Digging In


Amy Haun knows one thing for sure that’s new in the world of gardening: more people than ever are interested in the topic. Haun, Brian Townsend, and Tobi Johnson, all master gardeners, administrate the Knoxville Area Gardening Tips Facebook group. Before the pandemic, about 4,000 people had joined the group. Now its membership hovers around 12,000. 

I’m one of the gardeners who joined. I couldn’t identify a wildflower I spotted on a walk with the dog. It took just a few minutes for someone in the Facebook group to set me straight. Someone else told me the name of a weed I couldn’t get under control and what worked for them.

“There are more people at home now with time to grow something in their space,” Haun says. “We’re all looking for what we can do on a personal level to improve our situations. It’s empowering to plant a seed and see it sprout. Empowering and hopeful.” 

March is both a hopeful and an impatient time of year for gardeners. We’re pacing in front of the calendar, looking forward to turning over the soil and sticking something in it. But the threat of frost will keep us mostly doing garden maintenance—weeding, pruning and the like—for more than another month. While we wait, here are some new garden products and concepts to consider incorporating into your plan. 

Retail therapy

It may be too early to dig in the dirt, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t delve into shopping for new supplies and plants. Amy Haun is fond of the new Smart Pots fabric planters for container gardening. “Plants don’t get root bound in them,” she says. “They let the roots breathe and it’s almost impossible to overwater plants.” They come in a wide range of colors and sizes, some with handles for making lifting easier. When I spotted their raised fabric bed options, which come up to 12 feet long, I wanted to lunge for the debit card. They’d work well on uneven or slightly sloping ground. 

Speaking of, raised bed gardening has been trending lately, as has incorporating edibles into the flowers and shrubs of an ornamental landscape. “Tomatoes and peppers are good choices for that for someone who doesn’t want a full-blown vegetable garden,” Mike Newman, owner of Northshore Nursery in Lenoir City, says. Kitchen herbs—basil, parsley, oregano, thyme, to name a few—are great to plant in pots on a patio or deck, within easy reach of whoever is cooking, Haun says. She recommends large pots that hold more soil and require less frequent watering than small ones. 

Newman says deer are an ongoing challenge to gardeners where he is. He discovered on Amazon a solar-operated deer repellant that uses motion detectors to activate it. It does a great job, he says. Another hot yard product (pun intended) is the stainless steel smokeless fire pit. Different versions offer the bonuses of being lightweight and easy to move or complete with a searing rim and grill top for cooking. 

When it comes to plants, Newman says Proven Winners is marketing some new bloomers that he expects to fly off the shelves.“The Prime hydrangeas grow to about four feet tall, which is a nice middle ground between the dwarf hydrangeas and the ones that grow to eight feet,” he says. “And they have some new roses that are really nice, too. The Oso Easy line is made up of disease-resistant, no-maintenance roses that are prolific bloomers up until frost.”

Too new to buy

If you really want to stay up on the newest annuals and vegetables to grow, UT Gardens is the place to be. It is one of the test sites for All America Selections, an independent nonprofit that tests new garden plants before they’re brought to market. 

James Newburn, interim director of UT Gardens, explains the process: “We usually compare the new plant to two existing varieties that are already on the market. We start them in the greenhouse from seed, then transplant them out in the garden. We plant the experimental plant in the center and the comparisons on either side of it so we can really do a qualitative evaluation. We watch them throughout the growing season and then submit our findings back to AAS, which evaluates data from all the test sites. If it performs well and is given high marks, then it is given award-winning status, which you will see when it appears in a seed catalog. They’ve begun to designate regional winners as well.”

Though it may take two or three years for the new variety to show up on the market, visitors can see the test plants at UT Gardens in the Kitchen Garden area enclosed within a purple fence and in the semicircle garden beds close to Neyland Drive between the Children’s Garden and the labyrinth. Newburn says the test plants and comparisons are labeled as such. Between 10 and 15 varieties of plants are tested each year. The staff tries to plant a minimum of a dozen plants of each variety. UT Gardens also displays previous AAS winners in the same locations, designated with Winner signage.  

“About 25 years ago, we tested a new variety of petunia, a ground-cover petunia, meant to be a landscape plant that would spread along the ground,” Newburn recalls. “That came to be the Purple Wave petunia, which you know is everywhere now. We’ve tested the disease-resistant zinnias, an innovation in plant breeding that has swept throughout the industry. We give people an opportunity to see the latest, newest thing on the market before it’s even on the market.”

