Alabama Extension Master Gardeners coordinator offers tips for first-time gardeners, says more people gardening due to increasing food prices

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Kerry Smith, Alabama Extension Master Gardeners coordinator, discusses tips for first-time gardeners, the rise in gardening as food prices increase, plant health and how to have a garden even if you have limited space. Smith also serves as Extension’s Home Grounds Team co-coordinator and as an Auburn University Department of Horticulture outreach administrator.

For first-time gardeners, what should be step one?

Never guess, soil test. There are seven major soil types in Alabama. Within each of these regions, a wide variation of soil characteristics can exist. Using a residential landscape or park as an example, the soils near structures, paved surfaces or in paths with daily foot traffic are often more compacted, lacking air space. Soil quality, or health, is reflective of the soil type (piedmont, coastal plain, limestone valley, etc.) and its past history.

Any soil can be improved by adding compost. Non-composted plant debris can be used too—think pine straw or shredded brown leaves. Use these to amend new planting beds or as fresh mulch in older beds. Composted plant debris adds several benefits to the root zone—increased water holding capacity, air spaces for roots to breath and better retention of the soil nutrients plants need. Learn more about soil testing and soil health in our Alabama Extension website.

Are more people planting fruits and vegetables as food prices rise at grocery stores?

We think so. Even before the pandemic, an interest in home food production was on the rise. When the proverbial COVID shutdown forced everyone to stay home for several months, this trend seemed to escalate. Extension agents’ phones were ringing off the hook, and email boxes were flooded with questions from new gardeners. Garden centers could not keep plants, seeds and related products in stock. At the same time, the number of families experiencing food insecurity rose, too.

We responded. A conversation between Jefferson County Extension Master Gardeners Laura Kezar, Cathy O’Sheal and Mindy Bodenhamer and their Extension agent, Bethany O’Rear, was the beginning. They considered the basic garden questions and common failures for first-time gardeners. Then they thought, “If we’re teaching people to grow a productive garden, maybe they will share their bounty.” The philanthropic addition was made, and a new Extension program, Grow More, Give More, began.

Tell us an interesting tidbit about gardening that might be unknown to most gardeners, both experienced and newcomers.

Plant health starts underground. A healthy soil should have roughly 50% mineral and organic components (sand, silt, clay and organic matter) and 50% as pore space for water and air. The mineral and organic components (live, dead and composted carbon-based organisms) form a sturdy structure for anchoring plant roots, a healthy environment for soil microbes to flourish and a warehouse for essential soil nutrients. The other half, pore space, ensures air movement and a reservoir for water. Healthy soil equals healthy roots, and healthy roots grow healthy plants.

If a person doesn’t have yard space for a garden, what are some other options?

Build a raised bed or grow your plants in containers. Many used materials can build a raised bed—think scrap lumber or concrete blocks. Any one-gallon container is the perfect spot to plant a few happy daylilies or pansies. Keep in mind that larger plants will need larger containers. Larger plants have more roots than smaller plants. I recommend a container size no smaller than five gallons for growing a tomato plant. Make sure to use a potting mix and not native soil. Potting mixes drain better in the confined space of container gardens. I also think that container gardening is a great entry point for beginners. It’s a small area, takes less time to manage and can often fit almost anywhere. Be creative and start a new garden today.

More Information To arrange an interview with our expert, please contact Charles Martin in Auburn Advancement Communications at

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.