Top 8 Tips for a Healthy Garden
Your garden should be diverse. This means you should have a diverse plant selection. Not only that, you should never plant a whole garden bed with one type of plant - each garden bed should have diverse plantings too. This is one of the principles of companion planting.. Regardless of whether you grow ornamentals, edibles, perennials, annuals, shrubs, trees, ground covers or any combination of these, you should ensure that each group of plants you grow, contains a variety of different plants - preferrably from different plant families.
Your garden should also have animal diversity. You should: have a range of insects because they will help keep insect pests under control and pollinate your flowers (some crops won't produce edible food if their flowers aren't pollinated); have a range of birds because they too will help keep pests under control and can pollinate some flowers; have a range of lizards and frogs because they will help keep pests under control - particularly snails and slugs; have lots of earth worms because they aerate you soil and help make soil nutrients more available to your plants. If you have other animals in your garden, even if they don't provide a direct benefit to your garden, they can be enjoyable to watch and it is good to be able to provide food and a safe place for animals whose habitats are often being destroyed by human activities. By ensuring that your plantings are diverse, you are well on your way to ensuring animal diversity in your garden. You can also attract animals by provide shelter and water for them.
Mulch is very important in any garden. It provides insulation for sensitive roots and helps retain soil moisture, reducing the amount of water you have to apply to your garden. As it breaks down, mulch also boosts organic matter in the soil, improving both soil drainage and water holding capacity as well as improving nutrient availability. Mulch itself also provides valuable, slow release, soil nutrients.
Feed your Soil the Smart Way
Artificial fertilisers provide a quick fix for nutrient deficiencies but they often do more damage to plants in the long run. Artificial fertilisers that contain high nitrogen levels, actually promote weak plant growth that can attract pests and make plants more susceptible to diseases. High amounts of the nutrients are also leached from the soil and make their way to streams and other waterways where they cause all sorts of problems. Many artificial fertilisers can also interfere with the growth of beneficial soil microorganisms (little animals that you need a microscope to see) and can increase soil salt concentrations to harmful levles.
There is an alternative though: use liquid fertilisers made from worm liquid and vermicast (worm poo or worm castings), seaweed, weeds and compost; use mulch and compost; plant green manures, rotate your annuals; companion plant. All of these things can help improve and maintain the health of your soil. In particular, they don't harm worms and other ground dwelling creatures that help maintain and improve soil health. Natual fertilisers such as blood and bone are also much better for your soil than synthetic ones.
Accept Some Plant Damage
Beneficial insects will help control pests but they also need to eat some plant matter too. If you see some plant damage and kill whatever is causing it, you may be killing beneficial insects that are keeping other pests in check. By killing these beneficial insects, you allow other pests to flourish and you will then have to find a way to get rid of the pests as well. If you learn to accept small amounts of plant damage, your garden work load will be greatly reduced and insects will be better able to regulate themselves. If a plant is being destroyed of course you may have to do something about it. If the damage is due to pests, you need to concentrate on deterrents, encouraging predators and killing them if it's completely out of hand. If the damage is due to a beneficial insect, you probably need more food plants for that species of insect.
Plant at the Correct Time
Most gardeners get excited about certain ornamentals and edibles and often try to plant things earlier than the plant is comfortable with. If you plant into soil that is too cold or indeed too warm, the plant may grow but it will be weak and will be more susceptible to diseases and attack by pests.
If you have a short growing season or you just can't wait to plant your favourite plants, try staring your plants off indoors (or keeping them indoors if you purchase a seedling), keeping them in a controlled environment until the outside conditions are right for your plant. You will have to gradually introduce them to the outside conditions though (called hardening off) other wise temperature shifts at night or on extreem days, as well as wind and also different outdoor light levels are all outdoor environmental factors that can weaken or even kill your carefully nurtured plant. Portable green houses and shade cloth can also be used to extend the growing season.
Watch and Learn
You can learn a lot about your garden by simply observing it. You can see the interplay between insects and predators and use this to your advantage. You can discover when plants germinate and grow best in your unique conditions and use this information to improve your garden results. You can catch pests and diseases when they are in their early stages and prevent them from getting out of hand. You can observe how snow and frost affects your garden and use this to plan the most appropriate spots for sensitive and tough plants. There really isn't any substitute for garden observation.
Start Small and Only Create a Garden that is a Managable Size for You
No matter how excited you are about gardening, there is only so much time you can devote to it. The time you have to garden, dictates how big an area you can care for. If your garden is too big, you won't have time to mulch and water and observe it and that's when problems start. You'll have weeds and pests galore before you know it. If you keep your garden to a managable size, you will have a much better cared for garden and everything will be healthier and easier to look after. As you become more proficient or as your availability changes you, can expand or shrink your garden as required.
Never Leave Soil Bare
Bare soil is easily eroded and compacted. It is also an open invitation for weeds and when weeds get established, they harbour pests. If you have an empty garden bed, grow more flowers for beneficial insects or more produce that you could sell at a local market or give to friends, neighbours or a local charity. If the weather prevents the growth of flowers and produce, plant green manure crops. There are some very tough ones that will last through very cold winters and other tough conditions and they will greatly improve your soil. If you really can't grow anything for a period of time - mulch!