What’s old is new

Whether it’s out of concern for the environment or a desire for less sweat equity, more gardeners are planting native plants that require less maintenance and feed the pollinators they attract. They’re thinking more about “right plant right place”: will the plants they select thrive in the space they’re destined for? Will they grow well in full sun and dry conditions, for instance? Are they suitable for zones 7a and 7b plant hardiness zones, which Knox County falls into?  

Those sorts of concerns make up the concept of sustainable gardening, or using gardening practices that cause no harm to the earth and its inhabitants while attempting to actually enhance it. Sustainable gardeners often compost their own yard waste and kitchen scraps and even collect the rainwater that runs down their gutters to water their plants. And they’re careful with pesticides and weed killers or avoid using them entirely. 

I’ve fallen in love with growing native perennials. One, they tend to be happy with the environment and grow well; that seems obvious since they’re natives. Two, I enjoy watching the butterflies and hummingbirds and bees that flock to their blooms. And three, they’re perennial, so I don’t have to plant year after year. 

Rylan Thompson, master gardener coordinator for the Knox County Extension Service, says it’s essential to start these efforts—or any garden projects—with a soil test. This involves collecting small samples of the soil from the area you want to plant, combining them in a soil test kit and submitting it for a breakdown of how acidic or alkaline it is, whether it’s heavily clay with compaction issues and what amendments should be added to make it suitable for growing the plants you want to grow. 

Free soil testing kits are available at the Knox County Extension Office in the City County Building downtown, at Mayo Garden Centers, Stanley’s Greenhouse in South Knoxville, and Knox Seed and Greenhouse on Rutledge Pike. It costs $15 for each soil test kit to be analyzed. 

Local learning online

Whether you’re a rookie gardener or one with years of experience, there’s always something to learn about growing things, and Knox County has several online resources that are new or yet to be fully utilized. Thompson shared some of his favorites: 

– Tennessee Smart Yards is a UT Extension-led program that teaches Tennesseans practices to create healthier landscapes and communities. A series of nine videos by extension and water resource professionals supply the expertise that gardeners need to make their own yards Smart Yards. Doing so with the aid of a downloadable workbook can lead to being certified as a Smart Yard. You can find the videos at tnyards.utk.edu.

– Sign up your neighborhood or community to be a National Wildlife Habitat. The effort aims to make our world healthier, greener and more wildlife-friendly. Three Knoxville neighborhoods—Forest Heights, Fourth and Gill, and South Woodlawn—are certified, as is Knoxville itself with its many parks and green spaces, including the Urban Wilderness just outside of downtown. You can sign up at www.nwf.org/communitywildlifehabitat.

– A wealth of information from Tennessee Extension agents and specialists will help gardeners with selection and care information on garden plants, managing soils, identifying infections and diseases and supporting water quality. Their resources are found at www.uthort.com.

– When the Covid-19 pandemic made in-person presentations by garden experts impossible, Knox County master gardeners took their speakers bureau online, presenting free videos on a range of gardening topics. You can find their videos on their YouTube channel. Just search Knox County Master Gardeners.

Must-have garden equipment

Our garden experts shared their thoughts on gardening essentials: 

Garden knife

Amy Haun called this an all-around useful tool, good for digging and planting, cutting roots apart and weeding. Be sure the metal blade extends into the handle so it doesn’t easily bend or break. 

Large polyethylene pots

Large polyethylene pots in a variety of sizes are great for container gardening, says Mike Newman. They’re not porous like concrete, they’re easier to move and survive season after season outdoors. (I have one on the deck that I love.)

Soil probe

Rylan Thompson says a small hand-held soil probe is a great way to examine the structure and moisture level of the soil and also useful for collecting soil samples for analysis. 

Knee pads or a padded garden bench

Gardening gets physical and finding ways to make it easier will extend the time you’ll be able to work, Haun says. A garden bench can be used as a kneeler or flipped over to sit on. (The bench I was given by a friend is my favorite piece of garden equipment.)

Hat and gloves

A comfortable hat and sturdy garden gloves that fit snugly enough to be able to pick up seeds are great protection for anybody outside for extended periods. 

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