I had a meeting recently in which I was describing why my garden had been doing so well, in spite of the very strange weather and conditions experienced this season; conditions perfect for all types of pests and diseases. As I listed my reasons why, he chimed in, “that’s the difference between proactive and reactive gardening”.
The concept made instant sense, and it’s one I’ve practiced for years. I had just never put it into such practical, logical terms before. The steps I had taken to ensure a healthy garden were all in an effort to prevent future problems, just as a person might take care of themselves with diet, exercise and vitamins.
I credit this proactive practice to knowing the benefits of starting off with a healthy garden and maintaining vigilance along the way. There are certainly plenty of chemicals that can be applied after the fact, that in many cases solve pest problems, or control plant diseases. But at what price? As I went on to share some of the steps in my proactive gardening practice, I discussed the following examples:
Start with Great Soil
I’ve been accused of having “TV soil” in my garden set of Fresh From the Garden, and it’s true. My soil is close to dream soil, and that’s by design. My plants must not only survive, they must thrive. I know that my best chance of making that happen is to provide the best growing environment. The focus is to create the best structure and drainage possible and fill the growing beds with plenty of compost and manure.
Keep the Garden Clean
The only thing I want to see growing in my garden are the plants I intended to to be there. This means I’ve always got an eye towards the ground, scouting for weeds. They don’t stay around long in my garden. Weeds are a haven for disease carrying pests. If any plant material does start to shed a leaf or two, or a plant shows early signs of a disease problem, I either remove the infected material, or in some cases, the entire plant.
As vital as water is to the life of the garden, it can also be responsible for it’s demise. Water is a major facilitator of the spread of plant disease at and above the soil line. By minimizing the amount of moisture staying on the plants, you minimize the chance of water spreading disease to the plants. This is accomplished by using drip irrigation systems whenever possible to keep water off of foliage. Another technique is to water early in the day so foliage has time to dry out. And don’t over water. Consider watering on an as-needed basis, or use a water timer to ensure plants are getting enough water if you are away for an extended period.
The benefits of mulch are clearly visible in the garden. For example, I have beds where I started to mulch but didn’t finish for some reason. The plants that were mulched are always larger, fuller and weeks ahead of the same plants in the unmulched portion. Mulch also helps keep soil-borne diseases from splashing onto plant foliage, keeps soil temperatures even, weeds from germinating and creates a healthier environment for plants to grow. Mulch is also a great way to improve the soil by incorporating it into your beds at the end of the growing season.
A key step in maintaining a healthy garden is constant vigilance in observing day-to-day changes. This does not mean that you are required to spend every day in the garden, although I recommend it. It simply means pay attention to what’s going on. The earlier you are able to detect adverse changes, the less severe your reaction needs to be.
When I spray a chemical in the garden, it is to prevent plant disease or promote the health and defense mechanisms in plants. Once plant diseases find their way into your garden, they can be difficult to control at best. Many fungal and bacterial diseases can be prevented by spraying plants with a baking soda mixture or a copper-sulfur based solution every week or so while the plant is growing. However, it is important to note this should be done before disease becomes apparent.
Another tactic I use is to spray vegetable plants with a special harpin protein every couple of weeks during their active growth period. This protein, marketed as “Messenger®” has been found to increase the immune and disease fighting resistance in many plants. Studies as well as personal observation seem to indicate healthier, bushier plants and higher yields. Because harpin protein is naturally occurring in plants, non-toxic and completely safe to use, I like the results I am seeing and I feel comfortable using it.
If all of this sounds a lot like IPM (Integrated Pest Management), I’d say you’re right; there are a lot of similarities. This explains why I like IPM so much. Aside from the similarities, proactive gardening seems to sound much more gardenesque, don’t you think?