If you’re a Southerner new to gardening or a gardener new to the South, you have treats and maybe a few traps in store. Recently, six red clay gardening veterans were asked what expert advice they would give to those starting new gardens. Following are tips of the type that might be shared by a neighbor over the backyard fence – if that neighbor happened to be an expert Southern gardener.
Keep the garden manageable. “Start small,” says Lynn Hunt, a horticultural judge for the American Rose Society who gardens in Sapphire, North Carolina. “New gardeners can get excited and take on too much.” Remember that what you plant, you have to maintain, Hunt cautions. “You can always add more over time.”
Georgia master gardener Shawn Davis suggests that caution begin at the garden center. “Make sure a plant grows well in your part of the South. Maybe it was never meant to grow where soil temperatures don’t cool down at night. Not every retailer is careful about what they offer.”
Take care of the soil and it will take care of you. Whether your soil is the fertile Yazoo clay of Mississippi, the sticky gumbo of southeast Texas, or the red clay familiar across so much of the Southeast, taking care of it is a top gardening tip.
Professional garden photographer Rosemary Kautzky, gardening in Greer, South Carolina, suggests, “Improve your soil by adding humus or compost. This will improve drainage and add beneficial microbes and nutrients. In a new garden, the labor is front-loaded. After that come the fun parts.”
Retired University of Tennessee horticulture extension specialist Hugh Conlon, who gardens in Johnson City, Tennessee, agrees that soil improvement is the secret to gardening success. “The first rule of gardening is to add compost,” he says. “Start making your own compost as soon as you can. Each season, mix more compost into your soil or layer it on top of soil as mulch.”
Get ahead and stay ahead of weeds. Gardening in the South’s long growing season brings increased pressure from weeds. Former Texas A & M cooperative extension agent Bill Adams, now gardening near Burton, Texas, says, “Southern weeds are a constant battle, winter, spring, summer, and fall. You don’t ever get a break.”
Adams notes that turning, tilling or digging garden soil can result in heavy weed infestations by bringing buried dormant weed seeds to the surface where they germinate and grow. To combat weeds he practices no-till gardening techniques and uses weed-free, sterilized mushroom compost as mulch. He points out that using a long-lasting pre-emergent product in spring and fall, to stop weeds as seeds, is another way to reduce garden weeds year-round.
Georgia gardener Davis says she couldn’t live without her battery-powered spreader bottle of Preen Southern pre-emergent to prevent weeds for up to four months per application. “I follow a weed prevention regimen so I won’t have so many weeds to deal with. This leaves me time to do what I want – grow plants that I love. Not pull weeds.”
“Absolutely never, ever let a weed go to seed,” adds South Carolina’s Rosemary Kautzky. “One weed plant can produce thousands of seeds. If I see a weed going to seed, I lunge for it.”
Be aggressive against garden pests. Insect and fungal infestations are another pressing Southern challenge. “The ground never freezes and the insects don’t die,” says “Garden Mama” Nellie Neal, host of “Weekend Gardening,” a popular Jackson, Mississippi radio show. “Aphids and mosquitos are always with us, even in January. A puddle appears, they’re back.” Neal, an organic gardener – who acknowledges that keeping to that discipline can be a challenge given the South’s heat and humidity – recommends Bonide All Seasons Horticultural Spray Oil, a highly refined organic oil that smothers fungus spores, scale and overwintering insect eggs and hatchlings.
She points out that it’s critical to read the label of any garden product you use. “Callers to my radio show often complain ‘I used such-and-such product and it didn’t work.’ Usually, it turns out, they never read the directions.”
Deer are garden pests everywhere. In the South, add armadillos, which create havoc as far north as North Carolina, Tennessee and even southern Indiana. When Georgia gardener Shawn Davis saw her yelping Pomeranian streak across the garden riding the back of a fast -moving armadillo, she knew she’d had enough. Similarly frustrated gardeners looking for armadillo control solutions can visit the Georgia Department of Natural Resources/Wildlife Resources website.
Definitely add garden paths. South Carolina’s Rosemary Kautzky is a fan of paths. “It’s important to walk the garden every day. It’s relaxing to get outdoors. It clears your head. It’s exercise. I put in walking trails that meander through the garden and woodland. I cover them with wood chips that I get free from a tree service.”
Mississippi’s Nellie Neal agrees. “Get outside to play,” she says. But while you’re at it look around, “so you won’t miss early signs of insect infestations – aphids, white flies – which get out of control fast and suck the life out of your plants.”
Enjoy your garden, have fun, take risks. In the end, all six red clay garden veterans agree that enjoying the garden is what’s important and that new gardeners should just take things a few steps at a time. North Carolina’s Lynn Hunt sums it up, “Your garden will always be a work in progress. Experiment. Take risks. When you see something fun at the garden center, give it whirl. If it works out, great. If not, yank it out. This is what gardening’s all about.”