Garden Of Paradise
Skip the chemicals and use these earth-friendly tips for healthy growing

By Dena Nishek

Gardening is good for you. It's a great stress reducer, and anyone who has experienced a sweaty brow and aching muscles after an afternoon tilling soil knows it's a great workout. To top it off, gardeners tend to eat more vegetables, thanks to their homegrown bounty.

There's just one problem. Where does that arsenal of bug-withering chemicals fit into this otherwise healthful picture? Many gardeners rely on the convenience of toxic pesticides and herbicides, perhaps regretting the necessity or without realizing there are effective, practical and less-harmful alternatives.

In order to skip the synthetic garden products, you may need to shift your perspective. If you've been trying to control nature, now try working with it. The eco-gardener's primary goal is to keep plants and garden plots healthy so that they are less susceptible to pests and diseases. Holistic principles that promote health and prevent disease in your body also apply in your garden. Think of it as healing the whole garden, not just its symptoms.

This year, try planting a small vegetable garden the natural way. The following five tips will help you get started, and in five months, you should be able to see, and taste, the results.

Tip 1: Lay The Groundwork
A Chinese adage advises, "Select a proper site for your garden and half your work is done." The proper site for vegetables is a sunny yet protected plot. Once you've found that, be ready to dig because soil preparation is critical to garden success. If you're lucky enough to find loam (soil with good texture that's rich in organic matter), you can just loosen it, remove weeds and add some compost. Sand- or clay-rich soils will also have to be weeded, but then be dug and amended with organic matter. (Not sure what kind of soil you have? See "Soil Savvy.")

Amendments change the texture and structure of soil and improve drainage, air circulation, and fertility—all things that help plants thrive. Dig in compost, manure (aged six months minimum), grass clippings (that haven't been sprayed with chemicals) or dry leaves. For quick yet long-lasting soil improvement, aim to incorporate both fast- and slow-decomposing materials, such as grass clippings (fast), aged manure and wood chips (slow), into the top 12 to 18 inches of soil. Be sure to work the soil thoroughly each fall so microorganisms can cause the materials to decompose before spring planting.

Tip 2: Pick Plants Properly
When you're done digging, it's time to select plants and seeds. Heeding USDA cold-hardiness zone information will prevent you from wasting money on flowers that won't flourish in your climate or vegetables that won't mature during your growing season. (The zone map is printed in nearly every gardening book and is also available online at www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone/.)

John Fedor, author of Organic Gardening for the 21st Century (Reader's Digest, 2001), recommends planting regional vegetable varieties. "There are regional varieties for almost every area in the world," Fedor says. "Typically they will be resistant to the pests and diseases found in your area and be able to produce an abundant crop in your climate."

Once you have the seedlings in place, it's time to mulch.

Tip 3: Mulch Matters
Mulch is any protective covering that is put over the amended soil and around plants. It moderates soil temperatures, helps soil retain moisture, prevents erosion and enriches the earth. Mulch also keeps weeds at bay by inhibiting their germination. This means less time weeding for you and less competition for your plants. Choices for organic mulch include cocoa bean hulls, dry grass clippings, pine needles, pole peelings, straw and wood chips. Apply 3 to 6 inches of mulch around larger plants and a bit less around seedlings until they are established.

Tip 4: Be Water Wise
A good choice for a small vegetable garden is a drip irrigation system using either soaker hoses or a hose with customizable emitters. This style of watering, vs. overhead sprinklers, reduces the amount of water lost to evaporation and keeps leaves dry, which can prevent problems such as the fungal disease powdery mildew.

As for when to water, typically, your vegetables will need more water than your lawn. Water your veggie garden for 10 to 20 minutes every other day; increase amount and frequency on hot days or if you notice plants wilting.

Tip 5: Meet The Creatures
Not all bugs are bad. In fact, some are an asset to your garden's health. "The best way of dealing with pests and diseases is to avoid them by creating healthy plants in a healthy environment," Fedor says. "A healthy environment filled with a diversity of plants encourages beneficial insects that keep pests under control."

So when you find a critter, the first step is to identify whether it's a problem. Pillbugs, a.k.a. "roly-polies," for example, are benign, as is that black and yellow caterpillar munching your parsley. She'll be back later as a harmless and beautiful swallowtail butterfly. Keep in mind also that most plants can recover from minor damage.

When action is required, the holistic approach to controlling pests involves coordinating cultural, biological, and mechanical know-how. Cultural controls are essentially good gardening skills. "The techniques we use to grow plants dictate many of the problems we may have with insects, diseases, and other pests," says Whitney Cranshaw, professor of entomology and author of Pests of the West (Fulcrum Publishing, 1998). That means proper gardening—site preparation, maintaining a clean garden (removing dead or diseased plants), appropriate watering, mulching, regular tilling, and planting adapted and resistant varieties bred for success in specific climates and to resist certain bugs or diseases. By taking care of these things, you are more likely to have healthy plants and fewer problems.

Biological controls include introducing or encouraging natural enemies, such as ladybug larvae for an aphid infestation. Mantids, green lacewings and trichogramma wasps are other examples of "good" bugs, according to Cranshaw, meaning they eat problem bugs and don't harm plants.

Mechanical pest controls include barriers, mulching, hosing, handpicking, traps and applying natural products. Some natural products that affect specific pests but won't harm people, pets or wildlife include Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), horticulture oils, insecticidal soaps, essential oil-based products, garlic sprays and hot pepper sprays. Regard these products as a last resort, since even these natural insecticides can also kill beneficial bugs and don't address the cause of the problem.

The benefits of natural gardening are numerous. It minimizes the impact on your yard's ecosystem and on the environment in general. It also puts you in touch with the daily and seasonal cycles of plants that can heal, nourish and delight. And, finally, it connects you to the earth while serving as a healthful pastime.

Dena Nishek is a 2001 graduate of the master gardener program.