At the top of the list of why we garden is for the joy it brings. Yes, there is the effort of physical labor, and true, some plants succumb and we don't know why. But most problems gardeners and their plants encounter might be avoided with a few proactive steps taken before and after planting. Increasing success with plants can increase the joy of gardening.
Take a good look at your yard and garden areas.
Be brutally honest about which areas are in full sun, partial shade, or dense shade. Remember that the angle and intensity of sunlight differ in early spring and midsummer, as well as from morning to afternoon. Is it possible to remove the lower branches of existing trees to bring in more sunlight? Are there low spots where water accumulates, or structures like walls, fences, raised beds, or protected corners where microclimates exist? An example of a microclimate is a northeast corner of your house where the soil is raised up and drainage is excellent. This protected spot might accommodate rhododendrons, azaleas, or other marginal plants requiring a special site.
Examine your soil carefully.
This is especially true for new homes, where much of the good topsoil might have been trucked away during construction. Most gardens require a good combination of sand, silt, clay, and organic matter for optimum plant growth. To find out about your soil type, pH, and fertility, have your soil tested—but only when soil temperatures are at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Don't add anything to your soil, including fertilizer, without first knowing what type of soil you have.
Target the areas that need new plantings.
Do a little homework to match the right plant with the right place. Learn the cultural requirements of the plants you find attractive. Above all, avoid dropping into a nursery and bringing home plants with no clear idea about where to put them. A sun-loving lilac put in the shade will bloom poorly, for example, and more importantly, will become stressed and ripe for disease or insect attack. There are plants for all sites and conditions. With a little research, you can make a perfect match of plant and site.
Examine your plants very carefully before buying them.
Avoid those with obvious scarring or wounds on the bark or broken or ripped branches. Ask where a plant was grown. Locally grown trees and shrubs have already adjusted to the area's soils and weather. Those grown in Virginia or Oregon have not. If you are buying a tree or shrub with many cultivars (crabapple, for example), be sure the cultivar you buy is disease- and insect-resistant. Some nurseries continue to sell older varieties that have no resistance to insects or diseases.
Monitor your garden carefully after planting.
Landscaping is an investment and, like all investments, should be looked after. Early detection of problems is key to early recovery. By patiently watching your plants, you will learn what is normal and what is not, as well as what is a passing problem and what is more threatening. Some insects, for example, feed on leaves only in early spring and are then gone from the garden. Assess if the damage is cosmetic or life-threatening. When you find damage, have the cause confirmed—don't guess at the problem. A wrong guess may lead you to choose the wrong treatment.
If pest management is necessary, choose the least toxic approach first.
For example, a strong stream of water from a hose (or a rainstorm) is great for washing away aphids. If you find a pest, check for the presence of its natural enemy—a predatory insect. If you spot ladybugs on the same plant with aphids, don't spray. The ladybugs are natural predators of aphids. Overreacting to a problem can result in killing the beneficial insects that will do the job for you. The concept of managing pests rather than eliminating them is a fundamental principle of integrated pest management.
If you find that handpicking insects (such as hornworms on a tomato plant) or hosing them off (aphids on spirea) or pruning out the problem (tent caterpillar nests) won't do the job completely, choose a control that is safe for the environment, the applicator, the children, and any birds or other life forms in the area. Know how different products work. Even the biorational products such as insecticidal soaps and horticultural oils need to be used properly. If chemical controls are warranted, choose the mildest effective product. Read and follow all label directions. Consider the residual effects of chemicals, and use products that break down quickly. Consult the Garden's Plant Information Service at (847) 835-0972 for the latest treatments.
Spot-treat an area rather than the entire garden.
If Japanese beetles are damaging one section of a hedge, why treat the entire hedge? By leaving part of the hedge untreated, you create a refuge for your beneficial predators and you use fewer chemicals. Pesticides are an important tool for pest management but should be used only after all the alternatives have been considered. If you select, plant, and care for your garden plants properly, situations requiring pest intervention should be few and far between.
Plant protection begins with the right choices. Being an educated consumer from the very beginning contributes enormously to the joy of gardening.