Ground rules and tools for August
August 02, 2007

BY KAREN PYE - VICTORIA COUNTY MASTER GARDENER
EDITED BY CHARLA BORCHERS LEON

This month's Ground Rules and Tools addresses plant stress. And with the recent frequent rains, saturated soils and high humidity that increases disease, there are plenty of stressed plants in the area.

MANAGING PLANT STRESS
Dr. Doolittle often lamented how wonderful it would be if we could talk to the animals in their language. Well, plants, too, have a language all their own - sign language. Plants tell us when they are stressed and if we look closely, what is stressing them. Watching for and tending to the signs will help effectively manage it.

However, managing plant stress isn't a single step process. It is actually a four-step process we call the four P's: planning, preparing, planting and prevention. Each step is very important to ensuring a healthy, bountiful garden.

Planning

Planning takes a lot of thought and observation - deciding where the beds will be located, how much or how little light is available and the type of soil in the area. Having the soil tested is always a good idea; it takes away a lot of guesswork.

For example, when the Victoria County Master Gardeners started planning the second phase of the Victoria Educational Gardens (VEG) it took several years before they were satisfied with the final layout. This was essential to make sure mini-gardens were located where they would receive the optimal environmental needs for the specific plants in each one.

Preparation

Preparing the soil is the next step. It will take time and a lot of work. In the gardening/landscaping process, soil preparation can be the most time-consuming and the most costly, especially if the soil requires extensive amendment.

In Victoria County, the soil is predominantly clay and typically poorly drained. There are some plants that will survive in poor soil conditions, but I can't think of many plants that won't survive in rich, well-drained soil. If your carefully chosen plants are to thrive and exhibit good qualities, they must be planted in a site that meets growing requirements as closely as possible.

Most plant problems are caused by environmental stress, either directly or indirectly. Therefore, it is important to understand the environmental aspects that affect plant growth. These factors are proper light, temperature, water, humidity and nutrition, which need to be considered during the planning and preparation processes.

The local master gardeners spent many months preparing the site and soil - digging up old grass, removing stones, rocks and many yards of dirt, then spreading even more yards of topsoil and compost.

Before any planting could be done, the walkways and structures had to be constructed and the soil in each mini-garden properly amended for the particular plants each would contain. Irrigation for the mini-gardens had to be considered. Rainwater harvesting was the irrigation method of choice. Two huge tanks were installed to gather rainwater that is being used to water the plants.

Planting

For most gardeners, planting is the fun part of the whole process. But problems can creep up if proper planning and preparation haven't been done first. To minimize stress, it is most important to select the right plants, those that are well adapted to our climate. If any single environmental factor is less than ideal, it becomes a limiting factor in plant growth.

During the planning and preparation period of the VEG expansion, master gardeners spent many hours researching the type of plants for the 16 mini-gardens. The International Garden has plants found in other countries. To minimize stress, the plants chosen had to closely match the Victoria climate.
PHOTOS BY KAREN PYE/VICTORIA COUNTY MASTER GARDENER
The International Garden at the Victoria Educational Gardens has plants that originated in other countries including China (yew pine), southern Europe (Jerusalem sage), Mexico (quick silver salvia), Australia (swan river daisy), Japan/Korea (Japanese flowering quince), Africa (cockscomb), Asia (dwarf pittasporum) and Brazil (monkey plant).
Each of the mini-gardens at VEG is an educational opportunity, and some of the gardens are for experimental purposes. The Earthkind bed is one example. The turf grass area is another. These beds will be closely monitored and data is collected on how the plants handle stress and grow under certain conditions.

Prevention

If the first three processes have been properly done, managing and preventing plant stress becomes easier.

Drooping leaves, wilting, yellowing and curling leaves are all signs of plant stress. Stress can mean too much or too little water or fertilizer, or it can be inadequate lighting, poor temperature, or an insect infestation. Victoria saw an abundance of rain in June and July. Too much water, very little sunshine, and high temperatures can all lead to problems.

Preventive measures may be the only control for some plant problems. Disease controls designed to prevent diseases cannot help much after a plant has succumbed to a fungus or bacterium.

Regular plant inspections help you learn how healthy plants should look so you can recognize an abnormal condition. Prompt detection followed by accurate diagnosis of the problem will aid in dealing with the pest or condition affecting the plant. Most garden centers, retail nurseries and County Extension offices can diagnose plant problems for you.

While the second phase of VEG is complete, the work is far from over. On any given day you will find master gardeners working there. But by following the four P's, the we are more than capable of meeting the challenge to manage plant stress.

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas Cooperative Extension-Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, Texas 77901; or
vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.