One of the great things about being a gardener is we are always learning. Regardless of how many years you’ve spent digging in the dirt, there is always something new to learn and new to grow. Gardeners are pros when it comes to planning how next year’s garden will be better than all the ones before. Here are 10 tips to help you with that.
Stop Tilling Your Soil
Tilling works. You won’t hear me say otherwise. I have friends that grow beautiful, tilled gardens. I also see those friends spend a lot more time and money on their gardens than I do.
Tilling works because it kills the soil life, which floods the soil with nutrients as they decompose. You can rebuild the soil life by adding beneficial microbes and earthworms back into your garden, but as time goes on, you’ll find the soil life population dwindles until your soil eventually dies.
When that time comes, you’ll be completely dependent on synthetic fertilizers to feed your garden. You’ll need the synthetic fertilizers because they are already chelated and readily absorbed by plants. Organic amendments only work when there is soil life to break them down.
The soil food web is an incredible thing. When it is nurtured, you’ll find the cast of characters making up this web will do a lot of your gardening chores for you. They will recirculate nutrients, keep harmful pest populations in check, and even aerate the soil so you don’t have to till. If you focus on feeding the soil life, it will take care of your garden.
Make Your Own Compost
One of the best ways to feed your soil life is with compost. When you layer compost on your garden, these helpful critters will break it down over a period of a few years until all that’s left is a rich layer of spongy humus that your garden will love.
You can buy compost, but it is so easy to make your own. There are a few different systems for creating your own compost. If you are short on space, you can use a barrel composter or make your own worm bin. If you have a little more room, you can make a pile for your kitchen and yard waste in your backyard. My favorite way to make compost, if you have the space, is to raise a flock of chickens to do it for you.
Raise a Flock of Chickens
Chickens and gardens have a symbiotic relationship, and I would recommend them to any gardener who has room for them. They take all the work out of making compost if you use the deep-litter method.
The deep-litter method is when you keep adding organic materials, such as wood chips or straw, to their run, instead of scooping it all out on a regular basis. These browns combine with the chicken manure and break down into a potent compost you can apply to your garden. You never even have to turn the pile because your chickens scratch and aerate the compost for you.
Not only do chickens make wonderful compost, but they will also eat all your garden waste and kitchen scraps, and then turn it into compost and eggs for your family. I also let them loose in my garden during the off-season so they can eat bugs and fertilize the garden, which sets me up for a healthier garden in the spring.
Mulch, Mulch, Mulch
One of the best things you can do for your garden is mulch it. Soil does best when it is covered. Bare soil dries out more quickly and leads to erosion. Mulch will keep the moisture levels even, so your soil isn’t too wet or too dry, and will reduce the amount of watering you need to do. I use wood-chip mulch on my garden and only had to water once last summer.
You can use a variety of materials for mulch, including arborist wood chips, straw, shredded leaves, or even stones. Organic mulches have the added benefit of breaking down and feeding your soil as they decompose.
Grow the Right Plants for Your Climate
It goes without saying, but different plants grow best in different climates. What grows well in Arizona will be a lot different than what grows well in Oregon. You can use season extenders like floating row covers and greenhouses to grow crops that may not otherwise do well in your region, however, you still probably won’t get results worth writing home about.
If you are short on space, stick to growing crops you know will thrive in your climate. This will give you healthier plants, fewer pest and disease issues, and a larger harvest.
Plant Flowers with Your Veggies
I used to look at flowers as ornamental and frivolous additions to my vegetable garden. However, I’ve learned that’s not the case at all. Flowers have the very important job of attracting pollinators to your garden. With the bee population struggling, we need to do everything we can to attract them to our plots of dirt. Add flowers throughout your garden, and while you’re at it, offer them a water source as well so they won’t have any reason to leave.
Some flowers offer additional benefits. For example, nasturtiums are a tasty addition to salads and can also be used as a trap crop for aphids. Sunflowers give us delicious seeds to snack on. Borage is not only a favorite of the bees, but also has medicinal benefits. You can also add borage’s cucumber-flavored leaves to water or a salad.
Prevent Problems with Neem Oil
Neem oil is one of the safest pesticides and fungicides you can use in your garden. The oil comes from the neem tree, which is native to India, and has a variety of uses outside the garden, from beauty treatments to treating skin conditions.
In the garden, it can be used as a preventative or treatment for a wide variety of pests. It is also a powerful anti-fungal and helps with rust and powdery mildew. I rarely use any other pesticide or fungicide in my garden.
It is important to use 100 percent cold-pressed neem oil. Some types of neem oil have been processed so they no longer contain azadirachtin, and are only left with the clarified hydrophobic extract of neem oil. This type of neem oil will not be as effective as cold-pressed neem oil.
Try Companion Planting
Companion planting is the practice of planting different crops together in a mutually beneficial way. Many of these plant combinations have been passed down from grandmothers past, mythology, and the occult. Some gardeners take issue with the supernatural aspect of companion planting and dismiss the entire practice. This may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
As science has tested different combinations, some of the traditional companion planting practices have been verified, while others have been disproven. For example, plant dill, coriander, and alyssum attract ladybugs, which will eat up to 1,000 aphids in their lifetime. Parasitic wasps feast on all kinds of nasty critters and will come to your garden if you plant marigolds, zinnias, cosmos, and rosemary. One study showed that intercropping garlic is an effective pest management strategy for strawberries.
Although it may seem counterintuitive at first, pruning almost always improves plant growth. When you prune your plants regularly, you’ll see faster, healthier growth, and can prevent fungal issues before they begin. The key is to prune properly.
You want to leave enough leaves to get enough food from the sun, but take away enough leaves so that airflow and sunshine can reach most of the plant. You also want to make sure not to prune too many of the shoots where the blossoms will grow or else you won’t get much fruit.
Give Your Plants Room to Grow
One of the biggest rookie gardening mistakes is spacing your plants too closely together. If your plants don’t have enough room to grow, they will never reach their full potential, and your harvest will suffer. When plants are too close together, air flow will be restricted and can lead to fungal diseases. Proper spacing allows plants to take in adequate sunlight, creates more air flow, and lets their roots spread out and gain more access to nutrients.
These tips should help you elevate your organic garden to the next level and maximize your harvest this year, which is something all of us gardeners aspire to do.