For Release January 18, 2004

How Does Your Garden Grow?

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

"Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?" is how the nursery rhyme starts. While I don't think that most of us have too many silver bells or cockleshells, let alone pretty maids in our garden, many gardeners do run into problems getting their gardens to grow the way they want them to.

When a garden isn't producing like the gardener thinks it should, or like it has in the past, the first thought is invariably the soil. There has to be something wrong with the soil that needs to be corrected with fertilizer. Which all too often leads to the next step of adding more fertilizer before we really know what is wrong. So if your garden isn't performing as it should be, before you do anything else, let's take a soil sample and have it analyzed.

A lot of garden soil tests have come through my office in the past couple of years because someone's carrots or peppers or tomatoes didn't grow very well. The soil test can answer a lot of questions or eliminate a lot of possibilities. What I usually find with most garden soil tests is that the major nutrient levels are adequate for good plant growth. The soil pH, the acidity or alkalinity of the soil, may be out of whack though. Most often the soil pH is too high, alkaline, which needs to be corrected with sulfur. Sometimes the soil pH is too low, acid, and we have to add lime. But the only way to know this is with a soil test.

So what happens if there doesn't appear to be anything wrong from the soil analysis? After all, the soil test is easy to do. You collect a pint of soil from several locations, bring it to my office, I send it to K-State and we get the results back. If that doesn't turn up any problems, we start playing detective. There are a lot of non chemical things that can go wrong with soil. It can be worked when it is too wet which will compact the soil and make it very cloddy. This will cause roots to develop poorly, water to infiltrate very slowly and plant growth will be adversely affected.

Or the soil can be too dry or too wet from improper watering, excessive rainfall, even from excessive mulch. Or garden plants may have been planted too early, too late or the wrong variety or even the wrong crop planted. Cold soils will retard germination and growth and stunt the plant though much of the seson. Or plants may be too crowded so that diseases get started. Plant a cool season crop, like peas, too late and they are trying to bloom and set pods when it is far too hot to be successful. Sometimes the soil or micro-climate just isn't suited to the crop you want to grow. Because many of our soils have high levels of clay, many carrot varieties just can't develop a good root. Using the shorter half length carrots is an option.

Next we need to consider sunshine and competition from other plants. Trees and gardens don't like to be overly close to each other. A garden needs at least seven to eight hours of full sun every day. Trees growing very close to the garden will produce a lot of shallow roots to steal away the moisture and nutrients intended for your garden plants. Yet a windbreak planted to the south and west of a garden can help block the blast furnace winds of July and August that can also hurt your garden crops. Too be very honest, the past four years of drought haven't been kind to many gardens.

We can grow great gardens in Kansas. But it requires the proper location, the proper soil preparation, the proper varieties, and a little help from Mother Nature. The Extension Office has many bulletins that can help you get a proper start with your garden! Stop by our office at 119 East 9th in Junction City.


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