Ten Tips To Curtail Garden Problems
Most people make resolutions on the eve of the new year. To me, it makes more sense to start anew in spring. Winter has stripped the garden down to its bones and soothed that voice inside that keeps track of to-do lists. Winter is for resting; spring for rejuvenation.
With rejuvenation comes the energy to make changes, a word that most often means "more work." But bear with me. Not only will the following 10 tips help cleanse the planet of poisons and keep you and your garden healthier, but they also will make gardening easier. I swear.
OK, you're thinking, she's crazy. Look at that long list of things to do. How dare she say that's not more work. Well, because I'm sitting here writing this column and you're not. No, really, it's true. Most of the recommendations need be done only once a year or not at all if you don't have problems. Stack that up against the check-off list for gardening with chemicals and the weekly spraying and fertilizing chores. When you turn your attention to cultivating health instead of solving problems, gardening becomes a self-sustaining exercise instead of a worrisome, can't-keep-up-with-all-the-work burden.
You won't be the only one to benefit, either. Even if you don't see them, the critters in your garden will thank you. Whether it's a cute chickadee that's easy to relate to or an invisible beneficial bacteria in your soil, all of those guys are working for you. The more you have, the more you refuse to kill with toxic chemicals, the more work they'll do.
And the happier and healthier we'll all be.
1. Start with the soil. I won't bore you with the ins and outs of soil microbiology. Just believe me: Soil is key. Keep it healthy and your job is pretty much done. What is healthy soil? Fluffy, full of organic material and with a smell that, at least for me, is one of the best in the world. You'll know it when you see it. How do you get healthy soil? Read on.
2. Make a pact with compost. About 12 years ago I started spreading compost on my soil once a year. At first, I used quite a bit because my soil was just a lump o' clay -- or, more like it, a mountain of clay. So I'd apply several inches. After three or four years, I cut back to 1 or 2 inches. Now there are some years when I only spot treat with compost in areas I know the drainage is not what it should be or plants show some stress. New on the market is compost tea, a concentrated, liquid compost that's brewed in a machine and sold at many local nurseries. Compost tea is full of billions of microbes, the invisible creatures that not only make nutrients available to plants but also help suppress diseases by duking it out with disease organisms.
3. Apply mulch. Mulch is a many splendored thing. It keeps down weeds; helps prevent erosion; improves soil structure by adding organic material; adds nutrients; saves water; and keeps plant roots warm in the winter and cool in the summer. There are a ton of things to use as mulch, from bark to pine needles to filbert shells, including many bagged products. Use whatever is easiest to find. I mulch with compost because I like the look and, even more, I like saving on the tedious work of spreading. It's like getting a two-for-one, since I only have to apply once a year.
4. Right plant, right place. Ever try to sneak a sun-lover like delphinium into the shade? Or a water-chugger like gunnera in a dry area? Doesn't work, does it? If you manage to keep the plant alive, it takes way more coddling than it should. Planning before you plant solves that problem and cuts down on work. A plant that's given the conditions it needs will be a happy camper.
5. Take a walk. Are you a morning person (or, as my old roommate used to say, a morning glory)? Or a night owl? Either way, take a few minutes each day or two to walk through the garden with your cup of coffee or glass of wine. Noticing problems as they start will save all kinds of time and trouble later. Stopping a disease or infestation early is way easier than when it has taken over the landscape. Plus, as you walk, you'll pull a weed, deadhead a few geraniums, snap off that wayward branch. Doing a little at a time can save you and your back from those overwhelming weekend-warrior stints.
6. Clean out the chemical closet. If you do find a problem in the garden, try low-impact solutions first. Wash aphids off your roses with a strong spray of water from the hose. Trap slugs. Dig around the base of plants for cutworms. If your first attempts don't work, take a step up and use biological controls such as beneficial nematodes or Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which control many insect pests. Or, use a nontoxic product such as Sluggo to kill slugs, corn gluten to prevent weeds or neem oil for black spot. Nursery shelves are full of such things nowadays, so there's no excuse.
7. Water appropriately. Some days we just don't feel like watering. Sitting under a tree in the back yard is all the energy we can muster up. But just like pets and you and me, plants can't go without water. Stress them a little and they'll suffer a lot. You may not notice it right away, but, trust me, you will eventually. It's worth the effort to lay soaker hoses or put in a drip system, which are less wasteful than overhead watering. And keeping water on the ground instead of on the plants cuts down on diseases. I've put in both systems all by myself, and I'm not exactly what you'd call an engineer. Either will save you water, money and time, so you can lounge when you want to.
8. Invite wildlife to the party. Wildlife is a sure sign of a healthy garden. Birds, bees, butterflies, bats, frogs, dragonflies, snakes -- yes, even snakes -- mean you've created your own little balanced habitat in the back yard. Make the garden attractive to them by providing water, food (with plants they feed on) and shelter and they'll pay you back a thousandfold by eating the pesky critters that want to eat your plants. And some of them will even sing you songs.
9. Plant lots of different plants. Remember the Irish potato famine? One disease wiped out the country's crop. If they had diversified with other plants, disaster could have been avoided. The same goes for your garden. Pests and diseases are often specific to one type or one group of plants. By planting a wide range of plants you might lose one or two plants but not the whole ball of wax.
10. Return clippings to lawn. More than any other area of the garden, lawns suck up time, energy and money. We fertilize, water, mow and start all over again. But the most important thing we can do for a healthy lawn is to leave the clippings on when we mow. Lawn guru Tom Cook at Oregon State University does just that and hasn't fertilized his back lawn in years. His neighbors say it's gorgeous, though he's humble about it. If you don't believe, try this: Leave clippings on when you mow, fertilize just once a year in November with an organic, slow-release fertilizer. After a couple of years, you tell me which is the better way.
That's it. Still think I'm crazy? You're not the only one.
by Kym Pokorny, home and garden writer, The Oregonian
Reprinted with permission, June 2004
All rights reserved.