URBANA, Ill. – Garden preparation can play a vital role in the success of your garden, according to University of Illinois horticulture educator Andrew Holsinger. It will take some effort to give each vegetable its maximum potential for growth and productivity, but the rewards justify the work involved. Holsinger breaks down garden preparation into 12 categories.
Insects – Insect damage can either be tolerated or prevented.
“Be prepared to scout your garden for good and bad bugs,” says Holsinger. “Proper identification is critical in preserving beneficial insect populations and managing pest insects. Certain insect pests are more easily controlled if detected early in their life cycle.”
A combination of strategies can be used in reducing insect damage. Planting early may assist in avoidance of insect pests when their populations are highest. Holsinger says that insecticides should be used as a last resort. If insecticides are used, he urges gardeners to follow label instructions and rotate through different products to avoid developing pesticide resistance. Holsinger also points out that gardeners should avoid applying insecticides at bloom, when beneficial insects are visiting flowers.
Disease – All vegetables are susceptible to several diseases.
“Pathogens may be lurking in garden debris. Cull diseased vegetables from the garden and dispose of them to prevent further sources of infection. If you compost garden debris, keep diseased plants out of the compost,” Holsinger says.
Holsinger recommends growing varieties that have been selected for their disease resistance, and suggests that gardeners ensure proper spacing to enhance air circulation around plants.
Frost – Damage can be prevented.
Holsinger recommends gardeners gauge temperature in the garden using a thermometer in a sheltered location.
“Pay attention to frost/freeze dates for your area, as they vary across the state. Some cool season vegetables are hardy in lower temperatures and will tolerate frost. Trapping heat from the soil by covering plants can prove to be important when frost comes early,” Holsinger says.
Rodents and deer – Animals can be destructive to the garden.
It’s not easy to avoid plants preferred by deer or rodents. Instead, gardeners can use barriers to exclude pests, if placed according to the habit of the animal. According to Holsinger, building a raised bed is a good way to protect plants from many nuisance animals. Curtail nesting and hiding places for rats, mice, and voles by eliminating habitat, such as piled plant debris, near the garden.
Weeds - Weeds produce seeds that cause misdeeds.
Holsinger says there are a number of ways to reduce weed problems in gardens. Minimize the amount of tillage that can bring weed seeds to the surface of the soil where they can germinate. Be careful when adding organic matter to the garden, as sources that are not composted properly may contain weed seeds. Laying down cardboard before adding organic matter can help create a barrier to keep weed emergence to a minimum. Also, correct weed identification will assist in targeting the right methods for weed elimination.
As with insecticides, Holsinger urges gardeners to always follow herbicide label instructions and keep chemicals out of reach of children in a locked cabinet.
Variety selection – Select the right plant for your space.
“Planting varieties that can be grown within the frost free growing season for your area can be determined by consulting the seed packet for maturity date,” Holsinger says. “Selecting different varieties can extend your harvest with succession planting. Some varieties are also more compact and can be used well in small spaces or container gardens.”
Soil health – The foundation of a healthy garden begins with healthy soil.
Healthy soil provides the nutrients needed to grow plants that are more resistant to insects and disease.
“It’s a good idea to have your garden soil tested in order to see what the pH and nutrient levels are like,” Holsinger says. “Also, provide adequate walkways to help ensure less compaction in the garden.”
Irrigation – Water is a necessity in the garden.
Having a close water source can be a back saver. Holsinger recommends targeted watering to ensure only desirable plants are watered – not weeds.
Light – Keeping the garden green.
Most vegetables require eight to ten hours of sunlight. “Think full sun for a full fruiting garden,” Holsinger says.
Planting near trees – Chemical and shade inhibition in the garden.
Black walnut trees can cause problems when it comes to vegetable gardens, due to inhibitory chemicals released by the roots. Trees can also cast excessive shade and compete with vegetables for moisture.
Crop rotation – The right approach is a changing sequence.
Rotating crops can help reduce disease, as some diseases overwinter in the soil.
“Different vegetables remove certain elements more than others from the soil,” Holsinger notes. “Rotation can help balance nutrient uptake.”
Size – Select the right size for your gardening needs.
Beginners should start small. Even the most prepared gardener will experience pitfalls. “Lessons learned will help guide you for future growing seasons,” Holsinger says.