get some bamboo poles or other supports and place them near the base of your plants. You can also lash the ends of three poles together to form a tee-pee for support.
“I think something’s wrong with my soil.”
Chances are that your soil is less than perfect. Few of us are blessed with the ideal mix of minerals and organic materials. If you go to a local nursery you will find dozens of soil amendment products on the shelves but unless you know – not guess – what is missing in your soil you can’t make a wise decision about what to add..
The chemical makeup of the soil is an important element of gardening. If you are not sure, you can purchase a small soil testing kit at many nurseries. For most gardeners these kits provide adequate accuracy. If you really want to be precise you can send a sample of your earth to a soil testing service. Most states have county agriculture services that provide low-cost soil testing. Whether you use a test kit or a service, be sure to note what chemical amendments are suggested and follow them.
“My garden is just not thriving anymore”
As the years pass, the landscape around your home and the time and energy available in your life can change dramatically. What was the perfect plot a decade ago may be a losing proposition today. Here’s where you have to get tough and answer some hard questions.
- Is your garden now too close to the neighbor’s elm tree that has been extending its reach over your back yard and shading it more and more each year?
- Is there a fence or wall neighboring the garden that now blocks the light?
- Will you be planting your herbs in a spot that neighborhood cats have appropriated as an outdoor litter box or is in the path of kids on scooters?
- Despite your desire, do you no longer have the time or energy to take care of your garden beds as they are now?
Some of these problems can be corrected but others may require more drastic solutions. Last year I came face-to-face with the reality that my available time and energy for gardening had been drastically reduced. I have decided to reduce my beds by half so I would not be constantly guilty about an untended garden. It wasn’t easy coming to that decision but it will mean less stress in the coming years.
The Sweet Smell of Success
Caring for an herb garden requires planning and work. But herbs provide their own rewards. Think of how freshly cut basil added to foods makes any meal a feast. Remember how satisfying it is to use last summer’s herbal harvest to brighten meals in the midst of winter. And don’t forget the glorious scent of an herb garden after a thunderstorm has passed. This is what makes it all worthwhile.