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Earth-friendly Gardening

Randy Mayor
Five savvy steps to success--with a little help from Mother Nature

Whether your garden is a few pots on the patio or a thousand square feet, there's joy in seeing your little plants thrive. And nature can be forgiving. If you don't know what you're doing, chances are you'll be rewarded with something green anyhow. As with cooking, the more you garden, the better you get. Anybody can achieve success, if only with a pot of rosemary outside your kitchen door. Here's how to make your own spaces greener with a little effort.

Rule 1: Keep it small.
When the gardening catalogs show up in your mailbox and the home centers fill with flats of flowers, it's easy for you to become overly ambitious. But you don't need more than a 3 x 6-foot raised bed or 5 x 5-foot plot to teach you about weeding, watering, and nurturing plants. After all, gardening is supposed to be fun, not overwhelming.

If you're an apartment dweller or have soil that's difficult to work with, containers are a sensible solution. "Almost anything you can grow in the ground thrives in pots," says Edward C. Smith, author of Incredible Vegetables from Self-Watering Containers and The Vegetable Gardener's Bible. "You can move pots around to accommodate changing light conditions, and there's no comparison to homegrown vegetables in taste or texture." Good container choices include lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs like basil, rosemary, and thyme.

Rule 2: Start right.
Plants that aren't well nourished will be less likely to survive attacks by pests or disease. Ensure your soil is nutrient-rich and able to retain moisture by supplementing it with organic materials. In a garden bed, layer on compost or peat moss about an inch thick; it isn't necessary to work the material in, as it will naturally decompose. Skip topsoil, which can be of questionable quality (it's often just the uppermost layer of dirt from some excavation). If you're buying potting mixes for a container, look for those with compost, peat moss, limestone, vermiculite, and/or perlite.

When buying plants, select specimens that are short and leafy with no or few blossoms. "You want plants to put energy into establishing roots, not fruit, when first planted," says Smith. Choose four-inch or larger pots of plants instead of the six-packs; you'll get healthier plants that haven't had their roots compacted in tiny squares of soil. After planting, overspread the bed or container with at least a two-inch layer of natural material like bark mulch or pine straw to retain moisture and prevent weeds.

Rule 3: Water, water everywhere.
Your plants need plenty of water to avoid interruptions to the growth cycle. Many gardeners water frequently but not deeply. "That encourages roots to grow near the surface, where they're susceptible to drying out, and shallow roots don't provide good structural support for plants," says Sharon Lovejoy, author of Trowel and Error: Over 700 Shortcuts, Tips, and Remedies for the Gardener.

Most plants require about one half-inch to one inch of water per week. Set out a rain gauge or use an inexpensive moisture meter so you'll know when to water. Avoid wetting your garden down with a hose or sprinkler, which won't get sufficient water where you need it. Instead, place a soaker hose at the base of plants for about a half hour or so as needed, depending on how dry the ground is.

If your container gardens dry out fast, they may need watering twice a day in the summer. One solution is self-watering pots, which have a reservoir you fill as needed. "These eliminate guesswork because plants know how much they need to drink," says Smith. Don't forget about free water; a rain barrel on your downspout can collect hundreds of gallons per summer (just be sure to cover it to keep out debris).

Rule 4: Fight pests with these kinder methods.
"If you find bugs munching on your plants, don't panic. Healthy plants can tolerate a few holes in the leaves," says Lovejoy. Try blasting insects off with water from a hose, or wet plants down with soapy water (a teaspoon of liquid hand soap per pint of water in a household spray bottle). Don't forget the undersides of leaves.

If you're not making gains after a few applications, insecticidal soaps, which desiccate pests, or oils, which suffocate them, are more earth-friendly than synthetic chemicals. You can also attract predator insects, or "beneficials," by planting a variety of flowering plants like white alyssum, nasturtium, morning glory, yarrow, fennel, dill, and coriander. A few companies offer beneficials for release in your garden, like ladybugs, which can help control aphids, and green lacewings, which are voracious eaters of many soft-bodied insects and their eggs. But this isn't a quick fix; for one thing, if you don't already have lots of pests, the beneficials go elsewhere to feed. If all these methods fail, you may need to resort to insecticides.

Rule 5: Make spending time in your garden a ritual.
The garden offers different pleasures in every season, from the earliest shoots of pale green in spring to the last few peppers in autumn. Wander around your garden or patio each day to track your progress. You can pull weeds as they sprout or simply enjoy new blooms. You'll also spot pest and disease issues before they reach crisis level-it's a lot easier to keep tabs on the aphid population when there are only a few in sight. "Make it your morning or evening ritual to survey your plants, even if it's only for five or 10 minutes," says Lovejoy. "You'll become more connected with the earth and find a sense of peace in your little part of the world."