Updated: Jul 25
So, you've started your first garden. You planted lots of seeds this spring, and you've been patiently waiting for things to come up and grow. Chances are your garden is probably looking pretty good by now!
Or, maybe you've encountered some challenges, and your garden isn't looking nearly as lush as you expected. That's ok—don't panic, and don't give up! Some of the most common challenges that all gardeners face include appropriate watering, figuring out how and when to fertilize, and controlling unwanted garden pests. In this article, we've broken each down into a handy all-in-one guide!
Potted Plants & Garden Watering 101
Learning when your plants need water, and how much to give them, takes a bit of practice. One of the most common reasons that plants die, indoors or outdoors, is due to overwatering.
If you need to use tap water to water your plants, it's best to leave the water to sit overnight before watering. This allows the temperature to come up closer to the ambient air temperature, so it's less shocking for the plants, and it allows any chlorine used in water treatment to dissipate. However, if your plant is severely dried out, wilted, or crispy, don't wait overnight! Water it as soon as you can.
Knowing when to water takes a little bit of practice. The most reliable test is to check the soil with your finger. If it's dry to a depth of one inch, or up to your first knuckle, it's a good time to water most plants. Succulents can be left until the soil is dry to about two inches deep. However, keep in mind that many plants will look a bit wilted in the heat of the day. Check your soil in the morning or evening to see if you need to water.
There are a few tools that make watering chores a little easier. Installing rain barrels is a great way to conserve water and keep your plants hydrated with pure, fresh water. The ones with spigots at the bottom make it super easy to fill your watering can. A watering can with a fine rose spout is the gentlest way to water without hurting your potted plants. It can also be handy to keep a water tester around. Just make sure to wipe the tester after each test to ensure the tester stem is clean, or it may skew your result in the next location.
As a general rule of thumb, gardens will do best with 1-2 inches of water per week. That includes rainfall, so having a rain gauge is helpful. If you have a sprinkler already, you can figure out how long it takes to do one inch of water by setting a few containers in the path of your sprinkler and time how long it takes for there to be an inch of water in the container. Then you'll know how long to run it in the future.
Fertilizer can be intimidating; apply too much, and your plants might die, apply the wrong kind, and you might not get any fruit or flowers. And what do those numbers on the fertilizer package mean, anyway?
Fertilizer usually contains three primary nutrients that all plants need: N is for nitrogen, P is for phosphorus, and K is for potassium. The numbers on a package will always be in that order, and they represent the ratio of each nutrient contained in the mix. Most fertilizers also contain trace amounts of micro-nutrients that are also important for plants.
The higher the number, the higher the nutrient concentration in the fertilizer. The different nutrients have different impacts on how plants grow. A high nitrogen fertilizer, like 20-10-10, will produce lush leaves and greenery. A fertilizer with a higher phosphorus (like 15-30-15) stimulates root, flower, and fruit growth. A high potassium number (like 5-5-10) will help plants produce better quality fruit, which is helpful for plants that use up a lot of nutrients, like tomatoes.
Generally speaking, you should only fertilize your plants, indoors or out, during the active growing season, when they need lots of nutrients to put out new growth and produce their fruit or vegetables. It's a good idea to do a soil test before you apply fertilizer to determine which nutrients your soil is lacking. You don't want to over-fertilize your plants, so a safe bet is every two weeks for plants like tomatoes, or once a month for everything else, from spring to early fall.
Different kinds of plants will do best with different types of fertilizer. For example, plants like tomatoes will produce better with a lower-nitrogen, higher phosphorus fertilizer. You can do a quick google search to find out what sort of fertilizer is best for your different plants, or ask a staff member at the garden center. You can also check the packaging; most fertilizer will say what types of plants it was formulated for on the label.
It's critical to mix fertilizer to the package directions, and never mix it stronger than the instructions. Fertilizer that is mixed too strong can burn your plant roots, and extra nutrients will end up washing away into your local water systems. When in doubt, dilute it even more than recommended. If you're using a slow-release granular fertilizer, make sure you spread it according to the package directions. With fertilizer, less is always more.
It's also important to only apply fertilizer when the soil is already damp. If you apply liquid fertilizer to potted plants when the soil is dry, it may still burn the roots; even if it's mixed correctly. Always water your plants before giving them fertilizer to prevent any accidental damage.
Garden Pest Control 101
Finding pest damage on your plants is not the end of the world! Everyone's garden gets annoying pests. Over time, you learn to identify the signs of common pests in your garden, so you can get them under control before they take over.
Some common garden pests in Pennsylvania include aphids, slugs, flea beetles, hornworms, spotted lanternfly, caterpillars, slugs, and snails. All of these critters can do some significant damage to your garden as they munch their way down your rows. It might be a bit gross, but you'll want to google some pictures of common pests to identify them on your plants correctly.
Some common symptoms of pests are leaves with holes (often caused by caterpillars, slugs, snails, hornworms, and flea beetles), or yellow or brown spots—a telltale sign of aphids!
You can control garden pests in a few different ways. There are many commercial pesticides available to tackle different kinds of pests. Be very careful to read all of the instructions and warnings on the packaging.
There are also several organic options that you can use to control pests. Neem oil is a classic natural insecticide, and Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is both effective and safe for kids and pets. Diatomaceous earth, or DE, can also be used quite effectively, and the food-safe formulation is safe around people and pets. Beer traps are quite effective for slugs, but you'll need to place many of them around the garden if you want them to work!
There's also the option of dealing with pests by welcoming more predatory insects into your garden. Things like ladybugs, lacewings, and beneficial nematodes can really help you tackle pest infestations above the ground and in the soil.
The most important part of pest management is prevention. Check your plants regularly for pests, make sure your soil is healthy, and use accessories like row covers to help keep critters out! Adding in compost or other organic matter every year gradually builds healthy soil, which helps plants fight disease and recover faster in the event of an infestation.
Gardening is a lifelong learning process. Even seasoned gardeners who've been doing it for decades learn new things and encounter new challenges every year. Don't let the challenges discourage you from gardening—it's all part of the journey. Keep searching for information, asking questions, and, most importantly, keep trying new things.
If you have any questions about gardening or need help figuring out fertilizer, or dealing with a pest infestation, visit our garden center. Our experts can help you identify the problem and figure out the best plan of action for success!