1. Work with nature.
This is advice that I cannot emphasize enough. The majority of the plants in your garden should be indigenous. Otherwise you may end up being heart-broken when your plants die after a particularly brutal season.
Indigenous plants are acclimatized to local conditions and will be a lot easier to grow – they are hardier than alien plants and more likely to be strong and vital. Best of all, once established, you can usually leave them to do their own thing – something I found especially helpful after I was injured in a car wreck and unable to garden for a month.
2. Lay the foundation.
There are two ways to make a garden bed – the hard way and the wrong way. If you are serious about a low-maintenance garden in future, you need to work hard in the beginning.
This means digging out at least the top foot, preferably top two feet, of soil and adding in organic compost and digging over the soil so that it is loose and friable.
This has a few benefits – first up, the soil is aerated and so drains better. Secondly, it is made richer and so plants will grow better. Thirdly, plants will be able to develop strong root systems because the soil is so friable.
3. Steer clear of commercial fertilizers.
Commercial fertilizers can be compared to mega-doses of vitamins. What the plants do not need gets flushed out in the rain and so is wasted. And like when we take mega-dose vitamins, nutrient imbalances are created.
The chemicals in the fertilizers can kill off beneficial bacteria in the soil and the soil literally dies. From then on, it is just drained of nutrients making it necessary for you to add even more fertilizers, and the cycle just keeps on repeating.
4. Green manure is wonderful.
Now you may wonder what to replace the commercial fertilizers with – green manure is a great way to kill a few birds with one stone. You basically plant a crop for the sole reason that it is nutritious – when it is about a foot or two high, you cut it down and work it back into the soil.
Green manure crops like Clover, Alfalfa, Mustard, Fenugreek, etc. can protect the soil of a piece of ground that would otherwise lie fallow or can be planted in between your normal plants as a soil tonic and ground cover.
5. Plant alfalfa.
Alfalfa is more than just a little rascal – it is one of the most nutrient dense plants around. I realize that alfalfa is best known as cattle feed, but it is a very useful green manure and is especially useful when you have soil with high clay content. The alfalfa root system penetrates the ground to around 3-foot and so helps to break up the soil and aerate it.
If you find that you have a bed that has a lot of clay in it or if the soil is generally poor, plant Alfalfa and allow it to grow for a year. At the end of the year, cut it up and dig it in. The soil will be a lot looser and easier to dig over.
6. Always have yarrow.
Yarrow is a pretty herb that has great benefits when it comes to your soil. Simply plant it where you have poor soil and leave it to grow for a season or two.
It improves the soil very nicely and is especially good in soil that has been exhausted of nutrients.
The flowers make great cut flowers and you can add in the stems and leaves to help activate compost and improve the nutrient density.
7. Chamomile is the plant doctor.
Humble little Chamomile makes a great green manure for when you need to add more lime to the soil, but it is valuable as a companion plant as well.
It has a tonic effect on ailing plants all around it – if you want to, you can make a chamomile tea solution and pour it over ailing plants to watch them perk up quickly.
It is also a great addition to the compost heap.
8. Roses love garlic.
I love roses and always have many varieties in my garden. My number 1 tip for beautiful roses has nothing to do with pruning them – although pruning is important as well.
Always plant garlic at the base of your rose bushes. You will not only benefit by having fresh garlic to harvest at the end of the season, but your roses will become healthier and more vibrant. Believe it or not, even their scent improves.
Garlic also helps chase away insect infestations and disease so if you are concerned for your roses, plant a protective circle of garlic around them.
9. Borage is beautiful.
Borage is one of my favorite herbs – it is so pretty, and it does so much for my garden that I am never without it.
If you live in a warmer environment, consider growing Borage in your garden. It has refrigerant properties that help to keep the roots of plants surrounding it cool. In addition, the leaves help to shade the ground, making it even more useful when the sun is hot.
As a compost activator, Borage takes a lot of beating. It is high in a range of vitamins and minerals and will enrich your compost beautifully.
The flowers are edible and make a really pretty addition to salads and ice cubes.
Check out our latest post about most colorful perennial flowers for you.
10. Nice nasturtiums.
Nasturtiums are cheery little souls who thrive on neglect. If you have a patch of bad soil that needs cheering up, nasturtiums will probably fit the bill.
They like full sun and will actually produce more flowers if the soil is poor.
They make a great ground cover but do have a tendency to run a little rampant. They can be a great way to disguise your compost heap.
I plant them alongside my veggie garden as a trap crop – the insects prefer the taste of the nasturtiums.
