Preparing garden beds

Before transplanting or buying plants, prepare the areas in which they are going to be grown; these may be existing beds or newly created areas. To achieve the best results, remove any weeds and dig over the soil until it's loose, so the new roots can stretch out and grow unimpeded. It's also a good idea to improve the soil and its water retention and drainage with some organic matter.

Once you've prepared the site, start planting your herbs. Some herbs benefit from added nutrients in the soil, so give them a good start in their new environment by adding a slow-release fertilizer into your beds. Other herbs -such as anise, sweet basil and the various lavenders - like an application of lime.

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For healthy growth, plants need the right balance of nutrients, applied as fertilizers. These are sold on nursery shelves under a myriad of descriptions, and you'll probably find there's something for palms, herbs, roses, citrus trees, indoor plants and much more. You can add fertilizers to the soil so they're absorbed through the plant roots, or you can apply them as a foliar spray to the leaves.

Determine which plants you want to fertilize and find out a little about the chemical makeup of basic fertilizers to make sure you choose the right one.

Balancing the elements

The best fertilizer to choose is one that offers a bit of everything. This is known as a "balanced fertilizer," which you can use in various ways.

• Add it at the time of planting

• Sprinkle it around garden beds as a seasonal top-up.

• Apply it as a weak, soluble solution to young seedlings or as a booster throughout the growing seasons.

Chemical elements

Chemical elements — primary, secondary and trace — play a vital role in growing healths plants. Look at the pack, where you'll find the symbols N:P:k. indicating the ratios of the three major elements — nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.

Primary elements

• Nitrogen (N) - important for vegetative growth (leaves, stems and fruit), making leaves lush. Herbs grown for their foliage, such as mints, need a higher nitrogen value (for example, 12:1:5).

• Phosphorous (P) - for cell formation and chemical reactions involved in growth and reproduction. It promotes root development as well as seed, flower and fruit production.

• Potassium (K) - important for fruit-bearing trees and vegetable and flower crops, because it improves the quality of

Nutrient deficiencies

Well-balanced soils play an important role in ensuring that nutrients in the soil are being released and made available to plants. Adding more fertilizer will not necessarily resolve the long-term problem, but improving the soil will.

Nutrient deficiencies manifest themselves in various ways: distorted or stunted growth, yellow or mottled leaves, scorched leaf edges, premature maturity of fruit, dieback or poor root growth.

Some deficiencies are common to certain types of plants. For example, fruit trees with yellowing leaves and green veins benefit at times from chelated iron, while the older leaves of gardenias that are yellowing or browning around the outer part usually need the help of an old garden remedy - a combination of magnesium and Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) dissolved in water.

Other symptoms might require more investigation. Take a cutting to your local nursery for horticultural advice, join a garden club, read gardening books or search the Internet.

flowers and fruits. It aids plant health, stem and cell thickness and the movement of water within plants, providing resistance to pests, diseases, drought and heat. For a good flush of blooms, flowering plants need a fertilizer containing more potassium (6:14:17).

Secondary elements

• Calcium (Ca) - needed for healthy cell walls and root growth.

• Magnesium (Mg) - a key component in the green coloring of plants (that is, chlorophyll) and therefore vital for photosynthesis, a process whereby plants use the energy of sunlight to produce sugars.

• Sulphur (S) - part of the flavor and odor components (for example, onions and cabbages).

Trace elements

• These are iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), boron (B), copper (Cu), zinc (Zn) and molybdenum (Mo), which are needed in only minute quantities.

Keep your herb cuttings out of direct sun until the roots have grown, then plant them out.

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Fertilizer types

Some fertilizers are produced from manufactured chemicals (synthetics), others from natural products. The natural products, such as blood and bone, are based on ingredients that include animal by-products and manures, seaweed, rock minerals and fish, which tend to slowly feed plants over a period of several months. Other products combine both chemical and natural ingredients.

Fertilizers sold in a dry granular form are designed to release nutrients slowly. Faster-acting forms are liquid plant foods, which are dissolved in water to give plants a quick lift.

Whether you go synthetic, organic, dry or liquid, the important aspect is the N:P:K ratio (see box at left). Always read the label carefully and follow the manufacturer's directions.

Seaweed solutions

Strictly speaking, liquid seaweed-based products are soil conditioners that increase plants' resistance to drought, heat and frost. They also improve their ability to take up nutrients and improve root and stem development as well as the water-holding capacity of the soil.

Typically, the ingredients include molasses and humic and fulvic acids, which increase soil microorganism and earthworm activity, making them a wholesome addition to the watering can. For larger garden-bed areas, use a "hose-on" application.

Continue reading here: Watering

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