Science Sarah Says … Tending Your Garden

Tending gardens, like rearing children, requires us to be in attendance constantly. But the more time we spend in the garden, the more opportunities we have to enjoy the benefits.  Flowers will bloom and fruits will form whether or not we are there, birds and butterflies will come but we might not see them.

The most important thing one must do to have a successful garden is to visit it faithfully, every day.  Welcome each new shoot.  Catch the weeds while they are small and the aphids before they multiply. Pick the peas and beans when they are at their sweetest and most tender. Enjoy each new wave of flowers and pollinators. Pinch and prune while the plants are small and easier to train. Water as soon as the soil feels dry; don’t wait until the plants wither.  Daily attention lets you cope with problems while they are still small, and ensures that you catch every special gift the garden sends your way.

In the June heat, early morning is the best time to tend the garden. When the sun is low you can water the plants without fear of burning them. (Water drops act like magnifying glasses to focus sun rays, making spots of intense heat that burn the foliage!) Plants that start the day with a good drink can withstand the heat of mid-afternoon much better. You too are less likely to wither and burn in the cool of morning.

You can learn a lot about gardening from books, but I love the hands-on learning.  When I planted the butterfly garden I chose perennial plants that were recommended by a local native plant nursery, “Nature by Design.”  I studied the foliage and left the dried stems to mark the place of each plant.  As I watch the plants grow each spring I have learned to recognize the desirable plants and the aggressive weeds.  The problem is, once the rapid growth season has started, the weeds grow twice as fast as the cultivated plants. That’s why they are survivors. I can never keep up!

In the vegetable garden I am learning more each year about timing—which plants need to be in the ground early because they are intolerant of heat and drought, and which plants need warm soil to germinate. This year we planted early because the spring was unusually warm, but it was so dry that nothing sprouted without supplemental watering.

Our snow peas are growing beautifully now that it is rainy, but I am afraid they will shrivel in the heat before we get a good crop. With our Three Sisters Garden and the Sunflower House we discovered that the sunflowers and corn need to be started early and allowed to get several inches tall before planting the climbing companion plants that will depend on their stalks for support.

The more time we spend in the garden the more rewards and discoveries we will enjoy. Morning is the time for garden work, but sunny afternoons are the best times to watch butterflies and other pollinators in the gardens. Our long-blooming native honeysuckle is already drawing hummingbirds, and later this month the lavender bee-balm will be buzzing with bees, butterflies and clear winged hover moths. Afternoons are also good for spotting (and controlling) insect pests like milkweed bugs and aphids.

Parents sometimes ask me for gardening advice. I confess, though, that I am not an expert gardener. I am a distracted gardener with little time to spare, and the children are distractible helpers with very short attention spans.  They love the jungle aspect of the butterfly garden, but I mourn for the rarer plants that are being overrun. I invite you to spend time in our gardens, especially the butterfly garden. Enjoy the butterflies, bees, and blossoms.  And while you are there pull a few weeds, especially the pernicious ground ivy that chokes everything.

Science Sarah

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