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Look for healthy plants to introduce to your garden

“I love spring anywhere, but if I could choose, I would always greet it in a garden.”

— Ruth Stout (1884-1980)

Ruth Stout was 45 before she grew her first garden, but she made up for the late start by spending the next 50 years planting and perfecting her “no work” gardening style. Ruth’s secret was mulch, lots and lots of mulch. In fact, her way of layering hay mulch to grow vegetables was the forerunner to today’s no-till, no-dig lasagna method. Ruth also gardened naked, but to my knowledge that level of free-spiritedness hasn’t caught on yet. You can watch Ruth still gardening in her 90s (with clothes on) on YouTube.

Mulch is an important tool. Not only does mulch build soil tilth, it holds moisture and reduces weeds. Despite its benefits, mulch can’t make up for unhealthy plants that are transplanted into the garden. Here are some things I look for:

Are roots growing out of the bottom holes of the container? Roots that are growing this way can’t adequately take up moisture and nutrients from the soil when they are transplanted. For plants that are root bound, I use a sharp knife to cut off the bottom of the roots and then tease them apart until they are dangling.

Is the plant’s stem stretched? This usually means the seedling did not have sufficient light and/or was kept too warm after it germinated. Leggy stems can’t support the plant, especially after it begins fruiting. It’s best to avoid buying starts with tall, spindly stems; however, leggy tomato, eggplant and pepper plants will grow new roots if the stems are buried. (The stems of other plants will rot if they’re buried.) Dig a trench in the soil a few inches deep and long enough for most of the plant to fit in sideways. Remove leaves up to the top growth, and then lay the plant down in the trench at a slight angle so the top foliage is facing away from the surface when the plant is covered with soil.

Does the plant have healthy new leaf buds? Be sure starts have new growth that isn’t withered or discolored. Also check to see if any of the foliage is misshapen or has holes or discoloration, all of which are signs of insects or disease. If you find insects once you bring plants home, treat the problem before transplanting them into the garden.

Even healthy plant starts can use a boost of fertilizer to curb transplant shock. The OSU Extension Service recommends combining 12 scoops of fishmeal, 3 scoops finely ground dolomite lime, 1 scoop rock phosphate, 1 scoop kelp meal, and 1 scoop bone meal. Mix one cup of fertilizer with about one gallon of moist soil and place directly below transplants to give them a good start in the garden.

More tips will be available at the Spring Garden Fair, April 30 and May 1, at the Expo. See www.jacksoncountymga.org. I’ll be there with my themed container gardens, sharing a booth with my friend Nickie, who has an alpaca farm.

By the way, last week I mentioned that the plant clinic at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center also offers soil testing, but I learned that I jumped the gun on that a bit. I’ll keep you posted on when they’re set up to provide that service. In the meantime, if you want your soil pH tested, bring samples to the Spring Garden Fair.

Let’s take Ruth Stout’s advice and greet the spring days planting in our garden. It’s up to you whether to do it naked!

Rhonda Nowak is a member of the Jackson County Master Gardener Association and teaches writing at Rogue Community College. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com.