Plan the cultivation of your next garden by assessing some cultural considerations.
By Mark Highland
Cover courtesy Cool Springs Press
Practical Organic Gardening: The No-Nonsense Guide to Growing Naturally (Cool Springs Press, 2017), by Mark Highland is a modern visual guide to growing organically. The book provides step-by-step photography and how-to projects so readers can take a hands-on look at updated popular gardening techniques. The following excerpt is from Chapter 6, "Care, Cultivation, and Conditions."
Now that we've discussed fertilization and water needs as they apply to organic gardening practice, we turn to the remaining cultural considerations: sun exposure, wind prevalence, soil moisture levels, mature plant size, and physical environmental conditions, all of which have a part to play in organic gardening. Providing proper care and culture goes a long way toward avoiding the common problems with pests and diseases that could discourage your devotion to the organic gardening path.
Perhaps you are planning a new garden — if you've purchased a new home, for example, or have signed up for a community garden plot for the first time. Or maybe after some time as a gardener, you've decided to start fresh with a new approach or a new layout. Whatever the reason, spending some time planning the cultivation of your next garden pays off in the long run.
Photo by Katie Elzer-Peters
This is the most important place to start because it will ensure that you follow the mantra, "Right plant, right place." You can't know if you're planting the right plant in the right place unless you know what your "place" offers and how that compares to what the plants need.
Nicola Ferguson wrote Right Plant, Right Place in 1984 and it has been a mantra for many landscape designers and gardeners ever since. Placing a plant in the right conditions does more to help that plant grow and thrive than almost any other variable. If the plant requires full sun for best results and you plant it in shade, for example, the plant will putter along, growing slowly and sporadically, and may divert from its predictable form, showing reduced flowering and/or leaf size. The same is true if you stick a plant that prefers shade into full sun.
Many gardeners have the experience of having rather poor specimens suddenly thrive when they are transplanted into a different location, sometimes only a few feet from their original location. Or, more mysteriously, plants will sometimes take it upon themselves to migrate, moving themselves over a period of several growing seasons until they find an ideal spot to thrive.
Soil type is also an important factor when making plant choices. Due to site conditions and slope, soils may be perennially dry or wet. There are plenty of plants that do well in either condition, but you must consider this when planting. Placing a plant that prefers dry roots in a spot that is perennially wet during winter is a sure-fire way to kill that plant, even if it is hardy in your zone. Research plant requirements to determine if the plant you want will handle the soil conditions in your garden. There are many lists out there, such as plants for dry shade, plants for wet soil in full sun, and so on. When in doubt, head to your local garden center. Tell them the soil and sun conditions you have and the intended garden use or function and they will guide you in the right direction, providing options that are suited to the garden conditions in question.
When plants are not grown in ideal conditions, it makes them more susceptible to insect infestations. Under less than ideal conditions, plants have reduced leaf coverage, which can snowball into other problems based on plant physiology. Fewer leaves offers less ability to create energy for the plant, which leads to less root growth, which creates a reduced ability to uptake water and nutrients from soil. This domino effect can be avoided simply by planting in the right place from the start.
Healthy plants have a variety of mechanisms to defend against insects. Some plants can increase the presence of bitter-tasting compounds in their leaves to deter insects from feeding on them. Other plants have been shown to produce salicylic acid (the same active ingredient in aspirin) to ward off insect damage. Healthy plants are better able to defend against insect attacks, even if that defense is simply to grow out fresh foliage and stay ahead of the insect.
Another reason to make sure you're planting in the right place is to reduce the need for pesticide use in the garden. Remember, there are organic pesticides that gardeners and farmers can use to control pests and diseases. However, very healthy plants will require nearly no pesticide application at all to maintain their "curb appeal." When I worked as a plant heath care specialist, I saw the right plant, right place rule broken over and over again, as plants succumbed to insects after being planted in locations that offered non-ideal conditions. Educating yourself is the best way to overcome this expensive form of maintenance.
So, before you pick out plants for your garden, take a stroll and make notes of the conditions in areas you plan to garden. Here's what to evaluate.
Photo by Katie Elzer-Peters
The amount of sun or shade will help determine the best plant options for a given area. Spend some time truly thinking about and observing the site. Watch the sun track across the sky in summer and again in winter. This shows you the path the sun takes throughout the year, and indicates which areas of your garden have more sun than others.
