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

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

Rule 1: Keep it small.
When the gardening catalogs show up in your mailbox and thehome centers fill with flats of flowers, it's easy for you tobecome overly ambitious. But you don't need more than a 3 x 6-footraised 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 towork with, containers are a sensible solution. "Almost anything youcan 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 toaccommodate changing light conditions, and there's no comparison tohomegrown vegetables in taste or texture." Good container choicesinclude lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs like basil, rosemary,and thyme.

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

When buying plants, select specimens that are short and leafywith no or few blossoms. "You want plants to put energy intoestablishing 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 compactedin tiny squares of soil. After planting, overspread the bed orcontainer with at least a two-inch layer of natural material likebark mulch or pine straw to retain moisture and prevent weeds.

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

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

If your container gardens dry out fast, they may need wateringtwice a day in the summer. One solution is self-watering pots,which have a reservoir you fill as needed. "These eliminateguesswork because plants know how much they need to drink," saysSmith. Don't forget about free water; a rain barrel on yourdownspout can collect hundreds of gallons per summer (just be sureto 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," saysLovejoy. Try blasting insects off with water from a hose, or wetplants down with soapy water (a teaspoon of liquid hand soap perpint of water in a household spray bottle). Don't forget theundersides of leaves.

If you're not making gains after a few applications,insecticidal soaps, which desiccate pests, or oils, which suffocatethem, are more earth-friendly than synthetic chemicals. You canalso attract predator insects, or "beneficials," by planting avariety of flowering plants like white alyssum, nasturtium, morningglory, yarrow, fennel, dill, and coriander. A few companies offerbeneficials for release in your garden, like ladybugs, which canhelp control aphids, and green lacewings, which are voraciouseaters of many soft-bodied insects and their eggs. But this isn't aquick 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, fromthe earliest shoots of pale green in spring to the last few peppersin autumn. Wander around your garden or patio each day to trackyour progress. You can pull weeds as they sprout or simply enjoynew blooms. You'll also spot pest and disease issues before theyreach crisis level-it's a lot easier to keep tabs on the aphidpopulation when there are only a few in sight. "Make it yourmorning or evening ritual to survey your plants, even if it's onlyfor five or 10 minutes," says Lovejoy. "You'll become moreconnected with the earth and find a sense of peace in your littlepart of the world."