by Robin Snyder Tumalo Garden Market
Okay, its February in Central Oregon. The weather is changing. We may have warm enough days to work the soil, but the nights are still freezing. It is time to be thinking about prepping your soil and planting. Here are the important things to consider.
Start from the Ground Up — Test Your Soil
Everyone needs fuel. Plants as well as humans. Plants need an adequate level of nutrients in soil to thrive. Because plants use up the nutrients in the soil as they grow, you will need to replenish the nutrients to “feed your plants.” Knowing what is needed for optimum performance saves you money and increases growing success. The way to find out what your plants need is through soil tests that will give you: pH (alkaline or acidic) which helps plants access nutrients; and soil conductivity (total dissolved solids or electrical conductivity) which tells you the amount of nutrients already in the soil. Soil Testing is a cost-effective way to add the proper amount and type of nutrients to your garden. A high-quality tester will tell you the specific qualities of the soil, so you can pick the best fertilizer and know what plants will grow best in your soil. A tester will allow you to avoid over fertilization. Too much fertilizer and plants grow too fast leaving them open to diseases, and can also burn plant roots and leaves. Testing for pH will help you balance the soil acidity to allow for plants to access nutrients. Purchasing a soil tester that has both pH and soil conductivity is the best way to start. There may be more going on in your soil. Heavy equipment during property construction can compact the soil. There may be construction debris and wastes. You may need to improve the structure of the soil to allow for drainage or moisture holding capacity, and increase organic material and compost as well as fertilize to give nutrition for cultivated plants.
Now that you tested your soil and know what nutrients you need, understanding fertilizer is next. You will see three or four numbers on fertilizer and compost bags. They stand for the ratios of Nitrogen (N), Potassium (P) and Phosphorous (K) and sometimes Sulfur(S). Nitrogen is important for healthy plant growth; Potassium is essential for vigorous seedling growth; and Phosphorous for disease resistance and starch formation for strong stems. Both chemical and organic fertilizers come in pre-packaged mixes with pre-mixed ratios for different uses (growing, flowering, etc.). Plants can access chemical fertilizers as soon as applied. Organic fertilizers take longer for plants to access because the nutrients break down first. You must decide which type of fertilizer you want to use. Consistent fertilization, figured out by soil testing, can help you realize spectacular results in your garden.
Why Do Some Plants Get Damaged By Frost?
All plants have climatic adaptations for survival. Certain plants can survive sub-freezing temperatures by adjusting sucrose, proteins and fatty acids in cells “like antifreeze” to withstand winter desiccation and avoid ice crystal formation. Some desert native plants flower early during the wetter spring months and then go dormant during the dry heat of the summer. Annuals and tender plants adapt by growing fast and reproduce with abundant seeds but, they don’t have cold tolerance. However, most of our garden plants can withstand some colder temps if the leaves are protected by some sort of frost barrier during our summer months. Paying attention to night temperature lows and investing in frost cloth, may just save the day.
Know Your ‘Zone’
Growing plants here in Central Oregon can be challenging. Choosing the right plants for our climate is a first guiding step to success. Most perennial plants (plants that overwinter and grow back from the original plant year after year) have an identifying ‘Hardiness Zone’ number on their tags based on the minimum average temperatures for our area. Central Oregon ranges from Hardiness Zone 3-5 and figuring out which zone your garden/yard best fits is important to success. Keeping to plants within your identified zone or lower will help your perennials, trees and shrubs survive. Annuals (plants that live one season and reproduce through seed each year) and most vegetables are temperate climate plants and only survive in our summers. In general, most directions say “plant after danger of frost” for seeds or young plants. Hard to accomplish in Central Oregon when we can have a frost all summer long. Seeds need warm soil temperatures for germination and top growth of young plants can be damaged by frost. Even woody trees and shrubs and hardy perennials grown in warmer conditions have tender new growth that does not have cold tolerance yet. Our adjustment is extra protection for plants.
So, before planting any annual, perennial, tree or shrub, follow these rules to help new plants adjust:
Week 1) Put plants outside only during the warmer day and in a protected area like your garage/greenhouse at night;
Week 2) Check the ten-day weather forecast and time your planting with warmer nights;
Week 3) Be sure to cover plants each night and as long as hard frost potential is present;
Week 4 and beyond) After the plant goes through a summer, then winter dormancy here (if a perennial), it will be hardened-off and adjusted to our area/seasons.
Starting Your Orchard and Berry Patch
If you have determined your Hardiness Zone and local microclimates, tested and amended your soil, then making wise plant material purchases is your next order of business. There is nothing more rewarding than walking out on your own land and picking food from your orchard, berry patch and garden.
Building an orchard is about having a vision and being aware of siting as well as soils, nutrition, wind, sunlight and watering needs. Planting with good spacing to accommodate the ultimate spread of the branches and roots at maturity is key. Insuring that the plants are at the right depth, with good soil and watered long and deep to encourage strong root growth is important and that means watering through the winter on days warm enough to allow water to drain into the root system.
Be aware of wind patterns and wind breaks in your location choice so the trees are not damaged by the harsh winter winds. Some varieties of trees are either self-pollinating or need cross-pollination for fruiting success. Be aware you might need multiple trees. Having a strong compliment of beneficial pollinators will also help in fruit production, so consider becoming a beekeeper on your own land.
Watch for rodent pests at the root zone. These little guys can do great damage underground before you are aware. Protect the bark and the root zone up the trunk and down into the soil. Deer can be especially brutal on fruit saplings both in browsing the leaves and branches and scraping the trunks as they rub their antlers. Get protective fencing up around your orchard (or individual trees) before you are doing damage control after the fact and lose your trees.
Learn how to prune. One of the final keys to fruiting success with most fruit trees, shrubs and canes is attentive yearly pruning. Its not hard to learn and getting those water-shoots pruned back will give you bushels of happiness during harvest time. Invest in your garden, orchard and your own education and training.
Keys to success:
• Understanding your hardiness zone and microclimates;
• Picking the right plants and putting them in the right place;
• Germinating seeds early so we can use all of the short outside growing season;
• Be patient and attentive. Cover plants at night, use a greenhouse, cold frame or cloche to extend your vegetable growing season and protect your plants. It pays off;
• Pruning increases fruiting success;
• Pay attention to predators and pests before they strike;
• Consistent fertilization, figured out by soil testing, can help you realize spectacular results in your garden.
Tumalo Garden Market specializes in hardy fruit trees and berries, and organic veggie starts. Our most successful perennial plant materials are zones 3-5.
Gardening is fun, rewarding and easy to learn. Here at Tumalo Garden Market, we want you to succeed. Our professional and experienced staff is ready to provide you advice and support in reaching your garden dreams. Join us at one of our upcoming workshops through our Practical Gardening School to gain more confidence and success. We are looking forward to seeing you “In Your Garden.”
If you are interested in more detailed information, you might take a look at Tumalo Garden Market’s Practical Gardening School workshops (www.tumalogardenmarket.com/events) which will be held throughout the year starting in February.
Photos courtesy of Tumalo Garden Market