Look at the space you're working on. Does it receive morning sun immediately after the sun comes up? How long does it get full sun before it starts to get shaded later in the day? Does it get afternoon sun? If so, how much? Does it get shade all day? Are there trees shading the garden space or are buildings casting the shade? Measure in hours for making the easiest comparisons. You may be surprised, for example, to realize that an overall sunny garden area has a spot or two that gets shade most of the day — spots where shade-loving specimen plants can happily thrive. Or, you may find that a narrow swath of ground between two houses actually gets a fair amount of sun and could be a prime spot for a short row of tomatoes or another vegetable.
Once you've documented the amount of sunlight in your garden spaces, you can plot out garden areas using a priority system. If you only have a little area with full sun and you want a vegetable garden, the choice is a quick and easy one: the full sun area is where you need to put that vegetable garden. If you don't have an area with at least 8 hours of sun, don't fret, as you can still grow veggies in less than 8 hours of full sun per day. In fact, some leafy greens and herbs prefer 4 hours of sun per day.
Experiment. If certain plants do not bear much fruit, try other crops. You're guaranteed to find some that will do well for you no matter how much or how little sun your garden receives. You can always convert the space to another use if the veggie garden doesn't produce well for you. When designing your garden, start with the highest priority garden elements — the garden spaces you want the most. Over time, you can tackle the remaining garden areas and decide what you'd like to develop.
Photo by Katie Elzer-Peters
Is the garden space you're considering subject to harsh winds? Maybe the space never sees a breeze due to the placement of evergreen windbreaks. Wind can offer a cooling breeze in summer but it also affects how cold or warm a garden is in winter. Plants do not feel a wind chill like we do; in fact, a slight breeze on frosty nights can help keep cold air from settling around tender plants, actually making them "warmer." At temperatures far below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, breezes have less impact on a plant's cold hardiness; however, wind can still dry out leaves and branches in winter. Cold air is generally drier than warm air and harsh winter wind can dry out foliage by removing precious moisture from leaves and stems, especially on evergreen (conifer) trees and shrubs. Some tender plants may benefit from wrapping in burlap and/or mulching with leaves.
The geography of the United States is categorized by a system of numbered USDA hardiness zones based on average winter low temperature. Higher zone numbers indicate warmer daily temperatures during winter months; lower zone numbers indicate colder average temperatures in winter. Every plant has an ideal zone range for peak growth and hardiness (surviving the winter). Choose landscape and ornamental plants that do best in your zone for lower-maintenance gardening. A plant's hardiness zone will be listed on the plant tag or plant description. If you're up to the challenge, you can create a micro-climate to protect what would otherwise be a tender plant in your zone. Annuals are not considered "hardy" plants, as they are replanted each year.
Cheating a plant's zone recommendation by placing it in a spot where there is a lot of winter sun does not work. In fact, it is much the opposite. What kills a plant is really the frost/thaw cycle during winter. A plant with a borderline zone rating that is subject to sudden momentary thaws because it gets direct sun in midwinter will very likely die, but if it is in a more sheltered location where it does not thaw then refreeze constantly, it may survive nicely. For example, if you want to grow zone 5 plants in your zone 4 garden, the best place is out of the direct winter sun.
Buildings can also help create a microclimate because south-facing walls absorb heat from the winter sun and radiate it back out at night. Even a couple degree difference can be enough to protect a plant that is one hardiness zone up from yours.
Photo by Katie Elzer-Peters
Some plants require more water than others to thrive in the garden. Grouping plants with similar watering requirements is another example of "right plant, right place" gardening. If you plant lavender next to a tomato plant, the lavender will suffer, as it does not require as much water as a tomato plant. For healthy gardens, group dry-soil-loving plants together and moisture-loving plants together in soil that meets their needs. This doesn't mean you won't ever have to water plants, but planting a succulent in a bog garden is a recipe for sudden plant death.
Organic also involves making the best plant choices for your region. Choose drought-tolerant plants if you are gardening in a dry climate because plant choices that require tremendous amounts of water to survive in dry climates are not naturally sustainable. An organic gardener, for example, would find the massive expanses of green, non-native turfgrass lawns in the desert southwest United States as a rather shameful waste of valuable resources. The organic gardener quickly learns that regionally appropriate plants can provide just as much beauty with a fraction of the water use.
Most plants are fairly adaptable and will thrive in good garden soil — soil with good structure, a fairly neutral to slightly acidic pH, adequate moisture, and good drainage. There are some exceptions, such as ericaceous plants (blueberries, azaleas, and hollies) that need acidic soil; or succulents, which need sharply draining soil. All of your work determining the type and qualities of your soil comes into play now. Make sure to review and make notes about soil type for your eventual plant shopping trip.