The flowers and leaves are edible and have a high vitamin C content. They are great in salads – the leaves are quite peppery and naturally anti-biotic.
11. Use basil and tomatoes.
If you have a veggie garden and plan on growing tomatoes, Sweet Basil is a great addition to the mix. Not only do the pungent leaves help to chase away insects from your tomatoes but the two plants act as tonics for one another.
Your tomato plant will grow stronger and healthier and the tomatoes will taste even better.
12. Companion planting will improve garden naturally.
The examples given above are plants that are beneficial to have around but there are many, many more. Companion planting will allow you to improve your garden naturally and will make it possible for you to do away with toxic chemicals and pesticides.
Here is a detailed guide on different planting techniques including companion planting.
13. Plan to succeed.
Of course, determining what companion plants to use, how to improve the soil, etc. all involves setting up a plan. Planning is especially important if you want a pretty garden throughout the year.
In winter, plant growth slows down and, without careful planning; your garden could end up looking dreary. What you need to do is to set up a planting schedule so that you have plants that will flower in each season.
Chamomile, as an example, prefers cooler weather whereas nasturtiums prefer warmer climes.
14. Map your garden.
My family initially teased me about this one, wanting to know if I was a general invading the garden or if I was worried that I might lose my way in it (It’s not really big enough to get lost in though so this was thought to be a big joke).
Over time, as the foliage fills out, the lines between the different beds can become blurred. You also tend to forget where your bulbs are – and it’s not a nice feeling to find broken bits of bulbs in your soil because you dug in the wrong place.
Map where you want the hedges to go, where the roses must go etc. A map is a vital part of your plan.
15. Make notes.
In conjunction with the maps and the plan, it is important to make notes – make notes of when you planted things – over time, you are not going to remember this information. I currently have a crop of sweet potatoes in the ground and I was positive that I wouldn’t forget when they had been planted so didn’t write it down. That was months ago and guess what, I can’t remember how long they have been there, so I have to dig around to see when the tubers are the right size.
Keeping notes is just as important when you have an ornamental garden – you’ll want to take notes about what natural remedies worked, what companion plants did well, etc.
16. Make your own insecticide.
Commercial insecticides are problematic – they kill everything – including the natural predators of the insects that you are planning to eradicate. Making your own insecticide is not that hard.
Roughly chop up a half a bucket full of one of the Artemisia family, or some of the pungent herbs like basil, chives or coriander.
Add three chopped bulbs of garlic and cover with a bucket full of boiling water. Leave overnight, strain and add a half a cup of washing powder. Mix well and spray onto the leaves of plants to repel most insects.
17. Make your own fertilizer.
Pour 6 buckets of water into a big drum and add 2 buckets full of either comfrey or amaranth leaves that have been roughly chopped. Add in a bucket of manure from non-meat-eating animals and stir well. Cover.
Stir the mixture daily and in a fortnight, you can use the resultant liquid. Add what is left of the plant matter to your compost heap.
This mixture doesn’t smell good, but it is really great for plants.
18. Make a foliar feed.
If your green plants are ailing a little, add ½ bucket of one of the following herbs, roughly chopped: Buckwheat, Pennywort, Echinacea, Alfalfa to a ½ a bucket of either yarrow or comfrey, roughly chopped.
Pour a bucket of boiling water over the mix, stir, cover and leave as is for 3 days. The resultant liquid makes an excellent foliar feeder and the left-over plant matter is great on the compost heap.
19. Enlist mother nature for pest control.
One of the easiest ways to deal with pests in your garden is to introduce the natural predators of the insects to your garden. Install a bird bath and flowers that attract birds, like Pineapple Sage, in your garden to encourage birds to make their home there.
You should also consider putting in a small pond to encourage frogs to take up residence – they are great at keeping the insect population down.
Insect predators like Lady Bugs and the Praying Mantis should all be encouraged as a natural means of pest control – that means no toxic sprays.
20. Go with manual pest control.
Whilst this method is a bit onerous, it can be highly effective. I have a problem with snails in the garden, so we go on snail hunting expeditions. Initially I felt bad about dunking them in salt to kill them because I thought it was cruel – then one season they ate more of my lettuce crop than I did, and I got over it.
Snails and slugs are very destructive in the garden and it can pay to go hunting them with a flash light after the sun has gone down. Take a bucket of salt with to throw them into – I tried drowning them in water, it doesn’t work.
The same goes for caterpillars – regularly inspect your plants and remove and kill the caterpillars you find.