Increasing the biodiversity of our garden is an excellent defense against pests. Whenever we simplify an environment by spraying an insecticide or by growing only one kind of plant, problems can get out of hand. Create an environment that is more complex by planting a wide range of plants.
Always be aware, however, that when you plant something that isn’t native to your area, you take the chance of it becoming invasive. Check with your county’s Cooperative Extension Service for a list of invasives. Once established, invasive exotic plants displace native species and are difficult to eradicate. Depending on the circumstances and species, eradication methods may involve chemical sprays, manual removal, biological controls or a combination of these methods.
The control of invasive plants is vital to the preservation of delicate ecosystems and the survival of many native plants as well. (Over 80% of the world’s plant species grow in tropical regions. A third of them are in peril of extinction.)
Soap-based herbicides dehydrate leaves by cutting through their protective layer of cutin. These types of organic herbicides work best on young weeds but are only a temporary setback to well-rooted perennial weeds. For these, you may have to resort to chemicals. To minimize damage to other plants, spray when temperatures are above 70 degrees, on a sunny, dry, non-windy day. Be aware that repeated applications of a product containing acetic acid (which is very strong vinegar) can lower the soil’s pH, making it more acidic.
Image: Wiki Commons/Southernfoodwaysalliance
For vegetables plan your yields according to family size and whether you will need to freeze, can or practice successive gardening in order to have fresh crops throughout the year. Think about crop rotation as you harvest the last of your cool season crops and set out the warm season ones. Try not to plant crops in the same family in the same place more than once every three or four years. Also think about which crops follow others with success. For example, beans love it when planted after sweet corn, and tomatoes thrive going in after beans.
Now is the time to set out transplants of warm season crops, such as tomatoes and peppers. Plant seeds of sweet corn, beans, okra, cucumber, melons and squash.
As you are pulling out cooler season crops, be sure to re-nourish the soil with compost, manure or fertilizer before you plant the warm season veggies. Research the needs of the crops you are planting and fertilize accordingly. Tomatoes, for example, like only slightly acidic or neutral soil, so they may need lime to raise the pH and provide calcium. Herbs, on the other hand, won’t appreciate lime and may resent you for it. Either have your soil tested at the County Extension office or buy a soil testing kit to make this determination.
If your crops are regularly attacked by insects, consider companion plantings to repel or trap them. Other companion plants provide food and shelter to attract and protect beneficial insects. For beauty as well as to attract beneficials to your garden, intersperse your vegetables with flowers such as marigolds and nasturtiums. Sunflowers also attract birds and pollinators. Locate a wren house near the garden and the little wrens will help mightily with the bug problems.
If the infestation is severe, investigate using insecticidal soap which won’t harm wildlife.
Never use a tiller in soil that is infested with bindweed, quack grass, or other weeds that regrow from small pieces of root. They are easily spread by rototilling. Dig these monsters out by hand and dispose of the roots whole if you can.
If you have the space, consider planting swaths or drifts of flowers that have a long blooming season and interesting foliage. Try to design around flowers that bloom in complimentary colors or that flower at different times. Coreopsis, coneflower, geranium, salvia, day lilies, iris and others you love can be lovely when planted together, each in its own wave. Consider the size of each and plant the smaller ones near the front of the bed, the taller ones in the back. Find information about gardening in this zone and look for flowerbed plans that bring together complimentary bloomers.
Try agapanthus. The deep violet flower heads are dramatic and offset by interesting foliage all year.
And let this be the year that you plant a tree peony or two. Growing at least four feet tall, they will offer gorgeous blooms for a lifetime.
Trees and shrubs:
Healthy trees are a long-term investment with the biggest dividends, if we take the time to get our young tree off to the best start by planting and caring for it correctly. Proper site selection is very important!
Tree roots need water, but they also need oxygen. It’s important to plant your new tree at the correct depth. The root system of a tree planted too deeply will slowly suffocate. The best way to ensure the proper planting height is to make sure you identify the root collar on your tree before you put it in the ground. The root collar is the junction of trunk flare and main order roots. Plant the collar right at the surface of the soil.
When planting a container-grown tree, slide the root ball out or cut away the container. Spread the roots out before setting the root ball in the planting hole. With a balled and burlapped root ball, trim away as much burlap as you can and remove any wire or twine. If you notice any roots that are kinked or encircling the root ball, trim these away.
If the root ball is heavy, try using a tarp under the ball to drag the ball carefully into the hole.
Fill the hole about halfway with native soil, breaking up any large clumps with your shovel while taking care not to damage roots. Then add 5-10 gallons of water to the hole and let it drain through, settling the soil. Add the remaining backfill, using the leftover soil to create a low berm around the edge of the planting hole to contain water. Then add another 5-10 gallons of water. Firm the soil in the hole with your hands, not your feet, or you can compact the soil and restrict the growth of the roots. Your tree will do best if you backfill the hole with native soil. Your tree needs to become accustomed to its new soil as soon as possible. Keep it well watered for its first year if rain is scanty.
Most trees with trunks smaller than two inches in diameter don’t need staking unless their root ball is crumbling, they are planted on a slope, are sited in a very windy location, or have a badly bowed trunk. The natural movement of an un-staked tree in the wind helps it develop a sturdier trunk and a more robust root system.
If you do stake your tree, be sure to remove the stakes once the tree is established, usually by the second season in the ground.
Finally, spread mulch 2-3 inches deep over the root zone of the newly planted tree to help conserve soil moisture and keep weeds down. Don’t “over mulch” near the trunk since it can lead to rot and disease. Leave 4-6 inches of bare soil between the trunk and the mulch.
March brings an important time for fertilizing flowering shrubs and building their soil. Begin by spreading a 1/2-inch-deep blanket of compost around each shrub. Cover the whole area from the main trunk out to the drip line. Work the compost into the soil with a rake or hand cultivator, then cover with new mulch.
Irrigate your lawn to supplement rainfall, and only if the grass is stressed.
March is a good time to fertilize the lawn (September is the other best time.) A well-nourished lawn combats weeds and disease on its own without pesticides. Get a well-balanced lawn fertilizer and a spreader of the same brand (because the spreader will be calibrated to the application levels of the fertilizer you buy with it.) Always be sure to follow the instructions on the bag of fertilizer. Over doing it will stress your lawn much more than not doing it at all.
Turf grasses don’t like acid soil, so lime is also a good soil amendment to add once a year or so. If you haven’t already, have your soil tested (or buy a soil test kit) to see what level of application you need for lime.
Remember to mow high and often. Scalping your grass exposes it to drought stress and disease.