The Best Fertilizer
I like to listen to garden shows on the radio and podcasts. I like the "problem and solution" aspect of most shows, and I think most gardeners benefit from hearing what others have done wrong and/or right. I've learned a lot over the years from local gardening experts and those who are brave enough to call in. Although most people are adept at using the Internet to research solutions to gardening problems, there is just something about talking to another human being who is an expert in your location that seems more personal and helpful.
One thing I've noticed is that there seems to be an overall theme to these shows. Usually, someone will call in about a problem they are having (let's say - something appears to be eating their tomatoes), and then the host will begin to ask questions of the caller. This is where it gets interesting. For our tomato example, some of the questions they could ask are:
"Have you seen insects on your plants?"
"Have you seen any wildlife in or near the garden?"
"Are there any signs of disease?"
"How often do you water?"
"What is the location of the garden?"
Etc, etc, etc... This is where you find out if the gardener has done his/her homework, and whether or not they are using what I like to call "The Best Fertilizer".
Years ago, I heard a quote that said "The best fertilizer is the footsteps of the gardener." I have never been able to find where it originated from (although I have seen it attributed simply as a Chinese proverb). For me, this rings true more than any other advice I have ever gotten about gardening. You have to be present in your garden. And since most gardeners enjoy being present in their gardens, this usually isn't an issue. But sometimes, it helps to know what you are looking for. These are a few things I like to notice when I'm taking a walk with my morning coffee.
I'm noticing pollinators, yes, and that is a good thing. But I also try to look for patterns. Are there certain blooms that are getting more attention than others? How open are the blooms when they are being visited? My squash, for example, sometimes are pollinated and start to form fruit, and sometimes the blooms just fall off. When I notice this, I will use a Q-Tip or small paintbrush to hand-pollinate the blooms. This seems to help if I can get it done early when the blooms are just starting to open.
In addition to beneficial pollinators, I will also observe wildlife in the area. I often have toads in my herb garden that help control the insect population. This led to me adding a "toad house" (overturned broken pot) so they could have some shelter from the sun. If it's evening, I'll also look for bats or screech owls (also great insect control). Having a water source nearby can help to attract these beneficial predators; or you could even add a bat or owl house.
I also notice what kinds of birds are in the area. Some people see them as pests since they do have a tendency to peck at some of the fruit, but I like them for the insect control and I'm willing to sacrifice a few tomatoes for that cause. Purple Martins, in particular, are fantastic insect hunters. Consider installing a martin house if insects are a problem in the garden.
I like to talk about insects with people because there is so much fear and misinformation out there. People want to kill every bug in their garden indiscriminately with no idea what they're there for and even what services they may be providing. So let me just say to think about these things when you see insects on your plants or in your garden:
-What is it doing? Is it actively eating the plants? OR (like in the case of many spiders), could it be there to eat the other insects?
-Is it just one bug? Or is there an infestation?
-Are the bugs on just one type of plant or multiple plants?
If the insects are a problem, having this information will help when researching what to do about it. It also helps to get a picture if you are unable to identify it.
I try to determine if my plants are not just alive, but thriving. Is my watering appropriate? Or are there areas that are dry or water-logged? Are there just a few blooms or a proliferation? Perhaps a fertilizer or micro-nutrient boost could help. I hate to see my plants just barely struggling through the hot summers so this is also a good time to think about how a shade structure could help or even transplanting to another area.
I want to note that this time I take to observe things in my garden is not necessarily "work time". For me, this is my time to notice only. I am applying my best fertilizer so that later, my work is focused where it needs to be. This is one of the best parts of gardening for me, and I'm happy to apply this fertilizer as liberally as possible.
What do you look for when you walk through your garden or landscape? What are some of the things you notice?