Specific conditions that influence plant selection include atmospheric pollution in urban gardens, where certain plant species are better able to withstand pollution generated by vehicle traffic. Use common sense when choosing plants for urban gardens. Planting edible plants curbside may not be the best choice, as they will inevitably be coated by particulate exhaust emitted by passing vehicles or by road salts spread over streets to treat ice. Along the coast, certain plants do better when subjected to daily winds blowing in salty ocean air than others. To avoid disappointment, do a bit of research beforehand to determine a plant list that is appropriate for all site conditions present in your garden.
Photo by Crystal Liepa
How large is the space where you're planning to plant? Will the space accommodate what you're planning to put there? When shopping and siting a plant, research and consider its eventual mature size. At the nursery or garden center, plant tags are a valuable source of this information. Do not plant trees that will grow to 30 feet wide and 60 feet tall under power lines or near buildings. Give big trees the room they need to grow into their mature form. If size is an issue, choose smaller trees or shrubs that fill the space without being a problem. When planted in the wrong place, plants require constant pruning to stay within the confines of the design space. This pruning results in an unnatural shape and subjects the plant to constant open wounds, which can be an entry point for insects or diseases. Look for plants bred for compact spaces if your garden is best described as "cozy."
When choosing plants, take into account the surrounding infrastructure. Some plants, such as maple trees, are shallow rooted and should not be placed next to sidewalks or driveways. Their roots grow under these structures over time and as the plant increases in size, so do the plant roots. Eventually, plant roots will crack and heave sidewalks and driveways, leading to expensive repairs.
Plants can also damage water lines. Roots grow where they find water. If pipes on the property, including irrigation lines, leak at all, you can be guaranteed plant roots will seek out this source of moisture. Roots will grow into pipes and crack them apart even more while searching for water. If left long enough, roots can eventually block the water flow in pipes entirely.
Trees are the biggest culprits when it comes to this issue. Choose shallow-rooted plants when planting near incoming water lines, septic fields, or irrigation hubs. Smaller plants, such as annuals, bulbs, and perennials, are good choices for these areas. Remember you may have to dig up these areas at some point if you have a problem, and smaller plants are easier to relocate. Always check with your local municipality before digging deeply in your garden. Most communities — or the utilities companies themselves — have a service that will visit your property and identify water mains or power and gas lines that run through your property.
Photo by Flickr/Scott Nelson
When shopping for plants at a garden center, check out the plant tags, as they're designed with the gardener in mind and should provide a lot of information about the plant, including sunlight requirements. Typically, they will use terms such as full sun, part sun/part shade, or shade. Sometimes this will be indicated with a symbol — a small full sun or a sun half obscured, indicating part shade, for example.
If a tag lists the plant's requirements as full sun, it is generally saying the plant does best with at least 8 hours of full sun. If a tag says part sun, it is generally saying the plant will do well with at least 4 hours of sun per day. (Part sun is really the same thing as part shade.) Full shade would be areas that receive about 8 hours of shade per day. Not all shade is created equal, however. Shade cast by buildings is darker than shade cast by tree branches. Trees can create what is called dappled shade, which means some sunlight streams through the branches throughout the day but plants will remain mostly shaded by tree branches and leaves during the growing season. And a site that is densely shaded during mid-summer may well be much sunnier in early spring before the trees have leafed out. A great place for sun-loving spring bulbs can be a spot that eventually will see deep summer shade once the tree canopies are fleshed out.
In my Zone 6B garden, we protect our figs by wrapping them with burlap and filling the burlap "coat" with leaves. Use zip ties or similar fasteners to secure the burlap wrap on itself, but do not tie zip ties onto the tree branches themselves. When I visited gardens in Minnesota, I saw burlap bags full of leaves placed on the soil around tree trunks like a blanket to protect their roots in winter. Although a landscape with evergreen shrubs shrouded in faded burlap might not be the most aesthetically pleasing sight, if you are intent on growing a particular tree or shrub, cloaking them with burlap in winter might make the difference between death and survival.
Another Minnesota gardener has managed to keep a Japanese maple — which rarely survives outdoors in the upper Midwest — alive and thriving for several years by heaping a large mound of snow shoveled off the sidewalk over the trunk and lower branches of the tree during the winter to insulate it from the bitter cold and thaw-freeze cycles.
Excerpted with permission from Practical Organic Gardening, by Mark Highland. Published by Cool Springs Press, © 2017.