QUICK TIPS FOR A HEALTHY & MORE ECOLOGICAL GARDEN:
1. Set some goals.
Creating some targets for your garden is a good idea. Think about what you and your family/friends really like to eat, as vegetables will go to waste if what you grow doesn’t match what you will consume. Consider how much time you have to spend in the garden, and what sort of tasks you like to do. Weigh how much you value producing food, what aesthetic you would like in the garden, and what might change in the future.
2. Make a plan.
Make a map of your garden plan to help you visualize what it will look like and to make the best use of space. Create a rough schedule of when you need to prep beds, buy and start seeds or plants, harvest, weed, etc. As you are gardening, take notes in a journal so you can remember what to do differently next time.
3. Start small and close to home.
There is nothing more discouraging than planting more than you can take care of. Each year, aim plant more of what you didn’t have enough of, and less of what was in surplus. Planting gardens close to home and along regular routes of travel will ensure you can keep up with maintenance.
4. Know your soil.
The soil is the key to the health and nutrition of your plants. Healthy soil biology can drastically reduce the problems you can have with pests and disease, because like humans, plants that have all their requirements met are more resistant to health problems. Building raised beds and avoiding compaction helps main a good balance of air and moisture in your soil. If possible, prepare your soil in the fall in anticipation of planting next spring. Conduct some home experiments to learn about your soil, and consider sending a sample in test for pH and nutrient levels through your local extension office.
5. Pick a good site.
Ideally, vegetable gardens should be placed in areas that are sunny, with at least 6 hours of direct sun each day. A well-drained soil (no standing water after a heavy rain) is best, but can be amended with organic matter if drainage is an issue. Areas that are relatively level and have good access to tool storage, materials, and can be navigated with a cart or wheelbarrow are all important considerations.
6. Use water efficiently
Consider multiple sources of water and what issues the garden will have if there is either too much water or too little water. During most of the growing season, your plants need about 1 inch of water per week. Less frequent watering that is longer in duration and focused around the root zone of plants is best.
If you use a sprinkler, water early in the day so that the plants dry quickly. This reduces the spread of disease. Soaker hoses or drip or trickle irrigation are better than sprinklers because they deliver water directly to the soil without wetting the foliage.
Adding organic matter to the soil can help increase its ability to hold water for plants, especially in sandy soils. Mulch the soil to help it retain moisture.
7. Learn about your plants and create plant communities
Order seeds early. Studying seed catalogs during winter is a good way to get acquainted with the possibilities. Use our various growing guides to learn more about the needs of various plants.
Try and group plants around a theme – for example group perennial crops (plants that come back every year such as rhubarb and asparagus) together along one side of the garden. Put herbs together so harvesting is easy. Create polycultures that perform multiple functions.
8. Rotate crops
Don’t grow the same crop (or members of the same crop family) in the same place year after year. This can lead to a build up of pests and diseases. Plant winter cover crops such as rye in fall to protect and build soil overwinter. If you harvest an early crop and don’t plant another one in its place, keep the soil covered with a cover crop, such as buckwheat.
No garden is complete without a compost bin or two that helps break down organic matter, turning it into food for the soil. Learn more about composting basics and a wide range of topics at the Cornell Waste Management Institute website.
11. Attract pollinators and beneficial insects
Don’t value only the aesthetic or food values of your plants, but also their ability to improve the health of your garden. Certain flowers, such as members of the umbel and aster family, attract an incredible diversity of “good” insects to the garden. Learn more by reading this article and by visiting Cornell’s Biological Control: A Guide to Natural Enemies in North America.