by Steve Whysall, Vancouver Sun, May 5, 2014
(Based on information from Egan Davis, one of the top gardeners at VanDusen Botanical Garden and foreman at Park & Tilford Gardens in North Vancouver)
1. BUILD HEALTHY SOIL
If you only do one thing – mulch. Mulch protects the soil from sun and rain, reduces water demands and cuts back on weeding. Leaves are best, but soil amenders, composted bark and well-rotted manures are good, too. The idea is to mimic the cycle that happens in nature, especially in the forest where organic litter is continually promoting microbial activity and root growth. Use natural organic materials to amend your soil such as composted manures and real compost. The goal is to build up a good soil structure, stabilizing the balance of acidity and alkalinity (pH), increase nutrient content and foster lively microbial activity.
Good soil management also involves using “green manure” crops in winter on vegetable beds, such as winter rye and red clover, although it is important not to overdo it with clover because it can pump too much nitrogen into the soil and produce excessive growth. Also stay away from packaged fertilizers. Soil chemistry is complex and you can throw off the balance with an inappropriate product application. Almost all soil deficiencies can be corrected using organic materials.
2. WATCH YOUR MOISTURE LEVELS
Check on the moisture of your soil throughout the season, not just in spring or fall. This is the only way to know when and how much to water. Check before watering and the day after to see how deep water goes. What gardeners often think are poor nutrition problems are often more to do with water problems – either too much or not enough water.
3. DON’T TIDY UP TOO MUCH
Allow plants time to go through their natural cycle. Don’t cut back perennials in fall. Leave them for interest and for the birds to peck away at. Don’t rake and clean the garden excessively. This will provide a healthier habitat for insects and an all sorts of beneficial organisms.
4. ALWAYS BE PREPARED TO MAKE CHANGES
Don’t be afraid to make changes when you think they are needed. Shrubs can be moved or removed. Things can be changed, regardless of the time of year.
5. GROW SOME PLANTS FROM SEED
It is a “miracle to observe” a plant developing from a seed. Seed grown plants are healthiest. When directly sown in the garden, the root system is deep and well developed, as opposed to root balls on containerized plants.
6. BECOME A BACKYARD ECOLOGIST
Take time to learn about the life in your garden. Start by trying to identify all insects. Find out whether they are good or bad, and what their life cycles are. This process also involves becoming knowledgeable about birds and other creatures. You can attract birds by providing a water source and you can create a habitat by planting in multiple layers, such as an upper tree canopy, an understory of shrubs and lower level of herbaceous perennials. Having birds, bees and butterflies as regular visitors are always good signs that your garden is flourishing.
AND THE BIGGEST MISTAKE?
Bad pruning and over-fertilizing was his immediate answer. It is much better to move something if it is too big. As for fertilizing, doing it too much promotes soft, weak growth and invariably leads to pest and disease problems.